There has been an increasing number of sidescrolling brawlers released on the PC in recent times. Castle Crashers, Shank, Fist Puncher and Sacred Citadel. Is this a new trend? It certainly makes sense, with the PC reclaiming the living room couch via Steam’s Big Picture mode and online co-op being much easier to implement than it was a few years ago. Suddenly, this old genre reemerges, and I am pretty happy about that. After all, these kinds of games have always been the finest casual co-op experiences, and being able to enjoy them on the PC is something to be excited about.
Enter Mediatonic’s Foul Play, which I got hands-on with at Gamescom this year. I’m happy to report that my initial impressions were pretty much dead-on: this is a humorous, enjoyable romp featuring charming character design and frantic button-mashing. What’s more, it’s easy to pick up and play, with only two different attacks, a counter, and jumping mapped to your controller buttons. Oh, and dodging, but true gentlemen don’t dodge. Special attacks and different ways of juggling airborne enemies get introduced later. To be perfectly honest, the genre-approved method of “hitting things until they stop moving” usually gets you through the stages just as well. The plot follows Daemonologist Baron Dashforth and his sidekick Scampwick. The good baron is a true adventurer, travelling all over the the world in search of his father and battling evil forces along the way. What’s unique about Foul Play’s story is that Dashforth is recounting his antics to a theatre audience.
I really like how the game frames its narrative. The make-believe of gaming (i.e. you in front of the screen, being immersed in the game’s world) is completely broken by addressing the in-game theatre audience and the inherent playful nature of Dashforth’s tale. Thus, you don’t play a story; you play the performance of a story, and Foul Play revels in this by breaking the fourth wall repeatedly. Seeing that the nasty creatures opposing you are really just little dudes in costumes is hilarious. There are other things constantly reminding you of the framing: beaten up actors getting dragged off stage, props being moved by pulleys, or the stagehand scurrying off after accidentally being caught in the spotlight. I cannot think of any other game with a similar setup, and it works for the most part, because it’s charming and doesn’t feel worn out.
It’s a clever setup that keeps the story pleasantly silly, and it serves as an easy integration of challenges into the gameplay . Dashforth will occasionally directly talk to his audience, and they’ll request you to perform special feats: get a high combo, take down a particularly strong enemy last, use a specific special move x times, things like that. If you succeed, you’ll be granted a medal. Get three medals at the end of a level, and you’re rewarded with a charm, which usually makes life easier for you by giving you extra combo points, faster recovery from damage, and other buffs. While the game itself is too easy, getting all the charms can be challenging and requires you to replay some stages, which sadly feels more like padding. It’s a good thing you really don’t need those trinkets in order to complete the game.
Over the course of 5 plays, with 5 acts each, you will meet crazy Victorian thugs, vampires, evil Atlantean lobstermen, cultists and many more oh so villainous baddies. Foul Play took a big handful of the siliest horror tropes and made the most out of them. The problem is that the underlying gameplay doesn’t really change over the course of your adventure, and it gets old pretty fast. When you’re playing alone, Foul Play is best enjoyed in small doses, otherwise it’ll wear you down before the final curtain falls. Some stages feel extremely drawn out, even continuing after what you thought would be the end-of-level boss. It is also much too easy. I managed to blaze through the game in five hours with only one of my performances ending prematurely.
Co-op is the way to properly enjoy Foul Play. The game lends itself exceptionally well to casually chatting with a friend while causing cartoon violence and comic mischief. I played roughly 30% of the adventure in online co-op and didn’t encounter any technical difficulties. It’s a smooth and entirely pleasant experience, easy to set up and definitely more fun than going at it alone. There are no rewards for playing together, though, not even special team moves you can pull off. But sharing the “workload” of defeating wave after wave of baddies really helps with the pacing issues. Surprisingly, some challenges, particularly the ones requiring you to rack up a high combo chain, are more difficult to complete this way. Missions à la “defeat all bad guys in 3 minutes” on the other hand get almost too easy. It’s quite apparent that Foul Play was designed around co-op gameplay, and this is definitely the way it should be experienced.
One thing that’s particularly noteworthy is the game’s flawless performance. No matter how crowded the on-screen action got, the framerate always kept up, even on my laptop (i3-2350M, 4GB RAM, Geforce GT 630M, 1366×768) with the graphics at max settings. Moreover, Foul Play controls just as well with the keyboard as it does with a controller, which makes this a really good game for local co-op. Not having online leaderboards is a serious letdown. There’s no reason to replay levels, once you mastered all of their challenges. Having your friends’ scores competing with your own could go a long way here and wouldn’t probably be too hard to patch in retroactively.
Conclusion—Is It Worth The Money?
Foul Play is a quirky little beat ‘em up that truly shines when playing with a friend. It also very cleverly incorporates its theatre setting into the gameplay, which is something I wish more games would do. Whether you’re an old veteran of the genre or just starting out, the $14.99 admission fee for a single ticket (or $22.99 for the 2-pack) is money well spent.
- Time Played – 6 Hours
- Widescreen Support – Yes
- Resolution Played – 1920×1080
- Windowed Mode – Yes
- Bugs/Crashes Encountered – None
- Control Scheme – Gamepad, Keyboard
- DRM – Steam
- System Specs – Core2Quad Q8200@2.33GHz, 4GB RAM, GeForce GTX 650
- Game Acquisition Method – Review Copy
- Availability- Official Site, Steam
- Demo – No