The Outbound Ghost Review: I Ain’t Afraid of No Ghost!
The original Paper Mario impacted me as a gamer. It managed to differentiate itself from the equally fantastic Super Mario RPG, thanks to a focus on papercraft style, more streamlined combat, and humorous storytelling. Sadly, the longer that series has existed, the farther it moved away from the standard RPG conventions that I have grown to appreciate, such as leveling up. That said, I’ve always loved the visual style of Paper Mario. So when I saw a new game with a similar style and more of a focus on traditional RPG elements, I was intrigued. That game is none other than The Outbound Ghost. It’s a not-so-spooky tale that contends with the themes of finding peace and moving on. Throw in an amnesiac or two, and you have the recipe for a fun time. While overall I enjoyed the game, it does suffer some missteps, as my The Outbound Ghost review will make clear.
Small Town With a Big Problem
From the get-go, The Outbound Ghost had me charmed. The entire village of Outbound has mysteriously perished, and now the residents are learning how to live their afterlives as ghosts (as well as worrying about a possible serial killer). The trouble is, ghosts only stick around if they have unfinished business (or, as I like to call it, Casper 101). Meaning each and every spectral soul you encounter is dealing with their own personal problems. Once you help them solve those issues, they’ll Ascend to a better place. At the start of the game, you’re playing a ghost that doesn’t have any memory of who they are. Yes, an amnesiac ghost. This trope exists in almost every other RPG, so why not this one?
You quickly discover that your amnesiac hero can summon parts of their own personality called Figments. They’re little ghostly avatars that serve as the team members when you’re in battle. They fight against equally powerful entities called Apparitions. While functionally, this means you’ll be fighting a lot of different ghostly creatures, it also means that your emotions are protecting you from harm. Which is weirder the longer I thought about it, but honestly, you’ll get used to the mental dissonance in The Outbound Ghost. After all, despite only controlling ghosts in the game, for some reason, they’re able to hold physical objects like torches and lockpicks. They also can’t do expected activities, like haunt the living or even phase through things. Meaning that in a lot of really obvious ways, the ghosts in this game aren’t very ghostly.
Even though I didn’t entirely understand the pseudo-psychological aspects of the game, I appreciated them. They helped provide actual stakes for what was happening. Because without them, there’s really no worrying about the fate of your characters. As the game constantly jokes, they’re already dead, what’s the worst that can happen? So this reliance on psychology helps keep things grounded, in a weird way.
Something About Mary
I thought at the beginning of The Outbound Ghost that the entire game would focus on the nameless ghost you start out with, but boy, was I wrong. The game is split into several chapters, and as you play, you’ll switch between controlling different ghosts. Thankfully, the Figments you’ve been leveling up stay with you regardless of who you’re playing as, which was my primary worry. That said, I almost wish this wasn’t the case. After all, it might make sense for the nameless ghost to have a team of Regret, Spite, and Callousness, but that might not be true for innocent Mary.
Figments of Your Imagination
On the plus side, you’ll unlock a lot of different playable Figments as you play, more than I was expecting. As they level up, they’ll learn new skills. You can go into battle with a maximum team of 4 Figments, but that’s a lot of diversity right there. Each one has a particular focus, from physical attacks to tanking damage, healing, causing status effects, and even casting powerful AOE spells. If that wasn’t enough, you can forge things called Aspects that help you further personalize your ghostly entourage. To do so, you’ll need specific items along with something called an Aspect Gem. Once you have the right stuff, you can forge them at any smithy you encounter, which are usually conveniently placed near save spots.
I appreciated having all these options at my fingertips, but there’s some room for improvement. For one thing, all the items you get are either found in chests, on the world map, or as spoils of battle. You can’t actually buy anything in the game. Which makes sense, being dead and all, but it’s still a little irritating. Often I would have most of what I needed to forge an Aspect, but was missing one key item. And since the game doesn’t feature any Bestiary indicating which items are dropped by which foes, I had to decide which Aspects I could or couldn’t live without.
Another problem I have with this system is that each Figment can only equip 3 Aspects at a time. That might sound like a lot, but here’s the thing – you get a TON of Aspect recipes as you play. Each time you’ll have a choice between two different recipes, which usually boil down to the risk and reward Aspects and the more mild-mannered fare. A few hours into the game, I had over a dozen different Aspects I could forge. I had to choose if I needed more than one of each, as well as which ones were the most vital for my strategy. Oftentimes I thought I had the right Aspects equipped, until I got walloped by a boss, and had to rethink things. Oh, and did I mention some Aspects grant passive bonuses, and others provide active spells? Yet they take up the same 3 slots, which irked me. But what annoyed me more was actually navigating the menus to deal with them.
Once you have an Aspect equipped, you’d think you could just remove it without issue and equip another, right? Wrong. You actually have to select it, and then scroll all the way down the list of Aspects to find the right one and hit the remove button. Only then can you unequip it. A related annoyance is that when you’re ready to forge a new Aspect, you have to scroll through an equally massive, unalphabetized list. I hate to harp on this, but I’m big on well-organized and optimized menus. The menus in The Outbound Ghost are sloppy at best. That’s not to say the developer couldn’t update things with a timely patch, but until that happens, I felt compelled to mention the issue.
