Poor Luigi, always in Mario's shadow. Even when Luigi set off on his own ghost-wrangling adventure in Luigi's Mansion over a decade ago, it was still as though he was defined by Mario's absence. The game dedicated a whole button to calling out Mario's name!
In the new 3DS sequel Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon, the green-clad Mario brother is pulled back into the ghostbusting business. The ghosts are going haywire, you see. It's up to you round them up. You do this by unloading a charge of your flashlight on ghosts, and then using your trusty Poltergust 5000, a ghostbusting device that straps onto your back, to suck the ghosts up. That's not all you can do with it, though. The Poltergust 5000 has two functions: vacuuming and blowing. Like in the first game, you use these abilities to poke and prod your way through rooms. Who knew so many of the world's problems could be solved with an overpowered vacuum?
You'll capture ghosts, solve puzzles, and generally cause havoc. You aren't the only one causing mischief, either. The cackling, conniving ghosts cause trouble, but they're clearly having a lot of fun while they're at it. It reminds me a little of superstitious belief in some religious communities that says that when we lose things, it's really ghosts and angels having a ball with our possessions; nothing malicious per se.
Dark Moon feels supersized in comparison to the original game. There are six mansions (!), each with a bevy of themed rooms and multiple floors. The number of things you can do is huge, too—you can go from riding balloons, to watering plants, to setting things on fire and just about everything in between; this game features far more puzzles and objects to interact with than the first game did.
It's an adventure so grand and extensive that you won't wonder where Mario is. This is Luigi's adventure, and that's great, because honestly? Luigi is the more interesting character-even if he is a total scaredy-cat. It's funny to see the green-hatted brother cower and chatter his teeth at anything that moves, and it feels like he has more texture than Mario does.
The flip side of having such an extensive adventure is that, at times, the game feels like it drags on. If the first game could be criticized for being too short (or, in my books, just long enough), the new Luigi's Mansion could be criticized for being too long. You can tell Nintendo took the criticisms to heart and did their best to try to provide "value," but they resort to padding the game a bit too often.
You go into all the mansions with the purpose of collecting the dark moon piece hidden inside, but each mansion is broken down into smaller levels. Even if you enter knowing exactly where the piece is, something always happens to get in the way: you might, for instance, have to recover an item deep inside the mansion, only to have it stolen by ghosts, but then you recover it, but then it gets stolen by a ghost-dog, then you recover it, and then…
The fragmented setup can lead to a lot of backtracking as you search for what might be different in a familiar location across multiple levels, which contributes to the padded feeling. But the level structure makes me think the game is best played in short bursts—no more than 30, maybe 40 minutes for later levels. That way, you don't end up backtracking too much in one go. When most of the levels are about 20 minute affairs, and because Dark Moon makes you hungry for exploration, keeping to short play sessions might be difficult.
I often wanted to keep going, even when the game absolutely stumped me—which happened more times than I expected. The folks at Next Level Games are clever indeed. Dark Moon is a game for the observant; you can think of it a little like a point-and-click adventure game. The objects you need to interact with may not always be immediately obvious—heck, they might not be visible at all.
That's where your new dark light comes into play, which you can use to make hidden objects appear. You use the same intuition you might in a Mario game when you think "this is where an invisible block would be," only in this case, it would be some sort of everyday household item, like a vase or a dresser. Actually realizing that an item is missing someplace can take a while.
Solving puzzles and going deeper into the mansions also means encountering ghosts. Like before, you can think of ghost hunting as supernatural fishing, with the player having to 'reel in' the ghosts. The ghosts will struggle and try to run away. You have to tilt the circle pad in the opposite direction. At the start of the game, catching ghosts is rather easy, but as you go along, not only does their HP increase, but stunning them with your flashlight becomes more difficult. Maybe they're wearing sunglasses. Maybe they're in a full suit of armor. You need to figure out how to deal with different types of situations, which can keep things fresh.
The ghosts, in a way, are what disappointed me most about this game. In the first Luigi's Mansion, the major ghosts were all characters—people who used to inhabit the spaces you explore. Ghosts so attached to the material plane, they continued living out their daily existence in the afterlife. It also made it feel as if Luigi was intruding, as if it wasn't really Luigi's mansion. (These newer mansions don't belong to Luigi either though! Why are the games called "Luigi's Mansion"?)
You only get repeating cannon-fodder ghosts, which made it difficult for me to get invested in that side of the game. It felt like the ghost-hunting was something I did in between puzzles rather than something fun to do for its own sake. It wasn't until the later portion of the game, where it gave me intense ghost battles, that I felt thrilled by these otherworldly encounters. Really, the latter half of the game is where Dark Moon shines—the game takes its gloves off and gives you environments without maps, multi-room spanning puzzles, and mansions that are exotic enough that they can't be compared to the mansion in the first game.
That last bit is crucial, since at the start, Dark Moon might feel like a rehash of the first game, only not as good thanks to the ghosts' relative lack of character and ample backtracking. Newer players won't have a point of reference and might not care, though. My colleague Kirk Hamilton hasn't played the first game, and tells me he finds the new one to be quite charming.
The boss battles, meanwhile, tended to infuriate me. Without giving anything away, some battles felt too obtuse, while others require you to go through too much tedium. I suspect that half of my game time was me either being stuck in puzzles, or stuck on boss battles. I wanted to quit the game multiple times, and probably would have were I not reviewing it—but, I'm glad I stuck through it, since the game truly does have outstanding moments.
Finally there's multiplayer. You gotta give props to something called "Scarescrapper." There are four modes in Scarescrapper: Hunter, Rush, Polterpup and Surprise. I didn't dabble with multiplayer too much; I've only played a few matches with fellow Kotaku editors. Hunter reminds me a bit of a roguelike: the point is to climb through floors, capturing all the ghosts on the floor. You don't know what items do at first until you get them, and the rooms are randomly generated.
I also played Polterpup, which involves chasing down ghost puppies throughout levels. Both require coordination and communication with your teammates, as you'll need help with tough rooms, or to undo curses, traps and the like. Surprisingly, ghosthunting lends itself pretty well to multiplayer. I won't say it's on Mario Kart's level, but definitely something to mess around with if you're curious. It's too bad that you can't use the 3DS to talk to your friends while playing, and that you can't join mid-game (which makes falling out of a game a major bummer, as you'll have to restart). Though this does seem like a game that would be really fun to play locally, with three other players in the same room. Not everyone has to own the game to play, though the local download-play options are more limited than if everyone has the full game.
Nintendo has deemed 2013 the "Year of Luigi." And while Luigi's Mansion may not have felt like a game that needed a sequel, Dark Moon exists, and it has something to prove: Luigi can carry a game all by himself. I'm not convinced the series needed to go for more, more, more, (bigger! better! faster!) but I'm sold on Luigi himself. In fact, I want to see more of Luigi than I do his famous brother. Even if Luigi is kind of a goof.