N-Space's Geist was a game that intrigued me at first glance; it was nothing concrete, just something about it gave the impression of being at the cusp of greatness. I first noticed it at E3 two or three years ago, and added it to my list as one to keep an eye on. I'm not sure if I could put my finger on any one element that struck me as being special, but the ability to haunt a bowl of dog food struck me as the kind of original thinking that could be nurtured to fruition.
It seemed to get lost in development hell for a while, and when it was finally released, critical reaction was lukewarm at best. Even still, I kept my fingers crossed since I've often disagreed with mainstream evaluations and found worth in titles that other pundits cast aside. I wish I could say that it wasn't so, but I guess the pundits were right this time—Geist is one of those unfortunates that started out as a solid idea but failed to come together.
Geist stars special agent John Raimi, sent to a medical research center to extract an undercover agent. The operation takes a turn for the worse, and Raimi's spirit is separated from his body as part of an experiment run by the mad scientist in charge. Turned into a disembodied phantom, Raimi can possess people and inanimate objects to achieve various goals while uncovering the events behind the experiment along the way.
To be perfectly honest, I loved the concept because the thought of being an ethereal spirit seemed ripe with gameplay possibilities besides the dog food I mentioned. Would I be able to pass through any wall? Would my character even have a life bar? Although there are any number of games that feature heroes with superpowers, projects that focus mainly on the supernatural are less common. However, the reality of Geist is that it sticks to well-worn design philosophies and seems strangely rooted in the last generation.
Contrary to appearances, Geist is more about solving puzzles than it is about being a First-Person Shooter. Raimi can possess available guards and take part in some gunplay, but the action sequences are relatively infrequent and usually short until the extended bits at the endgame. This was actually a wise decision because the shooting mechanics are not nearly as smooth or as polished as they need to be.
Instead, the bulk of the adventure is laid out in a very linear fashion and progress is achieved by solving simple "possession puzzles." Oftentimes, Raimi will need to take control of a certain person to gain access to an off-limits area. The challenge is that he can't enter the body until that person is in a frightened state. This is where the inanimate objects come in— by doing things like jumping into a steam valve and making it explode, or taking control of a mirror in order to show horrific images, Raimi shakes up his targets and inhabits their bodies when they're mentally off-guard.
It's a great idea and it makes sense for the game to focus on something besides shooting. Otherwise, what would be the point of having a hero rooted in the spirit world? The problem is that there's always one specific way to solve each puzzle and virtually no opportunities to explore the concept. Raimi can rarely enter any item that's not specifically designed to scare someone, and it's impossible to take control of a person who's not the solution to a puzzle because random characters are never placed near anything that can scare them. As a result, Geist feels very small and limited, and doesn't afford the player any unscripted experiences.
These constraints could possibly have originated in the technology; Geist feels like nothing so much as a project that was ported over from the underpowered Nintendo 64 and has the rough, unsophisticated graphics to match. I don't usually focus on visuals, but it's hard to believe that something as blocky and crude as Geist is running on the same GameCube that's capable of producing stunning showpieces like Resident Evil 4. I don't know the full story behind its development, but I'd be willing to bet money that it was originally slated for the last generation of Nintendo hardware. It's too bad, since the game would have been a much more impressive effort in 2000 than it is today.
Since it doesn't succeed in pushing the envelope of supernatural game design and its action sequences pale compared to even the most average FPS released in recent years, it's hard to recommend Geist on any basis except that of its intellectual concept. Even from that perspective, it's difficult to praise some of the clever or humorous situations that arise from Raimi's possessions when there are missed opportunities and restrictive limits at every turn.
Although it's only a fraction of what it might have been, I still think that the core of Geist is solid. The potential of a ghostly character capable of leaping from soldier to soldier, causing chaos in the middle of a firefight has barely been scratched, not to mention the poltergeist scenarios that could be crafted around possessing exploding lightbulbs, flying bedsheets, rattling pots and pans, or any number of other things that could be employed for the purpose of haunting. It would be a shame to see a property with such rich possibilities fade away… Hopefully N-Space and Nintendo will bring Geist back from the dead with a revamped modern design able to take advantage of hardware that can do it justice.