Spooky stuff comes naturally to us lot. Not content with general mind control and being able to make Homer Simpson bottle openers scream "Beeeeeeeer" at us on command (all true), we even once spoke to a dead bloke called 'Jesu' on a Ouija Board at the age of ten. And then biked home down a country lane with no lights on in the dark past Spur Lane the most legendarily haunted lane in Norfolk. No wonder we ended up like this. No one ever said a life playing computer games was going to be easy.
If you've clicked this far you're probably sporting a puzzled frown that says either 'what the hell is he going on about today; or 'didn't this game come out ages ago?', and you'd be half right. The PC version debuted well over a year ago to quiet applause, but sadly sold next to nothing despite being a wonderfully original take on the real time strategy genre where ghosts are your units and the humans are the enemy. Undeterred by its commercial tanking, publisher Empire evidently believed in the idea enough to commission development on a radically revamped, streamlined console version, no doubt in the resolute belief that a more mainstream audience would take to the idea in greater numbers than the demanding PC gamer.
Given a second chance, Manchester-based Spiral House has taken the wise decision to completely remodel the control system and interface of the original game while retaining the basic premise, charm, humour, art style and some of the basic scenarios of Sick Puppies' original. Those that enjoyed the PC version will be intrigued, and perhaps impressed at just how different the two games are; it's an intelligent example of how to tailor a game to a platform's strengths but there's little doubt that it was a game that wasn't going to work well unless significant changes were made, just as Maxis had to tinker with The Sims to make the game work effectively on a joypad.
Is there anybody there?
At first glance, comparisons with EA's uber franchise are more than evident, although in truth it's little more than skin deep. Ghost Master may well owe a huge dept in terms of its art and animation style, but that's about as far as it goes. As with the original, the player must once again command a team of Ghosts to scare a bunch of humans witless. But while the PC original involved a typically RTS style of gameplay that involved relatively complex binding processes, the ostensibly identical PS2 and Xbox versions strip the idea down to a much more manageable and coherent concept whereby the player controls five Ghosts, each with their unique set of powers with which to manipulate and scare their mortal foes.
Set across a number of uniquely quirky scenarios, the game gets underway by running you through the basics quickly and effectively, getting the player proficient with the Ghost Carousel, the game's intuitive ghost deployment system. Pulling the left trigger brings up the ghosts, right trigger the humans, with dpad up/down allowing you to cycle through them, with the ghostly powers and movements selectable via a sub menu once selected. Each ghost comes equipped as standard with two powers, but are deployable based on their being enough 'Plasm' power available to you.
Plasm, in case you were wondering, is the game's main resource. It is both the power unit used by the Ghosts to do their scaring, and emitted by the humans when they get scared. But it's not simply a case of scaring all the humans, reaping the rewards and moving on - it's a fine balancing act throughout, with certain human units, such as Witches, Mediums and the like capable of using their own spiritual powers against the Ghosts and generally making life difficult while you try and do your bidding with the mere mortals
I aint 'fraid of no Ghost
In what amounts to a fine set of ideas and imagination, each mission is markedly different to the next, with basic human clearing missions making way for remarkably tactical missions that involve a huge amount of thought and juggling of abilities to both scare humans, take care of the pesky psychics, and keep certain humans from getting too scared. Sometimes there's a bigger picture, and making sure you keep mission critical characters in the picture is all part of the fun.
In basic terms you're dealing with the same type of units again and again over the course of each level (although the individual names of each unit change with each scenario) but to keep things simple you have just one of each different type to look after. Often the first task of any given scenario is to rescue and subsequently unlock another Ghost unit, which normally involves first attracting the mortals into the same room (with your Attract unit), scaring them (usually with your Chase unit) and then racking up the required plasma in order to use the more powerful abilities of your other units, such as the Mind Ghost. To add a further layer of strategy, each mortal has not only a health bar to worry about, but a Resistance bar that may need working on first.
At first, with such a concise tutorial it can be a little bewildering and you'll probably need to engage in a fair bit of trial and error with every level you play before it all clicks into place - and when it does it's a marvellously satisfying and fun game to get to grips with. The zoom and rotate camera system is simple and effective, the controls do a decent job of packing in a large number of commands without ever overwhelming the player, and it's so unlike any other game we've played this year it's great just to feel like you're doing something new.
I wasn't pushing the glass...
Visually it's not the most demanding game, with stylised but basic character models straight out of the Maxis art book, with thought bubbles to match, exaggerated animations and scant, regular environments. But, while it's not a game to excite the graphic whore in you, the originality is simply such an alluring part of the package that it's a matter of minutes before you're hooked on the freshness of the feel.
For all the charm, style and originality, though, Ghost Master is not without its problems. The mortal AI, for a start, is often incredibly, and arbitrarily irritating. Attracting mortals and gathering their Plasm is a key part of the game, yet can become a tedious exercise when thanks to their eager tendency to wander as far away from your attraction as quickly as possible, gathering enough of them in the same room at the same time is rendered a lot trickier than it should be. As a result, hours of game time are wasted, when it should be clear to the game that you know what you're doing - but played against the clock you're often rushed into hasty decisions and beaten not by your lack of skill, but often as a result of the savage bad luck based on giving the player a very small windows of opportunity to take advantage of attraction/scaring. In short, the mundane tasks become frustrating, and having spent ages carefully working your way through levels, to find yourself forced to replay the whole thing with no checkpoint or opportunity to save robs the player of the incentive to carry on.
So long as you can tolerate lengthy trial and error gameplay and the prospect of having to start levels from scratch repeatedly (especially annoying when you're right at the end of a level and mess up because a mortal wanders idiotically into the path of an attack and gets scared off for good) then Ghost Master will prove to be a hugely enjoyable game. When the game really turns up the heat, the control system does begin to show its limitations in that it’s not really designed for lots of fast paced switching of characters - but it's hard to think of how it could have been improved in the context of the game. It's simply a game with an ambition that stretches beyond the confines of a joypad; it's hard to deny that a keyboard would have improved matters. It's an odd argument to get into, though, because on the whole the game has benefited enormously by being simplified for consoles - it's a tighter, more refined gaming experience as a result.
The undead can't answer back
With just a few tweaks and fine tuning Ghost Master would have been a far more enjoyable experience and would have easily received our heartfelt recommendations. As the game stands, all it needed was a little more polish: slightly tighter enemy AI, an option to save, and clearer mission objectives - but without these you're often left cursing a game you really really want to admire. As an example of heart-warming originality and ingenious mission design it gets our vote, and for the right price you'd be well advised to check it out if you're looking for a genuinely well crafted game that offers something a little different. Spooktastic.