Ghost Song doesn’t simply wear its Super Metroid inspirations on its sleeve. It has it tattooed on its sleeve. From emerging outside a spacecraft on a mysterious planet as you take control of a mechanized character that can blast pellets of energy from her arm and encountering small crab-like creatures that putter around a floating rock, to the eerie music that looms over the unsettling and atmospheric environments; Ghost Song unashamedly takes both the good and the bad from the Metroidvania genre, but injects enough heart into its audio, visuals and narrative to keep it from being just another derivative addition to an otherwise over-saturated genre.
On a desolate moon named Lorian, you awake as an armed automaton named Deadsuit. With no memory of your past, nor knowledge of how long you’ve been sleeping, you trudge along the harsh landscape, blaster in hand, and slowly begin uncovering the unnerving histories of not only the world around you, but some of the conflicts outside the moon you tread. Though, if you’re not careful, much of the lore and narrative can go undiscovered. Because Ghost Song does little in actually “telling” its story. A dismembered body with branches stemming from its limbs that you come across in one of the many dark caverns will go unexplained. A door with a security camera that juts out when you come near it will endlessly scan your body, though will never open; and an explanation as to why, or an upgrade to your appearance to possibly allow entry, will never come (at least they didn’t in my playthrough).
You do eventually come across a group of NPC’s, who have all recently crash landed on the moon and are looking for ways to repair their ship; which, of course, is a task your character takes upon herself, opening up the main objective of the game. It’s through these characters and others that are local to the moon that give any kind of insight to the moon’s history, who your character might be, and what secrets lay beneath the surface. And yet, Matt White, Ghost Song’s solo developer, keeps his writing intentionally vague. With economic dialogue that has characters reveal only so much, choosing instead to speak more about themselves rather than anything else. It’s a curious decision, but one that I personally didn’t mind. I enjoyed traversing through the unanswered, getting history snippets from Saymund (one of the locals of the moon), and talking to the deserted NPC’s – Raven and Gili in particular – all of whom had interesting backstories through the little they said, and were brought to life with genuinely solid voice performances. Speaking of which, Su Ling Chan who voices the player character Deadsuit, is a highlight in terms of performance. The Deadsuit has the least amount of dialogue throughout the game, and yet Chan is able to bring a warm and endearing naïveté to the automaton, a choice that instantly connects you to an otherwise hollow character. And though her perfomance makes for an ending that’s emotional, it also left me dissatisfied as I felt there was so much more about The Deadsuit that I needed to know. It was jarring to see Ghost Song simply… end. A fade to black with a goodbye that, though appropriate, didn’t feel “earned.”
As a metroidvania, Ghost Song does nothing to reinvent the wheel. You’ll descend into the winding caverns, clearly seeing where certain pathways require a “dash” or “double jump,” reminding yourself to return to such areas once those abilities have been unlocked. Fight through an array of unsightly creatures, all of whom drop globules of a green substance called nanogel, which can be used to upgrade at save points via large decommissioned robots that lay still against a wall (starkly reminiscent of the Chozo statues in Metroid). And fight tough bosses to collect mods for your suit that grant you a variety of abilities from new secondary weapons, to offensive buffs. The number of mods you can equip at one time is limited to your suit’s power capacity – much like how charms work in Hollow Knight. There aren’t any “gimmicks” in Ghost Song. Which is somewhat surprising given the resurgence of Metroidvania’s over the past decade, with each title vying for attention with some gameplay trinket or quirk, but that isn’t the case here. Unless, of course, you consider the Soulslike elements of losing a good chunk of your nanogels upon each death, or having a slither of your health bar get permanently sliced away unless you return to one of those aforementioned robots to repair your suit, “gimmicks.” But, at this point, it’s become the norm (if not outright trite) to have such elements be a part of not only Metroidvania’s, but any action-adventure game. Personally, I don’t mind such additions if it’s implemented well, and makes sense within the context of the world. And though I can see the argument for the latter, it’s the former where some issues arise.
