Speaking as a former theater major, there's nothing quite like the allure of the stage. It's a living blank canvas, providing a foundation for endless works of imagination, granting both the real and the fantastic equal footing. It's the fantastic portion that deals directly with Foul Play, and while its story deals in deeds most foul, the play portion that's staged is anything but.
Telling the story of Baron Dashforth, a vaudevillian daemon hunter with a mustache that would make any Victorian strongman proud, and his side kick Scampwick, Foul Play takes place on a proscenium stage before a rather raucous audience. Told as a series of acts, the stage changes as the heroes push forward, engaging the likes of daemons, pirates, and cultists, all of whom are wonderfully played by actors in costume. The stage concept is excellent for setting mood and even delivering set pieces, whether it be the cozy study of the studious Baron, the sinking ship of a mutinous captain (it's easier to just go with it), or even a burning town besieged by gargoyles.
It's both ridiculous and immediately endearing, especially as the sets and locales become even more exotic. Techs move through the backgrounds, carrying pieces of set to and fro from their marks, while a well run fly rail slides larger backgrounds into and out of place, never breaking the action for the two intrepid heroes. It's great fun to watch, especially when a cue is missed, or a tech is caught taking his break on stage.
Built as a 2D brawler, Dashforth and Scampwick face legions of small regular enemies, slightly larger leader types, and end of scene bosses. They fight with your standard array of light jabs and heavier strikes, and the goal is to not only clear the screen of baddies, but to do it in a way that sets the crowd on fire... almost literally. This is done with a combo meter that builds as you string attacks together, and represented not only by the flashing combo counter, but also a crowd meter that both measures their excitement in the form of a points multiplier, with points that translate into starred performances, and serves as a defacto life bar. Get hit too many times, and the crowd turns, booing unmercifully until you either win back their affection, or fail the act.
What separates Foul Play from it's more contemporary brawler brethren is a counter system that functions more like Batman's Free Flow then Castle Crashers hack and slash. The counter is basically an air grab that lets you flow into a series of free hits, a throw that can bounce off multiple foes, or a slam that can clear the area around you. Useable from almost any position, it's an all purpose tool that changes combat into a dance letting you jump from one attacker to another. The mechanic almost makes the game too easy, but it's essential to master if you want to beat the acts special challenges. Each act but the ones featuring boss characters have three, and beating all three unlocks a charm.
The charms have various effects, like adding to your score, or losing less audience each time you get hit, but most are interchangeable and pretty unremarkable. There was only one, which provides a +3 to your combo meter with every successful counter, that seemed absolutely essential, especially during acts which feature a combo challenge.
The counter, with it's ability to lock on to whoever is attacking as long as they're fairly close, also helps to alleviate the issue of dealing with 2D enemies in a slightly 2.5D space. It's far too easy to drop a combo because you think you are level with an enemy, swinging at them wildly only to find yourself swinging behind them. This spacial issues are compounded by the few enemies who fly/swim, as their floaty nature doesn't translate well to the game area.
Sticking to the theme of things that don't quite work, I am sad to say that the majority of boss fights are pretty unspectacular. Though the bosses themselves are rather brilliant, with the Bear-a-corn (Bear/Unicorn hybrid) being of particular note, most fights devolve into a combinations of dodges and throws, meaning you dodge the boss's attacks and throw little folks at them until it dies. I often had to go out of my way to combo the smaller foes before tossing them at the boss, thereby ensuring that my crowd meter didn't drop me into dangerous territory.
Should you choose, the role of Scampwick can be played either locally or online. It's fun to play with someone else, but completely unnecessary, as the game is easy to solo. In fact, many of the combo challenges are simply easier to accomplish solo, owing to your total control of the stage, as opposed to sharing the limelight with a combo stealing co-op partner.
Regardless of whether you choose to partner up or go it alone, Foul Play is a grand ole adventure. Easy to pick up and fun to master, the combat alone would make this a worthwhile venture, but adding in the game's theater aesthetic and unique visual style makes this an easy recommendation.
Reviewer and Editor for Darkstation by day, probably not the best superhero by night. I mean, look at that costume. EEK!