Surviving Horror 2013 Part II – Ghostbusters get gritty
Before Ghostbusters on the Xbox 360, Playstation 3 and PC came out... were there any good Ghostbusters games? Well, you could argue that the Sega Genesis game was a fun platformer, but besides that, Ghostbusters games ranged from crap to virtually some of the worst games ever made. Ah well, at least there were a couple of ghost busting video games that were good – one was Luigi's Mansion, a launch title for the Gamecube where Luigi sucks up ghosts in a vacuum; the other is today's subject, Ghosthunter. I say that it's good because what it gets right, it certainly gets right. However, it's the kind of game that has the potential to be something more than a game where you hunt ghosts and partake in inconveniently placed puzzles. Instead of being an action game with brilliant puzzles using spectral powers, it's a third person shooter where you shoot at ghosts and then capture them with a sticky boomerang grenade thingy. But I'm getting a little ahead of myself.
Lazarus Jones is a rookie cop investigating an abandoned school with his partner, Anna Steele. Years ago, a professor murdered a bunch of his students and then disappeared. As he explores the school, he finds a paranormal research laboratory underground, and in it lies a machine that has ghosts in it. He pushes the button that releases them, the ghosts kidnap Anna and it's now up to Lazarus to recapture the ghosts. Not all of the ghosts are bad, though; one even aids him in his quest. Said quest takes him to different places like a ghost town, a ghost ship and a prison. These sound like creepy places, but Ghosthunter isn't exactly scary. There are parts that can give you the creeps, but more often than not, it's more of a light hearted romp with kooky characters, especially Lazarus himself. He's the kind of rookie cop who says a lot of silly stuff to make things more comical, complete with some lame one liners that always make me grin. If you've ever watched and enjoyed a B-grade film or ten (and not those high budget films that pretend to be B-grade, either) like I have, you'll feel really comfortable with this game's story as it hardly takes itself seriously and lets the player have fun with it...
...but then towards the end of the game, things get much more serious. Not totally serious, but even B-graders have to get more serious in order to raise some sort of tension. From the tonal shift to the plot twists, the comedic shenanigans of most of the first three quarters of the game is gone (the very beginning was also serious, even with Lazarus and Anna's exchange), and in its place comes a more sinister plot involving the ghosts that are still out there. I'd consider this terrible, had it not been for the writing. They can not only write comedic lines well, but they can also make the more dramatic stuff palatable and even good at times, even if it reeks of “been there, done that, this doesn't compare”. In fact, the final act manages to really keep you on the edge of your seat as you hope that Lazarus can finish his mission. It's rare that a game's story has me like this, and unlike the likes of Red Dead Redemption and all of the Legacy Of Kain games, it's not even all that serious of a story for the most part. It just so happens to have good writing, but hey, writing can make or break a story, and it sure as hell made this one work!
I'm one badass mother*bleep*er.
Ghosthunter is one of the first games to utilize an over the shoulder view (well, it's more like it's on the side, but it zooms into you). This is only during combat, though; when you're not in combat mode, the camera is just behind you, giving you a view of your surroundings. Either way, you could say that Ghosthunter was a bit of a pioneer in that regard - it predated Resident Evil 4 by six months (or over a year in Europe). As for the actual combat, it's quite a bit of fun. It's nothing fantastic – for one thing, you can't dodge while in combat mode. What kind of police academy graduates people who can't jump to the side? I also don't care for how R1 puts you into combat mode and then shoots while it's circle that puts you back into running mode. It'd make more sense if circle put you in and out of combat mode. Anyway, the idea is to use a weapon that the ghost is weak to and then when they're weak, you capture them. You can also trap them for a bit if you want to make things a bit easier during those times when you're fighting multiple ghosts at once, but other than that, you'll be firing away, depleting their life meter before throwing the grenade to capture them. Hey, even if it's a lot like Ghostbusters, at least the way you capture ghosts is different!
Outside of the little gripes I pointed out earlier, the combat can actually be quite a lot of fun! Although Lazarus isn't the nimblest of characters, the ghosts aren't much better as their AI is inconsistent. There'll be times where they can give you a run for your money, forcing you to gun them down as quickly as you can while you keep moving, all the while keeping one of your eyes on any other ghosts that may or may not be around. Needless to say, things can get a bit hectic and since you can only use one ghost capturing grenade at a time, you'll need to make sure you can keep gunning the rest down. They can even corner you if you're not quick enough! But then you'll find yourself announcing your arrival with the ghost lasso thingo or the grenade, and the ghosts will either get it together and fight you... or scramble around, screeching at the top of their lungs (at least I think ghosts have lungs) thus making them easy pickings. Yet even though the AI can be a bit dumb and Lazarus can't dodge to the side, nothing beats blowing your load all over these ghosts.
