Poor Luigi has always been stuck playing second fiddle to this brother, Mario. When you're the second player, you don't get much of the spotlight. He's been stuck as an unlockable character or a cameo role as often as he's been a full-fledged character. Rarely has he starred in his own game. By far the best of these solo adventures was the GameCube launch title, Luigi's Mansion. It might have been short, but Luigi's Mansion was the green hero's first solo adventure, and an excellent one at that. Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon is finally giving the iconic second fiddle another chance at the spotlight, and this is one case where Luigi proves his worth.
Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon is a sequel to the original game. The wacky Professor E. Gadd, who's busy with his ghostly studies, has moved to Evershade Valley, where the dark moon hangs in the sky and renders the ghosts friendly and playful. When a mysterious event shatters the moon into shards, the ghosts start wreaking havoc. Professor Gadd asks (read: forces) Luigi to return to the ghost hunting business by shanghaiing him and his Pixelator teleportation device. If Luigi can't collect the shattered pieces of the dark moon and capture the ghosts before it's too late, they'll spread out across the world.
At its heart, Dark Moon is half-puzzle game and half-action game. Despite being a Mario spin-off, there's little in the way of jumping or platforming. The heart of the title is Luigi's Poltergust 5000, a vacuum cleaner that's been modified into a Ghostbusters-style Ghost Catcher. It has the ability to suck in and spit out dust, and these two features are used to do everything from catching ghosts to pulling switches and finding hidden doors. Luigi's other tool is his trusty flashlight. While the flashlight provides much-needed illumination, its primary use is as a puzzle-solving tool. Luigi can overcharge his flashlight to create an extra-bright flash that can open certain locks and stun ghosts, and he can activate a "dark light" mode that reveals invisible objects. These abilities make up the bulk of Luigi's arsenal. There are a few times you can briefly access other abilities, but they're fairly few and far between.
The puzzles in Luigi's Mansion never get too complex, but they're well designed enough that you can forgive the simplicity. They generally use one of your tools and an object in the environment, and you have to figure out how the two work together. You may have to blow a fan until a key pops off, shine your dark light to create a path where one wasn't before, suck up a false wall made of cloth, or countless other things. The puzzles hit the right mix of simple and fun. They never last too long, and they keep going at a good pace.
Solving puzzles generally ends in two ways: You fight a ghost, or you get a reward. Fighting ghosts is what you need to do to progress, but rewards are how the game scores you. Luigi is all about the cold, hard cash, and the various ghost-infested locales are stuffed to the brim with loot. Gold coins, green dollar bills and massive gold bars litter the environment and can be sucked up with Luigi's vacuum. Collecting enough gold earns permanent upgrades, so it's worth it to go out of your way to find the bonuses. There are times when I wished the puzzles had a little more meat to them. After a while, you can only suck up so many dust bunnies or flash so many safes before it feels a little same-y, even if they were a bit different at the end.
Dark Moon is divided up into multiple chapters, each of which takes place in the same basic area, but as you progress, more of the level is unlocked or altered. You'll often see the same puzzles but rarely have to re-complete them unless there's a new twist involved. It's not quite the feel of having a wide-open house to explore, but you also don't feel like you're trapped in small bite-sized areas. Each chapter has a number of secrets to find. Every chapter has a hidden Boo who needs to be found and captured. Finding all the Boos in a single level unlock a new stage to play. There are also hidden bonus stages, collectable crystals, and various other optional objectives. You're graded at the end of every level based on how quickly you finished it, how much damage you took, and how much money you earned. Simply finishing a stage is easy enough, but finding every hidden item, every Boo and every single coin can take some time.
Combat in Dark Moon is an interesting balance. You can easily defeat enemies by flashing them with your flashlight and then vacuuming them. When the enemy is stunned, your vacuum slowly drains its hit points. If you can sustain the vacuum suction long enough, you'll get a chance to do a "powerful" pull, which drains more hit points and makes the enemy drop money when it's defeated.
It may sound simple, but there's some nice depth to it. For one thing, most enemies have a defensive measure against your vacuuming. Some wear sunglasses, others hide behind shields, and others have defensive barriers that need to be sucked off before you can damage them. It's relatively easy to get past these gimmicks, but doing so takes some time, especially when you encounter enemies with conflicting weaknesses or fight in environments with traps. For example, the third area introduces a bomb that is detonated by using your flash bulb. This is used for puzzles, but if you're not careful, you can activate it during a fight and blow up yourself.
