A daemonologist, a chimney sweep, a stage play in Victorian England. Foul Play could have taken its inspiration from any number of sources. In fact, a music video from 1996 is largely how developer Mediatonic ended up with these themes on this type of game, a sidescrolling beat-em-up coming to Xbox Live in mid-September.
"We were watching old music videos on YouTube one day, and for some reason came across Smashing Pumpkins' 'Tonight, Tonight'," said Jeff Tanton, Foul Play's creative producer. "It's a video about people who don't have modern technology available to them to tell their story, but they're just doing the best they can to show something on stage."
Where the music video tried to present a science-fiction story with vaudeville stagecraft, Foul Play's subject is set in the supernatural. The backdrop: famed daemonologist Baron Dashforth (no first name) is, for one night only, telling the story of his fantastic adventures on stage. The levels you fight, alongside his assistant Scampwick Steerpike (player two in co-op) are essentially recreations of his fisticuffs with exotic foes. The level I fought was against berbers and zombies in an adventure set in Egypt.
"Castle Crashers really set the bar for 2D side-scrolling beat-em-ups," Tanton said, acknowledging it as a role model, but making clear Mediatonic did not want to simply copy its formulation. In this case, however, they borrowed loosely from another well known beat-em-up, Viewtiful Joe, with the idea of staging crowd-pleasing fisticuffs.
As Dashforth and Scampwick plough through the bad guys, the complexity of combinations (and sustaining them without being broken) adds to an applause meter that, fully lit, will deliver a 4x multiplier on each hit. Combat is rather straightforward, with strike attack on the X button, a lift/juggle attack on the Y, and a parry-grapple (you have to wait for a foe to initiate an attack) on B.
The most outrageous combinations are ones performed by the duo together — say, Dashforth grabbing a swordsman and flinging him over to Scampwick, who smacks him seven times in midair with his chimney broom. The two can also perform a relentless, alternating attack combo if they strike the same foe together and hold down the X button when prompted to do so. As all of this carries on, the crowd begins rooting and cheering (or not, if you're being particularly disappointing.)
Certain sequences will require you to play to crowd expectations, like clearing out henchmen before taking on a sub-boss (by "kick[ing] him in the unmentionables," as one Dickensian toerag politely requests). As you complete a wave, a spotlight shines on a mark for Dashforth and Scampwick to take before the show may go on. At the end of a chapter, you have an encore battle to give you the chance to push your overall performance up to the coveted five-star rating.
Dashforth is somewhat a combination of the Monopoly character Rich Uncle Pennybags (with his round cartoon face, top hat and monocle) and Commander McBragg from The Bullwinkle and Rocky Show, regaling us with a nearly impossible tale of self-aggrandisement. Tanton expressed some concern that Dashforth would come off as arrogant, giving him Scampwick to show that he is interested in merit and mettle, rather than birth class, to assist his exotic pursuits. Dashforth could have been an out-and-out bastard, I still would have found all of it delightful, in large part to the game's droll set design and small touches, like a director reminding a zombie character of his line. ("KILL.")
I was surprised to learn Foul Play would be arriving so soon on a console (September 18 on Xbox Live Arcade; a PC release is planned later) considering we've written nothing about this and I hadn't heard of it before Friday. PAX, with the platform it gives to indie games, would figure to be a perfect showcase for a well polished and all-but-finished effort such as Foul Play. I'm looking forward to its arrival in less than three weeks and hearing more of Dashforth's remarkable, if perhaps embroidered, tales.