Rain splattering through the branches of the trees, a darkened path leading to a clanking gate, a stately house looming out of the storm clouds: any number of survival horror games could choose to start this way, but only one of them would then interrupt the scene with the plinky-plonking ringtone of your modified Nintendo DS communicator going off. Professor E. Gadd's on the line, and that means that the man in green is back on the case. Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon preview code has apparated in the office (okay, it actually came by courier) and there are ghosts to be hunted.
Not that Luigi's Mansion's much of a survival horror anyway. I don't know why I hadn't realised this before, but the game's a sort of simplified Metroidvania: a muddle of different doors and different locks to work through as you upgrade your kit, gradually spread out across the level and tackle increasingly nasty enemies.
It's a Metroidvania in the way that the map on the bottom screen truly earns its place as you pore over the blueprints, wondering if this room could be accessed from a hidden crawlspace, and in the way that it's perfectly willing to show you things - a buzzing lab, a tinkling player-piano - that you're not yet ready to engage with. Full-on back-tracking's kept to a minimum, perhaps, but the genre DNA is there all the same. It's a lovely thought that this gorgeously crafted confection might introduce a new generation to one of gaming's hardiest design templates.
The underlying lineage might be more obvious this time because the sheer lavishness of the game no longer carries the same next-gen dazzle that it did on the Gamecube, of course. Luigi's Mansion was a marvel back in 2001: a world of rippling curtains and flickering fireplaces where every bookshelf was waiting to sneeze out clouds of dust and every pipe was prepped to rattle with cartoon menace as you moved in for an inspection. The sequel still continues this tradition, mind: it's not as gloriously surprising any more, perhaps, but it's still a treat to be dropped into such a compact but extravagantly detailed game - particularly when the 3D effect gives each stick of furniture such a spindly tactile appeal.
The scope is slightly broader this time. Dark Moon plays out in a series of discrete missions strung across a whole neighborhood of phantom manors. Luigi's been summoned by good old E. Gadd to track down the crystalline fragments of the fabled Dark Moon, which will clear the world of a mysterious purple fog that has descended, allowing a gaggle of cartoon ghosts to run wild as only cartoon ghosts can. Once again it's an adventure filled with glittering distractions - hidden rooms to sound out, ancient mechanisms to return to life - but there are threads of steel running through the whole thing, too. The short levels have clearly been built with racing lines in mind - each one grades you for things like loot acquired, damage taken, and the time it took you to achieve your goal - and there are trophies available for acing a mission.
Speaking of acing things, the developers have done a surprisingly good job of adapting combat for a console with only one thumbstick. Once again, Luigi's sucking up ghosts with his Poltergust vacuum via a tug-of-war mechanic that feels a little like reeling in a massive fish. You can no longer move and aim independently, Robotron-style, but while that means you'll always be pointing your 'gust nozzle in the direction you're already facing, there's a new focus on dodging incoming attacks with a press of the B button as you whittle away at each spook's life (or death?) meter, and using other face buttons to aim up or down, jangling the chandeliers or tugging at the floorboards.
You'll need to stun ghosts before you can attack them, this time by using a blast of the Strobulb attached to your flashlight - the sound effect that accompanies it provides a truly brilliant sense of barely-controlled electrical energy - and you'll soon be upgrading your kit with the addition of a dark light lens that lets you hunt out hidden objects and doorways.
That's an excellent addition to the playful, mischievous world of Luigi's Mansion, as are the selection of new spooks who are forever coasting around the place. There are ghouls itching to steal the gears you need to get through the next doorway, ghouls hiding in pots or bustling about the kitchen with saucepans on their heads for protection, and there are even ghouls - spied, at first, through a handy gap in a partition wall - painting each others' portraits and cackling madly as they work.
Every other room or so, you'll need to find a new means of tackling them - one might release hordes of spiders who have to be disposed of before you can move in for the kill, perhaps, while another may wear sunglasses that have to be ripped off so that your flashlight can stun them. What unites them all, though, is the localised domestic chaos you cause as you do the old Nantucket sleigh ride - tethered to them and reeling them in, but not before you've first face-planted into a stove or taken the legs off a nearby table.
It's possible you've been a little worried about Dark Moon, given the shifting release dates and the fact that it's not being handled directly by an internal Nintendo team. Next Level did a decent job with Punch-Out!! however, and an hour or two with Luigi's latest adventure gives few causes for alarm. A gentle, atmospheric blend of exploration, puzzle solving, and ghostly combat, this could be a real treat, in fact. Soon you'll be able to find a dark corner, flip open the 3DS, and find yourself listening to the rain splattering the trees, following that dark path towards the clanking gate, and watching as a rickety manor takes shape before you.
And you know what's really frightening? It's been almost 12 years since the first game came out.
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