With Xbox Live Arcade going through one of its quality spikes of late, it seems that every week, there’s another big-name title just waiting to separate you from your cash. In the past month or so, we’ve seen Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, Charlie Murder, Disney Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse, DuckTales Remastered, and Cloudberry Kingdom all hit the mark to varying degrees, and it doesn’t seem to be slowing up. Just as you look at the release list and see that there’s nothing essential until Castlevania: Lords of Shadow – Mirror of Fate HD gets launched at the end of October, up pops an interesting-sounding title that you probably haven’t heard of.
That title is Foul Play, a side-scrolling beat ‘em up with a great number of twists and innovations designed to separate it from the crowd. The name of the game comes from the fact that you play as the esteemed demon hunter Baron Dashforth, who recounts his tales of derring-do to an eager audience as part of a play based on his life. The entire game takes place on stage, and the dapper Baron – who doesn’t look a million miles away from Mr. Monopoly – and his sidekick Mister Scampwick have to keep the crowd entertained by racking up combos against the enemy horde. Should the audience’s “Mood-o-meter” fall to zero, you fail.
The idea of the whole game being set on a theatre stage is a brilliant one, and that idea is used to great effect. There are a bunch of genuine belly laughs to be had, with the occasional “dead” enemy being dragged off by a hook, enemies forgetting their lines, and the odd stagehand getting caught in a scene whilst having a crafty cuppa. The way that the backdrops swing in and out add to the effect, but the real art comes from the fact that none of it is overplayed. There’s never a moment during your first playthrough where you feel as if you’ve seen one of these bits of comic relief too many times. Getting comedy right is difficult, no matter how easy it looks, and the developers have shown no small measure of talent in doing this well with it.
Twenty-two stages are available, spread over five different “plays.” Each wave of enemies in a stage is considered to be a “scene”, and the ultimate goal of each scene is to defeat all of the enemies contained within it without losing your combo. Progression isn’t hindered a jot if you don’t manage to do this but you’ll want to at least try, given that rewards and achievements are on offer if you do. Unfortunately though, this is where "interesting" becomes "average." There are a few things that will unfairly prevent you from accomplishing your task. Flying enemies, for example, are practically impossible to chain together. You’ll swear for all the world that you’re stood on the same 2D plane as them as you go to attack, only for Dashforth to clumsily miss the shot as he swings in front or behind them. Given that losing your combo takes a very, very short amount of time, one unfairly misjudged move like this will be enough to do it. Some strange enemy attack patterns will also catch you out. There’s nothing more infuriating than facing an entire squad of identical mummies for example, all of whom attack in the same way, only for the last one to suddenly decide to flat out troll you by repeatedly backing away as you swing at him and miss. That, of course, is if you manage to get a decent combo going without knocking the enemies off to the side of the screen so far that you can’t actually see them or tell if they’re dead or not...or if you’re even aiming at them should they still be alive.
As for the combat itself, well, it’s a little bit of a mixed bag. Everything works fluidly and quickly, but even for a side-scrolling brawler such as this, the gameplay is repetitive. You have the ability to throw quick shots, parry, grab, and dodge, but unless you’re really trying to complete every scene perfectly, you can pretty much complete the whole game by mashing the Y button to carry out strong attack after strong attack. Being able to flip out of the way and catch and reverse enemy attacks is nice, but there’s just so little call to actually use evasive moves. Our first playthrough saw us have to restart a level just once, and we’re not entirely sure how that failure occurred as we weren’t even close to losing at any other point. When a co-op player joined halfway through the game – with none of the earned moves or special skills that we’d obtained by this point – we thought things would be tougher due to him being overcome by the midgame-strength enemies. But no, he was repeatedly winning the “Star Performer” award for racking up the biggest combos out of the two players.
This is unfortunately Foul Play’s ultimate downfall. Presentation-wise, the game is absolutely top notch. The theatre setting works incredibly well and has been managed artfully. Dashforth and Scampwick’s dialogue is a bit of a treat, too, as there are a fair few laugh-out-loud moments that come from reading their brief to-and-fros in between scenes. But the gameplay – as lightning quick and as fun as it CAN be – falls flat a lot of the time purely due to repetition. It’ll only take a stage or two for most players to realise that they’ve seen all that the game has to offer in terms of combat. The challenges that the game sets you in each act will tempt a few players to come back and play through the levels again in order to complete them, but given that the rewards for beating those challenges are so terribly weak, it’ll only be a small few. Most players won’t even be challenged by the boss fights, given that they can all be played the same way. You attack the large character as much as you can and then if you take a hit, you combo on some of the smaller drone characters that are running around in order to build your Mood-o-meter up again. You repeat this until the boss falls. On every single boss, barring the very last one - who's equally as easy to defeat. Given the quality of other side-scrolling beat em' ups available for the same money on the system, the lack of variation just isn't good enough.
Foul Play plays the parts of both comedy and tragedy equally well. Funny, slick, and easy on the eyes, the game sure looks the part, but there’s simply not enough variety to the gameplay. Fun for a quick blast through, but you’ll be thinking about leaving well before the final curtain falls.