Ghostbusters Spirits Unleashed: Playing like the floor of a taxi cab

[You’ll find plenty of spoilers for all aspects of the recently released Ghostbusters: Spirits Unleashed below, so please keep that in mind before scrolling any further]

I am exactly the sort of person Illfonic were hoping to snag in their preorder net when they made Ghostbusters: Spirits Unleashed: I am a huge Ghostbusters fan, and I love playing games. Illfonic made a Ghostbusters game – the wallet pretty much opens itself.

And yet I am also exactly the sort of person Illfonic needed to worry about when they made Ghostbusters: Spirits Unleashed. I’m the buyer most likely to have already played a dozen titles like it, and I’m also the buyer most likely to spot every missed opportunity and deftly sidestepped legal issue (there are no Clippard labels on the particle throwers, for example). I’m looking out for these things not because I’m eager to flex my pedantic nerd-muscles and be “better” than someone else, but because I’m excited to see if they’ve got these less obvious details – the ones that elevate a game like this from merely being branded with the license in question to actually embodying it – right.

So, how do you solve a problem like me?

Well, in Spirits Unleashed case… you don’t.

The asymmetric multiplayer game formula – where one playable antagonist works against four cooperative players (or optionally bots in Spirits Unleashed’s case) in a series of disconnected jobs – is in theory a natural fit for the epic supernatural comedy series, although the end result leaves much to be desired. The maps, of which there are only five with no publicly available roadmap to assuage any fears that these slim pickings aren’t all the game will ever have, are overly large – and that means everyone has to immediately spread out and then stay spread out if they ever want to have a hope of picking up a constantly moving (and too fast, and rift-warping) ghost on even a heavily upgraded PKE meter. This naturally makes it difficult to reach someone who’s alerted the team to a ghost’s presence in time even on a familiar map with the optional hookshot-esque secondary item equipped, and the fact that any human-controlled ghost is almost certainly going to require multiple busters quickly working together to successfully wrangle them into a trap before they either escape or overwhelm a single player only makes matches even more frustrating and drawn out.

In an IP-free game this would be a disappointing issue, but in something that is literally selling itself as a Ghostbusters experience this built-in barrier to natural teamwork becomes a much bigger problem. Cooperation has been a core feature of Ghostbuster’s everything since 1984: every major event and montage scene in the first two movies made a big deal out of multiple characters working together – sometimes literally side by side – to catch spooks and spirits. Ghostbusters: Afterlife took care to create zap-and-trap double acts even when equipment was thin on the ground. The Real Ghostbusters cartoon understood that everything else was secondary to the team’s interactions, and that show had the cast helped by a talking superhero dog during one episode. As far as games go it’s no accident Ghostbusters: The Video Game – a title I’m happy to refer to as Ghostbusters III – always paints its brief solo sequences as dangerous and unintended.

This Ghostbusters-defining camaraderie just isn’t present here – it can’t be present, because the game fails down to its bones to create scenarios where sticking together or watching a colleague’s back is a good way to tackle an ongoing haunting.

And so even though the game auto-generates an iconic red-on-black name tag based on my Epic account name to go on my uniform (there seems to be no way to manually enter a custom moniker – apologies to anyone who called themselves Fartpocalypse on a silly whim and thought about picking this up), and even though the game includes some unlockable suit colours that “just so happen” to include accurate-enough Real Ghostbusters cartoon and toy options (as I understand it those are entirely separate licenses so Illfonic can’t formally label or promote them as anything other than “a colour you can choose when you hit level 30“, etc.), it just doesn’t feel right.  The game looks like Ghostbusters, and it sounds like Ghostbusters (in no small part thanks to Ernie Hudson’s spirited return as Winston and Dan Aykroyd clearly relishing the chance to say “psychomagnotheric” and other Ray-isms in a professional setting again) , but it doesn’t play like Ghostbusters.

It’s a problem the game unfortunately takes back to the surprisingly Easter egg lite firehouse, its slender thread of a campaign (it only took me around five hours to clear it, and most of that was “go out on another job” padding) demonstrating the same lack of understanding about what Ghostbusters is as the action segments.

The story – what there is of it – goes like this: You are a new trainee Ghostbuster. An old, forgotten trap malfunctions as you try to clean it out in the containment unit, causing a sarcastic and nameless entity nobody can remember catching to possess Winston, who happened to be standing nearby at the time. He is then tied to a chair and left sitting in it while new science lead Eddy, who I am very much looking forward to eviscerating further down the page, works out how to un-possess him. He eventually does so with help from something Ray gave you in your opening pep talk, and the entity is placed in a pickle jar, and… congrats, you’re now officially a Ghostbuster, and your reward is one of the most hideous jumpsuit designs to ever assault human eyeballs. It was so abrupt and inconsequential I actually went and checked I’d finished the game and not fallen foul to some plot-ending bug.

