It’s awesome to see that sidescrolling brawlers are coming back with full force, bringing back that great feeling of just walking around and pounding on whoever comes up and tries to mess with you. As usual though, there are good ones that attempt to reinvent or reinvigorate the genre, average ones that stick to what works, and bad ones that really end up wasting your time. Thankfully, Mediatonic’s Foul Play is the former, bringing stage play antics and combo-based gameplay to the forefront.
Developed by Mediatonic / Published by Devolver Digital
Available on the PC and Xbox 360. Reviewed on the PC and Xbox 360.
*Review code provided by Devolver Digital
In Foul Play, you play as the fierce Baron Dashforth, a renowned demonologist, professional monster hunter, and monopoly man lookalike, and his protégé Scampwick, as they narrate Dashforth’s real-life adventures and exploits on the theater stage.
Despite the grand potential for an amazing storyline, the game is very light on plot. It doesn’t affect the game whatsoever though, as it’s a more of a visual treat. The graphics on this one may look simple at first glance, but once the game is in movement it’s a whole different beast. Going with a theater theme, players play on a stage complete with an overtly excited crowd, elaborate backgrounds that shift and move around constantly with the transition of scenes, background mechanics caught on stage sleeping or snacking, actors in costume, and more. It’s a fantastic-looking game that oozes quite a lot of charm and personality, and it’s one that will have you smiling throughout the whole thing.
Gameplay is thankfully just as solid as the visuals. While it relies on the standard beat-em-up tropes like punching and kicking your way through hordes of enemies, you also have access to the counter attack, which works similarly to games like Rocksteady’s Batman. Enemies will flash small lighting-bolts over their heads when they are about to attack, so players can counter to get in close before foes land their strikes and dish out some devastating blows. At first you’ll only have access to stuff like throws after a successful counter, but as you level up (by defeating foes) you’ll gain access to crowd-clearing attacks like the piledriver, among others. Despite appearing deceptively simple, the combat in Foul Play is tight, responsive and most importantly fun.
Gameplay also mixes things up by being combo-centered. Your in-game health is represented by the overall pleasure of the spectating crowd. If you perform well and manage to keep the combos going, the crowd will roar with delight and cheer you on, allowing you to continue on your adventure. But if Dashforth or Scampwick get hit by opponents too often, the crowd will quickly grow displeased and boo at the top of their lungs. If there are too much blows from foes and boos from the crowd, players will fail the Act.
Combos not only allow Dashforth and Scampwick to pump up the crowd and keep the health bar well above average, but they also add to the score multiplier. In a unique twist, each stage in Foul Play has a five star ranking. By defeating foes one after the other without dropping the combo and getting hit, players can raise the multiplier and gain high scores, which lead to getting stars. Each character also has something called the “showstopper,” which is gained by defeating foes. Upon activation it causes Dashforth or Scampwick to glow, and allows each hit they deliver to evil doers to count for two, making it easier for players to come up with some crazy and insane-looking combos. Keeping strings of hits is not that easy though, since enemies usually never keep still and swarm the screen, and you only have a few seconds before the combo counter resets.
Each stage also brings a set of three optional objectives which task the player with either completing a perfect scene, defeating monsters in specific orders, completing sections before a time limit ends, performing ace returns, and more. Perfect scenes are completed when players can sustain a combo from start to finish in a battle (which is actually pretty hard – especially in later stages), and ace returns are when players counter incoming projectiles, like bullets. Completing all three objectives rewards players with charms, which can improve gameplay in many ways, such as adding combo multipliers to counters, decreasing the speed of the crowd’s displeasure, etc. The charms do a great job at keeping things fresh, while also improving the replay value of the title.
While the game is fun playing alone, it’s much better with a second player in tow. As you can well imagine, the second player takes control of Scampwick, who plays exactly like Dashforth. The only major addition to gameplay using two players grants is the use of team counters, which allow both players to grab hold of a baddie at the same time and bash him or her repeatedly, ending with a cool-looking finishing move. It’s not much, but playing with a friend really spices up the onscreen action and makes things much more enjoyable.
The only problems I had with the title were the length, the ease of losing combos and the difficulty. Despite the game having five plays (worlds) with five acts each except the final one, I breezed through the game in one sitting. I wish there was more, or that stages were longer. Another issue is maintaining combo strings. As I mentioned before, the combo timer is insanely short, so reaching other enemies in time can be a hassle, especially if they are on other planes (you have to be on their same plane to hit them) and you think you attack them, only to swipe at air. Trust me, it happens frequently. Finally, thanks to the unique health system that relies on combos and public opinion, it’s really easy to breeze through this game, as it’s awfully hard to lose. Enemies really need to land an onslaught of hits to take you out, while striking foes a couple of times is all you need to get right back on your feet. I don’t think I lost a stage once from start to finish, so yeah.
Foul Play is a fantastic beat-em-up that really invigorates the genre with a unique setting and fun, simple gameplay. While the game may have some tiny problems, like duration or difficulty, it shines when you see it in motion and pull off some of the craziest combos on your quest to stop evil at the root. It’s not the greatest show on earth, but it definitively is a wild ride.