Foul Play Xbox 360 Review: a rousing XBLA brawler

Seeing as how we didn’t get a new Xbox Windows Phone game last week, we’ll look at a downloadable Xbox 360 game instead. Foul Play is a recent Xbox Live Arcade game from UK-based publisher Mastertronic.

Foul Play’s title might make you think the game would have something to do with birds, but it actually refers to corrupt goings-on at the turn of the twentieth century. With a unique setting, witty writing, and charming art style, Foul Play is a beat-em-up worth playing. Head past the break for our full review!

Taking it to the stage

Foul Play stars an English gentleman named Baron Dashforth and his partner/part-time chimney sweep Scampwick. The good Baron has agreed to relate his adventures as a demon hunter on-stage to a live audience. Not only is the game set during a time when plays were still the primary form of public storytelling, the whole game itself is one long play.

Many clever touches sell the stage play aspect. Dashforth talks to the audience, and they occasionally talk back to him. Defeated enemies (who usually wear obvious costumes) crawl off-stage, and stagehands scamper about, occasionally getting tangled up in props and such.

The backgrounds are made to look as if they were constructed of cardboard as well, just like you’d see in a real play. If the stage didn’t scroll impossibly far throughout each level, the illusion would be even more convincing. But you need scrolling a beat-em-up, so we’ll forgive that one.

Unfortunately, the cool stage play touches like audience interaction die off as the game goes on. This is mostly in service of the story, though I suspect time and budget probably affected the endgame as so often happens.

Speaking of story, Foul Play has a surprisingly clever narrative for a brawler. The story manages to intrigue and even serve up a little twist that you probably wouldn’t see from the outset.

Dashforth and Scampwick banter back and forth in the same cheerfully old-fashioned British dialogue you’d expect to hear from Windows Phone Central’s own Rich Edmonds. Their lines are witty and often humorous to boot. Only Foul Play’s budget reduces the effect of the sharp dialogue, because none of it is spoken. If ever a game’s protagonists lent themselves to voice acting, it’s the stars of this particular show. I want to hear the “Blimeys” and “Cheerios,” not just read ‘em.

Beat them all up

Just as Foul Play’s presentation differs a bit from the norm, so does it combat system. You still perform standard and heavy attacks with the X and Y buttons. The emphasis here is on maintaining long combos (they can reach past 200 hits!) and staying in the air as long as possible. Skillful play involves dodging incoming attacks and then striking back.

Much like the Batman Arkham games, enemies flash before attacking. That’s your queue to press B, which actually initiates a grab. From there, you can pound the enemy, pile drive him, throw him, or jump into the air and keep pounding away. As you come down from the jump, press B near another attacking enemy to initiate an air grab and keep the combo going. Should both players press B just as an enemy attacks, they’ll fly into the air and wail on him together.

Team Dashforth

Foul Play supports 2-player co-op both locally and online. As you’d expect, beating up on hordes of actors and demons is doubly fun with a friend. Dashforth and Scampwick can’t revive each other should one fall, but the game still has a handful of cooperative mechanics. For instance, the two can throw enemies back and forth at other or equip items that provide bonuses to the team. If both players activate their 2X combo multiplier mode by pressing the Right Bumper, the combo multiplier goes up to 4X until the mode ends. That'll help rack up some juicy combos.

There are a couple of downsides to playing with a friend, however. Most noticeably, the menus behave quite annoyingly when playing online. Whenever one player chooses to start a level or unpause the game, a big, ugly prompt pops up to indicate that the other player must also choose to do so. The secondary player gets no indication that the first player is ready to move on, often leading to both players sitting around waiting for something to happen. Far better if the host could make selections without the other player’s approval.

Also, playing with a friend makes some of the side missions a little harder because there are less enemies to go around in co-op. Not a huge deal, but I’d prefer being able to do everything in multiplayer.

Side Goals

Foul Play packs 17 proper stages and five boss levels to its name. On top of that, several side goals instill extra replay value. Our heroes gain Fame from completing levels, which acts as EXP. Leveling up gets them access to new moves, which is a good way to warm players up to the intricacies of combat.

