No franchise has ever captured the absolute wild-eyed joy of Hallowe’en like Costume Quest. Double Fine grounds their stories in idyllic suburbs bedazzled on every surface by string lights, jack ‘o lanterns and scarecrows. Every moment, in every space, screams small-town Hallowe’en. These places feel real – and if you grew up in a sleepy, freshly-paved suburb, they’ll feel familiar, too. Costume Quest‘s heroes, the twins Wren and Reynold, are normal kids wearing improvised Hallowe’en costumes. They’re pulled out of the rhythm of their lives by the power of their imaginations and the magic of Hallowe’en, and they’re empowered by the costumes they build for themselves along the way. Costume Quest, like Hallowe’en, is ultimately about the peculiar sense of freedom facilitated by the strangeness of the holiday itself. It’s about becoming something new, if even just for a night. It’s magic.
Costume Quest 1 and 2 are a love letter to Hallowe’en, plain and simple. If that description appeals to you, they’ll likely connect at a very deep level and refuse to let go. I love Costume Quest for the same reason I love Hallowe’en itself. That’s it, that’s the review.
Maybe a story will help to explain what I mean.
Do you remember your first Hallowe’en costume?
I was a green dinosaur, back when I was barely old enough to walk. This was in the forested community of Brookswood, with its tall evergreens and winding cul-de-sacs. In a lot of ways it was the perfect place to be a little kid: with basically nowhere to go, the block was a closed circuit where kids could just wander around and get the lay of the land. Every house was surrounded by trees and set back from the road far enough to have a little yard, perfect for decorating for Hallowe’en. Because this was a couple decades ago, everyone did.
Or at least it seemed that way, I was about 3 years old. The world seemed to stretch out forever, so why not Hallowe’en?
I don’t miss that town, but I miss Hallowe’en there.
The dinosaur costume was green with a big, long swooping tail that nearly dusted the ground. These little costumes must have been popular at the time: it was basically just a dinosaur onesie that you plugged your kid into so that they could scamper around without losing bits of their costume (or their candy) in the street. It was basically a Kaiju costume with a hole for my face, and it was made of very soft polyester cloth. This will be important later.
For the first couple houses, I had no idea what I was doing because I was basically a baby. Soon enough, I got the hang of it: knock on the door, ‘trick or treat’, get free candy. Perfect. I made my way around the block and out toward the exit to the cul-de-sac, with my parents close behind. Even then, I got a sense of the magic: Hallowe’en was a night when things were just different, nothing looked the same, nothing worked the same. I wasn’t a little kid, I was a dinosaur. Adults weren’t random strangers, they were friends hiding behind closed doors, waiting with candy. My tiny world exploded in size and, for a few hours, a sort of magic became real. The world changed, and I changed a little with it.
Then, because this is the west coast of Canada, it began to rain.
It rained cats and dogs. It was a flood of Biblical proportions, and my first Hallowe’en quickly turned into a washout. I was fine in my dinosaur costume beneath my parents’ umbrella, at least mostly. My long green tail, brushing softly along the ground as I toddled along, was a different story. It was literally soaked through. The tail weighed five pounds now and I could barely work my way forward against its weight. My little costume, now a part of my body, had become a liability. I was a dinosaur in a tar pit, and I learned a valuable lesson as my parents laughed and laughed. They tell the story every year.
In their defense, it was hilarious. There are photos.
I had tons more costumes growing up. I was a devil a few times, the Scream guy like once, and a vampire about five. That first experience on Hallowe’en never left me, though: this was a night when things work differently. The costume was an extension of that. Sure, I wasn’t literally Lovecraft for the night (thank goodness), but the costume brought a change in attitude, and when we were young the encouragement to wander out later at night and explore the neighborhood as a pack, all in our costumes, left an indelible impression. When else would we be asked to wander off in the dark? When else would we have the courage to do so? They knew we’d get into mischief and sneak fireworks and meet up with other kids, why didn’t our parents care?
So what made Hallowe’en special, what magic was at work?
Hallowe’en became a halfway place between childhood and adulthood, where we decided our own identities for the night and did whatever we pleased. The costumes might only be improvised clothing pieced together from an old closet upstairs, but we didn’t care. For the night, they were our identities, and a new identity meant a new lease on our young lives. It meant feeling totally in control, of ourselves and our actions. For some of us, it meant being independent for the first time. It as self-definition and self-determination. The impact of that experience can’t be understated.
