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Friday, 5 June 2015

Grabbed By The Ghoulies (Xbox)

The beginning of this century saw some huge changes to the landscape of console gaming. Sega, the long time stalwart who had massive success in the 16 bit era with the Mega Drive/Genesis finally announced that they were bowing out of console manufacturing and becoming a third party publisher for their former rivals. Microsoft decided to jump in and release a console of their own....the Xbox....which quickly established itself as a major player and led onto the Xbox 360 and (currently) the Xbox One. And Rare, the British developer who'd made themselves a household name with Donkey Kong Country, were 49% owned by Nintendo and had produced hit game after hit game exclusively for Nintendo consoles including Goldeneye 007 and Banjo-Kazooie, suddenly jumped ship to Microsoft.

Wait....what?!?

Yes, if you were a Nintendo fan back in 2002, then the unthinkable happened. Rare, who'd been pretty much the jewel in the Nintendo 64's crown against fierce competition and worldwide dominance by Sony's Playstation were suddenly completely acquired by Microsoft, with their last game on a Nintendo home console being Star Fox Adventures for the Gamecube. After the initial shock and horror, and being a long time Rare fan myself since their early days as Ultimate: Play The Game, I bit the bullet...bought an Xbox...and was eager to see what they'd put out for the Xbox first. Would it be the highly anticipated Perfect Dark Zero? Would it be one of their other announced games like Kameo: Elements Of Power? No...both of those later became Xbox 360 launch titles. What actually came out was Grabbed By The Ghoulies (awesome title by the way), a game which I'd never even heard of before, let alone was looking forward to. But I decided to keep the faith and picked it up. It's quite a bit different to what I was expecting, but not in an entirely bad way.

These kids never seem to learn, do they?
With a plot that rivals the great works of Shakespeare and puts recent efforts like The Last Of Us to shame (/sarcasm), we begin with Cooper and his girlfriend Amber getting lost whilst out hiking and caught in a storm. They decide to go to the nearest building for shelter, and....surprise, surprise, it turns out to be a haunted mansion housing a mad scientist and an evil baron. Of course, it's not long before Amber is quite literally grabbed by the ghoulies and dragged off kicking and screaming into the mansion, and Cooper has to dash inside to the rescue. It's all cliched and corny but the storyline is presented nicely in the style of a comic book as you go along. Once you're inside and gain control of Cooper, he gameplay isn't actually too dissimilar to a twin stick shoot 'em up (think Robotron or Smash TV). You move him around with the left stick and by tapping the right stick you can unleash a flurry of punches and kicks in any direction. This is actually pretty useful as quite often you'll be completely surrounded by baddies and have to fight your way out of the pack. There's no jumping at all, with the A button only being used to pick up weapons and forward through conversations, but the game is an arcade style brawler and really doesn't need it. Weapons in this game break extremely easily usually after only 2 or 3 hits but pretty much everything can be used to hit things with, be it a picture hanging on a wall, a broomstick or even a large book from the nearest bookcase. There's always something around that can be used to give you the edge in combat if you keep your eyes open.

Cooper smiting poor defenceless imps. With a chair.
To progress, you have to beat a set challenge in every room to unlock the door to the next area and these are usually different every time, or the conditions are mixed and matched...for example, to begin with you'll only have to kill all the enemies in the room to open the door to the next room. Pretty straightforward. But further in, you'll have things like having to find keys, survive waves and waves of respawning enemies until the timer runs out, only killing one specific type of enemy, fighting enemies using only weapons, not being allowed to use weapons at all, not being allowed to break any objects in the room (much harder than it sounds) and so on. They actually become really tricky by midway through and by the end of the game a fair few of them are frustratingly difficult. The evil baron of the mansion (Baron Von Ghoul, if you're interested in knowing his name) also makes life difficult by messing around with your health meter whenever you enter a new area...sometimes he'll give you a generous amount to complete the challenge and other times he'll be a mean old sod and whack it right down to 1, meaning that any hits will instantly kill you and the first thing you'll have to do is scrabble around looking for health powerups.

