by Jeremy Voss
The criticism-oriented game enthusiast who keeps a very active game-centric blog called Shouts from the Couch is both enthused with and bemused by Nintendo’s latest offering. He penned this essay just prior to becoming a new father.
Around 10 hours into my playthrough of Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon – even though I’ve had a very pleasant experience for most of that time – I’m just about ready to break my 3DS in half.
I suppose I should admit that I never actually planned on playing Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon. It was not on my radar, nor was it in my rental queue, and I never owned a GameCube and so I don’t have any nostalgic remembrances of the first game. (As it happens, as far as my 3DS usage is concerned, I was already pretty heavily invested in Etrian Odyssey IV anyway.) I suppose I might have felt compelled to pick it up if the gaming press gave it good reviews, but here I’m in the unique position of being on the other side of the fence for the first time, as a contributor of opinion rather than a receiver.
On my blog, I don’t actually write reviews. I do more of a progress report with every few hours of gameplay, so that I can better explain where a game might have gone wrong for me. Don’t get me wrong – I always intend to finish every game I start. But as a dude with a day job and a bunch of extra-curricular activities – one of which is about to include taking care of a newborn baby – I don’t generally stick around with a game once it starts to go bad on me.
And so while the first eight hours of LM:DM were pretty goddamned terrific, it is here in these later stages of the game where I’m starting to lose my mind a little bit. I’m not sure I want to keep pushing through. I have other things I need to get done before this weekend is over. My dogs are feeling sad that I’m ignoring them. This is where my sense of professional obligation ought to be kicking in, and instead I’m here on my computer trying to coyly dance away from the thing I’m supposed to be doing.
Let’s at least start with those aforementioned first eight hours, where everything is quite wonderful.
It is clear from the moment the game launches that a tremendous amount of care and effort have gone into the game’s development; the overall production values are among the best I’ve yet seen on the platform. The game looks absolutely gorgeous. Every nook and cranny is filled with playful charm and a goofy sense of humor, even as the subtle lighting and physics imbue the world with a spooky reality. And I don’t believe I’m overstating it when I say that the quality of Luigi’s animations are on par with Pixar. Every move he makes is believable and relatable and nuanced – even while the game’s sense of humor is relatively broad. And all the while, his movements are actually relaying valuable information to the player in terms of what’s in the room with him. It is further proof, for better or worse, that nobody develops for Nintendo hardware quite like Nintendo.
There is a story of sorts. The Dark Moon, which keeps the local valley’s ghosts at bay, has been broken into 5 pieces, etc. and the ghosts are on the loose. But it’s largely a superficial excuse to send Luigi into various haunted locations and perform specific objectives for Professor E. Gadd. There are five locations, and each location has five levels, even though you’re largely in the same environments each time. It’s sort of like a Metroidvania-type design, except that you’re whisked out of the environment once you’ve accomplished a certain goal, and when you go back for your next mission, it’s possible that the environment has changed significantly in your absence – largely because of things you’ve already done. Levels can be replayed in their original state, however, even with your extra-high-powered gear, and each has a three-star scoring system and a hidden Boo ghost encounter.
The core gameplay loops involve exploration, environmental puzzle solving, and ghost wrangling. And as you get deeper into the game, those ghosts become more devious and plentiful. The controls are largely easy to understand, and even though they can be somewhat unwieldy at times, they generally respond quite well. You almost always find yourself doing the thing you’re trying to do. And since there’s a lot of activity going on at any given moment, that’s very much appreciated.
For all the obvious and appreciated care and hard work that went into development, there are some glaring design flaws that can cause an inordinate amount of frustration.
While each level can be completed in 10 to 20 minutes, there are no checkpoints. This means that if you die at the very end of a level – and you will – you go back to the very beginning. You will lose all the gold and hidden jewels you may have found; you will have to solve every puzzle again. And you must finish every combat scenario again, of which there are many. And unless you find the hidden Ghost Dog Bone in each level, which grants you an instant revive with full health, you will get sent back to the beginning if you snuff it. The boss at the end of World 3, the clockworks level, is a 12-stage gauntlet. When you die at the 12th stage, and you find yourself returned to the beginning, you will want to murder things.
