To release a videogame just one day after the newest Grand Theft Auto is a bold move, but that’s the kind of game Foul Play is. It’s quietly confident of its ability to stand out from the crowd, with an interesting mix of mechanics both old and new proving a stroke of genre-invigorating genius. But with numerous niggles, is it deserving of a standing ovation? Or should it be booed off stage?
Players step into the polished brogues of Baron Dashforth – essentially the Monopoly Man on steroids with the same hobbies as Hugh Jackman’s take on Van Helsing – and, via local or online co-op, the slightly scruffier shoes of Dashforth’s trusty aide Scampwick – think Dick Van Dyke’s chimney sweep in Mary Poppins after taking style tips from Mortal Kombat’s Sub-Zero. The year is 1921 and, as both the lead role and a part of the audience, we are gathered to witness key adventures in Dashforth’s life as a renowned globe-trotting daemon-hunter, retold as an exciting and spectacular stage show – the titular Foul Play.
Taking the form of a 2D scrolling beat-’em-up, combat is at once weighty, swift, and satisfying. Offensive options are split between basic light and heavy attacks, with grabs, parries, throws and piledrivers offering further options to maintain all-important combos or clear a busy screen. Progression through Foul Play’s 22 stages sees a number of more advanced moves unlocked, building a repertoire that can handle most situations – although, like any videogame brawler, a smaller set of favourite attacks will easily see you reach the game’s finale.
combat is at once weighty, swift, and satisfying.
In recent years we’ve seen something of a slow-burn renaissance when it comes to 2D scrolling beat-’em-ups, a genre whose heyday was arguably 20 years ago. From 2008’s Castle Crashers to 2010’s Scott Pilgrim Vs The World and the forthcoming Fist of Awesome, we’ve seen talented developers look back with a fond wink and a nod, showcasing an impressive and judicious attention to detail in both gameplay and aesthetics, all while adding newer wrinkles to an established formula.
Where Foul Play joins such luminaries is in its removal of a traditional health system, tying in-game survival with its central scoring mechanic – deftly borrowed from Rock Band and Guitar Hero. At the top of the screen sits the audience mood-o-meter. Do well – rack up combos without taking a hit, perform audience-pleasing special moves and double team attacks – and the meter will soar, adding a progression of subtle score multipliers as you work towards achieving a five star performance on each stage.
Much like Rock Band’s ‘Overdrive’ and Guitar Hero’s ‘Star Power’, a special meter fills during successful gameplay and offers a 2x combo multiplier if triggered by a single player or a 4x multiplier if two players use the boost simultaneously – similarly helping players out of a tight spot when the mood-o-meter is running dry, or used by canny players looking to climb Foul Play’s online leaderboards. It’s an interesting merging of gameplay concepts and one that, like the music games it cribs from, promotes true co-operation. Take too many hits and the meter will plummet; let it reach rock bottom and the curtain will literally fall, forcing a retry, whether you’re playing by yourself or not.
However, several less-wise choices stop Foul Play from achieving true greatness. Once through its introductory stages, the game’s screen is often a little too chaotic. Swarming enemies attack simultaneously, their colour palettes often blending them into one another and the character under your control. Combine this with the odd decision to have the grab/parry move – utterly indispensable in such situations – trigger the same sound effect whether used successfully or not, and gameplay can frequently descend into combo-breaking button-bashing uncertainty rather than the finely-crafted combat seen in Foul Play’s stronger sequences.
Other design decisions interrupt the game’s otherwise flawless flow. For instance, helpfully, all standard enemies display a brief visual warning before striking the player, making it clear when they can be grabbed/parried; less helpfully, bosses who cannot be grabbed/parried carry identical warnings on their attacks, some of which are also unblockable. Likewise, the inability to toggle early-stage tutorials to reappear and the absence of a readily-available list of unlocked moves means that if a local co-op partner joins you at any point other than the very start of the game, it’ll be down to you to figure out what they can and can’t do.
However, putting these minor inconveniences to one side, Mediatonic have crafted an exceptional example of its chosen genre, full of wonderful audiovisual details during gameplay, like the ever-present stagehand who is often spotted within the scenes rather than behind them, and the audience who – if you get them really fired-up – will chant, cheer and perform Mexican waves. Likewise standard enemies are, for the most part, clearly and knowingly blokes in costume who, if left long enough after defeating them, will often crawl off-stage when they think no-one’s looking.
Importantly, Foul Play demonstrates a perfect balance of complexity and simplicity, offering an action-packed adventure both immediately accessible and with significant reward in mastering its subtleties. It isn’t the pinnacle of its genre but, on its own terms and as a proof of concept for what this developer is capable of, it packs one hell of a punch.