You’ll need to make use of those moves to complete each regular stage’s three challenges. These include goals like saving NPCs, performing a certain number of moves, or completing scenes perfectly. You don’t need to do all three challenges in one go, thank goodness. The reward for knocking a stage’s challenges out is an equippable charm that provides various stat bonuses or effects.

Finally, players are also encouraged to replay stages in order to get better scores. Your score determines your star rating for that stage. Five-starring stages doesn’t do much other than unlock a few Achievements, but it’s always nice to have things to shoot for.

Achievements

Foul Play’s 30 Achievements worth 400 GamerScore represent a strong mixture of goals. Several cumulative ones involve performing certain moves 30, 50, or 100 times. You’ll accomplish most of these naturally with enough play. If you get a hang of the combat system, even the Achievements for staying in the air for 15 seconds and scoring a 200-hit combo won’t prove too challenging.

The two most difficult and time consuming Achievements are ‘Daemonologist’ and ‘Vaudeville Legend.’ The first involves unlocking every charm – completing all the missions, in other words. These can occasionally be tough, but once you get the charm that increases the time before a combo drops it gets a lot easier. ‘Vaudeville Legend’ just requires players to 5-star each level. Play skillfully and maintain long combos and you should be able to score the proper rating without too much fuss.

Overall Impression

Foul Play didn’t get as much prerelease hype as it deserved. Blame part of that on the Summer of Arcade, several big post-Summer of Arcade releases like Ducktales and Castle of Illusion, and of course the impending release of the Xbox One and Playstation 4.

That low-key presence belies how special this game is. Yeah, it could use voice acting and some UI tweaks, and yet those faults do little to diminish Foul Play’s charm. You don’t find beat-em-ups with a unique setting and premise, adventurous and whimsical tone, and sharp combat system every day. If Charlie Murder was too dark and melancholy for you, give Foul Play a try.

Paul Acevedo is the Games Editor at Windows Central. A lifelong gamer, he has written about videogames for over 15 years and reviewed over 350 games for our site. Follow him on Twitter @PaulRAcevedo. Don’t hate. Appreciate!

23 Comments
  • Price seems a bit high, but a sale will make me bite for sure
  • Any reason games like this wouldn't run well on the Surface 2, much less the Surface RT even? You start adding the lower power hogging weekly Xbox live games from the consoles to the Surface, and add a Xbox controller, you will have people flocking to this. You will also be making a new market somewhere between consoles and handheld gaming devices that no one has even though of. Sit down somewhere, pull out the kickstand, pull out the controller, and start gaming. Would be a great market for then to create.
  • It would run fine on the Surface 2. Might be too chaotic for the Surface RT, I dunno. If Xbox One really integrates well with Windows 8, it's possible that future downloadable games will come out on both platforms. We'll see if Microsoft lightens up the certification process enough to where developers would feel like publishing on both.
  • I have a 50% off coupon for this game sitting in my Steam inventory, if anyone wants it. It's listed as tradeable, but I'll gladly take some random silly trading card.
  • Off topic-didi we get one this week??
  • Sadly, it doesn't look like it.
  • "Foul Play’s title might make you think the game would have something to do with birds..."
     
    ...if you didn't know how to spell.
     
    FOWL refers to birds, primarily chickens.
  • True true, that was a little play on words on my part.
  • Though Chickens can't fly.
  • And bees
  • I just played through this on Steam with a 360 controller last week. The best beat em up I've played in years.
  • Not to sound like a jerk but what exactly is a Brawer?
  • Fixed!
  • Thank you sir.
  • The prices are what ruins the uptake of these games. I have only purchased one arcade game at more than 400 points (in old money). This would be the equivalent of 1600. To me that is a huge leap too far, for most games I have seen. Poor pricing.
  • It would be 1200
  • How so? That does not seem correct.
  • 400 pts = $5. The game costs $15. $15 divided by $5 = 3. 400 pts multiplied 3 times = 1200pts. Therefore, 1600 pts = $20.
  • I noticed as soon as I posted that the price was dollars, sorry.
  • Lol no prob. Arithmetic was actually a study I excelled in. :)
  • XBLA set the standard for indie games on consoles, it defined the 6th generation.
  • I wish they have baseball games
  • Me too. Sadly, it appears that I cannot read.