Do you like brawlers? Do you like theater? Do you like fun? If you answered yes, then UK-based indie studio Mediatonic has the perfect game just for you! Foul Play is a side-scrolling brawler set on a stage in front of a crowd that wants nothing more than to see daemon-hunter Baron Dashforth and his sidekick Scampwick beat the hell out of vampires, werewolves and mermen.
You may not know who Baron Dashforth is, but let me reassure you; if you had a bunch of daemons loose in your neighborhood he’d be the first person you’d call. You see, Mr. Dashforth’s father was the best daemon hunter of all time. He’s gone missing and presumed dead, but that doesn’t mean Baron has forgotten about his father’s research. He continues to search high and wide for any supernatural behavior. After being alerted of mummies being spotted in Cairo, he and Scampwick rush to investigate.
You, the player and audience member in the 4th row are all informed of this part of the story by Baron who is seated on the stage in a plush, turn of the century arm chair. This is a story that has taken place some time ago and you, as well as the hundreds of people in the audience, are here to witness the story unfold in play form. As he puffs his pipe and corrects his monocle, he assures the audience they will be told of his adventures, but they may not be thankful for it. As Baron stands up from his chair and proceeds to walk across the stage to the next scene, the stagehands pull up the backdrop and the audience begins to cheer.
Foul Play does away with boring health bars and replaces them with a “Mood Meter”. The Mood Meter reflects how happy or bored the audience members currently are. Your job as Baron or Scampwick (if you’re playing co-op) is to keep the crowd as happy as possible throughout each act. The more enemies you beat up, the better their mood is going to be. Chain together a few combos and watch them go totally bonkers all while doing the wave & throwing their hats in the air. However, if you happen to take a punch the mood of the crowd will plunge significantly and they will start to boo the performers. If they remain unhappy for too long, the curtain will close on the play and it’s game over for the monocled Baron and his chimney-sweep sidekick.
The crowd isn’t just there to rate the performance, either. They will also engage with the actors on the stage. Jimmy Ricketts, a small child in the crowd, will encourage the heroes while making sure the daemons know they’re about to be shown their way back to hell. It seems like a small thing but I really enjoyed hearing and seeing the crowd react when I ended up stringing together a 100-hit combo. You can hear individual audience members give a “whoo!” when something shocking happens and raucous laughter when a stagehand happens to not get off the stage in time for the scene to start. The 4th wall breaking happens throughout the 5 to 6 hour story, and it kept a smile on my face the whole time.
The actors in the play are just as memorable as the main characters. Their cheaply made set costumes are shabby and adorable. Often you will see them crawl off the side of the stage at the end of their scene or catch them flubbing a line. The game is bursting with charm and style. One particular scene of the play the heroes make their way inside a vampire’s castle. The furniture is supposed to be floating on it’s own but you can clearly see stagehands in black suits just running around trying to make it look authentic. The set pieces are constantly changing as the play changes destinations. One moment your on a pirate ship and the next your at the bottom of the sea. All of this is changing as the play is going on in the foreground. The artistic style of the crowd & backdrops are very reminiscent of South Park.
To keep the crowd happy is pretty easy on the mid difficulty level (Lead). I only had the curtains close on me one or two times. Just keeping them happy won’t unlock all the charms you can obtain in the game though. Each act has 3 challenges that you need to complete to be rewarded a charm. These challenges can be easy (get a 100 point combo) or hard (get 3 perfect scores). Perfect scores are awarded when you get through a wave of enemies without losing a combo. The combos are pretty easy to pull off and stringing them together is one of the most fun aspects of the game. Keeping my combos going seemed to be difficult in certain parts of the game since I was unable to tell how far up or down I was on the stage. This seemed most difficult while playing on the Vita. While playing on the PS4 it was a bit easier to tell what level of the stage I was standing on. If you do complete each challenge the charm you receive will grant you new abilities such as the crowd meter will drain slower or a parry will give you a +3 on your combo. I’d say the games replay value depends on if you’re a completionist & you want to collect all the charms.
Graphically I noticed a bit of a difference between the Vita & PS4. While playing on the Vita the sides of the stage seemed almost too dark. I often found myself trying to lure the enemy toward the middle of the stage to see them better. I didn’t seem to have this problem on my PS4. I believe it’s the games design to have the sides of the stage a bit darker to give it a spotlight effect but I didn’t seem to notice the PS4’s version being hard to see. Another small gripe is when you are doing some combat on the side of the stage the characters sometimes are difficult to engage. I had a few combos break due to not being able to attack the enemy that was a bit too far out of reach.
With most brawlers repetition is often a factor. Luckily Foul Play rewards you with a new fighting technique at the end of most of its stages. These techniques often change the gameplay up enough to keep it fresh. Now that’s not to say the game has no repetition. Often during stages you will fight loads of the same enemy while often repeating the same move that helps keep your combo rolling. Repetition also comes into play during all but the last boss battle. I defeated each end boss using the same exact dodge/attack pattern. I don’t’ believe this hinders the games fun factor at all, but it’s still something to consider. Most of the time you won’t even have a chance to see what the enemy looks like since you’ll be trying your best to string together the perfect unbroken combo.
I had a ton of fun with Foul Play. It’s bursting at the seams with charm and style. While the crowd mood gimmick has been done before in games like Rock Band and Guitar Hero, it’s still a nice change to the typical health bar. I felt as if I was part of the crowd laughing along with some of the jokes and flubbed lines. I’d say if you long for the day of a good beat em’ up or just want to play something different then give this show a go.
Final Verdict: 4/5
Available on: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Vita, PC ; Publisher: Devolver Digital ; Developer: Mediatonic ; Players: 1-2; Released: February 23, 2016 (2013 on PC); Genre: Beat ’em up ; MSRP: $14.99
Full disclosure: This review was written based on review code supplied by the game’s publisher, Devolver Digital.