This plays into the second element you need to focus on: Effective fighting earns more money. Draining ghosts with a powerful attack makes them drop money. As the game progresses, you can upgrade this skill, with higher levels taking longer to charge but making enemies drop more money. You'll lose your charge if you stop vacuuming to dodge or are hit by enemy attacks, so it becomes a balancing act. Do you go for a lower level (and less gold), or keep holding on and risk getting hurt? Defeating an enemy without using the powerful vacuum means that it drops nothing at all.
A third twist is that vacuuming multiple ghosts at once causes them to drop additional gold when defeated. Combat is a balance between managing these three elements. This helps what would otherwise have been a simple combat system to stay fresh.
While this combat depth is neat in the single-player mode, it really comes into its own in multiplayer. Called "Scarescraper," this multiplayer challenge can be accessed at any time from the main menu. Up to four Luigis can team up to challenge a multilevel mansion of horror. While the various game modes have different gimmicks, such as rushing to find an exit, chasing a ghostly pooch, or sucking up as many ghosts as possible, they simultaneously function as competitive and cooperative games. The four (or fewer) Luigis have to make their way through the Scarescraper and capture ghosts. They can work together to beat tougher ghosts, but only the guy who captures the ghosts earns full credit. All of the basic mechanics also apply. You want to suck up multiple ghosts to get more money, which is used to upgrade your characters between floors and gets you further in the lead. The gold you earn in Scarescraper can also be partially carried back to the main game. Play enough Scarescraper, and you'll be able to afford upgrades earlier than usual.
The multiplayer is a lot of fun and the real star of the show. The mechanics are simple enough to pick up and play, but there's enough depth to give them some bite. The simultaneous cooperative and competitive gameplay can be frustrating, but in the most enjoyable ways. Getting trapped on a floor and forced to beg your friends for help may be annoying, but it's twice as bad for them when you're not around to revive them after a spook gets in a lucky hit. There are some "rubber banding" mechanics, but they're not too bad. For example, after every stage, you get a chance at "red coin shuffle," where you run around the level and collect red coins before time runs out. If you collect all of them, you get a chance at a post-level roulette, which gives one character a bonus on the next stage. The more coins you collect, the more chances at success. It's also a significant advantage to be able to catch the Scarescraper's "Boss Ghost," which is worth a ton of points, and it can easily be a deciding factor in a close game.
Our experience with the online multiplayer was smooth in the pre-release time frame. I played games with three other people, and there was a minimal amount of lag or interruptions. Getting into a game was easy, and I could play with either people worldwide or with people on my friend's list. It also supports local play and a more limited "Download Play" option for those who have a 3DS but don't have Luigi's Mansion. Communication is limited to four designated phrases. ("Hey!" "Help me!" "Thank You," and "Good Job.") They're cute and serve their purpose but may feel limiting when playing with friends. You should also be prepared to hear, "Hey!" spammed so often you'd think the other player was Navi from The Ocarina of Time.
Dark Moon is a good-looking game that's elevated through some clever use of 3-D and incredibly charming cut scenes. The lighting effects are pretty bad in places, and I noticed more than a few areas where Luigi's flashlight shone through objects — and not the ghostly objects it's supposed to shine through. There's not a lot in the way of shadows, either, so Luigi's default flashlight feels a little useless. However, extremely effective visuals make up for all of this. Luigi's cowering and body language lend a lot of personality to the character, and the ghosts are just cartoonish enough to be likeable.
There is little in the way of voice acting. Luigi uses short snippets of vaguely English "Mario-ese." It's rather cute and works toward the game's slapstick atmosphere. Professor Gadd's burbling noises feel out of place, especially considering how much talking he does. The music is solid and sets the tone well, but there isn't a lot in the way of memorable songs. It's the same slightly ominously "ghostly" tune that ends up running together by the end.
Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon is exactly the sequel Luigi's Mansion needed. It plays to the original's strengths and adds a batch of new features. Most importantly, the multiplayer mode alleviates any concerns about short length and is a ton of fun. Luigi's Mansion might not be someone's first thought when it comes to multiplayer ideas, but Next Level Games managed to pull it off. It isn't flawless but it's a solid and well-made experience that any 3DS owner should add to their collection.
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