By Jatin Gundara
When asked about the origin of the asymmetric multiplayer nature of Ghostbusters: Spirits Unleashed, Jared Gerritzen, head of Creative and Design at Illionic studios, told Coming Soon, “If you watch the movies, those montages when they are going and busting a whole bunch of ghosts over and over again, they’re getting tired and constantly working. That, to me, is what the Ghostbusters’ day-to-day is. … And that’s where we really wanted to land with this game.”
From the opening cutscene (showing the extensive repair of the original firehouse), it becomes clear that Spirits Unleashed was created with the purpose of referencing nostalgia. The blasting of the original theme, reconstruction of the firehouse, and unveiling of the Ecto-1 all come together to be rather enjoyable. However, therein lies the main concern about Spirits Unleashed: the demographic it caters to tends to hinder what the game could be. And out of all aspects of this game, none feels this hindrance more than the gameplay.
At first, everything seems fine. Spirits Unleashed provides two sides for players to experience (Busters and Ghosts). Starting as a buster, the player has access to an array of tools to capture ghosts. In this mode, the game is focused around a first-person point of view where you can shoot your proton pack and use other tools such as the iconic P.K.E. meter, side-gadgets such as the V.A.D (vertical ascension device), and the ever-present ghost trap. The main objective of the busters is to stop a ghost before it haunts 100% of a building. Despite some flaws in its application (which will later be touched upon) the gameplay system is actually quite intuitive and fun.
Feeling the recoil of shooting a proton pack, throwing out a trap, and working with friends to capture a ghost can actually be quite exhilarating. Additionally, the more XP you gain, the more upgrades you can get to your equipment which can alter many different aspects of gameplay.
And then, the fun begins to abate. Despite the upsides, gameplay as a buster is usually dull (especially in single-player). This letdown can be boiled down to the array of factors the player needs to keep track of (Proton Pack temperature, ghost trap battery, percentage of the building haunted, fear level, property damage, etc). It all can end up being overwhelming, especially to casual gamers. This becomes problematic when considering most of the game’s audience is casual, and most likely bought the game to experience nostalgia.
While this problem is ever-present, its effects aren’t felt nearly as much when playing as the ghost. The best explanation I can provide for playing as a “non-corporeal entity” (as Ray Stantz calls them) is that it’s quite similar to being the imposter in another asymmetric multiplayer game: Among Us. Players are more likely to enjoy the simple fun of destruction (killing as the imposter or haunting a building) rather than trying to contain the destruction (finding the Imposter or trapping the ghost). In stark contrast to the complicated systems of the busters, being the ghost is plain and simple fun.
The main objective in this mode is to haunt a building thoroughly while avoiding being caught by the busters. To make things more compelling, there’s creation of rifts and three “lives” the ghost has which allow it to escape capture. While there are many ways to increase the haunt of a map, the most effective comes in the form of cursing objects. Haunting an area starts off easily for a player, but then proceeds to get more challenging as entire rooms become cursed. If a building reaches one percent haunted, the ghost’s rifts will be destroyed and it will have a little over a minute to survive one final capture from the busters.
While there are so many gameplay elements – an entire review could deal with the specifics – the gist of the matter is that the gameplay of Spirits Unleashed is surprisingly deep for what it is. While I’ve made my personal preference clear, both sides of the asymmetric multiplayer experience have access to enjoyable gameplay elements that can make the experience fun for everyone for a time.
However, this system becomes challenging when considering the actual scope of the game. Spirits Unleashed consists of free play where the player can bust or get busted with AI, an online quick play feature, and a mode with friends. Even with the variety of ways to play, there is little incentive to keep going after a while. While playing with friends and online is enjoyable, there is no online ranking system to encourage playing as a team. Additionally, free play is used as a way to advance the plot without making any actual tie-ins to it. Once a story cut scene happens, the game tells the player to continue going on monotonous missions while another character “figures out” something off screen.
After grinding through, the next story chapter is revealed before the player is told to go through the same process once again. There is no variation in the gameplay and the plot feels like something that is playing out in the background instead of being experienced, squandering the story’s potential. Thus, the near-exceptional gameplay gets old quickly due to the lack of variation in its application. A casual gamer is likely to feel content after a few matches with friends. But hardcore fans will yearn for more ways to use their skill.
Ghostbusters: Spirits Unleashed could be much improved if it included more applications of the gameplay system (new modes, a more in-depth campaign, the ability to unlock more maps, etc.). Instead, the gameplay ends up being a novel, yet eventually banal loop of similar missions with a sparse amount of story thrown in. It’s exactly what it was promised to be: “Ghostbusters day-to-day.” But it’s not enough.
Despite the thin plot and unbalanced application of gameplay, Spirits Unleashed does many other things amazingly well. One shining feature of the game is its accessibility and customization. There are numerous options for visual aids and subtitles, control alterations, and other quality of life add-ons. Additionally, the character customization for the player’s buster form is incredibly varied, featuring a body-type slider, different hair and skin tones, a male and female option, and other customizables which unlock as you level up your in-game XP.
The sound design and art direction are also both stylized to fit the gameplay well. The background music seamlessly transitions between mysterious and exciting when encountering a ghost, and feels akin to the iconography of the original theme. The visual representation of older versions of the original Ghostbusters, along with symbols such as the Ecto-1, the interior of the firehouse, and the design of new characters also inspire a mix of nostalgia and modernity, which is exactly what the game is trying to accomplish.
Ghostbusters: Spirits Unleashed is a novel foray into the recently popularized gray area of IPs that struggle between catering to nostalgia and providing an enjoyable experience. Despite some poor application of gameplay, weak plot, and obvious reliance on the franchise’s glorious past, Spirits Unleashed still provides an experience that can be captivating – but in small doses. As a gamer who enjoys a healthy balance of simplicity and complexity within a game, I understand what Spirits Unleashed was trying to do. I just wish Illionic put more work into the conundrums I detailed. In other words, while it may be fun initially, being a Ghostbuster isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Jatin Gundara is our newest New York Videogame Critics Circle paid intern.