So you bought a GameCube for the Resident Evil series. You bought and played those games. You bought and played Eternal Darkness too. But Resident Evil 4 came out in January, and that, frankly, was a long time ago. So since then you’ve been looking at your GameCube thinking about maybe selling it. Maybe you could trade in all those games and the console for a bunch of store credit towards an XBox 360…
Be honest. The thought has passed your mind more than once…but the XBox 360 isn’t out yet, and before then, there’s one last title on the GameCube that’s going to interest you. I won’t pretend to keep you in suspense because that title is obviously Geist since this is a review of that game.
If you’ve been looking at reviews of Geist, you’ve probably already decided against it. Maybe you’ve been glancing at the screenshots and thinking about how much Geist looks like a step backwards from Resident Evil 4. The lukewarm reviews aren’t all wrong. There are good reasons why Geist hasn’t been getting the kind of reviews that other games coming out around it have, and they’re mostly technical. It’s not just that the graphics are average for the Cube and woefully behind what you’d normally expect from a title overseen by Nintendo. The game has frame rate issues, often stuttering very noticeably. Three times I ran into glitches that forced me back to a previous saved game. Three times too many. It’s rather linear, the character designs are rather uninspired (as are the names of some of the enemies…Imps? Hmmn…).
But Geist is one of the most original First Person games I’ve played in a long time. If you review Geist on the terms of a FPS, it’s going to fall short of Halo and Darkwatch and Half Life 2 and those types of games; and if you try to play it as one, you’re going to be disappointed. The key here is that Geist isn’t trying to be Halo or anything other than Geist, and if you can look past its flaws and are willing to let it be itself, you’re going to have a blast.
Linearity isn’t so much of a problem when you spend a good amount of time doing things you’ve never done before.
So you may be asking what it is all about. Well, you play as John Raimi, an expert in biological and chemical threats, often pursued by governments to help out with covert operations and the like. You’ve been sent into the Volks Corp to help extract your mentor and close friend, Thomas Bryson, as well as find out whatever you can about what they’ve been up to while you’re there. Just as it looks like you’re going to get away, one of your team turns and starts firing on you and everyone else.
You die…and the game really gets going.
In this early mission you get a sample of what Geist would be like were it just a first person shooter. The controls are pretty tight, but the weapon you’ve been given, along with the AI of your friends and enemies, leaves a little to be desired. A monstrous boss fight spruces it up and is the first real hint at what’s going on at Volks, precisely the sort of thing we horror fans are interested in, but it’s shortlived.
It’s a shame then, that Geist first presents you with its flaws and is probably to blame for most people not giving it a chance, or dwelling on those issues, but it does serve as a nice contrast. It’s almost sleight of hand. It almost feels like N-Space is saying, “Look how generic this is! Man, I bet you’ve fought through dozens of levels just like this before in other games, and I’m sure this isn’t the best. Aren’t you bored of this? Don’t you just wish something different would happen for once?” I couldn’t swear that was their intention, but the moment you find yourself a spirit in a computer simulated world designed to brainwash you, the real meat of the game is ushered in like a breath of fresh air.
See, you’re a spirit now, and spirits can’t hurt or touch anything. They can, however, possess things, and through this you can interact with the world around you. As a ghost everything moves at a crawl, giving you time to really soak in your surroundings. You can’t stay as a ghost indefinitely though, as your spiritual energy slowly drains away whenever you’re in the spirit plane. You can absorb energy from plants, or rather more simply, possess something. This fully refreshes your spirit energy. It’s important to note though that you’ll rarely be dying as a spirit.
I’m not honestly sure why they bothered with the idea of spirit energy because it’s rarely on your mind and rarely needs to be, but it’s certainly no flaw and will probably be good for at least one or two tense moments in the game.
Being a spirit is very useful, as it lets you scope out your surroundings unseen and undetected. You can see where any threats might be, plan the best way through a given environment, and strategize in game before trying it out. Of course, you can’t do much of anything without a host, which includes getting past doors, and you can’t just possess people at random either. Occasionally you’ll find spirit slipways that let you slip through a crack in a door or through a ventilation shaft, but apart from that, doors are going to require hosts.
When you’re a spirit, people have an aura. If the aura is white or yellow you can’t do anything to them; if it’s red you can dive on in, but to get them from white to yellow and yellow to red you’re going to have to scare them. Yes, while Geist is occasionally scary, most of the time it’s requiring you to be scary. After all, you are the ghost.
While there’s usually only one way to scare someone, it still makes for some rather devious puzzles, and the results are almost always rewarding. To scare someone (or an animal) you possess inanimate objects, try and get the person’s attention, and then do something spooky to freak them out. It’s really unique and a lot of fun, and being the ghost feels mischievous and playful, even if all you’re really doing is triggering pre-made scaring routines.
