Grabbed by the Ghoulies
Ronan takes one for the team.
Where I come from, the word 'ghoulies' has more than one meaning. Let's just say that, in the past, I have been kicked in the ghoulies, defended the size of my ghoulies, feared losing my ghoulies... you get the idea. So the name of Rare's first Xbox exclusive sounded even sillier to me than it probably did to all of you. Grabbed by the Ghoulies? Surely not!? If ever a name did little to inspire confidence, this is it. However, having sat down and played the game, it's become obvious why they went for such a peculiar title - it really does grab you by the ghoulies. And not only that - you'll love every minute of it.
Unlike a lot of games that grab you by the balls, Ghoulies does so without you even noticing. There's no immediate reason to be gripped by it; no stunning graphical tricks, no amazing sound effects, no groundbreaking gameplay. But, just like some top-class temptress, before you know it the hands are in your pants and you don't even know how they got there [Good thing Ronan didn't review DOAX -Ed].
First thing's first. Wipe any notions you have of this game from your head, because unless you've seen it in action then you're probably wrong. From the outside, Ghoulies probably looks like a Luigi's Mansion rip-off, aimed squarely at kids and unlikely to be worth a cash splash. And perhaps, in some ways, this is true. But unless you're as green as gamers get, unless you never owned a console before a PS2, then this is a title you really need to know about.
The premise is as simple as they get. A young man, Cooper, and his girlfriend are backpacking through a forest when they stumble on the scary-looking Ghoulhaven Hall. It doesn't take long before the inevitable happens, and the evil owner of the place, the amusingly named Baron Von Ghoul, kidnaps the girl. Cooper is forced to enter in a daring attempt to rescue his girlfriend - and thus the game begins.
In a manor of speaking
Ghoulies is such a simple game at heart that describing it only serves to overcomplicate proceedings. Basically, it's Cooper's job to travel from room to room in Ghoulhaven Hall and its grounds, solving each area's combat-based challenges and progressing through the story. At first the challenges are dead simple - 'defeat all enemies to continue' - explained to you by the manor's friendly butler, who acts as the in-game tutorial. However as things develop, the puzzles soon become much more fiendish and this, combined with Ghoulies' overall charm, makes for a wonderful game.
Before delving into the gameplay, however, I want to make note of the way Rare have presented this game. Instead of going down the route of booming voiceovers and cutting-edge CGI, they opted for a much more understated, stylistic approach. Every plot event is depicted in a style similar to a cross between comic books and a silent movie. A storyboard page appears on the screen to show a scene, with the difference that each frame is live-action, rather than just pictures. Every time a character speaks, the result is not a voiceover, but a black screen with text on it, just like a silent movie. Personally, I loved this. And when you consider how the rest of the game is presented (more on that shortly) it works brilliantly. It's daring, but they pull it off beautifully.
Stick it to 'em
Without decent gameplay, though, presentation doesn't mean much and it is here that Ghoulies is likely to divide opinions. Cooper's movement is controlled with the left stick, while his attacks are controlled with the right stick. The camera is spun with the left and right triggers and you can pick up weapons by pressing A. Essentially, that's all there is to it.
A bit like the Hunter games, the right-stick attacks are direction-sensitive, so pressing up on it will make the hero attack up, regardless of where he's facing, and the same goes for all other directions. Tapping in a direction will result in a quick, sharp attack (handy for when you're surrounded) while holding a direction will produce all kinds of fierce attacks, from dropkicks, to flying elbows, to roundhouse kicks. Of course, you probably already know that every room is littered with weapons to use, and while these work similarly to bare-fist attacks, they are often more devastating.
Much of Ghoulies addictive qualities stem from the satisfaction that this system brings - smacking a bunch of skeletons over the head with a pool cue is thoroughly enjoyable, whilst practically every item in every room can be damaged or destroyed. The best compliment I can give this system is that even when all the enemies in a particular area are defeated, I still run around smashing up the place. It's pure, unadulterated cartoon carnage.
Rooms with a view
Putting this system in the context of the game, and the wonderfully zany world Rare have created, is the toughest part of this review. Firstly, this is a linear game. You don't have any control over Cooper's passage of exploration, and you can't travel back and forth between the rooms at will. The plot dictates the direction you go in - but this only ever works in favour of the overall experience.
Here's a typical example of the how the game works: As you enter a room, the camera switches to first-person for a few seconds, as Cooper walks in. You can hear his heavy breathing over the footsteps. The game then switches to third-person and you can control him. Health is randomly generated at this point (thanks to the evil powers of the ever-cackling Baron) and I saw it go as low as five hitpoints and as high as 50. Usually, once you've taken a few steps into the room, a large green question mark appears on the door you need to exit through. The question mark indicates that a challenge has begun, and you must beat it to progress.
