Grabbed by the Ghoulies
Rare finally makes its debut on Microsoft's console after a much-hyped shift from Nintendo. How has the famed developer managed with Ghoulies?
Kiddy. The mere mention of the word is enough to get the most rabid Nintendo fans scurrying off to the nearest message board in defense of their handled console. The term has become an albatross of sorts for the Japanese company, whose long-term plan of continued reliance on its stable of child-friendly stars isn't gaining it many supporters this generation. Realizing this, it was with some amusement that I noted Microsoft, which has gone to great lengths to distance itself from Mario Corp, would be entering into the cute 'n' cuddly fray with Rare's latest effort.
When people think of Rare, the panoply of fine games of yesteryear (Perfect Dark, Donkey Kong Country, and Conker's Bad Fur Day) that the developer has worked on immediately spring to mind. But there is a prevailing sentiment that Microsoft grossly overpaid for the developer last year, as few top-quality titles have made it out of the company's Twycross headquarters of late. Still, the folks at Rare are hard at work on projects for Microsoft's behemoth, and amongst the expected sequels steaming ahead to the Xbox is Rare's first original title, Grabbed by the Ghoulies.
The setup is quite simple and very cliched. One dark and stormy night, our teenaged hero Cooper and his girlfriend Amber lose their way and wind up on the steps of Ghoulhaven Hall. Not knowing where they are or what to do, they decide to take refuge in the creaky old mansion, and that's when things go awry. Amber is kidnapped by the house's master, a villainous, cantankerous old bastard (aren't they all?) who goes by the intriguing moniker Baron Von Ghoul. And so begins the never-ending fetch-quest that is Grabbed by the Ghoulies.
The first facet of the game that jumps out at you is the production design. Rare, no slouche in its time as far as presentation is concerned, have crafted the mansion with impeccable detail and oodles of style. The cavernous domicile is bedecked from basement to ceiling with all manner of visually stimulating details, from ghoulish paintings and sumptuous food laid out on the numerous dining tables to bedrooms and kitchens littered with the morass of every movie haunted mansion you've encountered. And the best part is that a large part of this is either destructible or ready for use in wasting the spectral and undead inhabitants of the house, but more on that later.
GbtG is infused with a unique and interesting visual style that seems very much like a fully 3D cartoon. Particularly striking are the wonderful designs and animations of the various characters. During the course of normal gameplay, Cooper goes through several emotions that are all delivered in excellent fashion. Keeping with the tone of the game, though, fright is a constant that is admirably conveyed. After getting scared by one of the many ghosts floating around the manor, Cooper skirts around quite literally jittering in his boots and biting his nails. It's little details like that that show how much effort has gone into crafting a consistent style. There's a lot to like about the game's appearance, and everything is silky smooth. Effects watchers will be pleased to see that Rare have made full use of accurate reflection mapping and real-time shadows that are simply superb.
Not to be outdone by the visuals, your ears are in for a treat too. While the game is devoid of the increasingly common (and largely, poorly executed) voice acting, most of the game's characters are quite proficient in letting you know exactly how they feel at all times. Ghouls rush around moaning and shrieking while the gorgeous (if slightly monotonous) soundtrack sets the tone for the various levels. There's considerable variety in the tunes, mirroring the range of levels on offer. The whole game has that haunted house cheesiness, which works well to create a perpetual sense of both dread and humour.
So, by now you're probably wondering, "Yes, this is all well and good, but how does the fershlugginer thing actually play?" And this, ladies and gentlemen, is where things start to get ugly, or at the very least stupifyingly monotonous. For starters, while Cooper is able to perform a whole host of moves during fights, you're hardly in control of what is being done. You move him around using the left analog stick, while actions are performed automatically in the direction you press with the right analog stick. Holding the stick in the direction of your foe results in kicks, punches, knees, elbows, stomps, uppercuts... all without your saying so. While the system admittedly works reasonably well, the loss of that sense of involvement in the onscreen fisticuffs is a very high price to pay.
To be fair, the sheer number of enemies in some of the later levels could possibly have made a traditional button setup a little cumbersome, thus aggravating the younger crowd this game is obviously aimed at, but I always felt like I was cheating using this semi-automatic scheme. I mentioned earlier that a large part of the game world is up for grabs, and this is handled in a very similar manner to the regular pugilism. Items are picked up using the A button, and all swinging/aiming/throwing is subsequently done using the right analog stick. There are several weapons available during specific scenes as well, ranging from soda-can-shooting projectile launchers to fire extinguishers.
Bizarrely thrown into this real-time, automated gameplay is a system reminiscent of the Quick Time Events in the Shenmue games. When certain tiles are triggered during regular gameplay, a monstrous creature of some sort jumps out at you, giving you a few seconds within which to input a sequence of button presses. Success sees you safely navigating the nerve-wracking event while failure results in the loss of a few health points. These events are relatively sparse, and occasionally placed frustratingly at the conclusion of some lengthier scenes.
GbtG is not a long game by anyone's measure, although the monotony of the onscreen action does tend to make it feel that way. The game is broken up into several chapters, each of which is composed of several dozen scenes. Each scene starts with Cooper entering another room in the lofty mansion, at which time the rules for the present challenge are laid out. These rules are quite varied, and quite honestly, they are the gameplay's primary saving grace.
Each of the 100 scenes that make up the game is host to a unique set of rules, such as killing only enemies of one type or only using weapons and not regular hand-to-hand combat. The monotonous and simplistic nature of the gameplay is tempered by the intricate rule setup of most of the rooms. Failure to comply with the rules results in an appearance of Death himself. The cloaked Reaper enters the room as soon as you fob one of the rules and heads straight for you; one touch and you're dead. This can also be used to your advantage though, as enemies touched by the cold, clammy hand of Death are given a one-way ticket to the Pearly Gates too.
Completion of the main attraction yields little else to keep the disc from gathering dust. Collectors will be glad to hear that each of the 100 rooms contains a hidden Challenge book. For each five books collected, a bonus challenge is unlocked that can be tackled at will. Unfortunately, these are just scenes taken straight from the main campaign, and since the game offers you the chance to replay any scene, it's a largely useless feature.
Don't misunderstand me, Grabbed by the Ghoulies is not a bad game - at least not from the offset. The various elements come together extremely well and the omnipresent and kitschy horror/comedy atmosphere makes for an enjoyable experience. Where the game suffers is the monotonous nature of the gameplay. Tackling room after room after room of the same enemies gets old pretty quickly, and were it not for the various challenge rules, I would have turned the game off after a few dozen scenes.
The evolution of the story is frustratingly slow and characterized by, in true Rare fashion, several fetch quests. I realize that expecting a coherent and heaven forbid, well though-out story from an action game is asking a bit much, but I need something more than this haphazard and thrifty sprinkling of plot development on offer. The tale unfolds through a book-slash-movie that delivers the excellent cut scenes that help develop the story. There's not too much to the story, but at least it's presented in an attractive and oftentimes hilarious manner.
So, is it worth picking up? If you're a die-hard Rare-head, Grabbed by the Ghoulies is probably worth adding to your library. If, on the other hand, you're just looking for a decent game to while away some of that free time before Saint Nick arrives, the game is well worth a rental. Just don't expect anything that'll have you enraptured right till the last room is cleared.
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Grabbed by the Ghoulies (Video 1):
This brief high quality video shows a few scenes plus the cute lil' evil Imps.
Grabbed by the Ghoulies (Video 2):
The full trailer, as shown at Microsoft's E3 Conference. Cool stuff.