LM:DM also frustratingly adheres to an apparent fundamental “if/then” principle of gameplay design that dictates that if a game console has tilt controls, then a game is required by law to implement some sort of balance beam section. Has there ever been a fun and not-at-all annoying balance beam section in any game, ever? Even Uncharted figured it out eventually. But I’m in the beginning of World 4, which features tons of ice and a mine, and the balance beam section (the third such section in the game) that I just finished (after literally a dozen stupid deaths) nearly drove me insane.
Plus, some of the ghosts can be jerks. And while that may be largely the point of the challenge, it’s not necessarily endearing.
I hate to close this thing by dwelling in such detail on the frustration I’m feeling with LM:DM, especially when there is so much to love about it, but I can’t help it. I was charmed for a long time and now I’m just angry and frustrated, and if I weren’t feeling professionally obligated to see all there is to see, I’d probably give up at this point. I mean, I’d like to think it’ll get better in the later levels of Worlds 4 and 5, the Treacherous Mansion which boasts a kind of castle environment. But it seems rather unlikely that the game will suddenly get more forgiving. And hey, maybe the multiplayer experience is something extraordinary – but, unfortunately, I can’t test it out yet, and to be quite honest I’m not sure I’d be inclined to try it even if I weren’t reviewing it. (I’m not really a multiplayer kind of guy, is the thing.)
But let’s get to the heart of the matter: is it worth your hard-earned money? Despite my current agitation with it, the good stuff here is truly special and does a terrific job of showing off the 3DS’s hardware capabilities. Perhaps your hand-eye coordination will get you through those challenging ghost combat scenarios with greater ease than what I had to go through, and maybe you’ll take a glass-half-full approach when you get cheaply killed at the very end of a level and have to do the whole thing over again. Or, perhaps, you’ll end up like me, utterly annoyed that all this inventive level design and endearing animation simply ended in yet another dozen balance-beam deaths.
EPILOGUE: SECOND THOUGHTS?
After I’d written what you just read, I’d more or less given up on LM:DM. I was stuck and banging my head against the wall, and no amount of self-imposed “professional obligation” was going to make me finish a game that I’d ceased to enjoy playing.
Well, I suppose a little bit of obligation managed to hang around despite my best efforts, because after a few days I did ultimately feel compelled to go back to it and see if, at the very least, I could get past the level I was stuck on. And so I did some grinding on the first few levels in an attempt to get the last upgrade to the Poltergust 5000, just to see if that would do the trick. Lo and behold, it did! I was able to get past that one fight that was killing me over and over again, and so I kept at it. I was able to finish World 4, and then I started plowing through World 5, and I guess I figured that that last upgrade was really all I needed to keep things moving along. And for a time, I was glad I kept with it – World 5 has some neat level design, and some clever puzzles, and the obligatory balance beam section took place at the very beginning and somehow I managed to get past it with only two falls into the abyss. I figured the rest of the game would be a little challenging, but nothing I couldn’t handle.
Nope. I’m now in the last mission of World 5, and it’s (once again) a gauntlet of ghosts, but now with the added absurdity of a countdown timer. I made it pretty much right up to the penultimate battle but got killed – rather cheaply, I might add – and now I can either restart the whole thing over again, or get on with the rest of my life.
I still stand by what I wrote. There’s a lot of great elements to this game, and for the most part it’s a lot of fun. But the lack of a checkpoint system makes some of these later ghost battles feel like a punishment to be endured, rather than a challenge to be overcome. I’m willing to concede that I might lack the patience of a younger gamer to help conquer this problem. But I’m also certain what I see as fundamental design flaws will drive a lot of people crazy, not just me.