The good news is that Ghosthunter is one of the best-looking action games on PS2 this year, maybe even of all time. Sony Cambridge, the house that brought you Primal, has some really talented designers, and a crew of programmers that can make the poorly-aging PS2 hardware sit up and beg.
Everything in Ghosthunter is rendered with the in-game engine, so the game can segue from cutscenes to action without a hiccup. The camera’s decent if a bit quirky, the music is ethereal and evocative, the dialogue is pretty good, the plot's decent if a bit scattershot, the graphics are extraordinary, and the voice acting is uniformly excellent.
I haven't mentioned the gameplay yet. Therein lies the problem.
Ghosthunter starts when rookie homicide detective Lazarus Jones (who's come back to tell you all) and his partner, senior officer Anna Steele, investigate a disturbance at the abandoned Montsaye High School. The school was the site of several murders years ago, and the murderer, a professor, disappeared before he could be caught.
(A casual aside: being a rookie cop in a video game seems to be almost as bad an idea as being the cop in a movie who's retiring tomorrow. Your first case always seems to lead to zombies or ghosts or something.)
Lazarus gets to investigate the basement, where he finds an old computer and an attached containment tank. He accidentally opens the tank, unleashing the ghosts that were trapped inside. One of them, Astral, possesses him, and grants him the "gift" of second sight.
At the same time, Lord Hawksmoor, former English knight and current rotting-on-the-bone spectral villainous type, sees something he likes in Steele. He kidnaps her, in a surprisingly old-school twist, and takes her to parts unknown.
The old computer in the lab identifies its purpose as helping ghosthunters. It gives Lazarus some anti-ghost weaponry and a cool leather jacket, then sends him through a portal. To gather up enough power to chase Hawksmoor and find the professor, Lazarus will have to hunt down and recapture the ghosts he accidentally set free.
As a Ghosthunter, Lazarus has his police-issue Glock and shotgun, as well as a variety of homemade weapons that run off of ghost energy. When you shoot a ghost, it'll drop blue orbs which you can pick up to reload your sniper rifle and pulse cannon.
To recapture a ghost, you have to whittle its health down with small-arms fire, then hit it with a "grenade"; despite the term, the grenade is a blend between a trap from Ghostbusters, a discus, and a boomerang. It's the only weapon that can permanently disable a weakened ghost for most of the game, sort of like how you have to stake vampires in Buffy the Vampire Slayer before they'll get out of your hair. Come to think of it, Primal worked the same way, with its vicious ground fatalities.
Lazarus's ghosthunting takes place in seven different locations, which are made accessible by the computer whenever he's gathered enough ghost energy to reactivate the portals. Each stage has its own trademark ghosts, as well as its own unique dangers and puzzles. Most of the obstacles you'll face are of the relatively "organic" variety, which is to say, they tend more towards the "how will I get over to that ledge?" than the "how will I open the toy car to get the silver scarab crest which I can use to activate the keypad?" puzzles of your average Japanese adventure game. There are a couple of item fetch quests, but nothing too onerous.
Some of them, however, will require the use of Astral, the ghost possessing Lazarus. You can tag her in using a specially marked spectral rift. As Astral, you can fly and breathe underwater, but more importantly, you have access to up to five powers, each of which are used to get around problems. It's a pretty standard helper-character scenario, made slightly creepy by Astral's sheer inhumanity. She also gets most of the best music, which seems off.
Initially, this setup works very well. Ghosthunter starts off as a perfectly good action-adventure game, and that combined with its extraordinary presentation may work well for you.
What trips it up is that for whatever reason, Ghosthunter's been saddled with play controls that seem almost deliberately constructed to make you suck at certain combat scenarios... and then hits you up with a metric assload of those scenarios, especially as you hit the home stretch.
To enter "combat mode" in Ghosthunter, you hit R1, then hit R1 again to fire your readied weapon. However, you also enter an automatic strafing mode which points Lazarus in whatever direction you were facing when you hit R1. In strafing mode, you walk bowleggedly and slowly from side to side.
In other words, it works a little like readying a weapon does in Resident Evil, but without any kind of automatic target lock or a smooth transition from firing to running mode. Lazarus is hell on wheels against distant or unarmed opponents, but against a bunch of guys with rifles or fast-moving ghosts that'll try to rush you down, he's going to take a lot of damage before he can escape. Granted, individual hits tend to do little to no damage in Ghosthunter and most dead enemies drop health like festive pinatas, but that doesn't always help.
More importantly, if you try to hit and run, it involves a process of running, turning, aiming manually with a really slow crosshair, hitting R1 to fire, hitting Circle to put the weapon down, and running.
You probably won't notice how clunky the controls are until the second stage, when you run into small groups of ghost cowboys with rifles, and firing back at them usually means strafing slowly and hoping they miss you. You can duck behind objects or hug the wall, but if you ready a weapon in that state, Lazarus will lean almost all the way out from cover. It's like he enjoys being shot.
If this was a survival-horror game, I'd be more inclined to forgive the setup, but Ghosthunter is an action game with horror elements. It basically sets you up with certain limitations--dodging quickly during a gunfight is something that other characters do--and then puts you into a series of situations where those limitations cripple you. The survival-horror aiming setup works because of an omniscient camera angle, automatic target lock, and quick-turn; without any of those things, Ghosthunter's gunplay feels forced.
When you're fighting slower enemies, making your way through some delapidated manor on the edge of the bayou, or gathering clues to solve yet another mystery, Ghosthunter's a fine game in great-looking wrapping paper. However, most of its challenge comes from scenarios that don't require you to have mastered its individual rules and quirks, but which exploit large and obvious holes in the controls. There are a dozen games that handle fast-paced third-person-shooter action better than this; all Ghosthunter has to recommend itself over them are its looks.