There are a lot of problems with this. First off, if you are… say, the sort of person who would be interested in watching the cutscenes in a Ghostbusters game, you are probably also going to be the sort of person who would remember that possession by an evil entity of even world-ending abilities is something that gets resolved in a matter of seconds by a happy-mood slime blower in both the second movie and Ghostbusters: The Video Game, and Spirits Unleashed gives no reason why things would be any different in this post-Afterlife setting beyond “Please don’t remember the mood slime“.

As a prologue this would’ve been fine – but it’s not a prologue is it, it’s the complete experience offered by a relatively high profile mid-priced game and that next step towards something bigger and more exciting simply doesn’t exist – when it’s all over the game expects you to just go back to doing the same things you were already doing. Well done, you’re a Ghostbuster now. It’s exactly like being a trainee only there’s less to look forward to. Woo~

The brightest spark in this flatlining excuse for a Ghostbusters game is Catt, a character invented just for this game. Catt’s Janine+, her vital role now formally regarded as an operations manager rather than an underpaid and chronically overworked secretary (although there’s something to be said about women still being left as organisers rather than given canonical roles as “real” Ghostbusters in twenty-sodding-twenty-two). She is unflappable, confident, and in charge – and she doesn’t waste time fawning over the old guard even though she’s a self-confessed fan and two of them are within radio range at all times (Venkman – and by extension Bill Murray – are wisely given nothing more than a passing mention). Further down the cast list is Tobin’s Spirit Guide, an ancient repository of arcane insight. The magical book – or more accurately, Tobin’s soul – has been bestowed with an amusing personality reminiscent of a trained Shakespearean actor reduced to accepting roles in washing powder adverts, and turned out to be something of an unexpected albeit minor pleasure.

And then there’s Eddy.

Just as the lack of naturally-occurring Ghostbusterly cooperation demonstrates an absence of understanding of the source material in the playable portions of the game, Eddy’s tonal misfires and deliberately abrasive attitude serve the same wrongheaded purpose in the cutscenes.

Eddy’s the Ghostbusters new science guy, and he’s also, to not put too fine a point on it, an arsehole. Not “wise cracking”, “sarcastic”, “quirky” or any of the other fun ways we have of saying “the good kind of annoying” – he’s just an arsehole. He’s unavoidably like this to absolutely everyone (as the chief scientist he’s responsible for a portion of the tutorial and all tech-related flavour text), and the script has him rather unwisely boast about being a unique genius on several occasions even though his whole job revolves around sticking extra bits onto ghostbusting technology invented almost forty years earlier by someone else.

He just doesn’t work. He isn’t a team player, even though he’s given a crucial role in a setting that under normal circumstances repeatedly makes clear that nothing good happens without working well with your mismatched friends –  even though the writers obliviously have Winston say “We’re a team. Working together to watch each other’s backs. That’s how I learned to be successful, and I learned it right here.” while standing in the firehouse within the first half an hour of the game.  It’s not about the actor’s delivery of the lines, or the way the character’s animated that’s the issue: just as a concept Eddy is an anathema to everything Ghostbusters is – he’s even afraid of ghosts, for goodness’ sake. I honestly thought his act was being slathered on this thick because a plot twist was going to reveal he was evil/a saboteur/working for the government but no, he’s just the awful guy upstairs who reinforces every negative stereotype about genius nerds going.

Making a game is hard. Making a good game even more so. Making something good while navigating all of the licensing agreements and third party approvals required by an active movie series? I honestly wouldn’t wish that sort of headache on anyone. But if you are going to pin someone else’s flag to your own mast then you’ve got to understand what it means – what it really means – and how to make that work in a new environment, otherwise you may as well be selling t-shirts with logos on them and calling it a day.

There is a serviceable – although not great – asymmetric multiplayer game hiding underneath Spirits Unleashed’s license, and all the gadgets and gizmos definitely look and sound as they should (whoever’s responsible for the new designs did a great job of making them look authentically cobbled together), but the similarities to the franchise its using to draw people in – problem people like me who want this to work out because there are to date only three Ghostbusters games featuring members of the original cast (and that’s including this one and a spinoff of the other one) – are superficial at best and deeply misunderstood at worst.

[Ko-fi supporters read this a week ago! Why not join them and get early access to pretty much everything?]

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