The individual trappings, characters, and references to crossing the streams carry lots of nostalgia weight in the Ghostbusters franchise, especially among those who, like me, fell in love with the first film in their youth. But if you’re really trying to make something distinctively Ghostbusters, what you really need is a healthy dash of absolute nonsense. It’s the energy that birthed the monstrosity of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man in the first place, and the comedic timing that makes lines like “When someone asks if you’re a God…” really sing. Put simply, Ghostbusters needs to be a little stupid in a good way. And in Ghostbusters: Spirits Unleashed, I suspect Illfonic may have nailed the exact flavor of good stupidity I was looking for from a four-person cooperative Ghostbusters game.
I’ll get to the goofiness in a bit, though, because like all good comedy, Spirits Unleashed’s ghost fights need some structure. In my hands-on session, I’m dropped into a map called The Museum alongside two developers playing cooperatively with me, and a third AI player that, were our voice comms not a thing, would have blended right into our group of human players without me noticing. We’re trying to capture a ghost controlled by another Illfonic developer, whose job it is to escape our capture and thoroughly haunt the museum before we can stop it. I’m armed appropriately with a proton pack and a PKE meter I can swap between, as well as a ghost trap I can toss on the ground for ghost capturing – though if I don’t remember to pick it up when I’m done, I won’t have it at my disposal for the next ghost encounter.
In the early parts of the match, we’re largely split up across the floor, PKE meters out and beeping away as we search for ghostly activity. Passing civilians wandering the exhibits are ripe ghost targets, but at the start remain calm and collected. I explored a dinosaur exhibit, aquatic life, a cafe, and a section devoted to unusual relics and curiosities, all spread out across a top and lower floor laid out with balconies overlooking the lower exhibits and multiple staircases. All the exhibits are closely interconnected, making movement between them easy, and are full of stuff. Vases, models of animals, janitorial supplies, tables and chairs, and all kinds of other objects fill the space, both bringing it to life and ensuring our ghost prey has plenty of places to hide…or haunt.
Which is exactly what the ghost we’re tracking eventually does. As chaos begins to stir, our PKE meters start to blip, but they might not necessarily be indicating the ghost itself. The ghost can “haunt” different objects, sending chairs flying across the room or creating other eerie, ghastly effects. He’s also protecting three “rifts” hidden across the museum that we’ll need to destroy with our proton packs if we want to win the match. As long as there’s a rift still up, the ghost can use it to respawn if we manage to capture and trap it. But if we find and blast the rifts apart, the ghost is toast.
But more than trying to evade capture, the ghost we’re after is here on a mission. He’s here to haunt. As I experienced in my later match on the spectral side, ghosts can win by scaring away all the aforementioned civilians roaming the map. Civilians are easily startled, so ghost abilities like sliming or sending out smaller ghostly minions are freaky enough to do the job – or they can just go in for a direct attack. Fortunately, the ghost doesn’t have unlimited scare power – every ghostly ability costs them ectoplasm, which must be rejuvenated eventually by possessing an object for a period of time, rendering the ghost more vulnerable to capture…especially if he, as one of my opponents did, possesses an innocent mop bucket and then scoots rapidly across the floor in a goofy attempt to escape our grasp.
For the first half of the match, catching the ghost is just a secondary objective. Since our opponent can respawn as long as there’s a rift around, we’re stalking around the museum, PKE meters out, looking for rifts to destroy and calming down any concerned civilians we run across. But the ghost isn’t giving up rifts easily. Our attempts to close them result in chaotic, colorful firefights as the ghost belches slime and sneakily disables our proton packs from behind. Our proton packs are powerful and can, with enough focus, grapple the ghost for a period of time to drag it into a trap. But they’re appropriately unwieldy and deliberately hard to aim, resulting in plenty of familiar Ghostbusters moments where we’re all waving our guns wildly around one another trying to latch onto a ghost as it cackles merrily above our heads and sends another wave of ghost minions to distract us further.
But with four of us working together we do, eventually, get the rifts closed, leaving the ghost with nowhere to run. But our opponent hasn’t been idle. He’s haunted half the museum, sending slime dribbling down the walls as the match progresses, objects floating and glowing with wild abandon, and civilians scattering out the doors. All of the matches I played during my demo time culminated in a frantic final few minutes where the Ghostbuster team sprinted through the museum to track and trap the ghost, pinging map locations where it was spotted and yelling gleefully into the microphone as we awkwardly tried to blast it down from a distance. Meanwhile, with nothing left to distract his pursuers, our resident ghost has to stay alive long enough to find and scare away the final civilians with its limited energy stores, all while faced with an increasingly aggressive squad of Ghostbusters. I’m proud to say I did manage to win my match alone as the ghost against the team of developer Ghostbusters, largely by aggressively haunting every boring inanimate object I ran across until the whole museum looked like a very gooey magic show.
My playtime was limited to a single map, The Museum, and a single, simple set of Ghostbuster appearances and abilities, as well as one specific ghost with a set arsenal of ectoplasmic powers. But Illfonic tells me that’s hardly the whole game. The final product will have more maps, lots of unlockable customization for the Ghostbusters both cosmetic and practical, and of course, plenty more ghosts with different abilities. It’s very easy to see from here the many ways in which Illfonic can iterate on Spirits Unleashed to ensure a fun player experience long-term so that matches won’t get stale, and I’m especially excited to experiment with a wider variety of ghost powers when the time comes.
Though supposedly only a small sliver of the final game, I see a lot of promise in Spirits Unleashed and am eager for more. The pacing of the matches I played was beautifully reminiscent of the original Ghostbusters film, echoing the infamous library scene beginning with the group slowly walking through the shelves searching for activity, and ending in utter chaos, destruction, and brightly-colored slime. Spirits Unleashed takes a lot of the best elements of games like Prop Hunt, Phasmaphobia, and Luigi’s Ghost Mansion from Nintendo Land and throws them into the world of Ghostbusters, which it turns out is a pretty good cocktail for a game set in that universe. With that backdrop in place, Spirits Unleashed has plenty of room for the kind of emergent silliness that I am hopeful will make playing it with my friends sticky, fun, and yes, a little stupid – exactly what I want from Ghostbusters.
Rebekah Valentine is a news reporter for IGN. You can find her on Twitter @duckvalentine.