Early on in the game, these challenges are a bit of a doddle, ranging from 'kill all skeletons' to 'find the key hidden in one of the room's objects'. The butler explains all of these to you the first time you encounter them, but after that they are represented by icons at the top of the screen. Once you pass the game's first chapter, however, they start to get a bit more hairy, with the introduction of some really nasty new enemies and trickier challenges.
These enemies are one of the game's many highlights. Every one of them is likely to put a smile on your face, from the possessed TV sets to the curse-inflicting mummies. The pirates were a particular favourite of mine - every time they hit you, or are hit themselves, all you hear is a string of 'ARRRRR's and 'pieces of eight'. The vampire chickens are another touch of brilliance.
The man who really steals the show, however, is the Grim Reaper. A short way into the game, you start getting challenges with very specific rules - such as 'don't get hit', or 'kill enemies in a certain order' or 'kill 30 imps in one minute'. If you fail to comply with these rules, the Reaper appears in the room, slowly hunting you down. If he touches you once, you're dead. Watching him play air guitar on his scythe after getting you is a classic moment. Now when was the last time we had that kind of fun in a game? Hell knows.
Another element essential to Ghoulies' is the power-ups. These, more than anything else, are what give the game its old-school feel. Smashing up the contents of an area can actually be constructive, as they often spout 'cans' of power upon their destruction. Their effects range from speeding up Cooper, to making him invincible, to giving weapons longer life (they break apart after a few uses otherwise), to freezing enemies, to slowing time, to making enemies turn on each other. And there's a ton more. Of course, not all of them are helpful - some are nothing but trouble, cutting your health down to one hitpoint or giving you the jitters (thus making it impossible to fight).
I honestly can't remember the last time a great current-gen game relied so heavily on what is practically 16-bit gameplay. Well, except for Viewiful Joe perhaps. Remember how Mega Drive and SNES games often had to differentiate themselves by sporting quirky character designs and power-ups, with loads of humour to lighten things up? Well this is the 128-bit version of that ideology. On top of that, the real star of the show is actually Ghoulhaven Hall. As with Alone in the Dark or Resident Evil, half the fun is not knowing what's coming next. And on that level, Rare never disappointed me.
One great example is in the Embassy Ballroom area. The 'ghoulies' are having a disco there, complete with a mummy DJ and some catchy music. You have to weave through the ghoulies without disturbing them, or else they'll get pissed off and you'll have to fight them all. Almost every room has something like this, and the supporting cast of characters, like the hunchback, the butler and the cook, are extremely endearing. As I muttered to Tom last week, it's like playing Maniac Mansion in 3D. Add to that the sheer amount of fun weapons to use, and how could you not enjoy this?
Look behind you!
Well, there are reasons. The right-stick attacks aren't going to be everyone's cup of tea - later in the game they get even harder to use effectively - and the lack of any real control over your fate isn't going to please everyone either. Anyone who isn't fond of older games might find this a little hard to get used to, plus the 'silent movie' presentation might not do it for impatient gamers. The game does provide some longevity in the form of mini-games based on challenges you've already completed in the game (these are unlocked by collecting 'Rare' tomes hidden in each of the rooms) but they aren't going to keep you coming back after completion. The main game shouldn't take an average gamer more than 10 hours, though unlocking all the mini-games might add a few more.
Having spent so long banging on about everything else, I'm not going to say much about the graphical side of things. Suffice it to say that the game never blew me away, but always kept a high standard of cartoonish creativity. The enemy designs are great, and Cooper's animation is decent, but some of the area designs are a little underwhelming. It's best when it's busiest. For the most part - just like in all other aspects - the game does a great job of recreating an old-school feel in a 3D world. The camera, for its part, is fine, and never gets stuck on scenery, but it could have been a little faster in turning. The music, too, is perfectly suited to the setting, with plenty of Scooby-Doo type instruments [right -Ed] in use and compositions that wouldn't go astray in an old LucasArts adventure.
Grabbed by the Ghoulies is one of the most refreshing, fun and downright brilliant games I've played this year. Any game that manages to capture the spirit of 8 and 16-bit gaming, while daring to present it in a new and unusual way, is well worth a look in my Rare tome. It doesn't matter that it's Rare, and it doesn't matter that it's Microsoft. What matters is that it's great. And while I'd like nothing more than to add an extra mark to the score below, the game's relative shortness and slightly iffy control scheme render that an impossibility. Nonetheless, if you like what you've just read, then you've only one option - buy this game.
If you have the 'ghoulies', that is.