Poor Luigi. His biggest claim to fame is that he's constantly overshadowed by the exploits of his brother. It's not often that Luigi gets a chance to stop following in Mario's trailblazing footsteps and prove his mettle on his own terms, but Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon gives him the opportunity. And at first, this ghostbusting adventure seems like a success for gaming's most well-known second fiddle. Luigi is an endearing hero; fantastic animations provide some great moments of physical comedy; and exploring the game's haunted mansions is a spooky delight. But alas, before all is said and done, things take a turn for the grim that casts a pall on Dark Moon's lively charm.
Dark Moon's greatest asset is its atmosphere. The game perfectly captures the sort of genteel spookiness typified by Disneyland's Haunted Mansion attraction. The five mansions you explore are the sorts of shadowy places children (and young-at-heart adults) can venture into and conquer, feeling all the braver for it, not the sorts that are going to cause any nightmares. Creaky old suits of armor covered in cobwebs line stately hallways. Flashes of lightning cast huge shadows on the walls. Contraptions that look like the work of mad scientists clutter old laboratories. Luigi may be afraid to discover what's behind each new door, but you'll be eager to uncover each mansion's mysteries.
Luigi is a reluctant hero, more or less forced into once again taking up the mantle of ghost wrangler by professor E. Gadd. The kooky professor's docile spectral assistants turn hostile when the magical dark moon vanishes from the sky over Evershade Valley, and old Elvin Gadd conscripts Luigi into service, sending him into the valley's creepy old domiciles to retrieve the artifact's scattered pieces. The professor's idea of humor is so groan-worthy that it may elicit a few reluctant chuckles--in a self-proclaimed moment of genius, for instance, he decides to start referring to the modified DS he gives Luigi as the Dual Scream--but for the most part, the game's humor comes not from its writing, but from its animation. You observe ghosts getting up to all sorts of amusing mischief, and Luigi's encounters with traps often result in him getting knocked about in ways that Buster Keaton might have approved of. The sound design supports the game's silly spookiness, as Luigi often inexplicably hums along with the gently foreboding music.
Making your way through the mansions is enjoyable not just because of the expertly crafted atmosphere, but also because of the wealth of objects you can interact with. Often, nudging an object or manipulating it with the force of your PolterGust 5000 vacuum cleaner/ghost-catching machine has no effect, but opening that dusty nightstand or making that rickety old merry-go-round spin rewards you often enough with coins, cash, and gold bars that you feel compelled to leave no stone unturned. Even when your reward is just a visual gag--vacuuming up a painting of a cheese circle to reveal a painting of a partially consumed cheese circle, for instance--you feel like your time interacting with anything and everything is time well spent.
With the aid of his not-so-trusty pixelator device, E. Gadd transports Luigi into the game's mansions, always with a specific goal or set of goals to accomplish. Whether these goals involve recovering pieces of a machine ghosts have made off with or rescuing one of E. Gadd's familiar-looking assistants, accomplishing your task always involves a combination of solving puzzles and catching ghosts. Any lever, painting, fountain, plant, or other object might be crucial to your progress, so solving puzzles often requires both careful observation and the use of your darklight, which can reveal objects that pesky ghosts have turned invisible, as well as do things like illuminate the paw prints of playful ghost pooches, called polterpups. The layouts of the mansions can make it tricky to figure out how to get from where you are to where you need to be, and working out the solution often brings with it a pleasant "aha!" moment as things click into place.
Of course, your explorations are frequently interrupted by ghosts, requiring Luigi to take up the PolterGust 5000 and vacuum up the specters for incarceration in E. Gadd's custom-made storage facility. Capturing ghosts involves first stunning them with a flash of your flashlight, and then reeling them in like fish with the suction of the PolterGust as they squirm and struggle, often dragging Luigi hither and yon in the process.
Each type of ghost--the small greenies, the hefty slammers, the slender hiders, and so on--have consistent behaviors you can learn, so you get better at dealing with them over time. However, these encounters don't grow stagnant or predictable. Just as the treasure you collect from missions increases the power of the PolterGust, the ghosts you encounter get stronger, and they employ new tactics, too. Greenies, for instance, start wearing sunglasses you need to vacuum off of their faces before you can stun them, or wearing buckets on their heads and only briefly peeking out from under them once in a while.
The controls for catching ghosts are a little stiff, which works fine for the majority of encounters. You can't rotate around while charging up your flashlight, for instance, so rather than nimbly moving about, you need to anticipate the movements of ghosts if you hope to catch several of them at once in your stunning flashlight blast. However, at one point, you face a massive onslaught of ghosts, and here, the combination of the sheer number of enemies you face and your limited mobility results in a challenge that the game ill-equips you to handle. In the chaos of these battles involving numerous ghosts at once, it's often hard to see when an enemy is winding up to attack you, much less respond in time to evade the attack.
Making this already frustrating situation worse is that there are no midlevel checkpoints. This is annoying throughout the game. Solving puzzles the first time is satisfying; going through the motions of completing puzzles you've already solved is just tedious. And should you fall on the final stretch of a boss battle with 12 sections (yes, there is one of these), you certainly won't relish having to fight through the first 11 sections of it again. But in this particular onslaught of ghosts you must face, the lack of checkpoints can go from a source of frustration to a source of rage. The battle drags on as it is; to near the end of it, lose, and realize you must do the entire thing over again is maddening enough to obliterate much of the goodwill the game's better aspects have worked so hard to earn.
On the bright side, Dark Moon also includes an enjoyable multiplayer option called the ScareScraper. This tower of terrors allows you and up to three other players--each cast as a Luigi of a different color--to stick together or to split up as you explore its floors, hunting ghosts, racing to the exit, or pursuing polterpups, depending on the mode you choose. You can visit the ScareScraper in both local and online play, and you can explore it with friends who don't have a copy of Dark Moon, via the download play option.
Ultimately, Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon is a mostly pleasant game marred by the possibility of moments so frustrating, they threaten to overshadow the entire experience. These missteps are all the more disappointing because the better elements of the game are so charming. You may still want to take up the PolterGust 5000 and explore these haunted houses, but be warned: the things lurking in these dark places aren't likely to scare you, but they may well have you seeing red.