[Review] Ghost Town: Vacant Lives

12 Dec

There’s a certain appeal to lesser known video games, be it the refreshing lack of hype or the willingness of the developers to prove themselves through the use of innovative gameplay. It would appear no has heard of Ghost Town: Vacant Lives, and to me, that’s a good thing. Without loads of force-fed hype resting in your throat, you can explore the empty streets of Ghost Town and see it for what it really is: a truly innovative and effective video game.

Harry is having a very bad day: he wrecked his car, his daughter is missing, he can’t remember those closest to him, and he’s being chased through frozen hellscapes by fleshy, faceless demons preying upon your deepest insecurities.

That’s right. You, the player, may be guiding Harry through Ghost Town, but Harry and the world around him will change to reflect your own personality. The game manages this through increasingly analytical sessions with an oddly menacing psychologist and through unprecedented levels of interaction and immersion never seen on the Wii or any other platform for that matter.

Very few of the motion controls used in Vacant Lives are unique to the game. Lit‘s flashlight mechanic of aiming the beam with the Wii remote and No More Heroes‘ cellphone pantomime making clever use of the remote’s built-in speaker are put to major use throughout Vacant Lives, but here, they’re more than just interesting quirks. The flashlight doesn’t just light Harry’s way but allows you to observe the finer details of the dark corners of Ghost Town, which has been abandoned in the midst of a peculiar snow storm.

Harry isn’t alone on the streets and in the abandoned buildings, though. His camera phone will occasionally pick up static interference from powerful memories still clinging to worldly objects. Taking a photograph of where a deer carcass once rested will suddenly leave a voice mail on Harry’s phone relaying a father’s praise for his son’s first kill, while nearing an animal skull outside will find the father berating his “queer” son’s hesitance for pulling the trigger. Coupled with a plethora of phone numbers that you can find and call throughout the entire game, Harry’s phone serves as a unique and immersive way for the player to interact with the game’s world in intuitive ways, adding to the already moody atmosphere.

The common practice of having players pinch (ie, hold A and B together to manipulate) objects is also used throughout Vacant Lives but only in the first-person perspective when solving puzzles and searching cabinets, boxes, and other containers. Many of these instances are done in search of a key to a locked door and don’t really require any clever solution, but that only adds to the sense that you’re actually interacting in this abandoned world. You’re not at the mercy of a game’s wacky gimmicks. You’re just a guy looking for a key so he can find his daughter.

This all adds up to create an engrossing adventure game, but there’s more to it than just exploration. You see, Harry seems to be going a bit crazy. Things are confusing at first, but some of the occasional acquaintances Harry comes across seem to know him even though he has no idea who they are. Furthermore, they all seem to disappear when he’s not paying attention only to walk back into the picture later on in the story as if nothing happened. It’s very much like the movie Jacob’s Ladder where you’re not quite sure what’s true and what’s a hallucination and neither does the main character.

The mood often shifts from creepy and unsettling to tense and panicked as soon as someone says something Harry doesn’t want to hear. During these moments, known as nightmares, the world begins to freeze and warp around Harry, contorting the already bizarre Ghost Town into a hellish maze occupied by shambling, fleshy creatures.

All Harry can do to survive their incessant groping is to run, crawl, and climb until he finds a way out of the nightmare; he can’t fight back. Faintly glowing blue outlines indicate objects Harry can quickly interact with such as doors, crawlspaces, and ledges, but after the first nightmare, it becomes very easy to get lost. The phone’s GPS feature offers a map of the area, but it’s not detailed (or quick) enough to be of any help. When grabbed, you must thrust both the Wii remote and nunchuk in the direction of the creature to hurl it off you. Your only real defense are the occasional flare, which the creatures shy away from.

These moments can be frustrating if only because the trial and error they begin to require ruins what should be the game’s constant threat of terror. The idea that these nightmares can (and do) occur at any moment should constantly keep the player on edge, fearing the return of the haunting creatures (which grow more and more grotesque as the game discovers more about your personality), but the sequences take you out of the experience when you start dying. You want them to end, not because you’re scared, but because you’re just sick of it.

Still, there’s quite a bit of replay value to be found in that no two playthroughs will turn out the same. The scenes with the psychologist start out offering fairly superficial changes, but it’s the minor actions within Ghost Town, most of which you’re not even aware of, that begin to alter the outcome of the game. Certain characters will appear drastically different and even Harry himself will change based on how you play. What’s so great about how Vacant Lives handles these changes is that you rarely know how or when your actions will be interpreted.

It’s a shame, though, that many players will be turned off by the game’s frustrating action sequences as well as the fact that there is no fighting. Vacant Lives shows that games have the potential to be about more than just killing hundreds of enemies with conveniently placed weapons. Even though it doesn’t reach this potential itself, it is perhaps one of the most unsettling and immersive experiences out there.

And then there’s one last thing.

I’m sure many of you who read this far are aware that there is no game called Ghost Town: Vacant Lives, and that this has in fact been a review of Silent Hill: Shattered Memories.

I’ve personally never played a Silent Hill game other than Shattered Memories, and while I found some serious flaws within the game (and would even venture to say that it’s not as fun to play as it is to experience), I still think it’s one of the most interesting and rewarding games released in years. Many people already appear to be turned off by the fact that “Silent Hill” is in the game’s title. Some reviewers have even formed their (negative) opinions of the game based on those two words, but I think they’re only blinding themselves from seeing the game for what it truly is.

By bringing along all of these preconceived notions of what a Silent Hill game is supposed to be, fans are setting themselves up for disappointment. From what I understand about the other entries in the series, Shattered Memories appears to be closer to the concept the series have been striving to create than any of the other games.

It’s just too bad that Shattered Memories has as many faults as it does considering the departure it represents for the series. The transition could have been a lot smoother for fans if it had been easier to tolerate, but as it is, Silent Hill: Shattered Memories is something special that you should experience with an open mind.

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One Response to “[Review] Ghost Town: Vacant Lives”

  1. funpass 30 day trial April 26, 2010 at 2:59 AM #

    Awesome posts! Keep up the great work.

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