You'd be forgiven if you missed Poltergeist: A Pixelated Horror upon release.
Hitting Steam first on October 21st, with the PlayStation Vita version following a week later on the 28th, Poltergeist had the unfortunate distinction of releasing in the midst of a busy October that saw big AAA titles like The Evil Within, Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel, Bayonetta 2, Lords of the Fallen, and Sunset Overdrive releasing around it. With the year winding down, and the relative calm of December — at least from a game release perspective — settling over us, it's a great opportunity to discover some of those gems that may have slipped through the metaphorical cracks; a victim of our wandering eyes gravitating to more bombastic and flashy affairs.
Poltergeist: A Pixelated Horror is one such gem, and its muted sheen belies a fun little title worthy of closer inspection.
Poltergeist: A Pixelated Horror makes a strange, yet subtly endearing, first impression. Upon starting the game, we're introduced to our "protagonist," Henry B. Knight, a 19th century curmudgeon with a serious case of separation anxiety. See, Henry worked hard to buy his old pre-millennial mansion, and even in death, he wants to keep it all to himself...forever. Of course, the fact that his beloved wife also passed away inside of said mansion has a lot of something to do with his unhealthy attachment to his former home. In the grand scheme of things the driving force behind Henry's homestead obsession is of little consquence. This is a puzzle game, afterall. The story is a peripheral afterthought at best. The important thing to realize is that you are controlling the pissed off ghost of Henry B. Knight, and it's up to you to scare a cavalcade of would-be tenants determined to call your former house home right out the front door and into less haunted digs.
While narrative may not be of the utmost importance, Poltergeist's puzzle-based gameplay certainly is, and the game's unique "if-this-then-that" mechanic is an original one I haven't necessarily experienced in any game previously. Essentially, gameplay revolves around short burst levels in which you, in the guise of Henry's ghost, are given a set amount of scares with which to frighten the specific tenants of that level. Scares range from something as simple as knocking a lamp off of a table onto the floor, to the more powerful and strategic possession ability, which allows you to take control of one of the tenants and scare multiple targets throughout the level. Scares progress as you move through the game, opening up new abilities and tactics, and it helps to keep the relatively short campaign feeling at least somewhat fresh throughout.
Each level is comprised of a group of rooms populated by varying amounts of tenants. Your scares represent the amount of "moves" you have to frighten the tenants out of the level. For the sake of clarification, imagine each level as a chessboard. The tenants are the pieces, and your pool of scares represent the finite number of plays you have to reach checkmate. Let's say you have a level comprised of three rooms: left, center, and right. There is a person in each of the three rooms. You have two lamp scares, which knock items off of tables, and one bell scare, which uses a phantom to summon one of the tenants into a different room. When clicking on the lamp scare you notice that the left and center rooms have objects you can knock off the table. You use one of the lamp scares in the left room eliminating that tenant from the mansion. Next, you use the bell scare in the center room, which summons the woman in the right room into the center with the other remaining tenant. Finally, you use your final lamp scare in the center room, scaring the remaining two people out of the mansion and clearing that level. This is a very crude and basic example of one of the scenarios you might encounter inside of Poltergeist.
It's difficult to describe the gameplay of Poltergeist: A Pixelated Horror with merely words alone. For an enhanced understanding of how the game works, take a look at the video below to get a better idea of how everything plays out.
After completing a few levels, the puzzle solving starts to become enticingly addictive. What at first blush appears to be a more straightforward and basic affair, quickly escalates as the game develops into a more cerebral and calculated experience. Some of the later levels in each of the four areas include some real brain busters that will task your ability as a player to plot out several moves ahead, with the boss levels in particular being especially challenging. As the difficulty increases, I can see some players becoming frustrated and throwing in the towel. While Poltergeist includes an entry level tutorial to introduce players to the game and its basic function, much of the game requires the player to figure out what to do on their own. Outside of the first couple of scares you're equipped with, none of the other abilities are explained throughout the game. It's incumbent upon the player to determine how each of the new scares work, and what their advantages and limitations are. There is no hint system in the game, either. While I think most hardened puzzle gamers would appreciate its omission here, more casual players will bemoan its absence after failing a puzzle for the 20th time in a row. Personally, while I was able to make it through the game and solve all of the puzzles on my own, there were times when it would have been nice to at least have the option to call for a hint. This will be a moot point to those persistent enough to learn the game — which admittedly, does not take a huge time commitment — as eventually you'll find yourself in the flow of the puzzle solving and the rules of the game world will become second nature.
Special characters throw extra strategy into the mix, as each of them have the ability to resist certain scares at your disposal, requiring you to think extra hard about how to subject them to the scares they're susceptible to. I like that these characters are kind of goofy, ranging from pilgrims and gypsies, to my personal favorite, the ghostbuster. It adds that extra layer of charm to a game that already possesses it in abundance. This charm is just another component of the great overall package on offer here in Poltergeist: A Pixelated Horror. The graphics and aesthetic are charming, the gameplay is challenging and addictive, and the concept is novel enough to capture your attention.
I just wish there were more of it.
When it comes down to it, there is just not much here. While 60 stages might sound like a lot on paper (4 Eras, each consisting of 15 levels), the majority of these levels are completed in 1-2 minutes. Sure, many of the stages will require trial and error, testing different strategies until a solution is found, but this is still a game that can be fully experienced in 3-4 hours max. There is a time trial mode that unlocks upon completing the game for the first time, but its disappointing as it simply tracks how long it takes you to complete the entire 60 stages in one run. It would have been nice to have time trials and leaderboards for each of the individual stages like many modern puzzlers out there. It's unfortunate a more in-depth time trial mode could not be included here. There are no other modes, no tweaks to spice up the 60 included levels, and no planned DLC as far as I can tell. The available gameplay suite is about as bare bones as they come. It's a shame, because the foundation is here for a more robust offering. Simply expanding the included levels and fleshing out the time trial mode are easy ways the overall package and replayability could have been improved. There is also nothing to collect, and outside of the included trophy for finding the hidden glitches throughout the game, there aren't many secrets to uncover, either. Here's hoping future iterations or sequels improve the long term prospects of Poltergeist.
I like Poltergeist: A Pixelated Horror. I really do. I enjoyed my time with the title, and the short burst levels and touch based interface are a perfect fit for the PlayStation Vita. As I learned the rules of the game world, the puzzle solving became more and more addicting, and I thought the scare mechanic and overall concept were decidedly novel. It's too bad it was over so quickly. There are other minor gripes to be had with the game, such as the lack of a hint system and occasional inconsistencies with a few of the puzzles — including scares getting "stuck" on screen and not scaring the tenants on several occasions— but the game's biggest fallacy is undoubtedly its lack of content. Regardless of length and included modes, though, Poltergeist: A Pixelated Horror is still a title worth experiencing. It's less than $8, and it's a clever, charming, and addictive puzzler while it lasts. If it slipped under your radar in the midst of the Fall rush of titles, give it a shot. Those looking for something to play in short spurts on their Vita could do much, much worse than Poltergeist. Like the tenants in the game, just don't expect an extended stay in Henry's haunted mansion.
- Novel concept
- Addicting puzzle solving
- Charming world
- Lack of content
- Little replayability
- No hint system