Atlus' Dragon's Crown was a potent reminder that there is still a lot of life left in the side-scrolling beat-em-up genre. Joining the latest crop of worthy entries is Mediatonic's Foul Play, a cleverly written and presented theatrical exercise with tight combat and elements that smartly mix up the fighting.
The genre gets a bad rap, as many people dismissed the style a long time ago as shallow. The setup puts players in the role of Daemonologist Baron Dashforth, who is recounting his life's adventures to a full theatre. As he and his sidekick Scampwick move through the adventures, the title never loses the sense of being a stage production.
Sets are changed by black-garbed stage hands, fallen foes are dragged off by a stage manager with a shepherd's crook, and audience members shout excitedly from the crowd to give Dashforth and his sidekick challenges to accomplish in battle (rack up a 50-hit combo, defeat the largest enemy last, etc.).
Instead of a health bar, Foul Play borrows from Harmonix's Rock Band. Life and death are measured by crowd approval (replenished by performing well in combat), and an energized state similar to star power doubles the combo meter for a short time.
Foul Play innovates by forcing players to think and act strategically. The combat is handled by a basic attack, a launcher that knocks enemies into the air, and a parry that is crucial to building bigger combos. Button mashing is the road to defeat, and I quickly found myself working to extend my combo by anticipating the need to parry enemies. Those familiar with the Batman: Arkham series will feel at home with the lightning bolt identifiers that warn of the need to counter.
Parrying grabs a foe, allowing players to either focus multiple free hits on that enemy or send him hurtling into the ground to damage a large group. In the single level I played, there were at least six different types of enemies that all required different strategies.
Dashforth might be a demon hunter, but since this is a stage production, all of the cultists and monsters are played by actors. Little reactions from them are subtle reminders that the proceedings are a re-enactment. It's a little touch, but one that works to great effect.
Along the way, Dashforth unlocks charms that can be equipped to confer bonuses like additional combo score for parrying, boosting the crowd mood meter faster, and extending the length of the powered up state. Performing well will increase the player's fame level at the end of the mission, which also opens up the opportunity for new moves.
Foul Play is shaping up well in advance of its September 18, 2013 release. The title will be available on Xbox Live and PC.