Ghosthunter – PlayStation 2
Platform: PlayStation 2
Developer: SCE Cambridge Studio
Release Date (NA): Dec. 5, 2003
Nerd Rating: 6 out of 10
Reviewed by Space Invader
To believe the box art and description of Ghosthunter is to assume that it’s scarier than any one of Nick Nolte’s mug shots. The back of the box makes numerous mentions of dark, eerie atmospheres, and the cover art looks like Tim Burton’s nightmare covered in mud.
This is a massive deception — surprisingly, a deception for the better. Ghosthunter has its share of scares, but overall, the average fright factor is comparable to that of your average local Halloween-time haunted house.
The story starts when our hero, Lazarus Jones, goes to check out a disturbance in a haunted high school with his partner, Anna Steele. As Laz’s partener is female, she is naturally captured almost immediately, and the point of the game is to get her back. Upon Anna’s disappearance, Lazarus bumps around and accidentally opens up a queue of captured ghosts.
He is then tasked with recapturing all the evil spirits he let loose. Thankfully, these spirits are dispersed across a variety of landscapes, the most interesting of which are a swampy ghost town and a Alcatraz-like prison island. Leading the charge and sending you off to these odd places is an AI computer system Laz dubs “Head-in-a-box.”
Raph? Is that you?
The coolest part of the game, of course, is that Lazarus is voiced by none other than Rob Paulson. What’s so great about that, you ask? Well, have you ever heard of Raphael, of a little ’80s cartoon show called “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?” Or, perhaps, Yacko, of “The Animaniacs?” Paulson’s lines, delivered with that classic sarcastic Raph wit, make the cutscenes. He sometimes manages to save the occasionally awkward dialogue.
The characters in Ghosthunter are slightly stylized, working with the occasionally silly story to give the game a slight cartoon feel. It might seem to imply that this is written for a younger audience. Then, Laz utters an obscenity, or something scary happens that might traumatize your average kid, and you wonder just who is intended for.
A good example is a scene in the Swamp stage. Laz is captured by rednecks who behave like exaggerated, cartoon stereotypes, yucking, speaking improperly and there’s even a big dumb(er) one probably named Bubba. Silly music plays in the background, and you know this is jokey stuff. Minutes later, you travel through a house in search of the ghost of a woman who apparently murdered a series of children. You then chase a demonic little girl, and bump into a skyscraper-sized apparition of a woman with an apparent broken neck, staring blankly with dead eyes and creaking back and forth in a rocking chair.
Then, the stage ends, and you return to the school, for more amusing banter with “Head-in-a-box.” If I saw that rocking chair thing as a kid, you’d have found me in the fetal position in a puddle of my own urine.
This uneven tone actually works, for the most part. Rather than assault your senses as mercilessly as possible, a la Silent Hill, the game is an exaggeration of the scare/comic relief/scare formula so beloved in horror movies. While you might sometimes wish it was all funny or all scary, it’s the balance between the two that gives the Ghosthunter its unique feel. If it was all as lighthearted as the funnier moments, you’d vomit, and if it was all like the scary stuff, the fright would wear off quickly from over-use.
The Good, the Bad, and Astral
The game is, at its core, a third-person shooter. While it’s emphasized that you’re not actually out there killing anything, you are shooting ghosts over and over before capturing them into a disk that somehow transfers them back to the array. There are some welcome puzzling aspects, most notably involving a specter known as Astral. She is a semi-transparent ghost that takes the form of an attractive blonde woman in a skimpy white dress. Why don’t we have more attractive blonde ghosts in little white party dresses, anyway?
Every once in a while, you’ll bump into a white circle of light shooting out of the floor, which means Astral must be summoned. She pops out when Laz releases her, and then you take control. As Astral, you can fly and interact with a limited number of objects in ghostly ways. Astral serves mainly to open up new areas using devices that Lazarus can’t reach – throwing switches, loosening stuck elevators, etc.
These scenes start out as a welcome change of pace, but eventually veer into maddening. One puzzle has poor Astral trying to get a mining cart to careen down a series of tracks to fall onto the floor, so Laz can stand on it and reach a ledge. That’s about as intuitive as climbing into the passenger window of your car to get into the driver’s seat. Another has her luring some beastie out of a cage so he’ll open a door for you.
In short, you will eventually loathe those circles of light, typically uttering something or other about what the fuck it’s going to be this time.
A few parts of Ghosthunter are so well-executed that I even got a little giddy. The aforementioned haunted house at the end of the swamp level was a blast, full of well-integrated scares and mind tricks to keep you on your toes. One door, for example, leads to the entrance of the room you just left. Whoooooa. Another sequence in which you hallucinate the murder sequence of a man on death row has you stepping into his shoes during the aftermath of his crime, to such an extent that you see his reflection in a mirror instead of Laz’s. You wander around his house looking for clues and the flashback ends. There are no enemies in this bit, so it acts as an interactive bit of story. Games could use more of this type of thing.
Walking in circles with amazing scenery
These moments of extreme quality and execution, unfortunately, are somewhat marred by a counter-intuitive level design that occasionally pops up. I spent what seemed like an unusual amount of time walking around looking for the next thing to do. In the swamp, I killed all the snipers (who look like Satan but talk like backwater hicks), cleared every area but couldn’t find the way out. I went in circles, retracing a stupid number of steps until I finally noticed that one house had an extra ladder going down the other side. I was going to write down every instance in which I found myself meandering about like some slow child, but it turned out to be to many times to mention specifically.
Another time, I couldn’t figure out where to place dynamite and it turned out to be around on the other side of a massive staircase. Maybe I’m a dip, but wandering around trying to figure out where some sadistic programmer hid a ladder or realizing that you had to have Astral “Smash” instead of push a switch nearly sent me to the funny farm.
And, after playing the game for hours upon hours, getting used to the mechanics as Laz, I certainly did not appreciate being thrust into the metallic boots of some mech at the end.
Ghosthunter‘s atmospheres are outstanding, and the box assessed them correctly as “eerie.” The level of detail is stunning. Blades of grass sway in the wind, effective-looking rain occasionally pummels down, rooms are furnished with well-rendered objects and even the water doesn’t look too bad. I liked that the designers included the likes of sunken ships near the shore of the prison stage. I wish I could visit some of the locations in real life, perhaps without the ghosts floating around. Even levels I more or less loathed, such as the ghost ship, looked damn good.
The music is very well orchestrated, often haunting and always fitting your surroundings like a glove. I got sick of the Astral music after a while, but only because I floated the poor girl around for so long trying to figure out what to do.
Ghosthunteri is a game all its own. I’ve never played anything quite like it. There’s nothing groundbreaking, and each aspect of the game isolated and examined on its own would come off as somewhat weak and derivative. Drawn together, though, these aspects are worth much more than their collective sum. Everything the game does right is countered by a step in the wrong direction, and it’s really up to the gamer to decide whether this leans toward “hidden gem” or “dud.” For this gamer, though, the reasonably well-executed story, top-notch visuals and audio, and ups and downs between frights and utter cheese keep it afloat. It’s too aggravating to objectively call “good,” but to pull out every few years or so, subjectively, I’d bump that ‘6’ up a couple notches, and give Ghosthunter an ‘A’ for effort.
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