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Foul Play review: A midsummer night's demon

Jessica Conditt
Jessica Conditt|@JessConditt|September 17, 2013 9:00 AM
Foul Play review A midsummer night's demon
There's no health bar in Foul Play. That doesn't mean it's impossible to lose – Foul Play throws scores of enemies at demon hunter Baron Dashforth in round after round of high-velocity brawls, and they can overwhelm even the most experienced slayer. When this happens, the curtains close and the audience storms out, angry – Foul Play takes place on a stage, you see.

It's a Vaudevillian beat-em-up about a play, and its plot revolves around demon-slaying and wild beat-downs. Instead of a health bar, a gauge measures the audience's reactions, with each hit you receive is marked as a blow on the meter (and probably your ego). Foul Play is a stylized mix of the art of South Park, the witty back-and-forth of Sherlock Holmes and the theatricality of Puppeteer, all layered on top of wonderful co-op brawling.

Just be sure to pay attention to its credo: Always expect foul play.The vigilant suspicion of foul play underlies the whole of developer Mediatonic's stage-bound brawler, and it runs deeper than a clever line of dialogue that ties in to the title. Foul Play is a Victorian theater performance starring the famed demon hunter Baron Dashforth and his scrappy apprentice, Scampwick. Players reenact Dashforth's most daring, dramatic battles with demons over the years, with the final scenes providing clues to the disappearance and presumed death of his father, also a famous demon hunter (it runs in the family, I guess).

Dashforth is a proper Victorian gentleman with an educated background, while Scampwick is a former chimney sweep who uses his broom to fight enemies. The two share reams of hilarious text-based conversations and jointly taunt their enemies in a decidedly British manner. The humor is less fart jokes and more "aim for the crotch, my dear chap."

Foul Play is a straightforward brawler – beat up all of the enemies in one area, mini-boss, boss, done – so the fact that it has such a charming narrative is a pleasant surprise. The interwoven bits of dialogue and exposition are handled brilliantly, with just a touch of class and a dash of crass, wrapped in a touching family story. Also, there's a dramatic twist at the end that makes the plot all the sweeter, but I won't spoil that here. Just remember to always expect foul play.

Gameplay mechanics are simple, yet ramp up in complexity as the show goes on. Two attack buttons slap around enemies, allowing players to repeatedly smack demons with Dashforth's cane or Scampwick's broom. Each hit is satisfying, with heavy attacks lifting foes into the air along with Dashforth so he can continue his pummeling. A third button introduces the parry, which players can activate when a nearby enemy revs up for an attack. Little squiggly lines appear above a demon about to strike, and if Dashforth or Scampwick parries in time, they're able to perform a special move. Specials begin simply, allowing for harder hits, but they evolve to include throws and body slams as the story progresses, with a few cooperative moves peppered in for good measure.

One co-op move, for example, has both players parry an enemy at the same time, and then they both mash the attack button to see who can hit the demon the most, and the winner can perform a finishing beating. It's really a competitive move disguised as a co-op slam.

Foul Play strikes a balance between simple controls and challenging gameplay, throwing hordes and hordes of enemies onto the stage, and forcing players to make snap decisions between hitting one demon and parrying another, throwing one into a crowd of his buddies or pile-driving another to the ground and clearing out an immediate circle. The ease of the control scheme makes these decisions natural, placing full, frenzied control in the players' hands at all times.

Foul Play review A midsummer night's demon
Complementing the hands-on move management are three challenges provided at the start of each stage. These may may dare players to finish a section within a certain timeframe, rack up a hit streak of 100, perform specific moves, or defeat the boss character last.

This is where Foul Play gets complicated. The challenges aren't so easy that players will absentmindedly complete them all; each one takes a concentrated effort. If you want to spend a level just thrashing demons, disregarding the challenges completely, that's perfectly valid – but if you want a complex brawler and all the stars, you'll have plenty to do and think about. Foul Play offers the option to replay any stage upon completion, allowing meticulous players to quickly retry any missed challenges.

Foul Play's theatrical framing stretches beyond the simple reenactment of Dashforth's adventures. Players also have to account for the audience, which provides live feedback to Dashforth and Scampwick's fighting prowess. Rather than employing a traditional health bar, Foul Play relies on the Mood-O-Meter, which adds a thread of dramatic tension to the overall gameplay. Streams of successful hits and combos keep the meter up, but if Dashforth or Scampwick start receiving blows, the meter falls rapidly. If the crowd becomes too bored for too long, the curtains close and the show is over. This only happened to me once, and it was during a co-op session – I suspect the other person sabotaged our scene. (Always expect foul play.)

One technical issue you can't blame on your partner, however, is the blind spot that exists on either side of the screen, supposedly just off-stage, where enemies or even Dashforth and Scampwick can get lost. In these areas, it's usually impossible to see if an enemy has squiggly lines of rage, and therefore it's more likely the player will get pummeled, potentially breaking a hit streak and losing a challenge. It's a minor problem, thankfully, and easy enough to work around.

Foul Play review A midsummer night's demon
Any such annoyances are also smoothed over by Foul Play's delightful theatrical leanings. Its "demons" are really actors, and therefore they aren't actually killed during the performance – and some of them could use more training. After being "killed," some of these actors will lift up the heads of their demon costumes and scan the crowd. Those downed on the edges of the stage will sneakily crawl away early. It's adorable.

It all feeds into the theme of Foul Play: crafting a stage show so good that the audience forgets it's fake – and sometimes you might forget, too. With so much struggle taking place, tongue-in-cheek though it may be, it's a relief when you remember Dashforth is acting and none of this is a matter of life and death. You don't want these characters to die, which is a credit to the effectiveness of its dramatic presentation.

If Foul Play came to off-Broadway theaters, I'd see it, and not only for the rapid-fire fight scenes – its story is superb, quickly establishing the few characters we need to care about, and making them likable and funny between scuffles. I not only want to fight demons with Dashforth, the mustachioed gentleman demon hunter, but I want to help him find his father. The fights themselves are frantic and fast, and the accessible attack system rewards clever technique and style. Foul Play takes the brawler genre and twists it for the stage, adding flair with the Mood-O-Meter and a range of quaint characters.

This review is based on an Xbox Live Arcade download of Foul Play, provided by Devolver Digital. Foul Play will be available on Xbox Live Arcade and PC beginning September 18.

Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.
Foul Play review: A midsummer night's demon