How much should great graphics skew an overall review score when the gameplay itself is deficient in a myriad of ways? That’s the question at the forefront of most reviewer’s minds when faced with a game like Ghosthunter. There is no denying that it looks very, very good. Like developers SCEE Cambridge’s previous effort Primal the game really pushes the visual envelope of what can be achieved looks wise on the PS2. However all the pretty graphics in the world can’t make up for a game that is so fundamentally shallow and frustrating to play through.
The game begins with you taking control of the absurdly named Lazarus Jones, a rookie cop in his first week on the job. Sent to investigate reports of weird goings on at an abandoned school, Lazarus finds some odd equipment in the cellar and after fiddling with it manages to unleash a spectral horde upon the city. So far, so Ghostbusters. Now Lazarus must use both his normal weapons and a special ghost-hunting arsenal to recapture the wandering spirits and rescue partner Anna Steele who has been snatched up by one of the nastier ghosts.
All that makes it sound like the game is going to be a typical Survival Horror adventure. But this game has none of the surprise shocks of Resident Evil or the creepy atmosphere of Silent Hill or Fatal Frame. It’s very much a third person action game with a paranormal theme, with very little freedom to explore or solve puzzles without being held by the hand the whole way.
This hand holding takes the form of incredibly easy puzzles whose manner of solving is spelt out for you via in-game notes and flash icons that pop up to inform you of what to do and what you’ll need to find in order to do it. Sure this cuts down on some of the frustrations that can be synonymous with the Survival Horror genre, but it also removes any sense of achievement that results from figuring out a particularly tricky puzzle or discovering an exciting new area.
The game basically forces you down a linear tunnel and with the puzzle element much reduced the game has to fall back on it’s combat to generate atmosphere and interest. Sadly this element is also very disappointing. On encountering a ghost Lazarus must first hurl his “capture grenade” at it. This anchors the ghost in the real world for a few seconds and allows Lazarus to deplete its health with his gun. Once all the ghost’s health is gone it gets sucked into the grenade and is successful “hunted”. Sometimes Lazarus will need to hurl the grenade twice at a ghost, because it only holds it for a very short time before returning to him. As the game progresses Lazarus gains various powerful weapons, however switching between them can be very frustrating due to the selection wheel being vexingly resistant to your directional inputs.
Dreary and repetitive though the combat is, it’s nothing to the horror that is the implementation of the in game camera. Although it can be controlled via the right analogue stick, it constantly fights against you. It swings to and fro, lagging behind Lazarus one minute, moving ahead of him the next. This is most observable when Lazarus ascends steps or a ladder. His top half disappears off the top of the screen and the camera zooms in for a close up of his (gorgeously rendered) backside. Targeting mode is a little better as it fixes Lazarus on the left side of the screen, but then this is spoiled by the targeting controls being absurdly twitchy and oversensitive when trying to aim precisely, and turgid and sluggish when trying to swing 180 degrees to track a fast moving flying ghost.
But what about those graphics? Well they are indeed very nice. The character models are richly detailed and beautifully animated, with superb lip syncing (in fact the voice acting is generally very good, even if the script is rather clichéd). Water shimmers and ripples, while lighting is dynamic and in places quite beautiful. It’s just a shame the design of the ghosts is so uninspired, lacking the sicko quality of Resident Evil’s “Lickers” or Silent Hill’s twisted Nurses. Still the misty see-through nature of some of the ghosts is done very well, its just a pity the rest of the game isn’t up to the same standard.
So all this leaves us with a horror themed game that lacks the power to induce even the mildest of shocks and scares in the player. A game with a camera that is broken and a sticky, unresponsive control system. A game that constantly ushers you down one set path from one dreary encounter to the next with perfunctory puzzling and some truly desultory “stealth” sections. A game that despite it’s good looks can only be rated a below average experience, because graphics count for very little when the gameplay is so dire and frustrating. Who ya gonna call? GAME actually, I want my money back.