The idea of commanding your very own arsenal of ghosts seemed a fantastic basis for a videogame. Nothing gives us more pleasure on a day-to-day basis than terrorising our fellow mortals in increasingly bizarre and dangerous ways (just look at Tom's driving for a quick, easy example), so it was with open arms that we welcomed Ghost Master onto our hard drives.
The ghost with the most
Despite at first appearing quite beyond explanation in conventional terms, it turns out that Ghost Master is, in fact, a real-time strategy game with spectres as units and scare-prone humans as the enemy. The premise is pretty simple; take a small team of ghosts, each with different haunting abilities, and use them and their environment to scare the inhabitants of the mortal realm until they either flee or go completely insane.
You start the game as a trainee ghost master, learning the ropes on the fly as you set about scaring a group of sorority girls from their home. This should be a breeze, we thought, given how adept we are at scaring girls away. First of all, you choose your troops to form a group of four to eight, depending on the mission. You choose each haunter from six different categories of ghost that range upwards in ferociousness: sprites, disturbances, elementals, vapours, frighteners and horrors.
To begin with it's not entirely obvious which haunters would be best for the task ahead, so you can have the game recommend a band of ghosts to you and get straight to work. Usually this is fine, kind of like using the recommended plans in Rainbow Six, but as we soon found out it doesn't always set you up with the best set of skills to completely put a level to bed.
Tie me up
The game initially seems quite complicated. In order to bring a ghost into the mortal realm, you must first bind it to a fetter that corresponds to that particular ghost. Now, a fetter can either be something to do with the ghost's past, or it can simply relate to the type of ghost you're dealing with. As an example, only an electrical sprite can be bound to a television, as a television is an electrical fetter.
Other fetters are more broad-ranging and can house a wider variety of ghosts, such as ghosts that can be bound to an entire room (an "inside" fetter), ghosts that require binding to objects pertaining to affection (such as a bed, or a rug with a big heart on it) or ghosts that require binding to objects related to a murder (like a corpse or a specific area where somebody was once murdered).
The interface is made up of pretty standard Windows-style menus and usually self-explanatory once you understand exactly what the terms mean, and even if you don't then tooltips will pop up to lend a helping hand should you hover over the buttons. Actually controlling and placing ghosts is quite easy with the combination of a point-and-click system, a fully-rotatable and zoomable camera, and the ability to quickly switch between each floor of a building with the press of a couple of on-screen icons or the Page Up/Down keys.
In order to carry out their haunting, the ghosts will require plasm. Plasm is generated by terrified mortals, so the idea is to start off with one ghost performing small-time tricks on the inhabitants, and work your way up to a full assault with all ghosts firing on all cylinders in order to generate more and more plasm. The level of plasm will drop if the mortals begin to feel at ease, and if the amount of plasm required to perform even the most basic of hauntings is not enough then it's game over, so casing a building to form strategies and find out where you can reap the most scares (in a busy thoroughfare for example) is often a pre-requisite.
Each human in the game has a short biography written about them, and this usually outlines the character's personality and their fears so you can choose the right spooks for the right jobs. Usually the game tasks you with simply emptying an entire building by scaring all the inhabitants away, but you'll occasionally be asked to scare specific people away without much affecting the others, or increase a person's spiritual belief without necessarily scaring them too much.
Every person has pre-set amounts of Terror, Madness and Belief, and it's up to you to fill those bars as much as you can. Unless otherwise instructed by your supernatural paymasters, you'll mostly be concentrating on Terror or Madness, with the former proving the easiest to fill up.
Wave of mutilation
The very first mission is simple enough to complete, though it takes a fair while to chip away at the girls' Terror bars enough to eventually drive them from the house. We usually just buy them a drink. As you begin to open up more levels, the tasks do vary slightly here and there, but rarely venture far from the "Scare everyone away" model, and this becomes quite tiresome once you learn how to efficiently get the job done. It's quite easy to get a decent amount of plasm to last you for half an hour or so, then set up your ghosts in strategic positions so the inhabitants are almost constantly scared. We were often able to just let go of the controls, sit back and let them get on with it.
You can even issue orders to the ghosts to pick on certain individuals, or types of person; adults or children, males or females - you get the idea. Your ghosts also start to learn how best to behave and scare different people - if you find that one of the people in the house almost drowned at birth, then you can be quite sure that they'd be scared of mysterious jets of water shooting out of the walls, so you set up one of your ghosts with orders to terrorise this poor chap with a Leak spell and he'll be driven out in no time. Almost every level can be finished quite easily by setting up a network of ghosts and letting them do their work, and the chances are you'll cut straight through the game assuming you have the patience to sit around for half an hour and let your ghosts play the game for you.
The game's equivalent of side-quests offers a more interesting challenge. In each level, you are able to unlock extra ghosts for use in future hauntings by listening to their story and figuring out a way to release their souls. As a basic example, at the very start of the game, there is a witch whose soul is tethered to a vacuum cleaner, and it's up to you to figure out what needs to be done to set her free. This puzzle element offers a refreshing slant on the occasionally tedious strategic side to the game. Often the recommended ghosts for the level won't help you much at all in releasing the trapped souls, so it helps that you're able to backtrack to any level in the game with the specific in order to construct a team with the combined ability to achieve specific goals.
House of hell
Visually, the game ranges from functional to fairly impressive. The environments are probably the most impressive aspect, with a wide range of quite detailed and occasionally sprawling sets. The hospital in particular was one level that stood out as a brilliant map in terms of scale and detail, though we're not quite sure how well it worked in terms of being able to keep track of characters.
The ghosts are quite nicely designed for the most part, hovering around in their translucent green haze looking for all the world like Ghostbusters extras and exuding a level of personality we weren't expecting. On the other hand, the human characters are quite bland and cheaply animated, not really appearing very... human, though this can be attributed in part to the game's general slapstick cartoon-style.
The music is another high point, and seems sensitive to your current situation. Starting out eerie and quite ambient, and as your ghost mastery becomes more frenetic and the mortals become more panicked, you're gradually treated to a mischievous composition similar to something like the Beetlejuice theme, which had us bobbing our heads and grinning maniacally as the virtual citizens were driven insane.
The gates of judgement
For all its ambition and the obvious effort put into creating a fun and somewhat original title, Ghost Master doesn't have a lot of life in it past the initial novelty of scaring the crap out of people. There's no multiplayer mode to speak of, and the 14 missions available really aren't going to keep you occupied for long. The ability to hop back and forth collecting extra ghosts, and scoring high in order to buy your troops extra skills is novel for a while, but the occasional tedium of the main game will mean that you won't be kept occupied for long.
Then again, with any luck we're going to see a lot of extra content for Ghost Master in the future to extend the life of what is clearly quite a hopeful little title, and with some extra levels and more imaginative tasks to put our hands to we probably won't have to give up on it just yet.