There are times when you hear a game premise that sounds so obvious that you’ll be wondering why you didn’t think of it yourself. Enter Ghostbusters: Spirits Unleashed, a five-player asymmetrical multiplayer game that pits four Ghostbusters against one Ghost. According to studio IllFonic, best known for Friday the 13th: The Game and Predator: Hunting Grounds, the hope is that this next title will be a reflection on lessons learned from making those games.
Taking place after last year’s Ghostbusters: Afterlife, Spirits Unleashed features Ernie Hudson and Dan Akroyd as their iconic film characters, while players are in the shoes of new Ghostbusters recruits. These are characters that players will create, from their aesthetics to their gadget perks. Meanwhile, a fifth player will play the role of the Ghost, being able to choose from different Ghosts with distinct abilities. I played a bit of Ghostbusters: Spirits Unleashed with the team at IllFonic — I was able to play a round as a Ghostbusters and another as a Ghost.
The preview build that I had played at GDC 2022 featured one map and one playable Ghost, but it was more than enough to understand the baseline of the gameplay loop. We played on a museum map, with civilians wandering the exhibits. As a Ghostbuster, I wielded the Proton Pack in a first-person perspective, and I could switch to the EKG Meter — the former was our main weapon against Ghosts, and the latter was what we used to track the Ghost.
Each side will have its own objectives: the Ghost will have to haunt the area (monitored by a progress bar), which they will do by straight-up scaring the NPC civilians scattered throughout the map. The Ghost will also have to protect three Rifts, which will serve as respawn points should they get busted by the other players. On the other side, the Ghostbusters will have to track down the Ghost, trap and capture it, calm down panicking civilians before they are driven away from the map, and destroy all Rifts to deny the Ghost of any more respawns.
Playing as a Ghostbuster had a bit to untangle on my end, but the ideas were sound. With three other partners, communication and callouts are key to tracking the wily Ghost, which has a lot more mobility options than the Ghostbusters. Shooting the Proton Pack provides some good feedback, with recoil to reflect the pure power you have in your hands. It took me a bit to understand how exactly to tether to Ghosts — there are options to pull and push your stream as you connect with the enemy Ghost, and it’s vital to do this as a team, as one of you will need to deploy a trap. The process of capturing a Ghost was very much akin to fishing, according to the devs.
Being a Ghost, on the other hand, was a bit more my speed. There wasn’t a need to coordinate with other players, but playing as the Ghost certainly will have you pick your battles. You reach a win state by hitting 100% on a haunting meter, which you’ll do by attacking civilians. Your defensive and offensive options against the Ghostbusters include a couple of abilities and an ultimate; the Ghost I played as was able to shoot out slime for one ability, send out minions as another ability, and spew out slime in all directions for an ultimate. With the ability to fly, I felt a lot more versatile, and an added Ecto Vision let me see both civilians and Ghostbusters, allowing me to plan out my moves in advance.
As the Ghost — played in a third-person perspective — I ended up playing with a fairly aggressive style. I would wait until the Ghostbusters would try to calm down a civilian or find a rift, and attempt to knock them all down in one fell swoop. With the abilities to slime and send out minions, I felt like I had very viable and disruptive crowd control options, and I could follow up by simply floating away right after. Upon getting tethered by Proton Packs, I had to repeatedly tap a key to escape, though I was assured that there would be an accessibility option in later versions for those who can’t button mash.
There were several moments where I felt like I had to weigh my options: at one point, the Busters were attacking one of my two remaining Rifts, but I was close enough to my goal that I could have ignored it and continued to scare civilians. IllFonic kept referring to these moments as “rock, paper, scissor” dilemmas, enjoying the prospect of players having to make these choices. Upon reaching 90%, a timer counted down, giving the Ghostbusters one last chance to off me before I won. I took advantage of a unique feature of the Ghost — I possessed a pterodactyl statue hanging on the ceiling of the dinosaur exhibit, leaving the Ghostbusters scrambling under me until I won the match, which took about 18 minutes in total.
While my aggro, guerilla-style of play was a fun romp, IllFonic mentioned that with additional customization options, Ghostbusters may have a bit more power to counter that sort of style, giving additional abilities to their gear. One can envision each player having their own Ghostbuster build, letting each player take on different roles — perhaps one is on the offensive, another is focused on tracking, and another on setting the traps, for example.
IllFonic also promised that the character customization options would be inclusive to all races and gender identities and that Ghostbusters: Spirits Unleashed would overall be accessible to both casual players and diehard fans. The Ghostbusters IP certainly has a bit more levity than something like Predator and Friday the 13th, and with writers James and Elyse Willems from Funhaus penning the dialogue and banter, there are sure to be some laughs. According to IllFonic, Dan Ackroyd had some praise for how the writing fit the tone of the franchise. Ackroyd and Hudson will be doing more than just being disembodied voices; IllFonic promises unlockable story segments. Finally, IllFonic also aims for Spirits Unleashed to still be fun solo — AI will take over when need be, even in the middle of an online match if any players drop out.
For all of the triumphs and faults of the studio’s past work, Ghostbusters: Spirits Unleashed plays like the culmination of those titles, less of a copy and paste, more of a refinement. There’s much work to be done before its late 2022 release, with accessibility and balance being my personal curiosities. Should the final version of Spirits Unleashed fully deliver on the fun I had in this brief hands-on, IllFonic may have something that will stick like slime.