Possession isn’t just for scaring though, as some inanimate objects can be used as weapons. Explosives can be possessed and exploded (and in the case of grenades rolled up to your enemies first) and gun turrets always come in handy.
Really though, at its heart Geist is an adventure game. You’ll play through extended periods where there is no combat as you try and possess the desired person, hopping from animal to person to object to person in a hope to move up the food chain and get into the next area. These puzzles are pretty well balanced too, challenging without ever really reaching the blind frustration levels. The characters somehow become endeared to you as you scare them, and once you’re in control you’ll probably feel a degree of responsibility for them.
Indeed, some hosts are key, and this is where you’re likely to see all your “Game Over” screens, because if a key host dies, that’s just what you’ll get. One of my quibbles with the game is that there’s no visual clue which hosts are and aren’t crucial to keep alive (though it is usually pretty obvious). Something like that would have helped prevent some annoyance.
As alluded to before, the combat in Geist is only straightforward if you play it that way. An armed host has unlimited ammo, though not unlimited clip size, so you can still get caught reloading if you aren’t careful. To just walk through areas using one weapon would indeed be boring, but once you get comfortable with leaving your host in the middle of combat, more options open up. Either by just being able to fly around and see exactly where your enemies are hiding, or by being able to possess gun turrets behind them, or explosives right next to them, there’s regularly a lot more you can do than just stay in your host and shoot your way through.
Blowing up an explosive crate an enemy is hiding behind is made even more rewarding by the fact it drops you back into the spirit plane, and you get to watch his flailing body sailing through the air in slow motion.
One particularly favourite section of mine has you protecting an unarmed NPC from a barrage of armed guards while you have no available hosts, and you can only get through by possessing the objects in the environment.
Geist isn’t beyond trying to scare you either. About the midway point monsterous critters start popping up and things start to get even more supernatural and demonic. It never reaches the level of shocks that the best horror games do, but it does has its moments, including a favourite one of mine where you’re taking a female scientist through a burning laboratory infested with little critters.
Towards the end of the game you’ll often find that your host gets possessed by something else, which starts trying to guide them towards that cliff edge, or towards those flames, as you button mash and wrestle with the control stick trying to keep the host alive and force the enemy ghost out. It’s another neat touch, and it can get fairly tense in areas populated with enemy spirits.
The pacing of the game is really the most commendable thing. It’s always giving you something different, pacing out the story, puzzles and action all rather well. The story mightn’t be the best, but through a combination of cutscenes, exploration, and written material, things slowly come together rather nicely.
So while Geist is technically flawed, and while the first person shooting parts are average, that’s only one string to the bow the game gives you, and as such you’ll rarely be bored. The difficulty curve is well done, apart from one of the boss battles about a third of the way through that’s disproportionately hard, until you work out that it sends its attacks towards your spirit, and then it’s just flat out boring, as you wait for it’s almost impossible to dodge attack slowly completes. Fortunately, apart from that the game is usually just the right side of challenging.
Finally I would be remiss to mention the multiplayer, which sadly just highlights how much of a mistake it was for Nintendo to ignore the internet. It’s a lot of fun first of all and is unique enough to make it memorable. Even better you can have 8 players in a game, but only by using “bots.” It’s split screen only, unfortunately, but fun enough that you’ll probably give it a few tries and want to test it out with real players.
The three modes are simple enough for people to pick up and understand quickly, great for a split screen game. Deathmatch is what you’d expect, only it’s just the deaths of hosts that count. You can’t kill spirits in this mode, you just hop into a host that has a weapon you like, and go after another possessed player. You can change hosts, but it leaves your previous host vulnerable for a few seconds in doing so. Then you have capture the host which focuses on a platform usually in the middle of the level. In this mode you guide hosts to this platform, and then you dematerialize them for points. If they’ve killed other hosts, that point value is added to their point value. It’s different but simple to get to grips with and probably my favourite mode.
Finally you have Hunt, which is the most unique of all the modes, but sadly also the one to offer the least maps. This is humans vs ghosts. Humans have anti-ghost weapons and kill ghosts for points. Ghosts possess the humans and try and walk them into spiked pits, flames, exposed electrical wires and other environmental hazards. The human can force the ghost out with use of their grenades or by hammering the A button. It’s fun but not particularly balanced.
So all in all, Geist provides you with a lengthy, unique adventure, and a fun if not overly deep multiplayer mode (crippled by the fact its split screen only). If you can see past its technical flaws and can approach the gameplay in the right way, there’s a lot of spooky fun to be had. I don’t doubt that it’ll be a sleeper hit, and I hope to see a much more polished sequel somewhere down the line.
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