REVIEW: Ghost Song hits the right notes, but plays an all too familiar tune
Ghost Song, way of the robot guy?
Let’s be perfectly honest. There’s no shortage of Metroidvania titles on the Switch eShop. It’s definitely one of the most popular genres on the platform, and indie devs in particular seem to flock to the idea. That’s totally fine with me, as I absolutely adore Metroidvanias. Give me a big map and unlockable abilities and I’m a happy guy. That said, I can definitely recognize the difference between a by-the-numbers Metroidvania and something special.
Ghost Song is the latest Metroidvania to join the flock, and it definitely has all the elements you’d expect. There’s a massive interconnected area to explore, a host of upgrades and enhancements to earn, and plenty of challenging enemies to take down. You name a Metroidvania must-have and it’s included here. Now, does Ghost Song go beyond in any of these areas to provide something exceptional instead of serviceable? Well, that question is up for debate.
Without spoiling things, Ghost Song puts you in the role of a character who doesn’t remember who they are or why they’re here. As you make your way through a foreign land, you’ll encounter gruesome creatures, strange settings, and other characters who are stranded alongside you. The deeper you explore, the more you’ll find out about your unfamiliar surroundings, as well as who you are.
To be perfectly blunt, in terms of gameplay, Ghost Song falls in with the large majority of Metroidvanias out there. That’s not to say the game isn’t worth your time, but it doesn’t really do anything new or different. You wander around to find power-ups, take on some bosses here and there, level your character up with various attributes, and so on. I definitely enjoyed my time with Ghost Song, but from beginning to end, I was always waiting for it to do something more. There were times where I thought I was on the verge of seeing something unique, but unfortunately, that revelation never came.
The real issue here is that Ghost Song takes some tried-and-true mechanics for Metroidvanias and doesn’t do them as well as other games. For example, the game’s map is totally serviceable and looks the part, but you’ll come to learn that finding your placement in rooms on the map is a bit odd. The game’s map will show you what room you’re in, and even where in that room you are. The problem is that each room on the map doesn’t show the fine details. In other words, the icon that represents your placement on the map just sort of floats around in that room, but the room itself is filled with multiple layers and corridors. It makes for a strange middleman between pinpoint accuracy and room-by-room recognition, and I wished the game simply highlighted the room I was in and left it at that, or went all-out by actually showing all the platforms in any given room on the map. Not a dealbreaker by any means and I came to work with, but still frustrating.
The same can be said of traversal between rooms in the game. I have to say I was quite taken aback when I first started playing Ghost Song, as I didn’t expect room transitions to be handled in the way they are. Instead of smoothly moving from room to room, Ghost Song goes completely black. Yes, there’s loading time between every single room, but let me stress that it’s nothing horrendous. In the vast majority of cases, there’s roughly 2 seconds of loading time between rooms, so you’re right back into the action. The thing is, this is still strange for a Metroidvania game. There are so many Metroidvania titles that move you from room to room with ease, and there’s no noticeable loading times. Even titles like Super Metroid did a better job, with the bulk of room transitions being much quicker or instantaneous, and only large chunks of the map needing loading that was hidden behind clever elevator segments. To see Ghost Song do this aspect of traversal in a worse way will no doubt be a tough pill to swallow for many gamers. Once again, I must stress that this too bothered me at the start, but became a non-issue going forward. That loading is always there between every room, but I just accepted it as fact and plowed ahead.
Finally, I do have to mention the game’s framerate. As I’ve stated in previous reviews, I only ever complain about framerate if things get really bad. Thankfully, Ghost Song never gets horrendous in this department. I also never experienced any drop in frames that made the game unplayable, or anything even close to that. That said, you can certainly feel a difference between empty rooms and rooms with action. With the amount of room-hopping and enemy fighting you do, that constantly shifting framerate may get on your nerves. I will note that the game just got an update today (November 7th, 2022) that locks the framerate on Switch, so this may be a non-issue going forward. In the case of my time with Ghost Song, I played from start to finish before this update was applied.
As far as everything else in Ghost Song, I’d say it all comes together quite enjoyably. Combat feels fun and challenging, with an overheating gun mechanic being the only bothersome issue. Thankfully, this is quickly done away with through upgrades. The abilities you earn make traversal infinitely more fun, from a dodge mechanic and double jump to the ability to run and wall-hop. Even the sub-weapons provide a lot of enjoyment, with my particular favorites being a giant buster-style sword that squashes enemies, or a massive fist that punches right through them.
Where the fun gets dialed up ever-so-slight are the boss battles, which ride the line of entertaining and challenging perfectly. There’s a lot of strange creatures to take on in Ghost Song, and almost every single one of them will take a bit more strategy than you think. Even as you upgrade your suit and earn more abilities, these bosses will still put you to the test. Not once did I ever get frustrated with a fight, but there were multiple boss battles I had to attempt repeatedly. All were a blast, and the sense of satisfaction from taking them out was fantastic.
For me, the element of Ghost Song that shined the brightest was the main character and their journey. Again, I don’t want to get into spoiler territory, but you’ll learn early on that there’s something very interesting going on with them. By meeting other characters and having chats, you’ll come to see just how different they are. Best of all, these chats are filled with some nice writing and thought-provoking discussions. Sure, some go on a bit longer than need be, but it’s not a big deal by any means. When you couple these personal moments with the extremely melancholic soundtrack, which is filled with a lone guitar with plenty of reverb, Ghost Song shows that it almost breaks free of its been-there-done-that feeling.
In all honesty, Ghost Song is a tough game to review. I did enjoy my time with it, and I always looked forward to plugging away to see what happened next. At the same time, I never really saw anything that wowed me, and there were instances where I thought about other Metroidvania games that had done things better. When you take Ghost Song as a whole, you get a Metroidvania that more-or-less gets the job done. With some tweaks to map design and a unique wrinkle or two, the game could at least come close to the upper echelon of Metroidvanias. If this is your first Metroidvania, it would no doubt impress. If you’ve played a few Metroidvanias over the years, you most likely will come away pleased, yet wanting more.