You’ve got to hand it to (BAFTA Award-winning) SCEE Studio Cambridge, they sure know how to paint a pretty game. They’ve done it before with the pretty Primal and they’ve done it again with Ghosthunter.
The premise is enticing enough despite silly names. You’re Lazarus (that New Testament guy who came back from the dead – get it?) Jones, a Detroit Cop who seems to have stolen Brad Pitt’s face and been on a cheek diet after a few visits to The Salon. After a routine patrol leads him and his partner to a dilapidated high school, Lazarus manages to not only locate a machine designed for holding ghosts in stasis, but switch it on and let all the evil slip away. Lazarus must now become a Ghosthunter, track down the unspeakable horrors and save his partner from the grasps of the game’s main mean spirit, Hawksmoor. Luckily the professor who decided to build a ghost prison in the depths of a school has left out suitable weapons for the job, really. Dead handy, mwa-ha-ha!
There is a lot to admire here. For surface pleasure we have some crisp and detailed locations that could give Capcom a hint on what we’d expect from a proper Resident Evil release. Rooms are decked out with ornaments, furniture, pictures and draperies that make for believable environments. And the drapes move convincingly, possibly with more grace than the sheets and curtains of Prince of Persia. You can see individual blades of grass move in wind and tussle as you wade on through, and the overall use of light is almost perfect. Within this wonderland of graphical excellence and spooky sound saunters our unusually monkered hero and yet more exceptional detail is described. Jones moves through his world decked out in clothes that, even though they’re only in a game, look expensive. Not classy you understand, just expensive. Delicate texture detail, fine animation and, should he find himself standing on a slope, one foot will actually be higher than the other! Unfortunately, should you require him to walk into a wall (a technique we call the Survival Horror Acid Test) he will perform a moonwalk. Believe us when we tell you that this is the only fault we could find in the overall look of the game.
There are more touches that other developers should take note off, most notably about seventy percent of the game’s control interface. Lazarus can move while aiming his gun using the right analogue stick through two settings just like TimeSplitters2. With his weapon out he moves cautiously and the ability to ready a shot as you creep through a doorway gives such moments a great feeling of readiness and style. Did we mention that he keeps his weapons on his person, physically? If he carries it, you can see it so don’t expect to pull a mighty weapon out of your pocket as if from nowhere – it won’t happen. Indeed, there is a lot on the surface of Ghosthunter to be happy about. unfortunately, the game. After letting hell break loose, Lazarus finds himself melded with another spirit, Astral. This raucously fine ghost appears as a beautiful woman who swims through the air in a wet dress that looks damp, and transparent.
Whoops, someone has been smuggling peanuts in hell. Nice. At certain parts in the game you can invoke Astral and use her special powers to help you through tricky situations. She can fly, so you can use her to access areas, and she can become tangible so she can open doors, press switches. As you kill (kill?) ghosts, their powers are passed on to Astral too, so she develops in usefulness as the game progresses.
The addition of Astral highlights what this is brand new and exciting game is: Primal by another name. Both titles give a separate character that can aid the hero and this aid is always required because the linear game design says so. Scree the gargoyle and his ability to turn to stone? That’s Astral. Jenn’s ability to pick up new powers? That’s Astral. As a digital creation, she’s a honey, as an addition to a game – she’s a gargoyle. In her role as a game device, she’s basically a key used to kick-start mechanisms that, in turn, will open up other areas for our well groomed, macho hero to explore. Welcome to the year 2003.
Let’s get back to that concern over linearity and adventures that know what they want you to do, but just won’t say. You pick up a key that’s described as ‘rusty’ so you know you need to find a rusty door. That’s the law. But every door looks rusty and there is a disparity as to what you and the game think a rusty door actually looks like. Is that a tarnished lock, one that suffers from excessive oxidation or, yes! rusty. Some objects allow you to clamber over, the same object in another location won’t. This is silly and annoying.
When not having ‘almost fun’ by busting ghosts we’re left wondering what the game wants. Polish can’t disguise the fact that the heart of Ghosthunter is very old. Not old as in classic, but old as in things have moved on, and for a reason. THEY WERE BAD. Ghosthunter therefore plays thus: I’m stuck, oh yes – use Astral/rusty key – I’m stuck again. With no room to stretch your own lateral problem solving abilities you feel like your playing through a script, and a script that at best might make Channel Five, sometime after the witching hour.