Through my backlog continues to expand beyond my capacity to conquer it, I still like to keep my eyes on the internets for the next diamond in the rough. I first encountered a screenshot Ghost Song during a session of random internet forum browsing in 2014, and said to myself, “Hey, that blue character resembles Samus!” before promptly forgetting about its existence. The recent release of Axiom Verge has reignited gamer interest in Metroidvanias even though it would be more accurate describe Ghost Song as a Metroid clone.
I have often encountered praise for Super Metroid due to its alleged ability to produce a feeling of desolation through Samus’ isolation on planet Zebes. I find this criticism accurate for the Metroid Prime series given that Tallon IV and Aether have been all but depleted of benevolent life, and the planets’ former inhabitants have left their histories embedded in strategically placed artefacts that can be scanned. On the other hand, Super Metroid has always felt like an action game to me, featuring only four locations which elicit some semblance of trepidation: the science lab in the prologue, the room featuring the statuoe of the boss amalgamation, the ghost ship, and Mother Brain’s lair where the final showdown takes place.
In contrast, Ghost Song establishes its implacable atmosphere of simultaneous dread and wonder from immediately, and never strays far from these themes. Ghost Song’s playable avatar is a facsimile lacking a name—I’ll call it “Blue”—and it does not descend on moon Lorian V incensed to kick some space pirate butt like Samus would. Instead, Ghost Song begins with the screen fading from black to what appears to be a ship crash landed in an asclepia grave where Blue’s body lies prone. Blue awakens lethargically, first into an upright fetal position, seemingly in disbelief of its survival, then rises on its feet.
Being the Super Metroid clone that Ghost Song is, most players would be compelled to go left, a radical change from the tradition of platform games—thanks to the original Donkey Kong and Super Mario Bros.— of always going right. There, a pair of vibrant, exotic flowers stand out from the dark background and flourant terrain on the next screen, a subtle way to introduce two critical powers to the conscious gamer. I collect them both, storing how to recharge health and energy to memory.The next screen corrupts my sense of security that the previous had provided. The first enemy I meet discentigrates after a series of shots, its skull rolling on the ground a cool though morbid effect. As I proceed further, I encounter a corpse of a hulk that freezes me in my tracks. I was already impressed by the art direction of everything being hand-drawn, but I was particularly fascinated by this terrifying yet awe-inspiring cadaver. I press on to the next screen featuring two slugs which leave husks that can be scaled as platforms as a precursor to the Metroid ritual of a multi-miniature platform descent into the depths. Of course I anticipate that I should be able to ascend this vertical cavern later after acquiring a few upgrades.
The next screen corrupts my sense of security that the previous had provided. The first enemy I meet disintegrates after a series of shots, its skull rolling on the ground a cool though morbid effect. As I proceed further, I encounter a corpse of a hulk that freezes me in my tracks. I was already impressed by the art direction of everything being Stencyl-drawn, but I was particularly fascinated by this terrifying yet awe-inspiring cadaver. I press on to the next screen featuring two slugs which leave husks that can be scaled as platforms as a precursor to the Metroid ritual of a multi-minature platform descent into the depths. Of course I anticipate that I should be able to ascend this vertical cavern later after acquiring a few upgrades.
The simultaneity of dread and wonder is perpetuated through Ghost Song‘s lack of music, which usually irks me, but the ambience of everything assuages my demand for memorable tunes such as “Brinstar.” Blue is as mute as Samus, with the exception of making weird shrieking noises when taking damge or gaining upgrades in excruciating Highlander fashion.
Blue is not completely alone. I discover a few space explorers and they comment on my character’s silence, one of them becoming frustrated enough to drop an f-bomb. This made me cringe. The only other aspect of the game that frustrated me was due to the atrophy of my skill due to modern games tutoralizing everything. For a demo that should take no longer than forty-five minutes to complete, I spent a couple hours wandering aimlessly through a loop of caverns because I failed to heed bot the overt and subtle queues indicating where I should go next. In other words, Ghost Song does zero hand-holding.
The skill ceiling will be high when Ghost Song finally goes gold. Enemies hit hard, especially when Blue’s armor and energy meter is drained, and they take as much damage as they can dish. The game barely nudges players toward critical upgrades, and other gems can be missed completely without affecting pacing. After a strange cutscene during which Blue passes out, I acquired a mechanical companion that behaves like a familiar for mages. I was disappointed when promptly I followed the “go here” icon on the map, because that ended the game. I will go back to see if I can unlock more doors for sure, because I can’t get enough of Ghost Song even though I will have to await the full version sometime in the first half of 2016.