Having your soul ripped from your body isn't high on our list of 'fun things that can happen to you' - just have a look at some of the poor sods shambling around Brent Cross shopping centre on a Saturday afternoon if you want proof. The tell-tale signs are easy enough to identify: thousand-yard stare, an unusually large number of kids, a passion for fast food, trackie bottoms, and - the dead giveaway - the Burberry accessories. They're a harmless enough bunch, though. Just try to avoid bumping into them after hours down your local high street.
What causes this dramatic soul-body separation has been the subject of heated debate for decades, with self-appointed 'experts' blaming everything from the effects of television, mind-altering drugs, Thatcher, devil worship (see Thatcher), Cilla Black, Noel Edmonds and Big Brother to Goldie Looking Chain. But while scientists work on unravelling this modern phenomenon, game developer n-Space has spent several years creating its own fantasy videogame based on one man's struggle against this problem.
Okay, that's all a terrible, pointless lie - albeit a faintly feasible one that might explain the decline of intelligent life on Earth as we know it. Just substitute Brent Cross shopping centre for the Volks scientific lab and you're there. Almost. In John Raimi's case (the 'star' of the game), one minute he's investigating the disappearance of a colleague at Volks Corps' military research base; the next he's wandering the underground facility trying to suss out where his body just went. What he doesn't realise is his body's busy 'reading' Nuts magazine, while simultaneously downloading new Crazy Frog ringtones [enough! - Ed].
At the very beginning of Geist, things don't bode particularly well. Playing like a poor man's Half-Life (and not exactly looking much better technically, either, complete with frame rate dips, none of the charm and uninspired Black Mesa-esque surroundings), the opening encounter is so underwhelming that it's hard to imagine why the game spent such a protracted period in development. Replete with shockingly one-dimensional enemy AI and treacly controls (that you can't adjust the sensitivity of - grrr), it's not the most impressive start to a game we've ever witnessed, but fortunately things improve dramatically thereafter.
Shortly after an equally generic boss encounter, you're swiftly, erm, spirited off into another realm. Quite literally wrenched from your physical form, you're nevertheless able to possess everything from the grunts patrolling the base to the rats scurrying around the complex, making for a genuinely unique first-person experience. Accompanied initially by some sort of spirit guide (a scary doll-like creature called Gigi), the first few chapters serve as little more than a safe tutorial with little danger, and precious few opportunities to screw up.
Although Geist's opening salvo gives you the impression that it's little more than a fairly uninspired FPS 'with a twist', the twist gradually evolves into something rather more interesting than being able to run around inside a dog, a bat, a rabbit or a rat. The interest levels perk up significantly once n-Space starts upping the puzzle quotient, tasking you with making clever use of inanimate objects and forcing you to work out how best to 'scare' the living creatures into submission.
I ain't 'fraid o' no ghost
Rather like the under-rated Ghost Master, the premise works on the basis that under normal circumstances, mammals are all rather too apathetic to believe in spooks. In order to actually get anywhere, you have to work out means of shaking them up into such a state that you can then take control of them; literally possessing them.
At first, Geist makes it pretty easy for players to spook the populace, be it through allowing you to possess boxes, fixtures and fittings, and even dog bowls. Once 'possessed' you can make lights flicker, plates rattle or blow things up to make things go 'bump' in the night. Once your designated host is suitably freaked out, a red outline indicates they’re yours for the taking, and it’s then up to you to be smart enough to use them in the right situations, often body-hopping between multiple hosts to get the job done.
Essentially, this is where Geist turns into a simple run-and-gun into a charming puzzler, and the further you progress into the game, the less handholding there is, and the more enjoyable and challenging it becomes. Further on, the AI patrols become somewhat more vigilant; aware as they are of the fact that you're on the loose and causing havoc. Even so, there's only so much punishment they can take, and after they've had PC screens explode in their face and giant mechanical arms come to life, even the toughest soldiers tend to crack.
A vehicle for Volks?
But being a high security base in a crisis, many of the areas are tightly locked down, requiring specific personnel to access certain areas, and soon the game becomes a constant juggling act between using the right host at the right time before moving on to your over-arching goal of claiming your body back and tackling the nefarious 86 year-old man behind the whole mess, a certain Alexander Volks. On the whole the puzzling is well-judged and sensibly linear, although on one or two occasions a little too linear for its own good. For example: some puzzles are simply too contrived, shoe-horning the player into tackling specific problems just so without yielding to the prospect that you could have achieved the same end result any number of ways. Stay focused, though, and the solution's never that far away. We're not talking about adventure game levels of frustration here.
