Ghostbusters: Spirits Unleashed impressions

I came, I saw, it played like ass.

Ghostbusters: Spirits Unleashed should work, right?

At the risk of sounding like a soulless corporate thug, Ghostbusters is a beloved intellectual property, and we’ve turned it into a pretty decent video game once already. IllFonic has enough experience with asymmetrical multiplayer by now that its designers should know what works and what doesn’t. So a 4v1 game where one team plays as Ghostbusters while another player controls a ghost seems like a pretty obvious slam dunk.

But, boy, after spending maybe a dozen or two hours kicking the tires on Ghostbusters: Spirits Unleashed, I’m pretty sure IllFonic not only missed the basket but quite probably slammed their face into the rim instead.

If you’re not familiar with Spirits Unleashed, here’s a quick rundown. As I said before, it’s Ghostbusters versus ghost, and true to the movies, there’s not really any killing on either side of the equation. The Busters are attempting to track down the ghost using their PKE scanners—little handheld devices that can point you in the right direction if you’re close enough—and then catch it, using the beams from their particle throwers to lasso it into a trap.

They also have a secondary objective. Around each map are three artifacts containing hidden rifts, and if they can find and destroy these, they’ll take away the ghost’s ability to respawn. Essentially, the ghost starts out with three extra lives, and each rift destroyed (or used up respawning) takes one away.

The ghost, for its part, is trying to fill up a haunt meter by scaring civilians, making objects float, and just generally spending time in certain areas of each map. While they can attack the Busters, all they can really do is slime them to temporarily knock them down or sabotage their proton packs, leaving them unable to shoot until they reboot it.

So far, it probably sounds neat enough to you as a less violent take on asymmetrical horror. Unfortunately, the execution is lacking across the board.

It’s important to note before we get into it that this isn’t a full, scored review, in part because I didn’t have enough time to unlock and try out every item that impacts gameplay before embargo. There are still quite a few ghost classes and weapon attachments I haven’t experimented with yet, and it’s entirely possible that some of them work better than what I’ve already tried. I doubt they’d save the game, but hey, fair’s fair.

The main reason I’m withholding a review score here, however, is that I’ve so rarely been able to play a match with completely full teams of humans that I don’t think it would be right to appraise the game. The AI is just so abysmal, it’s difficult to imagine IllFonic ever wants you to play against or alongside them for more than a few seconds while it loads someone else in. At this point, if I’m playing against an AI ghost, I can single-handedly win the match in well under 5 minutes. (Just to test, I played two matches back to back while writing this. The times were 2 minutes, 42 seconds and 3 minutes, 23 seconds.) On the Ghostbuster side, the AI is both moronic—sometimes just standing around while the ghost attacks them—and psychic—immediately shooting at you when you’re hidden inside an object as the ghost, even when they’re not using their PKE scanners.

I’m skeptical that having full human teams in every match will make things better, though. The balance just seems wildly off, and a lot of the design feels half-baked, including the most fundamental element of the game: trapping ghosts. Like in the movies, the Ghostbusters have to throw out the traps and then open them with a foot pedal before using their particle thrower to pull the ghost into the cone of light that emits from the top. The thing is, in the game, throwing the trap and activating it are two separate moves, and it’s essentially impossible for you to pull them off before any ghost you confront has time to speed away. It’s a design choice to encourage teamwork, I suppose, since one player can tether the ghost while the other throws down a trap. Functionally, in my experience so far, it just turns catching the ghost into the most annoying thing I have ever experienced in a multiplayer game.

What’s mystifying, though, is that a later trap upgrade gives you the ability to open your trap automatically when you toss it—and that’s an enormous advantage. After equipping that, catching ghosts somehow flipped from infuriatingly difficult to stupidly easy, especially when paired with an upgraded stun on my PKE meter.

And boy, one of the ghost classes, the bruiser-style Lunk, sure seems completely imbalanced, allowing you to pretty much wallop the Buster team non-stop without any risk of being caught. No one has been very active on voice chat when I’ve been lucky enough to get in with other players, but someone did hop on to ask “How is this any fun for you?” as I repeatedly slimed and sabotaged his team. To answer that dude’s question, it wasn’t fun at all.

Also, at the moment, some things are clearly just broken. Among other issues, I’ve discovered collectibles during a match, only to have them disappear once I’m back in the firehouse base. Once, as a ghost, I got trapped below the map, jittering around and unable to do anything but wait for the haunting progress meter to slowly fill up on its own while the other team ran around looking for me. As a Buster, one time the ghost knocked me down, and when I picked myself up I was unable to move for the rest of the match. When it loaded me into the following match, I still couldn’t move—the bug had somehow carried over to a different level. And if you use up all of your slowing grenades during one round, your inventory will be empty in the next match, too. You can refill them at an equipment cart, but still, c’mon.

If you were thinking that maybe the license could save the game somewhat, well, that’s a mixed bag. Yes, Dan Aykroyd is back as Ray Stantz, and Ernie Hudson is back as Winston Zeddemore (with an ludicrously in-shape character model that I assume was dictated in Hudson’s contract). But the story content, such as it is, pretty much entirely wastes them. All the narrative entails is walking around the firehouse and watching cutscenes between every few matches. You don’t actually do anything.

And the dialogue, if you can even call it that, is mostly people talking at you in interminably long, dull speeches—this in spite of the fact that your created character is fully voiced. I try not to skip dialogue in any game I’m reviewing, but let me tell you, the temptation to hold down that button when a magic book had been droning on at me for like two-and-a-half minutes was at an all-time high. There’s so little humor or personality on display here that I’m mostly just confused. Did some writer really watch Ghostbusters and think all the pseudoscientific jargon was the part people loved?

Look, I’m not going to present this to you as a definitive judgment on the game, because I haven’t put in the time I’d usually put into a real review. But part of the reason I’m calling it quits is because I have zero compulsion to play any more than I already have, and I think that’s a kind of verdict of its own.

So you’re more than welcome to try it out for yourself and see if it lands better with you than it did with me. But my advice, at least right now? These Ghostbusters ain’t worth calling.

Ghostbusters: Spirits Unleashed releases October 18th on Xbox Series X/S, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC. Review code provided by IllFonic. Played on Xbox Series X. All images courtesy of IllFonic.

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