Windows Phone Xbox Live Review: Ghostscape
Adventure games were once a thriving genre, filled with absolute classics from LucasArts, Sierra, and others. These days, they exist in much smaller number, but they do keep coming thanks to TellTale games and the occasional indie developer. Ghostscape is a product of the latter. Originating as free flash game on Kongregate, Microsoft eventually picked it up as a mobile Xbox Live title. The development staff doubled from one to two people, and that brings us to this non-free version of Ghostscape. It retains a strong low budget indie vibe that will likely scare off mainstream players, but adventure fans will want to give the game a look.
A scary setting
Ghostscape takes place entirely in and around a two-story haunted house. Players take on the role of a paranormal investigator who naturally wants to find out what’s up. A few lines of text relay the setup all-too-briefly before disappearing at the start of a new game, scarcely giving players time to read it. Later on, you’ll get a better understanding of the house’s history thanks to five diary pages belonging to a former resident, but that’s it as far as story goes. The game focuses more on atmosphere than narrative.
The player’s first order of business is entering the house. You’ll need to pick up a crowbar that some thoughtless litterbug left lying around on the porch, equip it, and break the boards off the front door. From there, the gameplay consists of exploring the various rooms of the house by tapping on hotspots, picking up whatever items you find along the way, and solving a few puzzles. Oh, and the front door locks upon entering, so finding a way out becomes the overall goal.
While traveling from one dusty room to another, you may need to do a bit of ghostbusting. Ghostscape takes a cue from the Fatal Frame series, in which a camera is used to defeat ghosts. In this title, you’ll encounter creepy humanoid specters, chairs that slide around on their own, and floating orbs of light. Equipping the camera and tapping these phenomena eliminates them. The spooks can’t hurt the player, either; Ghostscape has no failure condition. Only one ghost must be photographed in order to win the game, with the rest contributing to various Achievements. Thankfully one of the handy inventory screens tracks all such collectibles.
Equippable items are stored in their own separate screen. On top of the few I’ve already mentioned, you’ll find a ladder and a bunch of keys. You’ll never need to figure out what door a key unlocks, as their names always tell you. Convenient, but it cuts down on the challenge a smidge. The actual equipment selection interface is slow and cumbersome. The developer has expressed interest in revamping it - an unusually cool thing for a mobile Xbox Live developer to do (if it comes to pass).
Rather than relying on the genre’s frequently obscure logic puzzles, Ghostscape’s environmental interaction usually boils down to using the crowbar in the right spot. The game even tells you where to use the ladder – a bit too much hand holding. Several combination locks require a bit more thought from the player, though you can always look up the solutions in a guide since they don’t change.
The Windows Phone version of Ghostscape also features a handful of unique puzzles, some of which take advantage of the mobile hardware. The best is a maze in which players tilt the phone to role an eye to its destination. Near the end of the game, you’ll need to arrange the pieces of three disturbing pictures into their proper places. It works like a sliding puzzle, except thankfully any piece can be swapped around regardless of location. The third picture would be rather tough to do without help, but that’s what guides are for.
The only puzzle I really disliked is the lock-picking minigame in the shed. Players have to tilt their phones in order to rotate an arrow to a specific point and then hold it there until the lock opens… three times. It works a bit like the cryptographic sequencer minigame in Batman: Arkham Asylum. The problem is you have to hold the phone way too still in order to keep the needle from moving; I literally had to hold my breath. Reducing the sensitivity by 20% or so would pull the minigame back up to fun territory instead of Annoying Land.
Ghostscape’s audiovisuals are its best feature. Psionic packed each room of the house with plenty of details, and they often feature animations like flickering lights, etc. In real life, you definitely wouldn’t want to go into this house at night! The ghosts themselves appear suitably transparent, though you likely won’t look at them long before eliminating them with the camera. Speaking of which, I wish the pictures taken could be viewed in an album afterward.
Sound-wise, Ghostscape plays an eerie tune at the title screen but doesn’t use music during gameplay. Instead, creeks and other sound effects create an air of unease.
Creative Writing 101
While adventure games traditionally offer much more fleshed-out stories, I have no issue with Ghostscape’s simple tale. The actual writing, though, leaves much to be desired. Every speck of the narrative text is simply riddled with punctuation errors and run-on sentences.
Some might defend the diary’s punctuation woes by saying that real people make mistakes in their own private writings. Regardless of whether the diary pages read like an actual person/woman’s thoughts (they do not), the pages shoulder the responsibility of conveying the story. In a Stephen King book, a poorly educated character’s thoughts might be relayed in a childish and difficult to read fashion, but they would only be a small part in a much larger and more coherent tale. Ghostscape’s story resides only in those diary pages, and their low quality dulls the game’s message. These mechanical errors even extend to the Ghostscape website, indicating that Psionic Games seriously needs a good proofreader.
Ghostscape has numerous collectible based Achievements for finding all of the ghosts, chairs, orbs, diary pages, relics, messages, and paintings. A few of these were a bit glitchy at launch, but Psionic thankfully wasted no time in correcting things with a patch. The only challenging Achievement is for completing the game in under 20 minutes. Nobody will get it on a first playthrough, but it’s easy on a subsequent run since the collectibles are mostly skippable. Using a guide, anyone should be able to get the full 200 GamerScore in less than two hours. Not cheating would probably add an hour of playtime or so.
Adventure games may not be super common anymore, but that’s what makes a title like Ghostscape stand out. It’s a fun little game that’s light on challenge and heavy on atmosphere. And considering how cheery mobile games tend to be, we could probably use that dark atmosphere. Still, the game’s brevity must be considered when deciding on a purchase. I personally don’t mind short games as long as the price is right. In Ghostscape’s case, the super easy Achievements and the promise of free ringtones in a future title update certainly add some value. If you’ve been looking for something different, give it a try.
Ghostscape costs $2.99 and there is a free trial. Pick it up here on the Marketplace… if you dare.