All told, the game's a pretty short, sharp burst of fun, and weighing in at 10 hours it'll provide a decent amount of entertainment over a weekend. The concept of using multiple hosts to further your objectives is a neat one that's both refreshing and entertaining. Where it arguably falls down comes back to the original point of weak first-person combat. Whenever you're forced to go on a shooting rampage (sometimes by actually possessing the sentry guns in order to do so), the whole affair is so heavily stacked in your favour that it feels basic, unchallenging and rather limp. Anyone versed in any FPS experience will literally romp through these interludes, with only a few uninspired, hackneyed and derivative boss encounters providing a few minor headaches along the way. After so long in development, it's quite an impressive feat to be so underwhelmed by a GameCube exclusive.
As you may have guessed by now, the whole affair is a succession of highs and lows; sometimes interesting and different, other times boring and uninspired. It's as if n-Space had an interesting central gameplay mechanic, but found itself unable to make the other parts work to the same degree. Even the bits that do work - i.e. the possessions - feel limited and hindered by some over-fussy rules that dictate that certain objects can be possessed, but not others, and that you can walk through certain solid objects, but not others. Once you accept the rules, it's an engaging game, but one that you can't help but feel had a great potential to be so much better than it has ended up being.
Shorn of the dead
It doesn’t help, either, that the GameCube's rich potential has been largely untapped, with a functionally bland game engine that provides little clue that Geist is either a latter-day GameCube exclusive (a la Resident Evil 4) or a particularly good example of first-person gaming. Although it's by no means a plain-looking game, it’s hardly going to provoke mass double-taking by legions of zombie shoppers marching past the Brent Cross GAME. Next to, say, the Metroid Prime titles, Geist isn't even in the same league, despite sporting a much smaller play area that's equally tight but vastly less interesting and intricate. Exploration is hardly that rewarding either, giving little more than a few multiplayer maps as a token reward for poking around. In terms of fleshing out the narrative there's literally nothing more than you see in the cut-scenes, and they're not the game's best asset either, with limp voice acting and a vanilla script providing little to drag the player through the game.
As for multiplayer, being a Cube title it's limited to some old-fashioned four player split screen antics; albeit using the same central possession concept that carries much of the single-player campaign. Comprising of Possession deathmatch, Capture the Host and Hunt, they’re based on the familiar themes we all love and have probably played to death, but still manage to hold their own for a while at least. Possession deathmatch works on the age-old premise of kill or be killed, albeit with the added bonus of being able to possess objects as well as humans. As with the main single-player dish, you can hop out of your host and use objects to kill (such as exploding barrels or sentry guns) - although unlike the single-player mode you're vulnerable for two seconds after you've jumped 'ship', meaning that opponents have the chance to sneak in and claim an opportunistic kill. Another neat facet is that hosts have limited ammo, not to mention different weapons; so instead of merely running around gathering up the best weapons, you have to choose the best host instead.
The team-focused Capture the Host acts rather like you’d imagine, with the idea to secure the fate of your host before they get killed. Killing along the way, naturally, gets you extra points, while an additional option also tasks teams with lowering colour-coded shields first. Finally, the Hunt mode is another deathmatch variant, pitching humans against ghosts in a match where the ghosts have to try and posses humans and force them into the various hazards dotted around, while the humans have to make best use of their antispirit pistols, with a limited amount of time to eject ghosts via intense tapping of the A button. Thanks to the tight map design they’re all guaranteed to be pretty intense affairs (with the addition of bots boosting the player count up to eight) and the neat variations on the usual multiplayer fare makes their inclusion a welcome bonus. But none could be rated as deal-clinchers, however; let’s not get carried away.
Rather in-keeping with the dispiriting end to the GameCube's truncated lifespan, Geist arrives with little fanfare, and does little to suggest it will do any better over here than it has done so far in the States. The most telling thing is that it's unlikely to be admired that greatly by even the most partisan Nintendophile - something that effectively seals its fate from day one. As much as n-Space tries to do things a little differently, and as fun as it is to walk around in bodies that don't belong to you, too much of the game plays it by the same old rules. Much of the time, Geist just feels plain unremarkable, and although it's good enough for a weekend rental, you’d feel robbed of body and soul if you'd shelled out full price for it.