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There are a lot of ways to do retro, far more than just throwing something together with blocky pixel graphics. Many try to go for the retro feel, the antiquated and sometimes stiff controls of something like Castlevania, or the blistering difficulty of Ghosts ‘n Goblins. Ghoulboy seeks to land somewhere in the middle of all this, sporting its own retro look, its own movement and attacks, and its own pacing while still staying comfortably close to the titles that inspired it. It’s a game that feels like it could have hailed from bygone console days, and could still become a classic if not for some brutally rough edges.
You don’t actually play as a ghoulish boy, mind you. In a grim land of monsters and mischief live a ghoul hunter and his son. The evil king imprisons the man out of fear of a prophecy that the hunter will one day topple his reign, but this only sets the boy out on a quest to rescue his father. This journey will take him through dozens of treacherous levels, spanning haunted forests, creepy ruins, monstrous towns, and more. The beasts your little ghoul hunter will face range from wispy ghosts and oozing slimes to towering trolls and flying eyes. If you can make the most of your nimble moves and special weapons, you might just overcome the challenges ahead and find your dear old dad once more.
It might look like Ghosts ‘n Goblins, but the gameplay in Ghoulboy is very much its own. Your little lad scoots along at a brisk pace, gets plenty of air off his double jump, and comes equipped with an important tool for exploring. You can find two kinds of sub-weapons, spears and spinning daggers, which certainly help in combat but have another use. Those spears can be stuck in walls to form platforms, allowing you to scale sheer cliffs and extend platforms just enough to reach. It opens the levels up quite a bit and you’ll be shocked at how much of some of them you can skip with some well-placed spears. They’ll help you find secrets as well, but be prepared to work your way up to a distant ledge or remote platform only to find that it was the way you were meant to go.
This game doesn’t really mess around with the challenge, and not just in how the levels flow. Your robust movement will be put to the test with spinning platforms, rides over acid pools, jumps across spiked platforms, and more. You get a fair bit of health but threats are inconsistent in how much of your life they claim, and pits are understandably instant death. The damage thing can make combat dicey, as you’ll never be quite sure if you have enough health to take a hit from a new monster or not. Monsters can also vary wildly in how much damage they can take, with some larger creatures taking only one or two hits but smaller, quicker ones taking upwards of eight.
We’re getting into my big problem with Ghoulboy, the big, ugly stain on its record that prevents me from giving a stronger recommendation for it. The design and balance of the game are all over the place, from the monsters to the traps to the levels and beyond. The first set of levels in the forest provided a fair, if steep, challenge. But the second set in the caves seemed to go off the rails with long gauntlets of painfully tricky jumps. I was getting ready to punch out but when I reached the witch village after the second boss, the levels were actually easier than before. I touched on the variety of expectations with the monsters but more than that, you’ll have to contend with terribly dodgy hit detection when you fight. Both you and your foes have hitboxes far larger than you appear to, leading to plenty of seemingly unfair hits and swinging at air to kill monsters.
The unpolished gameplay certainly threatens to sink this review, but honestly no part of it is severe enough to drain the fun from this title. I had a blast hopping across crumbling pillars and shanking witches to death. I really got into finding new routes and secrets with my spears. And I genuinely like the combat, even if it is janky and imprecise. There’s something unapologetically fun about Ghoulboy, a sort of reckless abandon you don’t get with a lot of indie platformers. You can tell this was made with a lot of love, especially from the assortment of custom retro filters you can run the graphics through. As rough as it is I can’t help but love Ghoulboy, and I wish more indies would push the fun in their games as much as this one does.