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Friday, April 12, 2024

Ghostbusters: Spirits Unleashed is a cleverer take on 4v1 multiplayer than you might expect

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I’m no ghost scientist, but there are a few things I’m unreasonably confident that ghosts would do if they actually existed and had the ability to possess everyday objects. They would make office chairs spin around to spook late night office workers. They’d short out electronics just when people most need them to work. And they’d definitely make soda machines spit out cans like fizzy ballistic missiles. I did all three as a ghost in a 15 minute session with developer Illfonic’s new asymmetrical Ghostbusters game Spirits Unleashed, so it at least passes my amateur ghostology test with flying, slimey colors. 

Ghostbusters is Illfonic’s third licensed 4v1 multiplayer game after Friday the 13th and Predator: Hunting Grounds, and they all do seem to lend themselves quite well to the format. In theory. In practice, both games have come and gone while Dead By Daylight keeps on trucking and Left 4 Dead 2 settles into complacent old age. I don’t think Ghostbusters will come close to supplanting either, but it might be the first Illfonic game that isn’t really trying to. Refreshingly, it’s an asymmetrical multiplayer game where the human team never gets torn limb-from-limb.

Illfonic’s developers told me that one of the most common bits of feedback from players is how un-fun it is to be a member of the four person squad and get taken out early in a match. So they modeled Ghostbusters after the scene in the first film where the team goes up against Slimer for the first time, tracking him throughout the hotel (and blasting housekeeping carts and chandeliers along the way). Slimer’s just there to cause mayhem, so in the game the ghost’s objective is to scare hapless NPCs while the ghostbusters are on the prowl. 

As a ghost I couldn’t kill the ghostbusters, but I could use abilities to slime them, mess with their proton packs, or scare them into an incapacitated state for awhile. The rest of my time I spent haunting objects to spook NPCs or yelling in their faces while trying to manage my ectoplasm meter, which was quickly drained whenever I used an ability. I could chill out in a vending machine or a statue to regenerate, but staying there too long meant I was risking a ghostbuster coming around the corner with their ghost sensor raised to sniff me out. 

The ghost can be slippery, but if a couple ghostbusters gang up on you you can quickly be pulled into a trap and caught. But again, this is a slightly more generous take on asymmetrical multiplayer, so dying once as the ghost isn’t the end: you have three “rifts” hidden in objects around the map to respawn from once before your chances are up. There’s another clever cat and mouse twist here, in that the ghostbusters can find and destroy your rifts, too, so that’s another strategy for each side to manage. The ghost can move their rifts, while the ‘busters have to split their attention between hunting the ghost, calming down anxious NPCs and destroying the rifts.

Playing first-person as a ghostbuster, the proton beam definitely has that same physicality it does in the movies: it writhes like an angry energy snake and wraps around a ghost when you wrestle it into place. It was the right kind of controlled chaos, though there’s still some fine-tuning to be done. I was supposed to use the mouse wheel to shorten or lengthen the beam to position a grabbed ghost over a trap, but I kept swiping the wheel before fully ensnaring a ghost and swapping to my sensor wand instead. As the ghost I sometimes struggled to discern what objects I could inhabit, and wouldn’t have minded having ugly ghost-o-vision applied to the screen to highlight everything I could interact with.

There’s also a lot of button mashing to shake off slime or, as the ghost, wriggle out of a trap, that feels like it could have a more interesting mechanic tied to it. Spirits Unleashed feels a bit generic in some of these finer details, even as the structure of the ghost hunt, and the good natured slightly-spooky-but-mostly-silly vibe, feel pretty novel for this type of multiplayer. There’s also some amount of story here, meted out as you level up by original actors Ernie Hudson and Dan Aykroyd, whose characters have reestablished the ghostbusters and opened up a paranormal antiquities shop nearby, respectively.

Illfonic still has ample time to work on those details, too, as Spirits Unleashed is set to come out towards the end of this year. The developers promised a range of ghosts you’ll be able to play, along with a progression system that lets you unlock both cosmetics and equipment for the ghostbusters and alternate abilities for the ghosts. It’s hard to judge how much staying power this sort of game will have without getting a sense for that variety, but it feels like it could become a recurring weeknight Discord pick: the lighter, less intense game you pile into when you need a break from your main squeeze. It’s a pleasant surprise that a new Ghostbusters game in 2022 can feel like a great use of the license and not just a nostalgic cash-in.

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