Review: Poltergeist: A Pixelated Horror

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Charm goes a long way in games. Charm is the reason I don’t lose my mind when I get spiked on spikes in Spelunky. Charm is the reason I can put up with the insanity of E.Y.E. It’s enough to forgive concepts that’s aren’t fully fleshed out or gameplay with rough edges, and that’s exactly what it does for this title. Poltergeist will charm your socks off with its blocky furnishings and its hand-drawn cartoon cutscenes, enough that you won’t mind the simplistic puzzles that form its core.

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You take on the role of Henry B. Knight, vengeful deceased, as he scares the stuffing out of anyone who would call his mansion home. The game plays out in 60 puzzles across four time periods, with looks and themes unique to each era. Puzzles have a number of folks milling around, and provide you a limited number of ghostly powers to terrify them with. The powers range from jiggling loose objects to full-on possessing people, but their mechanical functions are all similar. Your hapless victims are divided across rooms, and the powers do a certain amount of “damage” to the people in one or more rooms. When you do enough damage to a person, they vacate.

The actual puzzle, then, is figuring out what combination of powers in what order will get everyone gone. You might need to fling a lamp from one room into another to soften someone up for a shadowman encounter. Or you might have to send a ghost wolf to drive a lone inhabitant into a room full of people so you can explode the TV and mortify them all at once. There are special characters that block certain powers, and each era of puzzles ends with three boss fights against some entertaining characters with their own ways of fouling you up. None of the puzzles are terribly challenging, since they’re just sequence problems, but they’re gratifying enough to overcome. My only hangup here was the fiddly attention-getting power which works based on some unclear proximity rules that made it hard to complete a few puzzles, even when I knew exactly what to do.

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What really kept me invested here was the presentation. The graphics are a peculiar mix of 2D characters against chunky, voxelly 3D levels. It works better than it sounds because the features of the levels are all physics-enabled, allowing your terrified tenants to bang open doors, knock over vases, and up-end entire tables. The adorable visuals are coupled with some equally adorable sound effects of gasps, screams, and Sims-style nonsense. You also get loads of hand-drawn cutscenes for the eras and bosses, accompanied with some charmingly not-quite-right English subtitles. The goofy endings are also worth your time to see, capping off a perfectly enjoyable package.

It isn’t groundbreaking in any way, but scaring the little pixel people half to death with your goofy powers makes it more than worth your time. If you’ve played the classic Ghost Master, Poltergeist feels like a much lighter, more streamlined version of that. There really should be more games about haunting the adorably unwary, but until we get them Poltergeist will definitely scratch that itch for a few hours.

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