Review: Das Geisterschiff

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Review copy provided by developer

A unique look is all you need to get me into a game, and Das Geisterschiff had me right from the start. I was doubly interested to then find it a turn-based dungeon crawler in the vein of classic Wizardry or Grimrock. The cyberpunk stylings were just icing on the cake, forming a trifecta I thought would be a total delight. And I was wrong, tragically wrong, because inside that cake is just a tiny bit of fluff. All the style in the world won’t save your game if nothing happens in it, and after hours of wandering empty halls searching for invisible items I’m ready to blame my boredom on exactly that.

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Turns out the future isn’t full of grim darkness, it’s actually so bright the surface of the Earth has been scorched clean. Everyone who didn’t get an atomic sunburn moved the party underground, where two dystopian megacorps now lord over the remaining populace. I guess they got bored down there because they’re stuck in a forever war and you’ve joined up with one of them as a mech pilot, taking on odd jobs to stick it to The Man for your own The Man. Your assignments will send you to all sorts of subterranean cities, tunnels, and ruins in search of data to steal or agents to kill, hopefully without wearing down your mech or exhausting you of ammo before that happens.

In gameplay terms, you have a grid map to scoot around one turn at a time in search of your objectives. There are doors blocking your progress that you can open, shoot, or bash to get past, and less frequently you’ll find doors to new areas. Maps can be quite winding and confusing, especially with the simplified graphics and few unique features of hallways. Occasionally you’ll be accosted by an enemy, which you’ll take turns popping with your weapons and scooting towards or away from tactically. More often you’ll come across mines to avoid or disarm, or force fields you need to lower somehow. Beyond that, you’ll find wall terminals and random notes that flesh out the story of what you’re doing and how fucked the world you’re doing it in is.

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Before you ask what the titular Geisterschiff is, I will confess that I can’t tell you because I couldn’t get past the second mission. Right from the tutorial and the first mission, the problems that eventually derailed my adventure were apparent. You might have picked up that levels are tough to navigate with few landmarks and many doors, but there’s also no proper map aside from your tiny 5×5 grid on the HUD. That makes it hard enough to find your way around, but the game is rife with fruitless dead ends often behind locked doors that you need to waste valuable ammo or hitpoints to open by bashing them with your face. You’ll need to find items like keys and upgrades but these are literally invisible, requiring you to step into every square on the map to know you’ve found everything.

Combat is probably the most interesting part of the game, and because of that also the most damning because it almost never happens. When an enemy approaches, you have the option to attack while advancing, retreating, or holding your ground. You also have four different weapons with different effects on both enemy behavior and damage. Switching and reloading them takes turns, though, so you have to plan ahead a little. The mobility factor allows you to duck around corners to escape or launch ambushes, though at my early stage of the game I mostly just had to shoot until dead. The issue, as I mentioned, was that combat was incredibly rare. I faced perhaps two or three foes in the first level and less than a dozen in the second, and over the course of two hours that’s not much time spent strategizing. The rest of the time was searching for invisible keycards and quest objectives, and that got old real fast.

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The last big issue with Das Geisterschiff is how thin most of the game systems are. You have stats but no way to influence them except by picking up invisible upgrades off the beaten path for +2 to a stat. You can only repair yourself at workshops, and there’s no way to recover ammo, and that’s about all the purported “survival horror” elements amount to. There are no complex interactions in the game, and no puzzles more complex than “find key for barrier” or “complete quest by going to place”, which makes wandering the empty halls even more of a barren experience. There’s simply not enough to do here except explore samey levels in the hope of progressing and maybe getting to fight something.

This is one of those games I really set out to love, one that sounded like a fresh and exciting experience I had been looking for. I love the style, I love the premise, and I love the mash-up of genres. And it could have been great, but all the contents feel utterly half-baked. Even the striking art direction suffers from having no actual animations for anything and a weird smattering of languages confusing the signage and level names. Das Geisterschiff is a bold foundation for a game with a cardboard cutout built atop of it, a hollow experience that only the most patient and invested players will get anything out of. But for me, there are too many games out there that give me a giant mech AND something to do with it, and I’m going to stick to those.

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