Now that we’ve gotten Aspects and forging out of the way, let’s talk about how the combat itself actually plays out. As you wander around the massive 3D papercraft world, you’ll find foes moving around. If they see you, they’ll rush forward to attack. But if you stay in the bushes (yes, I know you’re a ghost, just bear with me), you’ll be invisible. Then you can burst forth and gain the advantage, letting your team get the first strike in battle. In combat, each Figment has something called AP (Aether Points). These determine how many times you can attack each turn. So long as your Figment has a maximum of more than 1 AP, they can spend a turn using Aether Up to stack more of it. Then you can unleash a number of attacks equal to your AP the following turn.
It’s a neat mechanic that reminds me a lot of games like Bravely Default. Once you select an attack, most of them will require pressing a button at the right time. Unlike in Paper Mario, there’s really only one type of button prompt – a meter. You just need to press the button when the indicator is in the Green or Orange part of the meter. If you hit the Red, your attack will miss. Also, unlike the series that inspired The Outbound Ghost, you don’t need to worry about timing to block attacks. Hell, some attacks don’t even have a meter, usually the ones that inflict status ailments (I’m still unclear how a ghost can get poisoned). Also, every time you attack a foe, you’ll increase their Stun. Once that meter is full, they’ll be paralyzed and take extra damage until their turn comes up again.
On the topic of status ailments, enemies and your team can only have three active at a time. The reason this is relevant is that if you get inflicted with a status ailment, you can’t actually heal from them. Instead, the game tells you to stack different status effects to shrug off the negative one. I actually found this really cumbersome, especially the more I realized how devastating the poison ailment was. In this game, poisoned characters don’t just lose HP at the start or end of their turn. No, they lose HP every time they take action. Meaning multi-hit attacks can wipe you out pretty quickly. Luckily, I quickly learned to love Spite, who can cast poison on a whole group of foes at once. But I still thought it was a bit overpowered. Not to mention most of the statuses aren’t well explained, and require you to read an encyclopedia to figure out what’s happening to your team. Granted, some are intuitive, but many statuses are not.
I’m a bit mixed in how I feel about the bosses in the game. Some bosses are other ghosts that fight you with their own, identical-looking Figments. Then there are more traditional bosses that are epic spectral nuisances. Here’s the thing. Most of the latter aren’t really found in a particular spot on the map. Instead, you’ll wander into areas where you encounter a similar visual effect for when you’re hiding in bushes. It’ll happen out in the open, and within a few seconds, you’ll suddenly find yourself thrown into a dangerous battle. I have one major issue with this – I like to prepare before boss fights by saving and healing. While the game does fully heal you after each battle, I never knew when to expect these conflicts. And since they felt more meaningful than the other type of boss fight, I wish they didn’t happen so randomly.
Beautiful Undead World
I appreciate the visual style found in The Outbound Ghost. It’s an attractive papercraft world, and the various characters are good at showing emotion. There’s also a good diversity of foes to encounter. That said, the visuals aren’t perfect. For one thing, the default setting for the game is a small windowed screen. While you’re allowed to tweak that setting, and I did, I found some visual glitches occurred afterwards. The overall effect was everything was fuzzier-looking. I also noticed one of Spite’s lightning spells seemed to freeze the game momentarily, as the animation stuttered. As for the musical side of things, while I don’t have any real complaints, I also didn’t love any of the musical tracks here. The sound effects were timely and well used, but they couldn’t make up for the lackluster music itself.
Even though most of the time I spent with The Outbound Ghost was enjoyable, there were other areas it fell short. One is that if you’re doing a multi-hit attack and defeat a foe before it’s over, you’ll still be prompted with the meter. Only by pressing the buttons will it end and let you move on, and this is also true if you defeat the final enemy in battle. Also odd is that after you defeat an enemy, you can still select them for attacks, and they also show up in the turn order (admittedly with a big red X across them).
As someone that likes my games well organized and easy to parse, I had issues with the game’s mini maps. There’s a little circle on the screen that shows some items of interest, like where you can light torches and such, but no actual map. While you can find a map that allows you to fast travel in every major area, you can’t really look at them to see where to go next. A good example of my problem was in Soggy Swamp. I wandered through this huge dungeon and then was given a relic to take me to the exit. But the game didn’t provide any clarity where to use the relic. So I wandered outside and all around before I realized that I had to backtrack in the same dungeon to get out of it.
Ghostly Fun Just in Time for Halloween
Despite my issues with the game, The Outbound Ghost is still the best Paper Mario styled game I’ve played in many years. It easily offers a dozen hours of gameplay, and that’s just if you play the main story. For those that like to wander, there’s plenty of hidden secrets to unearth, as well as randomizer effects to mix up your experience. While the game wasn’t as tight or well organized as I would have liked, it’s still a solid turn-based RPG that fans should enjoy.
Final Verdict: 3.5/5
Available on: PC (reviewed), also coming to Switch, PS4, PS5, Xbox One and Series X|S; Publisher: Digerati, Conradical Games; Developer: Conradical Games; Players: 1; Released: September 20, 2022; MSRP: $19.99
Editor’s note: The publisher provided a review copy to Hey Poor Player.