A captivating story and novel game mechanics make Geist stand out of the crowd.
Ever since Rare’s departure, Nintendo has said goodbye to the first person shooter. However, at the same time, the publisher was setting up shop in Austin at Retro Studios. With Retro came Nintendo’s new genre, the “first person adventure.” Combining elements of the both the first person shooter and adventure genres, the FPA sets itself apart from that ocean of games where the only objective is to kill anything and everything. Geist is another addition to this fledgling genre and combines the typical shooting aspects with puzzle solving and storytelling.
You play as John Raimi, or at least the soul of John Raimi. When he’s sent in with an assault team to retrieve valuable data from the Volks Corporation, something goes horribly wrong, and he winds up having his soul ripped out of his body. While he may be without his body, the experiment has left him with some new abilities. To him, time has slowed, and while in spirit form everything moves at a snail’s pace. He can float, pass through certain barriers (such as chain-link fences) and slip through small cracks, but that’s not even the half of it. As a spirit, Raimi can possess objects and people, and he’ll need to if he has any intention on getting his body back and stopping Volks.
Geist is a first person adventure, and this is evident from almost the first moment you play it. The game’s pace is decidedly slower than that of other first person games. In fact, just about as much time is spent thinking as is shooting. Raimi can’t just possess whatever he wants. While objects can be possessed at any time, living organisms require a little more effort. They’ll need to be sufficiently frightened first, which is where object possession comes into play. For example, to possess a dog, Raimi will have to first frighten it by possessing a bowl of dog food. Upon doing so, he lures the dog over and then causes the food in the bowl to jump into the air, thus scaring the dog. This scenario is repeated throughout the game with various people, animals, and objects. Raimi will have to use his wits to figure out exactly how to scare the various hosts.
It is this aspect of Geist that stands out above all the others. It’s not always as easy as possessing an object nearby a potential host. Many hosts (especially humans) will require multiple scares to bring them to the point of possession. They’ll need to be lured into the right spots with smaller scares before you can go in for the big one to really freak them out. This gives the game a puzzle aspect, and there are some real head scratchers. You must be fully aware of your surroundings to succeed. Figuring out how to scare hosts is a lot of fun, especially because the ways in which you scare them are often very inventive. Some are downright freaky, while others have a more playful aspect akin to the phantoms in the movie Ghostbusters.
On a core gameplay level, Geist is solid but lacking in some departments. Movement is just as simple as it should be, whether you’re a ghost, a human, or an animal. It always feels right. Shooting, on the other hand, always feels a bit wrong. For the most part things are fine, but aiming is slightly difficult. This is due mostly to the GameCube controller’s C-stick. It simply does not allow for the precise movements required by the first person shooter. There's a constant struggle with the controls that makes the game more frustrating than it should be. Also lacking is the artificial intelligence. The enemies in Geist, excepting some of the spookier ones towards the end, aren’t terribly smart. They won’t team up and flank you or pull of any other such complex maneuvers. These guys are, for the most part, limited to trying to dodge your shots while also shooting back at you. A few of them don't even bother trying to dodge and instead just stand there shooting.
The bosses are better, though. It’s apparent that the team over at nSpace spent much of their lives playing videogames. Many of the bosses are exercises in old school pattern recognition. You’ll have to study their moves carefully to figure out exactly when, how, and where to strike. There’s a good chance you’ll die the first time or two you fight them, but when you get to that, “Oh! I get it!” moment, there is a real sense of accomplishment to be had.
All of these elements combined make for a very solid game, but one more very important element mixes them together. That element is the story. Geist weaves a compelling story, which is delivered both in-game and through cut scenes. With a story involving shady corporations, ghosts, and demons from another world, Geist could get really complicated really fast, but it doesn’t. That’s not to say it’s simple, though. The story has a few twists and revelations that keep it interesting, which is certainly more than most other (non-RPG) games could claim.
Another thing really helping the draw of Geist’s story is the animation. When Raimi possesses a host, often the first thing he does is reach out his hands to get a feel for his new body. This and other hand animations make you feel like you are playing a real character and not just a camera on a stick. In other games, walking up to an elevator and pressing the A button to use it results in the elevator moving. In Geist, pressing the A button causes Raimi to reach out his hand and actually press the button, which in turn causes the elevator to move. Possessing an animal lets you see as the animal sees. Dogs see black and white with muted tones of yellow. Mice have a fish-eye view of the world and can barely see a few feet in front of themselves.
Also keeping things interesting is a novel multiplayer mode. Instead of going for the standard run-and-gun frag fest seen in most FPS games, Geist adds the possession mechanics in to spice things up. However, unlike the methodical pace of Geist’s single player, the multiplayer is quite frantic. Multiplayer is split into three modes, all of which have support for a maximum of eight players (up to four human, the rest being bots). These modes are Possession Deathmatch, Capture the Host, and Hunt.
In Possession Deathmatch and Capture the Host, all players start out as ghosts. Hosts replace weapons in Geist, so instead of picking up the weapon you want, you possess the host with that weapon. Deathmatch is the standard mode and is pretty much the same as any other game's Deathmatch. Capture the Host is a variation on Capture the Flag. Like Deathmatch, the goal is to kill as many opponents as possible. However, you cannot win simply by killing. Every time you take out an enemy you add one to a point tally, but these points are not earned until you make it back to a central base to dump them off. If you die before cashing in your points, they are gone and you earn nothing.
Hunt mode is a little more complicated. In this mode, teams are split into ghosts and hosts. The hosts’ objective is to stay alive and kill the ghosts (with special weapons provided). The ghosts have to kill the hosts, but they have no weapons. Instead, they must possess the hosts and run them into various environmental hazards such as spike pits, fires, and dangling electric wires. Things get interesting once a ghost possesses a host. Both players (the host and ghost) have control of the body while it is under possession. The two will be dragging the body in opposite directions, though the ghost has a little more pull. To counteract this, the host player can rapidly tap the A button to kick the ghost out of his body. It’s not quite as complex as it sounds, but it is incredibly chaotic. Hunt is sure to be the favorite of most players because it's just so different.
There are also various power-ups in multiplayer. Most of them are pretty standard, such as increased damage or extra shielding; however, one deserves special mention. The Hijack power-up allows a ghost to steal a host that is already in possession by another ghost. It’s fun in Deathmatch but really shines in Capture the Host. Here’s an example. Player 1 has scored five kills and is running back to the base to cash them in. Player 2 can snag a Hijack, rip the body from his foe’s possession, and take all those points in for himself. It’s this kind of gameplay that really sets Geist apart from run-of-the-mill shooters.
Geist is a first person adventure. Anybody going into it expecting it to be like Halo or Goldeneye 007 is going to be disappointed. In fact, the game shares much more in common with The Legend of Zelda. Geist’s pacing is far more deliberate that that of a first person shooter. It requires you to think, not just act. The compelling story and incredibly fun and unique possession mechanics allow Geist to rise above its competition.