Note: This is a review that I have previously published elsewhere in the past, either on a different (now defunct) blog or a gaming forum. I’ve dragged the original – kicking and screaming – from the dusty archives and polished it up. Consider this the ‘Director’s Cut’ edition…
Geist is a game suffering from an identity crisis that overshadows its potential. It’s a verdict that I couldn’t help but come away with after playing through N-Space’s ghostly adventure; a game bogged down by damaging flaws that detract from the fresh and interesting ideas that could have amounted to something special had the game been treated to more polish.
I wasn’t completely shocked by this, however. After all, Geist was first revealed at 2003’s E3 event and touted for release that very same year. Unfortunately, the game was delayed and by the time it finally materialised on the Gamecube in 2005, very few people cared anymore. History shows that games trapped in development hell are likely to finally emerge as damp squibs despite all of that extra time that the developers have had to fine tune their product. Sadly, Geist is no exception to this unwritten rule.
Ghostin’ it up
Geist opens with the player in the shoes of John Raimi (no relation to Hollywood’s Sam Raimi…I think), a member of a counter-terrorism team tasked with investigating a shady French lab. In true sci-fi fashion the mission goes terribly wrong and Raimi finds himself a ‘guest’ of the lab’s owners, the mysterious Volks Corporation, who decide that he is the perfect subject for their sinister experiments. Strapped into their machine, Raimi is ripped from his body and left to exist as an ethereal spirit but it isn’t long before he manages to escape.
This is where Geist‘s much-touted USP – possession – comes into play. After a short tutorial in possessing objects, you start to use Raimi’s new powers to explore the facility with the goal of recovering his body and uncovering the intentions of Volks. This means possessing the guards and scientists in Volks’ employ in order to interact with the physical world around you. Potential hosts can only be possessed when they have been sufficiently spooked as indicated by the colour of their aura so it’s a case of using the objects around them to get them nice and scared. Dustbins, computer terminals and items of machinery are just some of the things that Raimi can utilise to give his unsuspecting victims a case of the willies – you can force a piece of machinery to explode without warning for example. It’s usually a multi-stage process with several objects needing to be manipulated before the target succumbs to their fear and leaves the door open for Raimi to swoop in and take up residence.
At first this mechanic feels original and is genuinely fun. The first few possessions are magical and you’ll be hard-pressed not to smile at the results of your ghostly antics. Ironically, however, Geist‘s signature mechanic is also its Achilles heel because it quickly becomes apparent that you aren’t as free as your ghostly state would imply.
Let’s begin with the elephant in the room: Raimi is a ghost and yet he is still thwarted by walls and closed/locked doors. Yes, really. So you are having to constantly possess unwitting humans in order to move between rooms whenever doors are involved. As well as making absolutely no sense whatsoever, this huge restriction serves to rob the player of feeling all-powerful. What’s the point of being a ghost if you are stuck playing by the rules of the physical world? It’s the first in a series of missed opportunities.
The possession mechanic itself is similarly limited. As with your inability to pass through walls like a paranormal badass, possessing humans is a restrictive and disappointingly scripted process. Inanimate objects usually have to be manipulated in a specific sequence so scaring the base’s populance boils down to identifying which items to utilise and what order to use them in. When this realisation hits home the fun rapidly evaporates and you are left with an extremely linear experience intent on pushing the player down pre-determined routes. Geist is crying out for a more sandbox-like style of play, where the player can choose which objects to use and how to use them. As well as enhancing the overall experience, it would certainly have given the game some much-needed replay value.
Variety is the spice of life
Then there is that identity crisis that I mentioned in this review’s opening sentence. Is it an FPS? A survival horror? It seems that even N-Space doesn’t know because Geist is an example of multiple styles of gameplay colliding to form a muddled experience. In fairness to N-Space Nintendo apparently got involved in this area but it doesn’t make the negative aspects of this genre clash forgivable in any way.
Possess a host carrying a firearm and Geist becomes an FPS which accounts for roughly 75% of the gameplay. Sadly, these sections are dreadful; weapons are restricted to what the host was originally carrying and ammo is unlimited, removing any sort of tactical approach. Not that you’d need to approach firefights with much thought though since the enemy AI appears content to run headlong into a hail of bullets or take ‘cover’ behind crates that only shield their legs! If Nintendo were hoping that Geist would be a killer FPS to boost the Gamecube’s credibility within the genre then this was an enormous failure. The far superior Timesplitters Future Perfect had already hit the system three months prior, for example, and the previous year’s Halo 2 and Killzone over on the Xbox and PS2 respectively would have laughed at Geist‘s attempt to muscle in.
Away from shooting stuff, a later area of the game has Raimi wandering around an eerie mansion and solving puzzles that involve rotating statues and light beams in order to open doors. It’s a notable change of pace from the FPS sections and more than a mild riff on Resident Evil‘s obscure puzzles and dilapidated setting. There’s even a brief stealth segment where, while possessing a dog, you must avoid the guards in a room and reach the other side. There’s nothing wrong with a jack-of-all-trades game but when none of the individual ingredients manage to impress, then the subsequent amalgamation of parts results in a fairly dissatisfying overall experience.
Other criticisms worth noting include the bosses which, bar a few encounters, are mostly recycled and sport identical weaknesses (spoilers: it’s their mouths), bland, generic character models (with poorly-rendered facial detailing) and the environments which look impressive from a distance but crumble under closer scrutiny.
Also, this being a more adult (marketed at teenage boys, then) game released in the mid-noughties, Geist‘s female populance – whether they are wearing secretarial outfits, lab coats or military gear – are all equipped with enormous breasts. There is even a section of the game where you have to possess a busty woman wearing just a small shower towel so well done N-Space. Or not. As an unapologetic male, I’m never going to to complain too much about a bit of titillation in a game, but this must still be marked down as ticking the boxes on a checklist of required generic features.
From the negative tone threading its way through this review you might have already concluded that Geist is a total failure but that would be a decidedly harsh assessment. There are many original and humorous moments that break up the dull sections and the prospect of stumbling across the next one is just enough to keep you plodding on to the game’s conclusion. The aforementioned shower room scene, for example, might seem a bit of a cynical inclusion in order to check the ‘Boobs’ box but it’s still a cheeky nod to the first thing most teenage boys (and, let’s face it, a lot of adult blokes) would think of doing if they could be invisible and pass through walls.
The main issue is that there aren’t enough smile-inducing moments to properly dilute the crap bits. All too often I found myself wondering, “why didn’t they let you do this?” or “wouldn’t it have been cool if you could have done that?” This, and the distinct lack of attention to things like the game’s sub-par AI and very average aesthetics, really mark Geist down as a forgettable curio destined to be lost to the mists of time. This is a real shame because there are some innovative ideas here and so much potential for something truly special. Geist did nothing to set the gaming world alight back in 2005 but in 2019, with the much more powerful technology beneath our TV’s, there’s no reason why revisiting the concept couldn’t result in a fantastic game.