So yeah, the combat's fun as hell, but there's more to this game than ghostbusting. You also have to do some puzzle solving. A good amount of them involve getting items in order to unlock the next section and a bunch of other things that require little to no thought. See, Ghosthunter's level design is practically about as straight as an arrow, meaning that while backtracking to find items is easy... it's also kind of boring because you're mindlessly going to points to find stuff. Memo to aspiring game designers – these puzzles work in games like Resident Evil and Castlevania: Symphony Of The Night because A) they're a natural part of the structure that you're exploring, and B) they're interspersed not only with combat, but other sorts of puzzles. If there's any difficulty, it's usually in you occasionally overlooking something so easy, like you missed an object or something. That's... pretty much it.
“But what about Astral,” I hear you ask. Well, this is where I lay out a loud sigh of disappointment. Astral, a ghost that enters inside your body after you set the ghosts free, is able to help you by flying, interacting with objects Lazarus can't, scanning for plot important stuff and eventually possessing other ghosts and removing obstructing objects. Sadly, she feels more like a gimmick than a legitimate addition to the game as she's only there to do easy puzzles with obvious solutions before Lazarus is back to ghostbusting, and she can only be summoned at pre-determined points. The only remotely challenging thing about these segments is that the usage of Astral requires energy that you collect from ghosts, meaning that you have to be quick. Too bad that despite quick not even being my middle name, I can still solve these puzzles with haste. Granted, combat's also not that tricky, but it at least tries to change things up a bit and it at least tries to... well, challenge you. The puzzles? Nope, they're about as underdeveloped and obtrusive as it gets. Potential, thy name is Astral.
Does it count if I shoot its tail?
Ghosthunter is a damn fine looking Playstation 2 game. I'd argue that it's one of the console's best looking games, sporting some detailed textures and animations. The lighting is also well done, although it probably wouldn't be so great after playing Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory or Alan Wake. It's also laced with rich colors to give things some more oomph. There's also how spot on the lip syncing is and how there are very few moments of clipping and lag, so in terms of raw technical prowess, it's quite good. I feel that a lot of it comes from its overly linear level design as the PS2 couldn't process a lot of detail at once due to its terrible RAM, but if you're a graphics kind of person who still wants to take a trip back to the past, this game will definitely do it for you. But as I've said before, it's not exactly scary. It has its moments like the abandoned school at the beginning with its dim lighting and the prison with the flickering lights during that one part where it just works so damn well, it has to be seen to be believed. Other than that, it's bright, but at least during the more light hearted parts of the story, they go together like peanut butter and jelly. The more serious moments could've used a bit of a darker palette and lighting, but that's probably just me.
The sound design works out quite well for the most part. Bringing up the abandoned school again, it's so tense with the sounds of howling winds and ghostly wails saying “free us”. Once the instruments come into the forefront, it's like “oh man, this is going to be suck, but I must press on.” This becomes fairly commonplace in the game, but like any good horror game (or at least sort of horror game), it's still effective as it manages to draw you in, keeping you tense for battle. The more action oriented parts have tracks that also have quite a bit of tension, although rather than being scary, it's more like you have to kill this ghost or these ghosts before they kill you. Further highlighting the sound design is the voice acting. Lazarus's voice, in particular, stands out as it manages to perfectly convey his witty dialogue, and the rest are fun to listen to as well. Overall, your ears will really enjoy this game.
Ghosthunter receives a 8/10 – while it has fun combat and dialogue, its puzzles are a complete drag! Now, that would seem a bit unfair, if not for the fact that throughout the entire game, it felt like it could've been something more. One's first impression of Astral was that she'd be of great assistance, but later on, she seemed to be more of a gimmick than anything else, and the other puzzles are just insulting. On the other hand, when Ghosthunter gets it right, it certainly gets it right. It goes between a well written, well acted ghost hunting story to a tense, fun ghost hunt with an ear for atmosphere. If you can overlook the drab puzzles, you'll find yourself having a lot of fun playing through this game.
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