QTEs keep you on your toes...quick, press those buttons!
Luckily, there are absolutely tons of these lying around in the form of soup cans (don't worry, it's all explained within the context of the plot), and you'll need to use most of them to stand a chance. Most boost your health, but others like temporary invisiblity, invincibility, the Scare Blocker, and extra melee attack and weapon strength will really put you at an advantage. What's a 'Scare Blocker' you say? Well, sometimes Cooper will run into ghosts, or certain enemies will catch him off guard, causing him to go into 'Fright' mode...basically a button press QTE appears on screen and these get more and more complex as you go along. Succeed, and Cooper will become calm again, Fail, and he'll be losing a large chunk of his health. However, if he managers to find a Scare Blocker in the room he's in, this'll completely negate having to do any QTEs at all until Cooper leaves the room.

Dude, pull my finger! Go on, pull it!
Another major problem you'll have to look out for is the Grim Reaper. If you fail to fulfill the conditions for each challenge room properly (ie, you run out of time or use a weapon where weapons are not allowed) then he'll suddenly pop up, scythe in hand and pointy finger outstretched, and start chasing you around the room trying to give you the touch of Death. He's invincible too, and the only way to escape from him is to complete the challenge you're currently tasked with and get the hell out of the room as quick as you can. You'll certainly be seeing a lot of him in the later stages of the game once the difficulty ramps up, and he makes everything a lot more frantic and tense as you're trying to deal with not only a horde of enemies but also a relentless homing bastard who can instantly kill you as well. Luckily, you can find powerups that delay his appearance, make him dizzy and disorientated for a short while, use weapons to knock him back or in some cases actually guide him into a pack of monsters to slow him down a little, but ultimatey he'll just keep coming and coming and coming at you like The Terminator until you either escape or you're lying dead at his feet and have to start the challenge over again.

Grabbed By The Ghoulies also has a nice number of unlockables. Every room in the game has a hidden (or sometimes not so hidden) book with a 'Rare' logo on it to find and collect - 100 all in all. For every 5 you find, you can access a Bonus Challenge from the main menu, and scoring a Platinum Medal in a challenge will net you some concept art images. It's a nice extra touch and the Bonus Challenges are pretty fun for the most part. Finding the books in the second half of the game can be a pain in the backside though....early on, you'll see them lying around in reasonably plain sight but later on a lot of them are hidden inside breakable objects and you'll have to smash up nearly everything in the room to find them. You can also go back and find any you've missed afterwards thanks to a really handy menu screen option that shows you which books you've found and which you haven't, and lets you replay any completed section.

Let's head over to the Atic...
It all looks really nice visually too. Everything is cel-shaded, the lighting and shadows in each area feel spot-on, and all the enemies have their own unique personalities and traits. Skeletons will start looking around for weapons to hit you with if you kill a few of them. Pirate zombies will keep stopping every now and then to down a bottle of rum. The Hunchback will keep trying to hide his face (his only vulnerable part) in his hands and turning his back to you, and it's always interesting to see if there will be a new type of Ghoulie in the next room or not. The house itself is extremely well designed and decorated too....you'll see easter eggs and nods to other Rare games everywhere (one room is even covered in posters of their old ZX Spectrum games like Atic Atac and Sabre Wulf), and most things can be interacted with in some way either by smashing and breaking them, or picking them up and using to smack zombies over the head with. The music on the other hand is a little unimaginative and sounds almost like it's been directly ripped out from the 'Mad Monster Mansion' stage in Banjo-Kazooie...whilst this isn't exactly a bad thing in itself and it certainly fits the mood here, I would have liked to have heard something a bit more original than Rare's stock 'haunted house' theme that seems to play throughout. It could be just me, but after all the hours spent playing Banjo Kazooie and Donkey Kong 64, familiarity definitely breeds a bit of contempt for me here.

For what it is, Grabbed By The Ghoulies is an extremely entertaining game that'll keep you interested for a while. It's fun, very playable and packs a decent challenge. Unfortunately, outside of it's difficulty on later stages, it is a fairly short game and can be beaten in less than 10 hours, and because it follows a strictly linear format (complete the challenge in a room, find the door that opens, go onto the next room, rinse repeat), there really isn't much scope for replay value either, unless you're the kind of person who really must find all the hidden Rare books and unlock and complete all the Bonus Challenges. But ultimately it's a game that'll leave you with a smile on your face and is well worth the experience. If you're looking for something a little different from Rare than their usual 3D platformers but also something that has their distinct mark all over it, then you could do a lot worse than to check it out.

TromaDogg's Final Verdict: 8/10

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