Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon

Post-Launch Review
Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon
Developer: Next Level Games
Released: March 2013
Played: 13.5 hours; completed story mode and found most collectibles; no multiplayer

I'm trying a different format this time - knocking off the categories and writing more like a "normal" review. Let me know if you like this more or less!


Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon is an adventure game starring the taller, greener Mario brother. In the Evershade Valley, the Dark Moon - an artifact that pacifies the area's ghosts - has been broken, and the pieces scattered across the valley. Without the Dark Moon's effect, the valley's ghosts are causing all kinds of trouble. Professor E. Gadd calls in Luigi to round up the ghosts and reassemble the pieces of the Dark Moon, scattered through the valley's mansions.

At Launch

Reviews were positive, with review scores averaging 86%. Reviewers praised the puzzles, "combat", and the visuals, impressed with the density and interactivity of the mansions. Some critics didn't like the lack of checkpoints, stating that it made deaths and occasional difficulty spikes quite frustrating, as you'd have to restart the level. Some also complained of clumsy controls. Overall, though, reviews said the game was a lot of fun, charming, and unique.

Post Launch

No patches have been released.

Before I say anything else, I have to say that Luigi is great in this game. 

He's extremely expressive, with a wide variety of excellent animations and surprisingly good voice considering that he doesn't actually say that much. The game is constantly playing up how little faith the Professor seems to have in Luigi, and how terrified Luigi is of pretty much every single situation he encounters, but despite his fear, he overcomes every obstacle in his path (so I guess he's actually pretty brave!). Through the whole game, every time Luigi is pixelated into a level, he falls in a new way - my favourite moment is in one of the final levels where Luigi lands on his feet, looks shocked for a second, and then quietly beams with pride. This is just a quick little animation that you might miss if you're not paying attention, but it's an excellent little detail. This Luigi has a lot of personality in his movements and expressions, and makes Mario look like a bland cardboard cutout in comparison.

Dark Moon also constantly yet subtly pokes at Luigi's role as second fiddle to Mario. Some of the Toads you rescue will say things like "Thank you M-- oh, Luigi!". Although I was a little disappointed at the end when (highlight for spoilers) it turns out that the painting the Boos have been hauling around is actually a trapped Mario, and Luigi has to rescue him.

Luigi's abilities are powered by the Poltergust 5000, a vacuum cleaner modified to capture ghosts. The Poltergust can suck or blow air, and is equipped with two lights at the end of the hose: a normal bulb that can be flashed to stun ghosts and activate sensors, and a "darklight" that can reveal invisible objects and illusions. The Poltergust has a wide variety of applications for a vacuum cleaner. You can do expected stuff like suck up dirt (and ghosts) or turn rotors, but you can also use it to pick up objects, roll carpets, fan flames, or pull on ropes and curtains. The diverse usage of these very simple mechanics allows surprising variation in puzzles and exploration. 

As the game goes on, combat requires you to mix skills: by default ghosts are stunned by the flashlight and sucked up by the Poltergeist, but as the game goes on you'll fight ghosts that turn invisible, wear masks to avoid the stun, wield weapons, possess objects, or disguise themselves. New ghosts require new tricks, and fighting multiple ghosts at once that mix mechanics can be a challenge.

You can die in combat - well, faint, I guess - which can be pretty annoying, as there are no checkpoints: you'll have to restart the whole level. But it's not really that bad - you can find a golden bone once per level, which causes a ghost dog to revive you when you faint, allowing you to continue right from that spot. And the missions aren't very long, either. Most were under 20 minutes for me, even when exploring and examining every nook and cranny of the mansions.

Speaking of mansions, each one has a different theme: an ordinary mansion, an icy mine, a museum, a clockwork factory, and an arboretum, and they're all packed full of stuff. You can interact with almost anything, and a lot of objects or areas conceal puzzles, secrets, and things to do. The collectible gems are often cleverly placed - you might only be able to see a gem through a mirror, launch a Toad into an otherwise unreachable location, or have to repair a greenhouse's watering system to grow a plant large enough to reach the gem.

 On the topic of secrets, some critics complained about being forced to collect all the Boos (hidden ghosts) to unlock all the game's missions. This is a silly complaint - the unlockable kissions are challenge missions with no story content, so they're really only there for completionists. You don't "need" to do them by any means.

The environments look great. If you see screenshots of the game you might not be impressed with the low resolution of the 3DS, but with the 3D effect on and the game in motion, it looks fantastic. The art style is cartoony, colourful, and often whimsical. With the slightly silly tone of the game and the visuals, Dark Moon can pull off puzzles that might be ridiculous or implausible in other games. The 3D effect adds a lot of depth (not pop-ups) and works especially well in weather conditions like rain or snow. As a bit of a geology nerd, I love mines as playable areas in games, so Dark Moon's ice mine was a neat twist on a somewhat common environment.

The 3D does have one problem: when you're looking through a window or at a security camera image, the game asks you to tilt the system to look around (using the built-in gyroscope). To maintain the 3D effect you have to hold the 3DS at a fairly restricted range and tilt; requiring you to move the system to look around a scene throws off the 3D effect and prevents you from seeing anything. Any time I had to do this, I turned off the 3D. This misstep is at its worst in a particular boss battle that requires you to aim by tilting the system.

Dark Moon's boss battles tend to be well put together overall, making good use of the game's unconventional "combat" mechanics to fight and defeat enemies in ways other than jumping on heads or shooting. The problem is that pretty much every single boss battle falls into the same repetitive 3-stage structure that video games have used forever: figure out how to affect the boss, and then do that 3 times, usually with the fight getting a little bit tougher each time. It puts a bit of a damper on the thrill of solving the puzzle when you have immediately have to repeat it two more times, especially when there's not even an obvious reason to repeat it - you're usually not making any identifiable form of progress like knocking off armour or eliminating weapons, you're just doing the same thing again.

To close things off, even though I didn't actually try the multiplayer, I feel that it's worth mentioning that it's widely considered to be buggy as shit, with major progress-blocking errors.

Recommendation: play it.
Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon is a fun adventure game with more depth than its relatively simple mechanics might make it seem. Luigi makes an excellent character here, full of personality and expression in every movement. The mansions are densely packed with stuff to investigate, and the environments look great, especially with the 3D effect on. If Luigi wasn't your favourite Mario brother before playing Dark Moon, he's very likely to be afterwards.

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