Ever since I was a kid playing David Crane’s original Ghostbusters game on my Commodore 64, I’ve believed that Ghostbusters is a property that lends itself perfectly to video games. You’ve got great characters, you’ve got cool gadgets, you’ve got spirits from another realm that threaten apocalyptic levels of destruction to New York City and the world. And who gets to save the day and be heroes? A couple of grimy guys with working-class swagger. So it’s pained me a bit over the decades to see other franchises like Star Wars get bonanzas of games, many of them great, while Ghostbusters has largely been left in the shadows, save for the occasional underwhelming, forgettable game. Ghostbusters: Spirits Unleashed, out next week from IllFonic, is not the great Ghostbusters game I’ve been waiting for all this time. It does have its modest charms, however, and I’m hoping it’s a precursor to a new wave of games that do cool, interesting things with the Ghostbusters license.
IllFonic (which furnished Kotaku with code for this game) is the studio behind the asymmetrical multiplayer games Predator: Hunting Grounds and Friday the 13th, among other things, and Spirits Unleashed is in that vein. Up to four players suit up as Ghostbusters while another player (or an AI) haunts up one of the game’s five locations as a spook, spectre, or ghost. The ‘busters use classic ghostbusting gear to hunt the ghost down and trap it, while the ghost can do things like hide in ordinary objects, unleash weak but obnoxious little minion ghosts, and, of course, slime people. If the ghost scares enough civilians and just generally wreaks enough havoc to fill up a “haunt” meter, it wins. The Ghostbusters want to catch it before that happens.
So first, the positive stuff. Spirits Unleashed made a good first impression on this Ghostbusters fan by dropping me into the gang’s iconic firehouse right off the bat, which is meticulously recreated and totally explorable. It puts Winston Zeddemore (voiced by actor Ernie Hudson, who played him in the films) front and center, too, picking up as it does right where last year’s film Ghostbusters: Afterlife left off, with Winston reopening the old New York location. Seeing Winston prominently featured here feels a bit like course correction for some of the early Ghostbusters games, which I loved but which often left Winston out entirely and acted like the Ghostbusters were just three white guys. (Gee, I wonder why.)
One of the first things you do is create your own ‘buster, and the customization options are solid. My heart absolutely belongs to Spengler, Stantz, Venkman, and Zeddemore, but it was also great to see lots of mixed-gender, multi-racial Ghostbuster crews during my time with the game. And the signature Ghostbusters gear has perhaps never been quite so effectively incorporated into a game. Your trusty PKE meter helps you track down those pesky ghosts as well as ghost rifts, essentially respawn points that give the ghost a few extra lives. Ghosts start with three, and by destroying the rifts, you deprive the ghost of these extra respawns. Traps, of course, are needed to actually catch the ghosts. But the proton packs are the standout. The chaotic beam of colorful energy that shoots forth when you start blasting looks just as wild and ungovernable as it does in the movies, and just like the crew in the flicks, this means you will almost certainly rack up some serious property damage in your effort to wrangle the ghost. It’s part of the fun.
As for the rest—well, look, it’s hard to talk about a game like Spirits Unleashed pre-release, when opportunities to play with other people are limited. Kotaku was furnished with multiple codes, but our efforts to connect with each other via crossplay often ended in disconnection, so I didn’t really get to try out the full, proper experience of playing the game while communicating with teammates, which I think will be essential to the experience. To effectively catch a ghost, the ‘busters often have to coordinate things like who’s gonna hold the ghost in a proton pack “tether”—something best done by multiple ‘busters—while someone else tosses out and opens their trap. The mechanics are clearly designed to encourage and even demand communication to really work. The good people at IllFonic also made themselves available for multiplayer sessions, a gesture I appreciate, but I like to keep my experiences as authentic as possible and not play with folks who have a vested interest in the success of a game. I’ll definitely be trying the game out some more once it’s released and ideally the crossplay feature and network stability have improved.
You can, of course, play Spirits Unleashed by yourself, as either a ‘buster or a ghost, with the other roles filled with bots. However, I can’t recommend it as a single-player experience in its current state. I was often flabbergasted by how utterly ineffective my fellow, bot-controlled ‘busters were. They seemed to have no sense of teamwork or of what might be helpful in a given situation, and there’s no way to issue commands or suggestions to them like “I could use a trap here!”
Bot AI may well see some improvement in the weeks and months to come post-release, and if so, that improvement will definitely be welcome. Even if it does, though, there’s no denying that fundamentally, Spirits Unleashed is designed as a multiplayer game that encourages communication. So if you’re thinking of playing it, I’d recommend you have an idea of folks you know you want to play it with.
Also, keep your expectations in check. This is a modest game. Appropriately priced at $40, it’s a low-key, casual multiplayer experience that might be fun for the whole family but also won’t knock your socks off. Sure, there’s a story that progresses as you play matches and earn XP, unlocking upgrades for your gear and new cosmetic options for your ‘buster (including some nice homages to the great animated series The Real Ghostbusters), but once you’ve played a few matches, you kinda get the whole deal.
And as faithfully recreated as all the Ghostbusters gear is, the act of actually catching ghosts often feels chaotic in a negative sense. I often just sort of tossed my trap in the ghost’s general direction, tried to wrangle the ghost into position above it, and hoped I got lucky, and that it didn’t unleash a mega-slime attack that incapacitated my character for several seconds while covering my screen in sludge. Perhaps, when playing with friends, the process can feel more coordinated, skillful, and satisfying. I look forward to finding out soon.
On the screen of a computer in the firehouse is a nod to that classic David Crane game I mentioned, taken directly from the opening sing-along. To use the computer, you have to hit level 20, and I thought this meant that the classic Activision game might be a playable Easter egg in Spirits Unleashed, so I excitedly grinded my way up to 20 to find out. Alas, no, the computer just gives you access to new goals and challenges you can complete to earn more XP and other rewards. That’s fine, of course. The David Crane game still exists, and I can still play it if I want to. But it says something about Spirits Unleashed that, after playing it for a bit, I became more excited about the possibility of playing another, much older game within this one than playing this game itself. Spirits Unleashed gets the superficial details right, but I’m not sure it has the depth I’m looking for in the truly great, hypothetical Ghostbusters game I’ve been dreaming of for almost 40 years. Here’s hoping it’s just a spooky sign of far spookier things yet to come.