If you were in the fortunate position of getting to play Ghosthunter in advance of its August release date, one of your first thoughts might be, "Why didn't Sony want to put this out in America?" Indeed, the ghostly action game was developed by Sony Computer Entertainment Europe's Cambridge studio, the same development house that brought us 2003's stylish action adventure Primal. SCEA has inexplicably opted not to bring the game stateside, but thankfully Namco has swooped to the rescue, picking up Ghosthunter's US release duties. From what we've played of a near-final version of the game, Namco's decision was sound.
In Ghosthunter, you play Lazarus Jones, a Detroit homicide detective sent with his partner Anna Steele to investigate an old high school at which some deranged teacher once offed a bunch of students. Not surprisingly, the place is reputed to be haunted (a bunch of tormented teenage specters will do that), and while tinkering around in the basement, Lazarus stumbles onto a giant machine that's equipped with a talking computerized head and a giant tank that just happens to contain a bunch of imprisoned ghosts, ghouls, and other assorted nasties. Lazarus does what any intrepid hero would do in this situation: He opens the thing wide up, loosing the malevolent spooks on the world. As a result, his curvaceous partner is kidnapped by a particularly cranky old ghost who's had a few centuries to stew in his own hatred. Yikes.
After all this calamity, what's Lazarus to do? Why, become a ghosthunter, of course. With the aid of the digitized talking face (affectionately dubbed "Head-in-a-box"), a raft of ghost-killing energy weapons, and a hurl-able spirit trap that can ensnare most spooks, Lazarus sets out to track down all the baddies he freed, defeat the evil Lord Hawksmoor (he's the bad old dude), and save the girl (that is, his partner). Along the way, Lazarus will travel to all sorts of creepy locales and must fight a host of grisly ghouls and sinister spirits as he tries to clean up the mess he's made. All in a day's work for Detroit PD, huh?
The gameplay in Ghosthunter is straight third-person action. In his default running-around mode, Lazarus has a full range of movement (and full camera control), but he can't fire his weapons. To fire, you'll have to switch Lazarus to a combat stance, which provides an onscreen crosshair and changes his lateral movement from turning to strafing. While in combat, you'll move Lazarus more slowly, but the strafing function allows him to dodge most enemy attacks without too much trouble. Finally, you can switch to a first-person view that gives Lazarus the most precise aiming but also makes him a sitting duck, since he'll be stuck in a stationary position.
Ghosthunter's ghost-capturing mechanic is actually pretty nifty. You've got what basically amounts to a grenade, which serves as the ghost trap that you can throw at enemy spooks. If you haven't already dealt enough damage to your foe with your weapons, the trap will attach itself to the enemy for a limited time, and a life meter (or is that a death meter?) will pop up. During this time, if you can successfully deplete the enemy's health, it'll get sucked into the trap, and you can move on. Of course, you're free to blast a foe into submission before you throw the trap, which can make the capture process easier. However, whether the capture is successful or not, the trap will conveniently fly back to Lazarus' hands after a few seconds, so you don't have to go run around to scoop it up when the action is too intense.
You'll access Lazarus' arsenal from an easy-to-use radial menu that you can pop up on the fly. Some weapons are of the ghost-hunting energy variety, such as a pulse gun and an energy-based sniper rifle. These weapons effectively run on ghost energy, which most enemies will drop as you attack (and kill) them. You'll also have some handy corporeal weapons to fall back on, such as a pistol and a shotgun, although you'll have to find actual ammo that's strewn about the environments to use them. Furthermore, ghosthunters get to use a handy set of binoculars that overlay the screen with a nice scan-line effect and more fully reveal any wayward ghouls hiding out in the environment.
Without getting too far ahead of ourselves--we haven't played through the whole game, after all--Ghosthunter frankly looks strikingly good for a PlayStation 2 game. The character models are very realistically modeled and are highly detailed, which is especially evident in the cutscenes. Furthermore, there are a lot of well-placed visual effects, such as soft-focus lighting, that add a sense of ambience to the environments. You'll obtain a flashlight that can be used in dark places, and the game cranks out creepy real-time shadows, à la Silent Hill, to give these situations extra oomph. Many of the backgrounds feature inspired design work--such as a ghost town at dusk or a tilted mansion that seems to be sinking into the swamp--and only occasionally are the limitations of the PS2 apparent. There are a few rough spots in Lazarus' animations, but, then, this thing is still a few weeks from release.
The game's sound design seems to be getting the job done, though we weren't too scared by any of the creature sounds we heard. The various weapons do seem to pack an appropriate punch, though, and everything sounds fine, for the most part. The voice acting is actually of special note, because what we've heard of it is fairly high quality and is even amusing in some spots. That's intentionally amusing, not the kind of "amusing" you get when something is really bad. Coupled with the expressive cutscene animations, the script and acting can elicit a laugh or two every now and again, which is always refreshing.
On the whole, Ghosthunter is shaping up to be quite an entertaining action game--certainly a far greater one than we'd expected given Sony's strange unwillingness to bring it to American gamers. In any case, the game looks great, and the shooting action is solid, from what we've played. Plus, any game that reminds us of Ghostbusters in any meaningful way is OK in our book. Ghosthunter is due to hit American PS2s next month, so look for more on the game to materialize from out of nowhere soon. In the meantime, look for some new footage haunting the game's