Halloween 2018 Gaming Special, Day 7: “Ghost Master” (PC)

Happy Halloween with Sick Puppies’s unique scare simulation/strategy/puzzle mix Ghost Master as the perfect conclusion of our gaming special week!

Ghost Master (PC)
(UK 2003, developer: Sick Puppies (now defunct), publishers: Empire Interactive (now defunct)/Strategy First), platforms: PC, PS2, Xbox)

The spirit Ghost Master is tasked to manage hauntings in the small town of Gravenville to make mortals believe in the supernatural again, while trying to free restless spirits.

Know your horror movies and have fun
Despite not having much of a plot or character progression that connects the levels, one still wants to know what horror movie clichés the next creepy place has to offer. As can already be guessed from the level titles, e.g. Calamityville Horror, The Blair Wisp Project, or Spooky Hollow, the game doesn’t take itself too seriously and is best enjoyed by those familiar with classic horror movies (or any other movies for that matter, as other genres are made fun of as well, e.g. with Deadfellas or Full Mortal Jacket). Some of the mortals’ names also refer to certain movie characters, e.g. the entire cast of the Ghostbusters can be found with the aptly named Ghostbreakers. But it’s not only the settings alone, e.g. a big house, a cabin in the woods, or a village with a windmill that make people remember their favorite movies, as the varied mission goals also pay tribute to horror cinema.

So, taking the aforementioned levels as examples, one either has to make the residents of the big house and the police discover human corpses, lure a group of filmmakers lost in the woods to the cabin and initiate a ritual in the basement to summon a demon (something others tried before with a book, reminiscent of Evil Dead, in another mission) or identify one of the villagers who wants to take control of the headless rider. These are only a few of the many short stories the game tells. Even if there are recurring appearances of certain characters and there are a few surprising turns of events, these tales are usually independent from each other, which explains why one can tackle the missions of the three acts in any order, or at least one can always choose between three until the next ones are unlocked.

Puzzling personalities and scares
In addition to the main stories, there are always some restless spirits that have to be freed before they can be added to the Ghost Master’s roster of scary workers. These don’t only have their individual background stories to tell, which are macabre as well as funny, but they also require certain conditions that have to be fulfilled. So e.g. one cat somehow hid and died in a pinball machine and can only escape if a mortal has enough luck while playing the machine, or a spirit that consists of big eyes is imprisoned in a glass jar that has to be shattered. In each case one has to make use of either the trapped spirit’s abilities (like a lucky charm that makes people win their pinball game), some other ghost’s powers (like a high-pitched scream to break the glass), or both combined. Experimentation is key, as different approaches with so many ghost abilities to choose from are possible. Calling Ghost Master an adventure game would go too far, but it’s certainly more of a puzzle than an RTS game, even if some solutions aren’t always obvious.

Still, the environmental puzzles work great if one thinks hard enough, so e.g. in order for the filmmakers to get into the basement of the cabin, they have to first find it, as it’s covered with leaves that can be blown away by a ghost’s power, and even making the film crew reach the cabin requires various strategies, e.g. making a tree fall down for a bridge to walk on over a precipice. Sometimes it’s also not so easy to find every restless spirit. While a short introduction of the level shows the most important points of interaction and the spirits usually give helpful clues, in other cases one wouldn’t even find, let alone free them without a walkthrough.

Another genre the game uses as a reference point, or rather a specific game that it borrows ideas from, is lighthearted life simulation title The Sims. Each mortal has a terror and a madness level which can be increased by scaring them. Even if it’s not essential to read their short biographies (although it’s fun, because it again uses stereotypes from horror movies), it can help to find out what their conscious and subconscious fears are, because certain ghost powers might be more effective than others in order to make them go mad or terrified. The latter is usually the most important, as it forces the characters to leave a level, which is often one of the main mission goals.

Ghostly ties that bind
One doesn’t only need to know about the mortals’ personalities, but also about the ghosts themselves. At the start of each level, one assembles a team, and while the game recommends certain ghosts, one will soon bring along one’s favorites, because one becomes so attached to them. Speaking of attachment, the main concept of using the ghosts is to find physical objects or persons they can be bound to, as one can’t use every ghost everywhere. For example, they can either be put outside or inside buildings, and bound to electric appliances, mirrors, toilets, trees, lakes, water puddles, etc.. So one has to first explore each level and find the best spots where to use the ghosts. The next problem one will run into is the depletion of ghost plasma, as each ability uses a certain amount of it, and if the plasma level falls under the bare minimum, it’s game over. The only way to fill up the plasma meter and thus make use of more powerful abilities that require more plasma is to scare as many people as possible.

