Roguelikes are a funny thing. They’re funny because justifying enjoying them can be an act of tricky business. “Yes,” one could say, “I do indeed enjoy playing the same series of levels or areas over and over, dying, and starting it all again. I love losing all my items and progress. It’s what gives me joy in what is otherwise a cold, unforgiving world!”
I’m being an ass, of course. I actually enjoy the genre a lot. Ghost 1.0, though, is one of those games that, despite tight controls and some good ideas, made me occasionally ask myself why.
Ghost 1.0 places us in a vague cyberpunk future of some sort, where we control titular protagonist Ghost, a woman seemingly trained in infiltration. Ghost is there at the behest of Jacker and Boogan, two hackers intent on obtaining the source code for a line of androids created by the powerful and shady Nakamura Corporation. Luckily, they’re nerds with money (almost verbatim a line from the game), and so Ghost is hired through her own spy-managing agent to sneak in and take what these good good code boys want. From there, the plot goes into some fairly interesting territory; provided players are willing to shoot and die enough to get there.
Ghost 1.0 is a sidescroller in the style of classic Metroid games. The easy thing to do is make the reference to the concept of Metroidvania, but here the inspirations seem to be a bit more singularly on Samus Aran and her classic adventures. Aim here is controlled in full analog via the mouse, creating a new level of precision. As players guide Ghost down corridors and hallways, shooting robots and finding new ways to take her foes out, things begin to look up. As players progress, Ghost’s basic lazer gun soon ceases being the only tool in her arsenal; from grenade launchers to wave blasters, some neat weapons enter the fold.
So, here’s where things get a little complicated. When one boots up Ghost 1.0 for the first time, one is met with a choice. The entire game can be played in one of two modes, the main difference being that in one, players retain their weapons, and in the other, they do not. In both, the vast Nakamura complex and what lies beyond are randomly generated in each run of the game, but in neither will players be completely resetting the map over and over. In both modes, the map and it’s developments are saved upon death, meaning that, despite their distinctions, both game modes are more rogue-lite than proper roguelike. This isn’t an inherently bad thing, but can be a turnoff for players who might initially think they have the option of a more hardcore experience to a degree that doesn’t actually exist.
The actual, down-to-brass-tacks-oh-no-I-pricked-myself-why-are-these-tacks-so-sharp gameplay of the thing is an initially fun loop that soon becomes a bit of a grind. No matter how the Nakamura has randomly aligned itself, the brunt of gameplay involves exploring Metroid-esque rooms and corridors, tripping motion sensors, and facing off against waves of enemies. Each triggered wave gets progressively harder, until Ghost falls in battle, at which point the difficulty resets. Exploration itself is actually quite a bit of fun, eventually opening up to some more interesting sides of what is, for a while, a fairly generic blue-and-silver facility. In addition to new weapons and power-ups, Ghost can, you guessed it, project her own ghostly form from her body to possess robots and perform shenanigans. Even with this in mind, though, the thing becomes a bit of a pain after a while, even after different areas open up. By the second hour, Ghost 1.0 feels like a functionally enjoyable loop, albeit one that changes itself up every couple subsequent hours. The enemies themselves are actually quite well-designed and well-thought out, and even include a few that gave me questions about the world at large (always a huge plus in good character design). Combat is quite fun; it just sucks that every few rooms, players have to stall the sense of progression by tripping a sensor and getting stuck in a room with about 20 droid gunmen and spinning sawblades.
It should be said, though, that the things that work work wickedly well. Gunplay in the heat of combat, even on a sidescrolling 2D plane, is a lot of fun, requiring fast reaction time and a quick-paced knowledge of ones own weapons. A personal favorite of mine was one which would deploy a ring of remote bombs, which would spread outward from their firing point and explode on contact. The gameplay of the whole game complements the mouse-and-keyboard orientation very well. Each power-up found or bought through the game feels earned and worth something; few feel too extraneous, or too specific to be useful. The ones that do largely just come down to personal taste. A lot of the enemy designs are not exactly the most inspired things in the world – aha, a robot and a lazer turret, how novel – but are a good counter to Ghost’s own growing arsenal. There are a few boss battles peppered through the game, which are all a fun challenge, albeit a point of almost unreasonable frustration at times. Their presence drops off awkwardly near the end, which could be a boon or bane, depending on preference.
The whole presentation scene of Ghost 1.0 is…well, it’s something, alright. It is a present entity. It’s largely hand-drawn, and while not bad per se, it feels a bit bare bones at times. Ghost herself has a distinct and very neat design, but as for the two rich hacker boys who hired her…well, Boogan is a dude with some cool glasses, and Jacker is a fat guy with a neckbeard who has a robot eye, and basically looks like someone who would get his picture taken at a local anime convention and then get made fun of on the internet for a month. The work done on the games’ rooms, chambers, hallways and locales is fine, but utterly unimpressive. One could have shown me the concept art for the world presented in Ghost 1.0 and told me it was any number of things: test footage for a failed Blade Runner cartoon, someone’s Akira fan animation, a sequel to 2015’s Tecnobabylon. I would have believed any of these, and about a thousand others. Ghost 1.0‘s art design doesn’t suffer from being garish or clashing; it’s just utterly bland.
As far as its story goes, it eventually does get fairly interesting, as these things go, but in ways that create the same problems as the visual side. The story which unfolds in Ghost 1.0 is one of the connections between humanity and technology, and between AI constructs and the actual human mind. This is really cool subject matter that holds a lot of potential. The problem is that so much of that potential has already been used, fostering a huge cult genre, that to tackle it in 2017 would require a lot of distinct voices to be made.
“Distinction?” Asks Ghost 1.0. “In THIS game? Surely not! Surely if we just do The Things That Cyberpunk Stories Do, it will be enough!” And so they did, and so it ultimately wasn’t.
Even in dialogue, more problems emerge, as Ghost herself talks like someone on her first day on the job, despite the fact that the player is supposed to understand her to be some sort of star agent of this cyber future-spy ring. Instead, she just seems like an amateur. Her dialogue with Boogan and Jacker gets played for laughs a lot more than it gets used for anything with real weight, which would be fine if that were what the rest of Ghost 1.0 seemed to be going for tonally. But the rest of the game demands players take it seriously, except for Neckbeard Computer Boy and Sassy Black Glasses Man themselves. The tone stuff crops up in other places too, as the soundtrack for several areas of the game don’t really fit the fast-paced action moments, the stealthy espionage, or much of anything else in the game.
Ghost 1.0 is a really good game to play while listening to a podcast or radio show. It’s oft-satisfying combat is visually intense enough that it demands undivided attention from the eyes, lest death soon follow, but its zones of monotony upon death and respawn can lead to good stretches of time where boredom can easily be countered by something in the earways. It’s story takes a while to get interesting, and does so in a sea of tropes, but is ultimately not the worst-executed thing under the sun. The art is bland, but not offensive by any means. If you’re already a fan of Metroidvanias or Roguelites, Ghost 1.0 won’t turn you off to the genre.
Final verdict: 3.5 / 5
Available on: PC (reviewed); Publisher: unepic_fran ; Developer: unepic_fran ; Players: 1; Released: 7 June, 2016.
Full disclosure: this review is based on a review copy of Ghost 1.0 given to Hey Poor Player by the publisher.