Grabbed by the Ghoulies Reader Review
I don't know why I hadn't really taken much interest into Grabbed by the Ghoulies, even though BIGsheep had (proudly) worked on the project. Most likely it was because I hadn't heard much ranting and/or raving about it, but do remember scanning a short review that said it was an above average adventure game - quite possibly because of this, I left it at that and never thought much about it again.
But lo and behold, how wrong I was. The style of the game is set from the moment you start; the comic-esque, bold and colourful presentation and the graphic novel storyboard method of telling the story, all combine to make you fully aware that Ghoulies isn't going to take itself (too) seriously. The instant you realise there's no voice-over, no script reading, no CGI cutscenes, and all of the story and emotions are put through to the player by grunts/noises and body actions/reactions to the situation, then you know that the developers have put some serious thought in making a game enjoyable and attainable by anyone who picks up the control-pad.
The story tells of Cooper and his girlfriend (Alice? I forget) on a camping trip who happen upon an eerie mansion when caught up in a rain storm. Cooper isn't too fond of the place, commenting on its poor state of condition, but unfortunately the owner (Baron) overhears and decides to teach the kids a lesson. Upon entering the building for shelter, Alice is abducted by the mansion's ghosts and it is Cooper's job to rescue her. He's helped along by the few staff manning the mansion - the butler, cook, gardener and house-cleaner - who turn up at key points to provide tips and weapons for Cooper. The whole game is wrapped up in a graphic-novel-cum-book style with the actual storyline carried out via the storyboard panels (each panel having a short animation). The game is essentially made up of five chapters, each having a number of scenes, and each scene represented by one of the numerous rooms within the mansion and its grounds. And this is where it gets pretty interesting and different from any other game.
What makes Ghoulies so good is that you are faced with a challenge every step of the way, and even though you will be made to backtrack through some of the rooms, Rare has made it enjoyable and rarely (ho ho) makes you do the exact same thing twice (and never makes you do two similar challenges consecutively). As with any house, to get from one room to another requires you to go through connecting (and different) rooms, and each room contains a challenge that must be completed for progression along with a set of rules that should be abided by. There are a few different core objectives, such as find the key, fight the ghoulies, survive the countdown timer and a couple others, but what is nicely done is that there are variations to each of these objective themes. Finding keys may involve destroying the room's contents or defeating a particular ghouly; when fighting ghoulies you may need to kill all of them, one type of ghouly, or that you aren't allowed to kill a particular type; surviving is just that, but is later made harder when you're not allowed to take damage or that you must only use weapons. Rare gave themselves enough options and combinations such that the game never bores you with the same challenge and/or rule-set. It implements basic individual ideas perfectly.
The second helping of goodness comes from the destructable and usable furniture of each room. It amazes me why there are games that completely fail to integrate the scenery into the gameplay. If you're low on ammo, why can't you pick up the nearest thing that's not bolted down and chuck it at your enemies? Ghoulies is so refreshing in this respect, it practically makes you want to play the game again solely on the fact you didn't use everything at hand on the first run through. What are termed as weapons (you may use your bareknuckles - and forehead - if you so wish) is anything that you can pick up and use to your advantage, be it side tables, lamps, bottles, boxes, frozen food, and even burgers and cakes (although each of these temporary weapons have a set number of hits before they break or you run out). It's just so much fun picking up something and chucking it that even though fighting with fists can sometimes be faster, the feeling of knocking down several ghoulies in one go is fantastic. Through the characters you'll meet in the mansion, they will provide you with weapons specific for the particular challenges ahead and then take the weapon away after you're done. Even these are comical with the fizzy-drinks can or egg launcher, and affords a few scenes of 'wind-down' time.
