Review – Geist (Gamecube)

Geist-1Platform: Gamecube
Year: 2005
Developer: N-Space
Publisher: Nintendo
Genre: FPS

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.

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Raimi be angry. [Image Source]
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.

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Possessing a security gun turret is admittedly pretty cool. [Image Source]
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.

 

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Ah, the old conveniently-placed soap suds effect. [original image credit here]
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.

Conclusion

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.

Conan [Playstation 2]

Note: This review is part of a series I am going to call “Resurrected Reviews”, essentially stuff that I wrote for previous (now deceased) blogs and review topics on various gaming forums over the years. I have dragged them kicking-and-a-screaming into the harsh light of the present day and revamped them where necessary. Some may say “Rehash” but I say “Recycling”.

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Release: 2004 | Developer: Cauldron | Publisher: TDK Mediactive | Also On: PC, Xbox, Gamecube

“What does not destroy me, makes me stronger”

When talking about the videogame adventures of Robert E Howard’s legendary barbarian warrior, most will be more familiar with the PS3 game by THQ, a very average 3D adventure game that I personally found to be akin to a poor man’s God of War. The game that I will be talking about now (also titled simply ‘Conan’) came before on the PS2 and Gamecube and was published by TDK, developed by Cauldron. It’s completely unrelated to the THQ game but would it be better for it? Well…

Picture this: after a mere ten minutes of gameplay, I was staring dully at the TV screen with mental despair taking hold. I was thinking, why oh why are there no good Conan games? The PS3 game was an un-enjoyable slog to the finish after just a few hours of playtime and there are no others that I know of aside from the PC Age of Conan MMO which I can’t be arsed with as I simply don’t ‘do’ PC games. The only other Conan game I have glimpsed came in the form of a few screenshots for an unreleased Atari Jaguar side-scrolling beat ‘em up (the very definition of obscure!) so I was desperate for this PS2 effort to satisfy the Conan fan in me. But no, it just had to be another bitter pill of disappointment.

Why are there no decent Conan games? Why? The films were great (well, the first one was. Conan the Destroyer isn’t quite the same and the remake is just pointless) but the books were even better. I’ve read every one of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories and they were brilliant. Between these and the movie adaptations, there is a world of resource and inspiration for some good Conan games so why…are…there…no…good…Conan…games? WHY? WHY? WHERE ARE THE GOOD CONAN GAMES?!?

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Whew. That’s better. Talk about your pent up frustration. In the spirit of Conan himself, I persevered and so with pad in hand I asked Crom for the strength to beat this game and if he wouldn’t listen? To hell with him.

To give Conan some credit, the game is at least faithful to the source material when it comes to locations, weapons and even the characterisation of Conan himself. This isn’t Conan as played by Arnie but the real Conan from E. Howard’s books and – as a fan of those tomes – I really appreciated what Cauldron did to keep things legit and authentically presented. The ‘epic’ music is generic but a good fit for the game (nothing else to say about it to be frank).

Gameplay revolves dispatching enemies with various button combinations. You have light attacks, heavy attacks, grabs and a block button. These are utilised to pull off preset combos and by killing enemies the player earns points to spend on unlocking new, flashier moves – standard stuff. Movement however is really clunky and despite using a few different pads, Conan sometimes simply refused to move in the desired direction when changing course. It didn’t cause too many unnecessary deaths during my play-through but it’s pretty piss-poor when a game makes you question the condition of your controllers, especially when it turns out that they are all working correctly.

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This screen is actually from the Xbox version but I’m not sure I care enough.

If you do run out of health though then Conan is transported to the realm of Crom where you must defeat enemies in an enclosed arena in order to be fully restored to the spot where Conan snuffed it. Sounds pretty sweet right? Especially when you consider that the feature has unlimited uses. It’s actually the opposite though because these arena battles are much easier than battles in the mortal realm making Conan’s resurrections assured and the threat of enemies neutered. If you can’t ever technically be killed then where is the challenge? Conan’s apparent immortality also makes a mockery of boss battles because you can be infinitely restored to the spot with the enemy’s life bar still depleted.

The only way that you don’t get a chance to fight for Conan’s restoration is by falling foul of environmental hazards such as holes or traps (apparently Conan hasn’t died as a warrior thus denying him the right to be resurrected) but this still doesn’t excuse the ability to ignore strategy completely and abuse this mechanic. Ultimately, I wondered if there was any point at all in trying to utilise the game’s full range of moves because you may as well repeat the same handful of basic sword combos while spamming this revival ability. It’s certainly possible to beat the game this way with little trouble.

You can switch between swords, axes and maces throughout the game but again, unless you need the mace for beating down armoured foes more effectively, there’s no incentive to bother. There’s also a running side quest to locate and assemble all four pieces of the Atlantean Sword but any exploration is voided by the fact that a) environments are incredibly linear and bland and b) only one of the pieces is easy to miss with the others all in plain sight or after beating a boss. The Atlantean Sword deals with enemies in one hit and shamefully, I even killed the final boss with one wild swipe! Who tested this shit?

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Braving the harsh elements and wild animals. At least the feel of the character and setting(s) is there.

The main problem with this game is the clunkiness and just general, basic dullness of everything. It really is an exercise in getting from A to B by killing everything in between, pulling a few levers and avoiding pitfalls. Lots of games have adopted this approach in the past and have turned out really well but Conan is just so uninteresting to sit through with repetitive scraps that don’t ever offer something new or stylish to at least paper over the shortcomings. It does say something that my highlight of the game was the quick cinematic of Conan punching a camel in a marketplace, a reference to a humorous scene in the original Arnie film. It made me smile at least when nothing else did.

The sole reason I persevered to the end was because the authenticity to the original books was spot on and I still wanted to see what happened in the end. I can imagine a non-Conan fan playing this game and binning it after a few levels because as much as I appreciated the videogame renditions of stuff from the books, it was always a case of sitting down and saying “right, got to get this bloody Conan game finished so I can play something else” rather than enjoying the game. I’m bored just writing about it.

Now that I’m nearing the conclusion of this review, I’m looking back over my words and thinking that I haven’t really gone into much detail but the truth is, I just don’t have anything else to say. So…is this an angry rant ending on a mellow note? Not until I’ve gone over the game’s miserable save system! I knew there was something else I hated about Conan – must have blocked it out of my mind for a moment there. Well, there’s no use in burying my head in the sand so I’ll talk about it.

Conan needs to possess a crystal to save the game. You can save anywhere (good) BUT you can only carry four of the damn things at any one time (bad) and let me tell you: there’s nothing worse than trying to make your last crystal go as far as possible only to fall down a hidden pit or be killed by a barely-visible trap because it means slogging back through the whole unsaved section all over again, slaying the same boring enemies and looking at the same uninspiring scenery (extremely, diarrhoea-grade bad). Who thinks that weird save systems like this are a good idea? Fuck these people. A game this underwhelming didn’t need to be any worse but congratulations developers, you managed it.

Overall Thoughts

It’s a shame that the gameplay is so uninspiring and bland because the source material was treated really well with this one. Conan is at least authentic in spirit but that means little when you barely want to play the actual game. Another missed oppurtunity.