PLATFORM: PC (Reviewed), Mac
PRICE: $13.99 (All formats)
PUBLISHER: Application Systems Heidelberg    

N.B: Subsequent to this review developer Bumblebee sent us a version of the updated Steam release of this game, which makes several key improvements to the version reviewed below. You can read Cav and The Rain Dog’s impressions of this newer version HERE        

GhostControl Inc. mines an idea so perfectly attuned to the nostalgia-driven gaming zeitgeist, it’s amazing that nobody’s grabbed it and made a million off it yet. Theme Hospital plus X-COM (Yes, the original, hyphenated one) plus Ghostbusters: How hard can it be, right?

Harder than it seems apparently, because Application Systems Heidelberg seem to be the first to attempt the combination. For the most part, they get it working quite well. Playing as a small ghosthunting outfit in London, the aim of the game is to build up a bustin’ empire while dealing with increasingly tough spooks and rival companies trying to nose ahead of you. This means managing and upgrading equipment, hiring staff and trying to keep up with the deluge of calls coming in from terrified residents tormented by the dead.

GhostControl Inc. wraps its diverse influences in a routine-based structure that’s reminiscent of David Crane’s classic Ghostbusters game. You start off with your headquarters, where you can hire staff, dole out equipment and empty your traps (With ectoplasm residue from the storage unit becoming an important source of extra income). With a small garage and a simple two-door car at hand, you’re severely limited in scope which makes buying a new HQ and a bigger car one of your first priorities. These things are accessible via the map screen, which consists of a (Rather small) sector of London containing all crucial locations and which you use to navigate to jobs, which come in so thick and fast you quickly find yourself debating whether you should do your upgrades now, or answer a call to avoid the risk of losing business.

gci1Turning up to a job triggers the combat phase of the game, its turn-based structure and isometric graphics directly inspired by the original X-COM, and as X-COM clones go it’s not too bad. Where it succeeds is translating the chaotic and timing-based feel of the busting in the Ghostbusters movies in a turn-based format: it doesn’t take long before you get the hang of moving your guys around to try and corral a spook into the right spot, so you can drop a trap at just the moment you’ve weakened it enough that it can’t avoid being sucked in. However, you soon realize that the ghosts’ erratic AI doesn’t give you much opportunity to influence their direction, and trapping often becomes a case of waiting for a ghost to charge up to you and dropping a trap at the right time.

A more intrusive issue with these sections is a lack of one of the basic functions available in isometric strategy games pretty much since the genre’s inception: the ability to rotate the playing field. You’re stuck with one angle, with a choice between lots of nicely-drawn environmental details to block your view of the action, or a stripped-down view of the grid accessible via the shift key that often disappears the environmental obstacles you do need to look out for. While the game is certainly playable, this feels like a workaround that skirt buts not addressed a fundamental issue with the game’s engine, and constantly having to flip back and forth between the detailed and plain views gives the game an element of clunkiness that would not be required if you could rotate.

gci5Apart from that, the act of ghostbusting is fairly fun once you get into the rhythm of the mechanics. Your busters have a series of stats that slowly improve with use (e.g. a good hit on a ghost may earn the shooter an additional Aim point), but the one you want to keep watching is their Sanity, which is analogous to health and will deplete as ghosts attack. If a buster runs out of Sanity they’ll flee the scene – not good if you’re facing several spooks, or if the fleeing party has the only trap left with space – and the only way to restore it is by visiting a hospital, which charges an arm and a leg for its services. This leads to a bit of a balance problem, especially on higher difficulties, as regular hospital visits are crucial to keeping your staff fit. However, one or two bad jobs can lead to a hospital bill that puts you in a financial hole you may never climb out of, and if you run out of hospital money you’re basically left saddled with a staff of unusable nervous wrecks who’ll run for the hills the second they see a ghost never mind attempt to catch one, and therefore no income.

gci3It’s best to go into GhostControl Inc. with a clear understanding of its context. Being a Kickstarted project by a small and relatively unknown team it’d be unwise to expect a great deal of polish, though no bugs were experienced and the game’s UI and customization options are functional if a little clunky (Especially when the game offers a windowed mode that’s rendered fairly moot as you can’t change resolution). But if you can get past the rough edges you’ll find a game that’s solid if unspectacular, and a good time for those of us who grew up with Ghostbusters – which pretty much covers everyone who frequents this site. It’s a worthy purchase for the $15 mark, though there may not be enough to it to justify paying more. Thankfully, the game has just cleared Steam’s Greenlight process and will be coming to Valve’s service in the near future – in time for the summer sale if they know what’s good for them, because this is exactly the kind of game that makes for a Steam sale sleeper hit. With luck that might allow Application Systems to give us further GhostControl games, as it’s a concept that could make for a legitimately great strategy game. For now though, a solid one will have to do.





Out of a Possible 5 Stars