I fell in love with Ghost Hunter twenty minutes in. I was directing Lazarus Jones, ghost hunting supercop, through the sewers underneath a public school where a massacre had taken place years earlier. A chain was hanging atmospherically from the ceiling. I directed Lazarus around it, just in case it turned out to be some kind of trap. As Lazarus proceeded down the hall, one of the chains struck the screen, shifted up it, then fell off to the side. All the dangling chains and hanging sheets in the game are moved by the camera. It's a tiny detail, but it's so rare that an Easter egg will surprise me that I couldn't help playing through the rest of the game with a bit of a smile on my face.
Which is good for Ghosthunter, because, besides the occasional flash of inspiration, this is a completely average game. This isn't an "A" title. Or even a "B" title. If it were a movie, it would be a direct-to-video flick, the one that sits on the bottom shelf of the video store, which was shot in Romania and lists Billy Zane at the top of the box even though he only appears in an unrelated five-minute prologue. That doesn't mean there's nothing good to be found in the game; just that in ten year's time no one is going to be writing any articles about how Ghosthunter represented any kind of a turning point. It's good for what it is, but it isn't much.
For the record, what it is, is a third person shooter in which the main character, Lazarus Jones (That's right, I just love using his name. And would any fans of really obvious foreshadowing out there care to take a guess at what the game's final plot twist is?) runs through varied environments, blasting away at all manner of spooks with a variety of weapons.
It's actually his weapons that jumped out at me as the first really noteworthy thing about the game. Why? Because half of the weapons are conventional, regular, every day weapons: a nine-millimeter pistol, a shotgun, and a grenade launcher. The fact that I was defending myself from ghosts by blasting away at them with a shotgun is a perfect example of the game's philosophy: Don't think too hard and you'll do fine.
The gameplay is, um… inspired… by the movie Ghostbusters, but adjusted to be more action-gamer friendly. The player wanders through the levels shooting the various ghosts until they're weak enough to be captured, then throws a trap into their chest to capture them. The trap then zips back into Lazarus' hand, and like many other thrown weapons in games, it can be used to collect powerups. It'll feel familiar to anyone who has played one of the current crop of third-person shooters, like a supernatural-themed Dead to Rights or kill.switch.
The graphics vary wildly from perfectly good for this generation (in the character models and lighting effects), to woefully ordinary (in the level textures). In fact, the game's biggest problem is its pedestrian and linear level design. The real standout in the graphics and design department are the enemy designs. Most of the ghosts are stunningly unique, and decidedly creepy to look at. While they might not be the most original designs (the evil teddy bear, the skeletal phantom), they're all effective and creepy. In many cases creepy enough that I found myself wishing that the game had been rated M so the game could have gone all the way with it. Had it been a truly gory game, it could have been the spiritual follow-up to the classic Namco game Splatterhouse, which many of the enemies are reminiscent of. If there is a problem with the monster design, it's that occasionally the graphics aren't good enough to render some of the ghosts with as much detail as the designers clearly would have liked.
One of the game's weakest points is its plot, which I classify as being "video game serious" in that it's about serious—even theoretically disturbing—subject matter (although the T rating keeps it from ever being pushed too far), but the game's writers can't be bothered to maintain a consistent tone, and constantly undercut any tension with wacky quips from the game's wisecracking main character. It also takes its cue in level design too obviously from various films, which creates some odd logical leaps when one second Lazarus is walking around in an obvious rip-off of The Rock, and the next, oddly, he's in Deep Rising. Sometimes I wish games would just decide if they were going to be funny or serious, and go with that. I mean, this is the kind of game where a sassy computer tells Lazarus that he needs some protective armour, then hands him a colourful leather motorcycle jacket. As if he wasn't enough of a video game character already. Given how much of the game is just a pastiche of elements from movies the design team liked, it almost seems like the game would have worked nicely as a Conker-style parody.
The entire game, the story, the dialogue, the level design, the graphics, everything but the monster design feels like the only underlying design philosophy of the game was that it be 'good enough' to release. And it is. But it's just good enough, and disappointingly falls short of inspired on most fronts. A perfect example of the game's unwillingness to go all the way is with the ghost containment viewer. A la The Real Ghostbusters there's a periscope by which Jones can look into the containment unit and view all of the ghosts that he's captured, providing an NES Manual-style rogues gallery of the enemies and their descriptive blurbs. This is a really nice classic-gaming touch that, for some reason, disappears halfway through the game. After three missions the game stops taking breaks between the levels, so I was unable to examine the bios of all the monsters I killed later in the game. Inexplicably, the viewer wasn't available as a special feature at the end of the game, either.
In spite of all its flaws, I had a great time playing Ghosthunter. The game's central silliness charmed me. Were the game exactly the same in every respect except for the ghosts, and I was playing some kind of a futurecop battling crooks in jetpacks, the game would have been a five—just good enough. There's just something so wonderfully mad about backpedaling away from a murderous teddy bear while firing bullet after bullet into its fluffy, overstuffed belly… I can't help but recommend it—as a rental, if not a budget purchase.