Reviewed: September 25, 2004
Released: August 17, 2004
When Ghosthunter came across my desk for review I have to admit I was a bit skeptical, or perhaps jaded is a better word. I had just finished, The Suffering, Siren and a couple of other horror-type games and was fairly burned out on the genre, still, something about this game appealed to me. I had seen the game at E3 and it was extremely cool then. The finished version is even more polished, simply brilliant, both in presentation and gameplay.
During a routine patrol through a derelict high school, Lazarus Jones, a rookie Detroit cop, and his partner, Anna Steele, stumble across the ghost research laboratory of Professor Peter Richmond. Lazarus unintentionally liberates a legion of ghosts and spirits that begin to wreak havoc around the world and a malevolent spirit abducts Anna. Armed with second sight and a cache of weapons and gadgets, the idealistic cop is forced to take on the entire spirit realm in hopes of finding his valued partner -- and saving the world. An emotionally driven storyline with a mentally disturbing cast of characters, including monster teddy bears, giant reptiles and insane little girls, help Ghosthunter redefine the action adventure genre.
As I started to play Ghosthunter I felt right at home with the third-person action interface. Jones can stick to walls, peek around corners, climb ladders, and interact with his environment just as easily as Sam Fisher or any other action hero.
The level design is linear with locked doors and blocked passages guiding you in the direction necessary to progress the story. But the linear nature of the levels is easily masked with some truly creepy ambience that perfectly blends horror, action, and even a bit of campy “midnight movie” fun that we all loved in Ghostbusters. There are even a few subtle nods to the Bill Murray’s ghostly classic like the shushing librarian and a ghost that looks litigiously like Slimer. And don’t even get me started on the resemblance of Hawksmoor and Vigo from the second movie.
But these are more of an homage than an attempt to rip off the films. Ghosthunter delivers a lot of original concepts, both visually and in gameplay that make this one of the freshest titles I’ve played this year. First off, the game is creepy but not terribly scary (like Silent Hill scary), but it never pretends to take itself that seriously. It does, in fact, maintain an excellent pacing and delicate balance of fun and thrills without tipping the scales too far in either direction.
The story makes use of a supernatural portal to justify sending you to several eclectic locations that would otherwise be unexplainable. You’ll explore a swamp, a ghost ship, an abandoned prison, a cemetery, an old mine, and best of all, all of these locations blend together seamlessly with no load times.
There is a very organic feel to the game, both in the way the environments, ghosts, mist, and the general ambience always seem to be in a state of flux. Something is always in motion and the entire game feels alive. Some levels will morph around you to create entirely new areas to explore.
Mission objectives are simplistic at best. Dispatch the ghosts, save the girl, save the world. Puzzles are terribly easy and won’t even begin to challenge the Teen-targeted audience, but I didn’t really mind. I was having too much fun enjoying the scenery, experiencing the atmosphere, and fighting the ghosts.
The only thing in the game that slightly resembles a brainteaser are the Astral puzzles. When Jones released the ghosts one of them (named Astral) inhabited our hero. Scattered about the levels are areas were you can summon and control Astral to perform special tasks. Her abilities expand as you progress through the game and learn new skills, but again, there is no guesswork as to when or how to use her special abilities.
Combat is the shining star in this action-adventure. Jones has numerous weapons, both conventional and supernatural, designed for “ghost busting”. Combat is simple. Push R1 to switch to combat mode so you can now target and strafe around the enemies. Next, press R2 to toss a sticky ghost grenade at your target. This puts them in a state where they are susceptible to conventional weapon damage. Continue to weaken them until they are sucked into the grenade in a blinding display of pyrotechnics.
Simple yes, but not entirely effective when fighting multiple enemies, as you must finish off one target (the one with the grenade stuck to him) before you can switch to a new one. It can get a bit tricky at times but thankfully the game seldom throws more than 3-5 ghosts at you at once. And just when you get into the groove, don’t be surprised when you meet a ghost that is immune to the effects of the grenade or requires some totally different strategy, especially the bosses, which can have some rather elegant solutions.
Once again the PS2 proves that we have only tapped a small portion of the power lurking inside. Ghosthunter is nothing short of amazing with some of the best textures and character designs in any game to date. This is one of those rare games where the designers are perfectly comfortable using the game engine to create several of the cutscenes. They can zoom right in on the characters because the characters have so much detail right down to freckles and facial hair. Even when you do come across a CG movie it looks so much like the game it’s virtually seamless.
The environments are given just as much loving attention to detail. Realistic locations look realistic and the supernatural environments have that “other worldly” look to them. The ghosts range from truly scary to slightly charming and mischievous and the lightshow that occurs when you finally send them back to their own plane is better than anything you’ll see on the Fourth of July.
Ghosthunter also features progressive scan support, so HDTV owners are going to see some super-crisp details that will have this game competing with your favorite PC titles for clarity and color.
Ghosthunter also delivers in the audio department with an amazing soundtrack that is worthy of a film score. It not only fits each and every environment, it also enhances those environments with just the right mood. The music also cues to the action so it ramps up during combat to create some real tension then eases into some ethereal music during the Astral puzzles.
Sound effects are perfect. The real world weapons sound like they should and the supernatural ghost weapons sound like we would “expect” them to. Some of the effects are really creative and the moans and cries of the ghosts can reach terrifying proportions at times.
There are some great cutscenes and a dynamic interaction with Lazarus and Anna in the beginning. Featuring veteran voice actor Joe Morton (Ali), Rob Paulsen (T2), and British actor Sir Michael Gambon, the voice acting is just about as good as it gets. Even the minor roles are given special care.
Ghosthunter is linear and not terribly difficult so average gamers should complete it in less than 12 hours. Expert action gamers will finish it in 8, and there isn’t any real reason to replay the game after the first pass. With no bonus content, branching storyline or alternate endings, this is a fun one-shot ride.
Ghosthunter is a spectacular game that really took me by surprise, but I think it may have released a bit too early. I haven’t even seen the game in a lot of stores yet and I think it would have sold a lot better had it come out closer to Halloween, but hopefully this review will send you on a quest to find and play this fun and sometimes frightening game.
If you are looking for serious scares there are better games for the job, and hardcore survival horror buffs will likely find the gameplay a bit too light for their tastes, but anyone looking for a stunning visual experience with entertaining characters, an interesting storyline, and an overall creepy atmosphere will find plenty to enjoy with Ghosthunter.