Foul Play is a side-scrolling beat-em-up with a twist: It’s a play.
It’s set in a theatre, with actors and extras and props. It’s made clearer than in Super Mario Bros. 3 (if you didn’t realise that already, look it up!) but not as obvious as Puppeteer. At one point we’re told “a cast and crew of hundreds have trained non-stop for a year to bring tonight’s performance to the stage”. But will all that training pay off? Will the actors be heading for Broadway or will they be falling by the wayside?
Our hemisphere-hopping heroes are Baron Dashforth, a Monopoly Man/Julius Pringles lookalike and his trusty side-kick/chimney-sweep Mr. Scampwick. The Baron is a great adventurer and daemon hunter; keen to share with the world his tales of globe-trotting, tomb-raiding and swashbuckling, he decides to put on a show based on his many experiences. These exploits are spread over four main shows with each one containing five acts (levels) before culminating in a grandiose two-act finale.
As a beat-em-up, perhaps it’s to be expected that the move-set is basic; a quick attack with square, a more powerful-pummel with triangle, and a block with circle. A limited choice, but between them they pack enough power to dispatch any foe you’ll encounter. As you progress you’ll unlock variations of these, too. Progression will reward you with a few extra moves. For example as you near the end, a simple counter can be tweaked and used to throw, pummel or pile-drive your enemies. This simple system, whilst easy to learn, lends the game too heavily towards button bashing, as you’ll need never use more than the simple punches and parries that you learn at the start. This is true through the well-balanced lower difficulty levels of Understudy and Lead, with the more challenging Veteran mode requiring a little more thought and dexterity to survive.
Cross-play and cross-buy enabled, Foul Play is also available for the PS Vita. It was nice to see that the first option available to you is to load a saved game from the cloud. The Vita is still in a peculiar limbo where there are no major titles being developed for it, but its back catalogue and wealth of indie titles are keeping it alive and it’s nice to see cross-play being so readily encouraged. There’s also local and internet co-op options so you don’t have to face the daemons alone.
Each level holds three challenges such as reach a certain (pretty high) combo number, perform a perfect scene (defeat a wave of enemies without losing your combo streak) or defeat enemies in a particular order. If you complete all three objectives on a level, you’ll unlock a charm. Charms offer various perks and you can have up to two charms equipped at a time. They might grant a little boost to the audience’s mood (see below) or perhaps supplement your combo if you parry an attack. Perks have traditionally been used to offer players both an advantage and a disadvantage, like in the more recent Call of Duty titles, but here they only seem to even the odds a little. For example, I felt for a while that your combo could be lost too quickly, but I later learned there is a charm to allow a longer break between strikes.
The theatre setting is charming and whilst your audience is always visible at the bottom of your screen, the central mechanic is the “Mood-o-Meter” at the top. Where the needle points represents the audience’s enthusiasm towards your play; the more hits you land and the higher your combo rises, the happier your audience. Keeping your audience happy is crucial; if the action slows or you take too many hits, you’ll be booed off stage as you would be in Guitar Hero or Rockband. It’s an interesting concept, but as the only reward for keeping the punters’ excitement at fever-pitch is a higher rating at the end of the level, the whole system falls a bit flat. It’s easier to take the safer route and avoid being hit by mistiming a counter than it is to get stuck in and risk losing the level; as long as you keep the needle in the middle of the meter, you’ll be fine. If that needle does drop into the red, you can activate “Showstopper” mode (if you’ve filled the meter by landing attacks) which makes the audience react twice as positively to your performance. Tip the scale at the other end and you’ll receive a standing ovation as top hats fly into the air in appreciation for a top-notch performance.
The look of the Foul Play is somewhere between a cartoon and the paper cut-out style of South Park. The styling of effects like smoke and flames help the game achieve its unique theatre/play feel. It can be tricky to spot your character among a group of enemies or behind a larger foe, which can lead to confusion, but it won’t last for long and it’s worth the trade-off for the rest of the aesthetic. It’s more prevalent on the Vita, but the crisp edges on the smaller OLED screen help with the clarity.
The best part of Foul Play‘s theatre setting is the environments. Each show begins in the Baron’s study and as you set out along the world’s longest theatre stage, you see the set being prepared for the coming level and machinery lifting the scenery into place, which is a nice touch. The backgrounds change on-the-fly which is a nice effect and is more similar to how an actual theatre works, than it is to Puppeteer, which just had a spotlight and curtains on the side of the screen. The setting also allows for a few sight gags like the classic crook to pull defeated enemies off-stage or the stage-manager being caught somewhere in the scene. There are plenty of written jokes, but as the dialogue is left as text on the screen accompanied by a few random coughs and grunts, it feels like the jokes, which both hit the mark and miss it in equal measure, would be far funnier if they were delivered by a voice-actor. Some of the quips rely on developer Mediatonic’s British heritage and I’m not sure how well they translate internationally but here in the UK, the humour is fine. While it’s not laugh-out-loud funny, it may raise a smile.
Enemies are themed around the specific play you are taking part in at the time, from pirates, robots and Egyptian mummies, to mermen and even topiary. The formula for these baddies is fairly standard but feels outdated. Each stage begins with several small, simple scoundrels who are eventually joined by a bigger brute with more health and a heavier hit. These lower-level enemies seem to take too many hits and this becomes a bit boring after the fifth or sixth wave of them. As the stage wears on, the only thing that changes is the combination of enemies on-screen at the same time until you reach the boss at the end of each show. Even these bigger, badder bosses are simple beasts. Learn their attack pattern; attack, counter, dodge, attack and repeat until victorious.
This feels archaic. Yes, there are clear throwbacks to some classic side-scrollers (Turtles in Time, Golden Axe, Streets of Rage) and the development team’s passion for them clearly comes through in this game, but they seem to have missed the point that games have moved on since then. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of older games (Streets of Rage, especially) but some of the tropes from that older era should be left where they belong. The trouble here is that, while the repetition and simplicity of those games has been transferred across (for better or worse), some of the more interesting mechanics haven’t been. A couple of times it would have been nice to be able to call in a special attack (like the Police car support option from Streets of Rage) or to have some variation in the levels (the sewer-surfing section from Turtles in Time springs to mind) but despite these games having clearly influenced the style and gameplay of Foul Play, the better aspects of them are conspicuous in their absence, which is hugely disappointing.
Foul Play has nice ideas and has been put together well by a team who are obviously huge fans of the genre. Unfortunately, there’s just too much repetition and too little variety for it to be much more than a throw-away, five hour experience. It quickly becomes tiresome, repeating the same objectives and defeating the same enemies by mashing the same buttons with no real pay-off for style, despite publisher Devolver Digital’s promise that the game “rewards performance over pummeling” when it does precisely the opposite. The theatre setting is the most intriguing part of this game and the Platinum trophy may eventually reward persistence, but it’s hard to recommend Foul Play over other new releases like Not A Hero or the recently ported Hitman GO.