In its own small way, Costume Quest taps into that magic. That’s what makes it so special.
I’m not drawing a distinction between the two Costume Quest games because I don’t really think I need to: the things that make it a valuable experience are common to both games. In both, Wren and Reynolds emerge from their house on Hallowe’en ready to explore and get into mischief. Their world is a lot like Brookswood: boring, sleepy and made up of endless, winding cul-de-sacs. Every lit door is an opportunity to trick-or-treat for candy (the games’ currency), and every other kid and adult is in on the joke. The twins are in their costumes with their plastic pumpkin-pails, ready to load up on candy. They’ve been given free license to wander the neighborhood, and they’re high on this first taste of freedom.
Things immediately go wrong.
In the first game, either Wren or Reynolds is kidnapped by monsters. In the second, a diabolical dentist goes back in time to ruin Hallowe’en forever(!!), but it doesn’t really matter: in either game, the first taste of adulthood comes with its first real test. It’s actual, meaningful responsibility, the kind that determines whether Hallowe’en (or your sibling!) survives the night. The twins (or, the remaining one) gather their friends and give chase.
Suddenly, their first night of freedom isn’t as relaxing as they’d hoped.
Divorced from their parents and the safety of the suburb, they run into their first test: Repugians. Or, Grubbins, strange Crow-creatures, time-wizards or any other number of cartoon threats. The Costume Quest games throw any number of silly, pun-named monsters in your path, but the way you approach them is always the same: by leveraging the power of your costumes. In Costume Quest you improvise new costumes by finding blueprints and scrounging new components for gear. You might find a ratty old sheet for a ghost costume, or a gold coathanger so you can improvise a Pharaoh’s staff. All the costumes have one thing in common – they’re all made from homemade crafting supplies. At least when you’re outside of combat, you’re always going to look like a little kid in a jerry-rigged robot made of cardboard. Or maybe a dinosaur one.
Once you’re in combat, everything changes.
We’re never told whether the Costume Quest games take place in the twins’ imaginations, but the combat gives us a hint. When approached by actual enemies, each kid in the party undergoes an anime-style transformation sequence into their true selves. The toilet-paper Pharaoh costume becomes a twisting, staff-wielding Anubis, lord of the dead. The crappy pterodactyl costume leaps into the air and screeches, ready to attack with its deadly claws. The clown… morphs into a horrible, Allie-Brosh-esque clown, with eyes rolling in its sockets. The clown is the most upsetting costume in the franchise. Easy.
These kids become their true selves in their costumes, once presented with adversity. They become whatever they need to be, to overcome whatever challenges they face. The costume is voluntary – you’ll unlock a dozen – so the identity is too: the kids choose what they need to be, and they become it. It’s as simple as that. A kid in a cardboard robot costume is nothing – but a Kaiju-style 10-storey robot that shoots lasers can do anything at all, even rescue someone’s lost brother. Or save Hallowe’een.
As an adult it seems like nothing, but to a kid the combination of newfound agency and the ability to choose one’s identity (if only for a night) is a profound experience. Costume Quest knows. End to end the games are a celebration of that exact feeling, of the exhilaration that is endemic to Hallowe’en, and Hallowe’en alone. It’s special.
Costume Quest games are exceptionally written, hilarious, charming, adorable and – most of all – incredibly funny. They ought to be, Tim Schafer and the staff at Double Fine have been building their reputation for impeccably-written games for over 20 years. They’re also adventure games and straightforward RPG’s with reflex-based combat mechanics and a variety of spooky locations ranging from a haunted village to the shopping mall to the past and future. You’ll do a ton of trick-or-treating in both, but in one you’ll rescue your sibling, and in the other explore the meaning of Hallowe’en itself by traveling through time.
None of this is necessarily what makes Costume Quest special. What matters, really, is the heart. It’s the dozen-hour love letter to Hallowe’en from people who, clearly, understand why it really matters. They’re packed with spooky joy, end to end.
In 2020, it might be just what you need this year. To the right person, or the right soggy-tailed dinosaur, that experience is priceless.
(this week it’s literally priceless: Costume Quest 2 is free on Epic until next thursday, along with Layers of Fear 2. Go grab it now)