With Halloween just around the corner, the time is right for games with a slightly spooky flavor. Microsoft's answer to the holiday question is Rare's first game for the Xbox, Grabbed by the Ghoulies. It's a haunted mansion romp that looks and sounds really impressive, but it's ultimately marred by repetitive, overly simple punch-and-kick gameplay that's compounded by the game's lack of length.
The game is light on plot, but the story is beautifully told, using stills and video that plays like moving pages from a book. You play as a kid named Cooper. Cooper and his girlfriend get caught in the rain, and only the nearby Ghoulhaven Hall offers any sort of immediate shelter. Upon approaching the mansion, Cooper's lady friend is kidnapped by monsters, so Cooper sets off to get her back. Since the mansion is haunted by a menagerie of imps, haunted televisions, zombies, mummies, spiders, undead pirates, haunted doors, and more, Cooper will have to fight his way from room to room to find his girlfriend and others in need of rescuing.
The gameplay in Grabbed by the Ghoulies is deliberately simple. The left stick moves Cooper, and the right stick controls Cooper's attacks. Tapping the right stick toward an enemy executes a punch or kick in that direction, while holding the stick keeps up the attacks by executing combos. The A and B buttons also come into play, as A picks up nearby objects that can be used as weapons, and B drops any weapon you might be holding. The triggers are used to rotate the camera. The way the right stick is used makes the game pretty simple to master, as you really only have to hold the stick in the direction of your foes to knock them out, occasionally switching directions as monsters come up from behind. The game has a ton of different weapons to pick up along the way, including tables, chairs, fire extinguishers, vases, and more.
A butler appears early on to guide Cooper, and his tips essentially act as brief tutorials. At first, Grabbed by the Ghoulies is merely a simple beat-'em-up, asking you to clear a room of enemies to proceed. Each room you enter gives you a different amount of starting heath, so there's no need to conserve your health from room to room, but more and more restrictions do pile up as you continue. Some rooms ask you to find a key to proceed. Others have time limits, forcing you to eliminate enemies quickly. As you get deeper and deeper into the game, you'll find rooms that forbid you from getting hit, rooms that require you to inflict all of your damage with weapons, and so on. Violating these rules brings out the grim reaper, who will kill Cooper with one touch if he gets close enough. Dying in Grabbed by the Ghoulies is really only a temporary setback. Upon death, you're placed at the start of the current room, and you'll have to play the entire room over again. A "butler's brew" option sits in the menus, and it's marked as a mode for younger players. When it's enabled and you die, you're given the option to retry the room with double your normal health. Since the game is already pretty easy, with most of the difficulty coming from the grim reaper's restrictions, the double health isn't as much of a bonus as you might think.
Grabbed by the Ghoulies' largest problem is that it's overly simplistic. At first, the game feels quite fresh. The environments look great and are highly interactive, in that you can destroy most parts of them, and the combat, at least, looks cool, even if it isn't very complex. Aside from that and the varying rules that show up in the rooms, there really isn't much more to the game. The game has a lot of different rooms, but in the fetch objectives that permeate the middle of the game, you'll have to backtrack through a lot of the same rooms. The game is also completely linear. You're never really given the option of walking through the wrong door, which is nice, considering the game is more of an action game than an adventure one. However, the game really does force you down its singular path, even if the game occasionally makes a big deal about marking objectives down on a pretty useless map so you won't get lost.
While the gameplay in Grabbed by the Ghoulies gets old fast, the look of the game really goes a long way, and it, at least, hides some of the game's flaws. The graphics may not push the most polygons that the Xbox has ever seen, but everything is lovingly designed and animated. The game has a great, cohesive look to its design, and the result is a cartoonlike atmosphere combined with a level of spooky, yet humorous, surroundings that make the whole game feel like a modern-day Scooby-Doo. The animation is great at conveying emotion, from the way Cooper's hair spikes when he's afraid to the loving looks he trades back and forth with his girlfriend upon her rescue.
The sound also really adds to the experience. Much like The Sims or some of Rare's previous work on the Nintendo 64, the characters in Grabbed by the Ghoulies speak in a series of nonsense syllables. This nonsense, however, is uttered with a precise focus on tone and inflection, and, as a result, it conveys the feelings of the characters better than full voices probably would have. The music and sound effects are also strong, with each monster getting its own sound effects and voice in the process. The spider's "memememememe" shrieks can only be described as totally cute.
While Grabbed by the Ghoulies may present itself quite well, the dull gameplay that hides behind the great graphics and sound really hurts the experience. The game's short length makes it perfect for rental, as most anyone should be able to blaze through the game and see many of its unlockable items within a day or two.