12 years on, Costume Quest holds up as a wonderful tribute to holidays and childhood

costume quest
(Image credit: Double Fine)

PC Gamer magazine UK issue 378, US issue 366.

(Image credit: Future)

This article first appeared in PC Gamer magazine issue 378 in December 2022, as part of our Reinstall series. Every month we load up a beloved classic—and find out whether it holds up to our modern gaming sensibilities.

Costume Quest is a tradition I wish I had. Every time October sneaks back up on me, I get the urge to replay one of my favourite little RPGs. It's a small-scale spooky adventure full of witty writing and trick-or-treat nostalgia—and it's not a bad turn-based RPG either. But every year Halloween comes and goes and I don't manage to load it back up. Last year, I finally did it. 

The truth is that Costume Quest is timeless. You don't need to play it in the autumn. It exudes so much Halloween energy that you could play it on a summer's day, close your eyes, and hear the wolf howls and bat flutters that make up the ideal spooky atmosphere. Double Fine made the ultimate game for anyone that spent their childhood Halloween evenings roaming a cul-de-sac with a plastic bag full of candy. Costume Quest is that vibe, frozen in time and covered in a light RPG adventure wrapper. 

Brush away a little bit of the 2010 jank—the game's inconsistent 60fps can be unwieldy along with some gritty textures—and you have a game that is legitimately wholesome. The threat is positively Saturday morning cartoon: lazy, bug-eyed aliens stealing the candy from every home. When you knock on the door, you might get a happy adult or a Grubbin, the latter of which kickstarts the game's battles. And as you progress, you pick up discarded cardboard and cloth that help you craft new costumes.

(Image credit: Double Fine)

Costume Quest's combat remains perfectly engaging and relaxing. I still can't force myself to skip the intro to each fight despite having seen every unique one years ago. Your chosen sibling and their goofy allies prepare for fights by transforming into fully-realised versions of their dinky costumes. I'll never forget the first moment Wren leaves the cardboard helmet and wings behind and explodes into a blue Gundam-like mech. It's a brilliant way to explain why battles are happening in the first place. Costume Quest is keenly aware of how Halloween is a chance to let our imaginations fill in the blanks. 

The battles themselves have just enough to chew on that it doesn't get overly repetitive by the end of the game's eight-hour length. You take turns attacking and defending with the enemy Grubbins until they get knocked out and give up their candy. The only complication is that you can make the relatively easy fights go a little faster with quick time events. If you nail a button prompt mid-attack, it'll do more damage. Every costume has different versions if it and many of them are randomised. The penalty for missing them isn't severe, but if you get into the rhythm you can slide through battles nearly untouched. 

Boss battles are more spectacle than challenge. The fact that I barely remembered the game had climactic battles with a giant grim reaper, a witch and a bulldozer, says everything about how little they stick out. They're climactic battles that are for the purpose of beating up a big bad and not much else. Careful button timing and smart Battle Stamp (equippable passive buffs) preparation makes quick work of these fights. Costume Quest isn't a game made to wear you out or intimidate you with scary monsters; it's much more interested in maintaining a smooth ride throughout so you can sit back and enjoy the scenery. 

Playing Costume Quest again now has convinced me that more well-known developers should put resources into projects like this. Obsidian Entertainment put a small team of open world RPG veterans on a tiny RPG game with Pentiment, which is analogous to Costume Quest. These games don't aim absurdly high, they aim to refine the familiar systems they have within a framework that reflects who made it. It's a little cliché to say, but you can feel the care that went into Costume Quest, and you can see where its developers drew the line. Collecting candy, costumes, stamps and buddies, is all it set out to do. There's almost nothing in Costume Quest that strikes me as an afterthought. 

(Image credit: Double Fine)

I'm ashamed to admit that I wasn't really a game soundtrack appreciator until relatively recently. Costume Quest's soundtrack is the key to most of its spooky aesthetic and I regret not paying attention to it before. 

Double Fine legend Peter McConnell turns what could have been a goofy simplistic soundtrack into something relaxed and layered. The main theme is full of strings and sounds like the stinger for a Halloween episode of a cartoon. Most of the songs go for a 'less is more' approach. The combat music in particular is like a drum-heavy take on Pokémon battle themes. It builds tension by having horns and cymbals simmer in the background, letting the game's colourful sound effects punctuate the open space. 

It's such a tiny thing that you might not even hear while trying to smash button prompts, but it supplements Costume Quest's mood, but the mall music might be the best in the game. Late in Costume Quest you infiltrate a mall for more candy. McConnell's score sounds exactly like the Christmas songs that come pouring out of the crappy speakers in places like that. The piece sounds like the build-up to a hit single for the entire length. It steps out of the way and mirrors what it's like to push through the rush of people in late December while you're trying to get last-minute presents for your loved ones. Even though it's not tense or scary at all, like most of the other songs, it emulates a distinct holiday feeling with surprising precision. 

Costume Quest runs near flawlessly on the Steam Deck, the ideal place for small games like this. The handheld's small screen helps make up for the game's fuzzy textures. 

(Image credit: Double Fine)

Double Fine built this game alongside bigger projects and it feels like some of that influenced how the game can fit into a busy life. When I first played Costume Quest, the atmosphere absorbed me, and I think I powered through it in one sitting. Now, in between work and playing other games, I can treat it more like a quick burst of fall vibes. It's almost like hearing Christmas songs on the radio. A quick jaunt over crunchy leaves and discarded candy wrappers and you're immediately in the Halloween mood, then you close the game and hold onto that feeling until you need another hit.

It's a little sad to me that Costume Quest didn't receive any sort of high-definition update. I can appreciate how the game looks even on the Steam Deck, but that might not be the same for newcomers. The game's bright, cartoon-ish characters could use a little help. Video game publishers are remaking fantastic- looking games like The Last of Us and Horizon Zero Dawn and games like Costume Quest are left behind. Given the influx of wholesome and cosy games and gaming's growth in the last few years, I'd like to think there's an audience of witch-lovers and skeleton-fanatics that would fall in love with it. 

(Image credit: Double Fine Productions)

Costume Quest's modest design surprised me 12 years ago, and now it's simply refreshing. There was a moment while playing Elden Ring this year when I passed into Altus Plateau. It's an orange and yellow section of The Lands Between that screams autumn. I loved it, but I also wished there was more to do there. Elden Ring is pretty empty when it comes to other people to speak to or help out. It's a game about a hostile world and surviving all the monsters within it. It wasn't long into exploring Altus that I thought about Costume Quest and how valuable it is to have games that dedicate themselves to one distinct aesthetic. 

More games should look at how Costume Quest trades an obsession with genre, and the expectations that come with that, and puts the most work into its setting. Costume Quest is a totally acceptable turn-based RPG, but it's a wonderful Halloween game above all. It blends art style, music, and quippy writing to illustrate a world filled with jack-o'- lanterns and cobwebs. Your only goals are to roam around in your costume, collect candy, uncover a mystery, and save your sibling. It's not a job for heroes or guns; it's the kind of journey a kid would imagine, and that's why it remains one of my favourite games to play.

Associate Editor

Tyler has covered games, games culture, and hardware for over a decade before joining PC Gamer as Associate Editor. He's done in-depth reporting on communities and games as well as criticism for sites like Polygon, Wired, and Waypoint. He's interested in the weird and the fascinating when it comes to games, spending time probing for stories and talking to the people involved. Tyler loves sinking into games like Final Fantasy 14, Overwatch, and Dark Souls to see what makes them tick and pluck out the parts worth talking about. His goal is to talk about games the way they are: broken, beautiful, and bizarre.