In recent years, Metroid-style games have become a steady pillar of the indie scene, with endless takes on this kind of backtracking-oriented 2D platformer filling digital storefronts. Even as many blend together, a few break out from the shadow of their forebears through unique aspirations or great execution. But despite a glut of releases, it still feels like there is something singular about the sense of place established in Samus Aran’s first few outings, the hostile caverns of Planet Zebes and SR388 humming with evocative alien foreboding. Moreso than anything I’ve seen in this space as of late, Ghost Song carries this mantle forward, not just emulating, but capturing its own combination of otherworldly wonder and horror on a hostile celestial body. While some mechanical shortcomings hold it back, its immersive setting and rewarding exploration deliver exactly what drew me into this subgenre in the first place.
Its story begins as the Deadsuit awakens from her long slumber on the moon Lorian V. Confused by where and what she is, she traverses its harrowing depths for answers, encountering deadly flora and fauna along the way. Eventually, she comes across Roper, a member of a downed crew scavenging for parts to repair their beached starship. Promised a way off this hostile rock, Deadsuit agrees to find five pieces of salvage rotting in forgotten corners so they fix the ship and escape.
One departure from most entries in the Metroid series, and many other games in this style, is that Deadsuit isn’t a silent protagonist. She comments on her surroundings, revealing that despite her growing body count, she is contemplative, curious, and deeply caring of the stranded crew. These shipmates are also thoughtfully written and offer glimpses into their lives as they reflect on past experiences and what they believe in. Each has their own well-defined arc that comes to life with repeated conversation; Raven is an android building a new body for herself as she considers what defines her, Pasha is a young girl dealing with the loss of her sister, Roper discusses their crew’s flat hierarchy as he mends their vessel. You even befriend the ship herself, who recounts previous journeys through the stars.
These talks brim with empathy, introducing nuances to these characters through gentle prose. While games in this space tend to revel in isolation, by instead establishing a community you’re desperately trying to protect, Ghost Song creates palpable stakes and puts its long solitary stretches in relief against these enriching chats. Along your travels, you also come across others trapped on this moon, some dangerously obsessed with its unknowable truths while others nonchalantly divulge its greatest secrets.
As is made clear in its opening moments, this world is haunted. Relics of an enigmatic past dot the landscape: abandoned research labs, metallic tendrils of a lost metropolis, dead bodies sprouting into glowing trees, and reminders of an ancient war with a god of death. This is a place with history, each odd discovery adding more questions, and even when characters offer explanations, they are cryptic enough to remain mystifying. A mournful score accompanies your wanderings, adding to a sense of melancholy and granting a greater air of meaning to this husk of a planet. This dedication to tone creates a gripping atmosphere, and even more than the mechanical rewards for exploration, I wanted to plumb its depths to make sense of its mysteries and witness more beguiling sights.
While settings meant to convey entropy have become increasingly popular in games as of late, this one establishes its own identity through the extraterrestrial strangeness of its environments. Weird creatures lurk in deep caves, prowling their regular hunting grounds. Some are cute, while others are vicious, letting out unnatural shrieks as they attempt to pummel you to death. There is a genuine sense of danger and suspense as you uncover new beings, and while outside of boss fights, this mostly subsides as your character grows stronger, there is always lingering doubt you may find something outside your capabilities. There were more than a few times when the echoing cries of frightening beings sent a shiver up my spine as I sprinted from their lairs, creature and sound design combining to create unsettling encounters. And while scenes of violence leave behind gore and residue on Deadsuit’s protective exoskeleton, these reminders of conflict are contrasted against scenes of beauty, like an ethereal butterfly in a robotic hell.
These memorable sights combined to create an entrancing space, and luckily, the mechanics of its world design matches its aesthetics. Most importantly, I never ran into the classic Metroidvania problem where I felt I’d explored every path, but there was no clear way forward. This clarity largely stems from waypoints that mark five pieces of salvage you need on the map. While one may assume disclosing this information would undermine the joy of discovery, you still need to figure out how to navigate these winding paths yourself, resulting in a good balance between open-ended spelunking and guidance. Additionally, there is usually more than one productive direction to traverse, which combined with the many optional alcoves, makes it feel like there is always plenty to uncover of your own volition. And while the greatest reward for poking and prodding is the sights themselves, sometimes you’ll find a cool new gun, which is also pretty neat. Following in the footsteps of titles like Hollow Knight, there are a variety of armor and weapon modules hidden throughout, and these augments can fairly significantly change the flow of play.
