Developer: Sick Puppies
Release Date: August 23, 2003
Buy 'GHOST MASTER': PC
Ghost Master reminds me of pumpkin-shaped shortbread cookies with orange-colored icing. You know, the kind that seem to flow like water in and around the month of October: they’re a tasty treat, make no mistake, but you get diminished returns after maliciously gobbling a few. It’s the same with Ghost Master. The first time you unleash ectoplasmic terror on a hapless household and watch as they scream/flee/faint or otherwise freak out, it will be difficult to contain your twisted excitement. But like that sweet, sweet orange-colored icing that eventually falls victim to an over-saturation of sugary-ness, before too long Ghost Master’s novel human-terrifying-household-haunter-simulator concept becomes just that; a novelty. Maybe the amusing scenario designs and serviceable gameplay will be enough to keep the rapt attention of a few gamers out there, but as aesthetically and conceptually similar as this game is to Maxis’ The Sims, it is surprisingly shallow in comparison.
Which isn’t to say Ghost Master is a bad game by any stretch of the imagination. The basic foundation and execution is solid. The ghosts are ghostly, the ghouls are ghoulish, the gremlins are, erm, gremlin-ey – the actual gameplay, how these various apparitions and spirits control, however, is severely limited. Each ghost in the game can only do five or six different things, so it basically boils down to activating a ghost’s unique ability (ominous footfalls, a gust of wind in a sealed room, loud menacing laughter, etc) and then watching to see if anything happens as a result. Of course, mortals react to ghosts with shock and horror, and that’s all well and good, but it would have been even weller and gooder to have given the player a bit more direct control over their ghoulies, perhaps by being able to directly move the ghosts about the house instead of just issuing orders and hoping they are followed.
Each scenario in Ghost Master (there are 12 in all, spanning three chapters) has its own unique back-story and setting, oftentimes unabashedly borrowing from cult-favorite flicks such as The Usual Suspects and Evil Dead. This distinction from level to level helps to somewhat offset what is otherwise a basically simplistic gameplay formula. Since much of the game’s ideas and dialogue are derived from B-movies, the permeating aura of the proceedings are largely tongue-in-cheek, which isn’t necessarily such a bad thing since the scenarios are so well executed. The unique stories alone were enough to keep my attention through nearly half the game.
The actual dynamics of haunting will take a little getting used to, but once the basic concept is understood you’ll be haunting up a storm, literally. You can’t just select and place ghosts wherever you want, instead each has its own unique requirements for being “tethered.” For example, Gremlin type ghoulies can only be tethered to electrical appliances such as microwaves or TVs, the Slimer-esque ghosts can only dwell inside houses while other apparitions must conduct their haunt outside, etc. The behaviors of the various ghosts can be adjusted to a certain degree, it’s possible to order a ghost to follow around one particular human or type of human (ie – adults, children, women). Also, each ghost that you deploy into the field requires a certain amount of ectoplasm to sustain itself, so resource management is key to successfully haunting humans out of house and home. As you progress from scenario to scenario, your overall ectoplasm will increase thus allowing you to orchestrate more elaborate scares.
Ghost Master isn’t just about scaring the crap out of mortals, occasionally your objectives will include such things as recruiting trapped spirits by exposing their corpses to the living. One scenario in particular entitled Summoners Not Included plays creative objectives to the hilt. Your goal is to summon forth a powerful monster by pulling the necessary strings in order to get the three occult students in the house to perform a séance. You’ll need to use a ghost’s wind ability to clear the entrance to a cellar that contains an ancient spell book, use a quake spell to free a key-containing outhouse of its pesky wasp nest, and help a spirit that is trapped in a dreamcatcher before the circumstances are ripe for the humans to eventually put the pieces together on their own. Sadly though, these sorts of unique objectives are few and far in between.
Visually, Ghost Masters has a refined simplicity to it that hearkens back to The Sims yet retains something all its own. The character models are impressively rendered considering the high number of on-screen characters in any given scenario. The environments, which are usually limited to a single large structure and a front and back yard, are carefully constructed and feature plenty of subtle details. The most impressive graphical aspect of the game comes from the special effects of ghost’s abilities. Colorful and vibrant electrical discharges abound in haunted rooms, oftentimes a ghost’s payload will consume the entirety of the screen. The character animation seems occasionally stilted with repeating frames cropping up from time to time. Overall though, Sick Puppies did an admirable job in the aesthetics department with Ghost Master.
If the nicely decorated visuals don’t grab your attention then the sound in Ghost Master undoubtedly will. Borrowing a page from The Sims version of English, Sim-lish, Ghost Master features small talking people who use realistic-sounding gibberish to communicate. Also, every appliance or device found throughout a house emits believable sounds, from the blender to the bathroom sink, the aural ambiance is highly conducive to a convincing level of immersion. The spooky soundtrack fits the proceedings like a glove and sports lots of “haunting” orchestrations.
I won’t scorn a game for what it’s not or what it could have been, but I will say this: Ghost Master doesn’t even come close to recognizing its potential. The game rides in on the coattails of the mega-hit series The Sims but leaves on the bandwagon of done-better-before. Ghost Master isn’t a bad game, it’s just not that great.
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