A Gentler Fox Hunt
HIGH The Mouse Guardian.
LOW The “Starstuff” levels require more precision than the controls deliver.
WTF Girl, I don’t think you really wanna hug that porcupine.
In the wake of her parents’ deaths, young Iona ‘adopted’ a wild fox named Voy. He’s now missing, and Iona must find him. The obvious place to look for him is in outer space, which is where Iona ends up in Gravity Ghost.
Given the title, it will spoil nothing to say that Iona has become a kind of ghost and the game reflects a sort of purgatory she must travel through in order to set things right in the wake of her death.
I liked Iona’s story and found most of the characters and plot points charming. Her emotional struggle with her parents’ death, her older sister’s authority, and her other siblings made sense without anyone being unbelievably sweet or cruel. Its tragedies, though numerous, evolve naturally and don’t feel excessive. However, I have to admit I’m getting a little bored of this trope and wouldn’t be terribly disappointed were it to disappear from the indie scene for a decade or so.
Iona’s spiritual journey takes place in something like space, where she must travel between and around various planets in order to gather stars and fetch back the pieces of her broken world so they can be reassembled. In effect, Gravity Ghost is a platformer, but one in which ‘down’ depends on what planet Iona is closest to and how large it is. So, while Iona can jump, the real business of the game depends on using the planets in each screen to construct orbits that carry her where she needs to go.
While many planets are just lumps of matter, others have special properties. There are gas planets that act like trampolines, fire planets that send Iona soaring huge distances, and gem planets that have unusually high gravity, among others. Of the special planet types, I only disliked the water worlds, as they were pointlessly difficult to jump off of. Fortunately, unless she really needs to swim, Iona can terraform most planets to suit her needs — a water world can become a rock world, for instance.
By solving little mazes to get “geoms”, Iona can extend and enhance her suite of powers. She will eventually be able to become lighter, heavier, perform a double jump, or even become immaterial and pass through those irritating water planets.
In most of Gravity Ghost’s levels, almost all of which are single-screen affairs, Iona’s goal is to grab a star and optionally gather flowers that extend the length of her hair. (Her hair is used to transport important items and as fuel for terraforming). There are no real fail states and few levels where grabbing the star poses a significant challenge, though it may take several tries on some of the trickier levels.
Also, there are some animal spirits that hop around certain levels trying to evade Iona, and Gravity Ghost occasionally compounds the difficulty of nabbing them by zooming in or out unpredictably. However, it’s important for Iona to get them because when she carries the spirit (tangled in her hair) back to its skeleton in a different part of space, part of her backstory gets revealed. She also hugs the animal and delivers a delightfully awful joke each time.
When Gravity Ghost really gets going and most of its parts are working together, it’s a tremendous pleasure to zip through the levels and use gravity to slingshot Iona around. I took a particularly childish glee in shattering breakable glass planets, and made sure to smash every single one in the levels where they appeared.
Each of these elements – the geoms, the planets, the animals, even the fact that everything is carried in Iona’s hair – ties back to Iona or her family in some way. It’s a pleasure to find a puzzle platforming game that’s so careful to make sure every element coherently relates to its characters and story.
Coherence, alas, is not a characteristic of the vocal performances. Given the considerable talents of the cast, I felt surprisingly underwhelmed by the voice acting here. While various individual performances are fine and each actor brings it at one point or another, the emotions in most scenes just don’t land and the performances often seem disconnected, like they came out of an initial table read. The soundtrack by Ben Prunty, similarly, sounds fine in isolation but didn’t quite seem to fit in with the spiritual tale Gravity Ghost was telling.
However, I found these to be minor faults in a title that was largely delightful. I enjoyed myself in almost every one of Gravity Ghost’s levels, and had a great time weaving my way around and through its many planets. Iona’s starbound story is a tragedy, but her afterlife is a triumph.
Disclosures: This game is developed and published by Ivy Games LLC. It is currently available on PS4 and PC. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PS4. Approximately 8 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed twice. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated E10+ and contains Mild Violence. The story concerns the death of a young girl, an animal, and also her parents. While some acts of violence do take place, they are generally implied, rather than shown onscreen.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: Almost all dialogue is subtitled and there are no essential sound cues. It shouldn’t pose any problem and should be fully accessible.
Remappable Controls: No, this game’s controls are not remappable. There is no control diagram. The left stick controls Iona’s movement, while special powers are mapped to the triggers and face buttons.
Currently Sparky works as a scientist in Rhode Island, and works gaming in between experiments and literature reviews. As a writer, he hopes to develop a critical voice that contributes to a more sophisticated and interesting culture of discourse about games. He is still waiting for a console port of Betrayal at Krondor.