Ghost Song is difficult, sometimes artificially so. From standard enemies that take far too many blasts before being downed and three-hit deaths at the hands of bosses that give zero “tells” when coming in for deadly attacks, to infrequent save spots and almost non-existent fast-travel points, it can all be quite overwhelming. Couple that with the aforementioned penalties for deaths, makes the act of farming nanogels for upgrades a tediously necessary task from the very beginning of the game. It wasn’t until I’d levelled up a dozen or so times – most of my points going towards “gunpower” as the sponginess of enemies was frankly ludicrous – that I felt comfortable venturing off a bit farther from a save spot. And it doesn’t stop there. The Deadsuit’s primary blaster overheats after only a few consecutive shots, with a cooldown timer that, though may only be seconds, feels like hours. There’s also a stamina meter which depletes with every dash, and an energy meter that depletes with every shot of your secondary weapon, both of which take their leisurely time to replenish as well. It’s a lot to keep track of and instead of feeling like these mechanics were thoughtfully implemented with combat and narrative in mind, simply feel like an afterthought to add challenge for the sake of it. Though the most egregious example of this is when after besting one of the five main bosses and collecting the necessary repair unit for the ship, you aren’t able to use any fast-travel points. Instead the game forces you to backtrack all the way back to the top of the map. Not only that, but your way back introduces new, never-before-seen enemies, most of whom are stronger than the ones you’d encountered on the way to the boss. Keep in mind that these boss areas are usually scarce of save spots, and so every death means your health bar slowly dwindles away until you can scrounge up enough nanogels and find a way to a robot to repair your suit. There was no narrative reasoning for this decision, either. A text box simply appears after you collect the repair unit and tells you that you aren’t able to fast-travel, which only tells me that this was yet another frivolous decision to add another unnecessary layer of difficulty.
With all that said, the actual moment-to-moment gameplay of Ghost Song is, for the most part, fine enough. The gunplay is moderately satisfying minus the cooldown timer. The enemies are varied and all have unique visual designs, sometimes hauntingly so. And the boss encounters, as crushing as they are, are memorable with some narrative heft. Platforming has the same issues as the classic Metroid titles, with some platforms being too small for The Deadsuit character model, making for a need for precision that sometimes feels impossible. The Deadsuit is also slower than I’d personally like, which makes backtracking a pain. Still, the more I levelled up, the more mods I equipped and secondary weapons I found, the more fun I began having with Ghost Song.
Matt White started his kickstarter for this game all the way back in 2013. Nearly a decade of work. And if there’s any one area where that effort and time spent can be seen, it’s the visuals. Ghost Song is beautiful. Possibly one of the most beautiful Metroidvania’s I’ve ever played. Dark, rocky caverns are perfectly accentuated with little pockets of light coming from luminous plants. These smoky, eerie, and harsh interiors are contrasted with a bright, lush but decaying exterior. Not to mention many of these areas are backdropped by some truly horrific yet enchanting canvases that look like a painting, and tell an entire story within themselves. The visuals are complemented with a grounded sound design, from the mechanized whirs of mechanical enemies, to the wet thuds of biological ones. And it’s all enwrapped by somber pieces of contextual music composed by Roger Hicks, who does a terrific job in furthering the feelings of isolation and mystery. It’s baffling, honestly, to think that Matt White was able to do all the artwork of this game himself. The polish and intricacy of every pixel is beyond commendable. Even if I felt that there was no one area of Ghost Song that I felt was particularly unique or memorable, or wanted to criticize the repetition of certain art assets, the sheer breadth of work that White poured into the visual design of this game with a polish that you’d only see in high budget indie titles, is enough for me to forget those minor gripes.
Ghost Song is a love letter to Super Metroid. It’s a video game that has been in the making for nearly a decade, and the result is one of the most stunning Metroidvania’s I’ve ever played. Matt White can rest easy in knowing that all his time and effort has not been for naught. The gameplay suffers from some questionable design choices, making for a tedious and at times frustrating experience with unnecessary padding and difficulty curves. And though it doesn’t do anything particularly unique with the genre, and its core gameplay loop might be forgettable, Ghost Song’s atmosphere and surprisingly weighty narrative carries it to leave a lasting impression.
Shaz reviewed Ghost Song on Xbox Series S via game pass.