Managing all the ghosts on different levels of a building and keeping an eye on all the individual mortals can be a lot of work, and the control system isn’t very user-friendly. With so many people running around, it’s often very difficult to select the right person one wants to scare, and as there’s no pause button (or the option to save during a mission), one often has to be very quick to give the ghosts orders. In order to prevent scare tactics if no mortal is present, or if a specific person has to be haunted, one can click through a menu to change each ghost’s behavior. Usually if one selects a ghost power that uses more plasma, the ghost will use the next one on the list and so on, regardless if it makes any sense in the current situation or if anyone is present to scare at all. It’s annoying micromanagement, but it’s the only way to prevent running out of the precious ghost plasma.

Scare tactics and problems
However, this doesn’t mean that one can lay back and watch the haunting go smoothly, as the mortals’ A.I. is unpredictable, so even if one places ghosts in strategic positions, one still has to pick them up again and place them somewhere else, depending on where the mortals run to or hide, which can be quite difficult in the bigger levels with all the rooms, including many floors and the basement. Sometimes they also react differently if one restarts a level, so one strategy that worked before doesn’t necessarily work again. There’s also a lot of waiting time involved, e.g. for people picking up a certain item, going to a specific place or doing something else that is required for completing the missions. The game suffers from many A.I. problems, but also a few glitches that make restarting a few levels necessary. The most frequent bug is that people get stuck on stairs, with one party trying to go up and the other going down or that a character is torn between either running away or using a fire extinguisher. In some cutscenes, the camera can’t quite decide what to focus on, and in some instances it’s even stuck in a loop. The difficulty level can be rather high, as one isn’t only concerned with the plasma meter, but also with exorcists, ghost hunters, priests, witches, and mediums that can easily trap and banish a ghost for the rest of the level if one isn’t careful enough.

Get scarier with more stars
At the end of each level, a star rating is given, rewarding those who completed it in a short amount of time, scared away more mortals, while freeing restless spirits and preventing one’s ghosts to be repelled also helps to boost the score. This system isn’t simply for bragging rights, but gives the player gold plasma, a currency that can be used between levels to unlock more abilities for one’s ghosts. However, unlike an RPG, it’s not essential to use it, as one can complete the game without spending any ghost plasma at all. However, it can help if one hasn’t freed all the restless spirits, as some of the normal ghosts don’t have the most useful abilities from the start, so improving their repertoire makes some levels much easier.

Ghostly visuals and sounds
The game still looks quite nice, with some great if too few CGI cutscenes that perfectly capture the scary cartoon atmosphere, in addition to varied ghost and scare tactics design, some good lighting effects, and very fun character animations. The backgrounds might not have the best textures, and the character models might not be the most detailed, but the levels are distinctive enough, and it’s a joy to see the mortals’ behavior change depending on the situation. So it never gets old to watch them tip-toeing around the house with a scared expression on their faces, anticipating the horror that could be around the next corner, then throwing up their hands and running for their lives screaming.

While the mortals talk in a fantasy language similar to The Sims which again highlights the humorous aspect of the game and also how life-like despite the cartoon visuals they are, the restless spirits and the mission instructor feature some very good voice acting, especially the latter with his exaggerated accent and mad laughter. The instrumental music is also great and could be used for any spooky cartoon series. One won’t see any gore, which doesn’t mean that there aren’t a few scary ghost abilities, e.g. spiders crawling on the wall, the sounds of which can make anyone suffering from arachnophobia turn off the speakers.

Scarily good fun to play and watch
Ghost Master is unique with its concept and gameplay. While it might look like The Sims, its blend of puzzle solving and RTS mechanics make it a much different proposition, one that does also reward trying out different approaches to solving a problem. The horror setting and ghost designs are full of references for movie fans, but it’s also lighthearted enough for younger players to have fun with. With a playtime of at least 15 hours, it’s a rather long game, one that doesn’t outstay its welcome thanks to varied mission design. If only the A.I. was better, if there weren’t so many pathfinding problems, and some of the puzzles wouldn’t rely too much on trial and error, then this would be a contender for one of the spookiest and funniest games to play on Halloween.

Score: 8.5/10

Buy the digital PC version on
GOG
Steam

Buy the retail version for PC on
Amazon Germany
Amazon UK
Amazon USA

If you liked reading this article, make sure you pay a visit to Future Sack which kindly features it as well, and every LIKE or comment is appreciated on EMR’s Facebook page or FS’s Facebook page :). Or FOLLOW the blog on EMR’s Twitter page.
Using the GOG or Amazon links and buying the product also helps ;).

About nufafitc

Being an avid gamer, cinemaniac, and bookworm in addition to other things the internet and new media present, I'm also very much into DIY music, rock and pop in particular. Writing short or longer pieces about anything that interests me has always made me happy. As both an editor for German website "Adventure-Treff" and UK website "Future Sack", I like to write reviews and news about recent developments in the movies, games and book industry.
This entry was posted in Game reviews, Gaming. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Halloween 2018 Gaming Special, Day 7: “Ghost Master” (PC)

  1. Pingback: Overview of (blog) life in October 2018 | Emotional Multimedia Ride

  2. Pingback: GOG releases 3 puzzle games with SFB Games | Emotional Multimedia Ride

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.