When Microsoft purchased UK-based developer Rare for $375 million just over a year ago, the debate began as to whether the creators of Donkey Kong Country, Goldeneye and Banjo-Kazooie were worth the investment, and what would their inaugural Xbox effort be: A new installment in the Killer Instinct series, a sequel to Perfect Dark, another bad fur day for Conker?
Grabbed by the Ghoulies.
Who with the what now?
Ok, so it wasn’t what anxious gamers were expecting, or hoping for that matter, but this just-in-time-for-Halloween spookfest has Rare written all over it (literally at times).
Cooper and his girlfriend Amber are out for a walk in the woods, one day, when a serious storm suddenly brews. When they happen upon an old mansion, Amber is eager to seek shelter but Cooper insists on checking the map one last time. Before he can say “hmm,” Amber is whisked away by a ghoul into the depths of the haunted house, and Cooper is left to rescue his damsel in distress. The game begins as Cooper enters the grand hallway of Ghoulhaven Hall, meets Crivens, the elderly butler, and encounters his first pack of feisty imps.
Grabbed by the Ghoulies is a room-oriented platform game, similar to Luigi’s Mansion. When Cooper enters a room, the door behind him locks, leaving our protoganist to complete a challenge in order to unlock (read: de-tentical) the door to the next room. Challenges range from defeating all ghoulies of a specific breed to vanquishing all ghoulies, regardless of breed. At times, Cooper will have to complete a challenge without the use of weapons or without defeating particular ghoulies. Sometimes the task is as simple as finding a hidden key within the room. In the later stages of the game, the challenge criteria are combined to increase the difficulty level. Break a rule or exceed the time limit of a challenge and the Grim Reaper will come a knockin’ at your door. One touch from death will induce Cooper to faint, leaving him to re-do the room.
Ghoulhaven Hall and its grounds are split into just over 50 rooms. Billiards room, check. Dining hall, check. Servants room, check. Greenhouse, check. Each room contains potential weapons – a pool cue, a potted plant, a chair, even hamburgers – as well as breakable scenery that yield bonus items, including soup cans that replenish health and offer power-ups (just be careful, some soups have unwanted side effects). Each room also contains a hidden book. For every five books you find, you unlock a bonus mini-game that can be accessed from the main menu.
As you progress through the mansion, you’ll encounter some of its less-aggressive residents: Crivens, the butler, Ma Soupswill, the cook, Fiddlesworth, the groundskeeper, and Babs Buffbrass, the housekeeper. Besides adding a touch of humour to the game, these characters will often provide tasks for Cooper to complete, as well as supply him with special weapons in order to combat some of the more challenging ghoulies.
The ghoulies in the game are quite amusing. The imps start out simple enough, but later become kung-fu experts with Matrix-like, physics-defying abilities. Vampire chickens that suck your blood, hair-whipping Medusas, peg-legged zombie pirates and hip-hopping skeletons are just some of the creatures you’ll encounter. Toss in a handful of boss characters (I actually felt kind of bad punching Quasimodo in the face like that) and the result is a hilarious cast of baddies. Speaking of Medusa and her scare-inducing stare, there are also several ghosts that inhabit the mansion. You won’t have to fight them, but they will occasionally spook Cooper if he’s not careful. In those instances, you’ll have to hit a combination of displayed buttons in order to avoid being shaken up (read: frozen in place).
In general, the gameplay in Grabbed by the Ghoulies is simple, if not repetitive. At times it’s creative, other times it’s pretty standard fare. I couldn’t help but roll my eyes when, after fetching three ingredients for Ma Soupswill’s special recipe, I was then tasked to locate three parts of a riddle in order to open the door to Baron Von Ghoul’s master suite. Why do all things come in threes? By the time you find your girlfriend, aid the aforementioned cook, do away with the evil mastermind and escape Ghoulhaven Hall, you’ll have likely spent just over 6 hours in the mansion.
Cooper is controlled using the left thumbstick and, unconventionally, the right thumbstick is used to attack. Just push the stick in the direction of the enemy and Cooper will punch, kick and swing or throw his weapon their way. The A button is used to pick up items, and the B button is used to discard them, while the right and left triggers are used to rotate the camera. It’s a bit of an awkward control scheme, one that takes some time to get used too, but it’s also a surprisingly effective approach when all is said and done.
Grabbed by the Ghoulies has a great visual style to it. The story is told in comic book fashion, frame-by-frame, page-by-page. The environments are creative, the ghoulies are amusing to watch, and Cooper and the rest of the gang are well animated. It’s like watching a live action cartoon. Like some other Rare games, none of the characters in Grabbed by the Ghoulies mutter a single word of dialog. Instead, cheers, groans and grunts convey their emotions. The soundtrack features an appropriate mix of Monster Mash type jingles, albeit perhaps too few of them, and the requisite shrieks and other sound effects round out the aural presentation.
Geared towards a younger crowd, Rare’s debut on the Xbox is a lighthearted romp through a haunted mansion. The game has a great look and feel to it, but the gameplay, while fast-paced, borders on being shallow. Will Grabbed by the Ghoulies be able to grab the imagination of gamers, young and old? I think so. It’s good clean fun for the kids and well worth a rental.