However, while Ghost Song’s sense of place, writing, and exploration are exemplary, it has some sadistic design elements and rough edges that can sometimes make it difficult to enjoy its pleasures. It borrows from FromSoftware’s progression systems where a single resource, called nano-gel in this case, is used as both currency and experience points. If killed, you drop all of your unspent nano-gel, and if you die again before retrieving it, it’s lost for good. While FromSoftware’s games can get away with this punishing system due to their precise controls, here things feel slipshod and awkward. Platforming is somewhat stiff, and the dodge maneuver feels finicky, which, when combined with certain hyper-aggressive high-health bosses, can make for moments that are more annoying than engaging.
While this game has an intimate understanding of what makes Metroid’s setting and exploration work, it has less grasp on how to iterate on its battles. Deadsuit’s arm cannon is somewhat inaccurate and rapidly overheats, making it feel weak, and while there are other equipable armaments, they’re tied to a slowly recharging meter that limits their usage. Your melee attacks become stronger in this overheated state, but bosses pack a punch up close, making point-blank strikes somewhat ill-advised. Taken all together, you feel incentivized to use safer ranged attacks, but due to the constantly overheating arm cannon and how quickly special moves eat through your limited meter, a lot of time is spent waiting for these to recharge in the middle of scuffles. When paired with the tedium of repeatedly working through areas to get back to the boss room, there are noticeable periods where instead of finding new discoveries, you’re trekking through the same territory just to get another shot at an agonizing fight with a beefy foe. While things aren’t so overbearingly difficult that these tougher situations completely dominate the experience, they happen frequently enough to frustrate.
However, the most depraved design choice is that after defeating these opponents and gaining the salvage they were guarding, fast-travel becomes disabled until you backtrack to the damaged starship. In some cases, I worked up a fortune of nano-gel as I beat my head against a boss, but because I wasn’t allowed to spend it right after claiming victory, I now had to travel back through this space, hoping I didn’t die twice and lose my winnings. Although I never lost a hefty bounty this way, the most aggravating stretches were when I almost lost everything while working through locations I felt I had already bested. Even as a fan of its masochistic influences, this game’s most challenging moments are more irritating than cathartic. Additional difficulty options mitigate these problems slightly but don’t redeem its fundamental issues.
All of this isn’t to say that the game’s enemy encounters are irredeemable. For instance, its many armor and weapon modules create a fair amount of customization that can bolster these scraps by adding options. In one case, an invasive species of bugs swarmed me, so I retreated to high ground and fired a series of automated turrets below my line of sight. I kept firing the turrets into the abyss, a staccato of bullets accompanying horrible screeches until there was finally silence. The sound design and aesthetics do a lot of heavy lifting, with bursting bodies and thunderous blasts conveying the power of your weapons. Outside of its overly punishing sequences, these scuffles add an essential sense of danger, transforming implications of threats into outright deadly struggles.
Taken as a whole, what you get out of this experience will vary dramatically based on how much its melancholy tone and setting make up for its sometimes unforgiving design elements. Although its boss fights are an annoyance, the haunting atmosphere, contemplative character writing, and well-realized space leave a far greater impression than its gameplay gaffes, repeatedly pulling me back into this world. There have been many cracks at this genre since Metroid’s chiptune synths first accentuated its foreboding alien backdrop, but few emulate and transcend its ambiance as well as Ghost Song.
Ghost Song was developed by Old Moon and published by Humble Games. Our review is based on the PC version. It’s also available for PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X|S, Switch, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.
Elijah Gonzalez is the games intern for Paste Magazine. In addition to playing the latest indies and AAAs, he also loves film, anime, lit, and creating large lists of media he’ll probably never actually get to. You can follow him on Twitter @eli_gonzalez11.