Thirdly, the comedy that is provided throughout the game is good and steady from beginning to end. No laugh-out-loud moments, but some parts definately ensured you couldn't stiffle a laughter (or at least afford a smile, for all you stiff upper lip folks). Classic Britishness can be found in abundance in this game; all the additional characters are from different parts including the 'Pickle my plums' aah-ing West Country, ''Ere, wha' you doin'' cut-offs Northerners and the 'Oh my, Sir' quite-quintessentially-polite upper English. For those of keen-ear, the Baron (the owner of the mansion), prior to attacking you in his Red Baron 'aeroplane', shouts 'Tally-ho!' followed by the flying sound effect of 'Nnnneeerrr' and the machine-gunning 'Tu-tu-tu-tu-tu-tu'. Do you see how much effort has gone into Ghoulies? And I haven't even mentioned the sound effects of the objects, or when the enemies make cute death noises. Or the air-guitaring Death does when he touches someone (yes, Death is there to make you pay for not following the rules of the challenges). Or the comedy of the creatures you face (Ninja Imps - great stuff). Ultimately, the audio and comedy go hand-in-hand, where one without the other would sorely degrade the immersiveness of Ghoulies.
Additional to these gaming aspects are 'Super Shock' sequences, occurring at specific points in the game, where Cooper (and sometimes you as the player) is suddenly surprised by a scary ghouly. Here you must button-press the sequence displayed so that Cooper doesn't freak out. It's an interesting idea and implemented well in that you can never tell when it'll occur (i.e. the programming is done well in that there's no gameplay pause as a give-away). It's a nice diversion and breaks up the pace, but is mostly easy and consequentially a bit superficial.
What initially seemed twisted but soon made absolute sense was the control scheme. Using the left-stick to move and the right-stick to attack (in the direction pushed, relative to the screen), the game mechanics were simple yet fluid providing 360-degrees of attack when facing any particular direction. The A-button picks up stuff, the B-button drops. The triggers rotate the camera. Simple stuff. The camera was good although it gave serious issues when Cooper was tucked into a corner, but the majority of the rooms are spacious and have low-level furniture meaning that the camera is free to rotate without collision.
It all sounds fantastic, and it really is, but there are some little niggles that got to me. I don't really know the demographic that this game was initially aimed towards (even though it can capture quite a large age range), but the gameplay does swing from quite easy to quite hard in a matter of a few scenes towards the end of the third chapter. It was sudden and even for me as a gamer, it frustrated when time and time again I died and had to start the scene again (the game saves at the beginning of each scene, meaning no repeat sessions - definately a good thing). The majority of the time it's one-on-one fighting even when there's loads of enemies (the easy), and then Rare throw in two or three bad-arse, long-life enemies with a few little minions a couple of scenes later (the hard) - it just seemed to lack that steady increase. A real shame as that could quite possibly be the end point for some players.
Finally, there are a lot of extras, mainly in the form of mini-challenges that use the rule-set formula and other aspects of the main game, and also rewards from these challenges (concept pictures, etc). Furthermore, you can replay any chapter/scene of the game to locate the bonus books that unlock the extras. All of this provides a good amount replayability - something that is needed for the game is only about 7-hours long. Still, that's good enough and I'm getting used to (and enjoying) short games. After finishing the game you are scored on your performance, and what really surprised me was that I got 17/25 points for completing the game in 6hr 15mins (or so) - do I get more points the faster I complete the game? So the game can even shorter? But I suppose, it all provides replayability for the perfectionists out there.
Because of the lack of referencing, Grabbed by the Ghoulies sounds like one of those games that seem to have passed people by, as it certain did me. And if you've missed it then you definately have to pick it up. All the joking and comedy through sound and visuals carried this game from beginning to end; the time when I got frustrated I knew that there was more fun to be had if I could just push through, and I wasn't wrong. For everything that it is and the light-heartedness of it all, Ghoulies takes only one thing seriously, and that is to make you smile.
side-note: BIGsheep, I see you're the penultimate on the credits for Rare programmers - hopefully, we'll see you move up the list in Viva Pinata.