With an ingenious concept setting expectations too lofty for a small-budget company like n-Space to reach, Geist is a disappointing bust. Scare-free and extraordinarily tedious, Geist is rarely a fun experience, even if it does manage to raise your curious eyebrows on occasion. A lot here had potential. The gameplay mechanics of ghostly possession are certainly intriguing—Geist enables the player, a disembodied soul infiltrating a seedy military corporation, to take control of inanimate objects, guard dogs, and naked lab assistants. But there’s just no escaping the bad execution; the game is repetitive and the scare-to-possess formula is senseless, predictable, and frustrating. It doesn’t help that the graphical engine is serviceable at best, paling next to any comparable first-person adventure, which is a big problem when the game is supposed to generate sheer terror. To be fair, Geist isn’t terrible, it’s just mediocre. But with so many top-notch FPSs out there, all of which are so much more fun to play, Geist is a hauntless bore.
Before all the possessions begin, Geist starts off as a peculiar hybrid of first-person shooter and sci-fi adventure (an admittedly clever genre-switching decoy). You control John Raimi, a scientist and field operative specializing in chemical/biological threats contracted with CR-2 (counter-terrorism) to help infiltrate the notorious Volks Corporation in southern France and extract evidence that they’ve been up to no good (manufacturing viral weapons and performing illicit bio experiments, for example). Sounds simple enough. With a team of commando goons providing the protection and gaming tips, how could anything possibly go wrong? Just explore the hideout in the first-person and use your handy PDA to download all the criminal proof you need, and everybody goes home alive.
Too bad the Volks Corporation wasn’t just dabbling in dubious genetic research. After surviving a bloody massacre of an ambush by an enormous ceiling-bound monster (that makes its entrance with a cutthroat decapitation), one of your men is spiritually possessed and decides to butcher the entirety of your team. Including you.
If it wasn’t for the shoddy framerate and uninspiring action, this dark little twist of fate would’ve been a fairly juicy cliffhanger. Geist thus forth dramatically shifts form, as the game focuses on the peculiar afterlife of John Raimi. Apparently Volks has been exploring the notion of extricating the human spirit from its host body at the point of death, so that it can be harnessed, exploited, and manipulated towards all sorts of wicked evil. But like any morally preachy sci-fi exploration of the ethically shady sciences (Deep Blue Sea or Jurassic Park of genetic engineering, The Island of genetic cloning, Hollow Man of uh… invisibility), something is bound to go horribly wrong and the morally corrupt scientists are awarded swift poetic justice in one fell swoop. You’re that something. A disembodied spirit that remembers much more than he should, who retains just enough of his moral humanity and cunning to avoid being used as a military puppet, and instead escapes his captors and embarks on an investigation to discover the truth. But before you get too excited about the game’s ambitious exploration of the human soul—and the scientific and moral implications of its sentient existence—that’s about the extent of it. Don’t expect any Asimov extrapolation here, or H.G. Well’s satirical commentary, or even the frightening research of a Michael Crichton or Tom Clancy to give their scientific/political fantasies more credibility. Geist isn’t much more than an interactive gaming gimmick. What if you could play a spirit that must possess various objects, animals, and people in order to solve the same old stealth-heist-exploration puzzles we’ve come to love or hate? Possession is a cool idea, but when it’s really only used to get access to a locked door or assassinate an annoying sentry, it loses its novelty.
The game’s mechanics are fairly simple. You must proceed through the elaborate complex of Volks Corporation, complete with all the usual staples of big bad scientific empires (medical wings, top-secret weapons facilities, power and storage, comp labs), to save a comrade from experiencing the same ghostly fate (and uncover a few dark secrets along the way). In most environments there will be a few inanimate objects you can possess, like monitor displays, key card devices, explosive boxes, and dog food. Usually there is also a nearby lackey (armed guard, engineer, lab technician, medical doctor) or guard dog to spiritually occupy, but first they must be scared (from white aura to red aura, specifically), presumably because they have the necessary mind-blocks to avoid easy possession. Make the phone ring like you’re Samara form The Ring or create a ghostly medley of pipeline steam (especially potent when it’s toxic green) and presto: the seemingly pointless guard is rendered terrified, and thus becomes the perfect host to your unworldly urges. Once you’ve gained control, it usually means the next sequence will involve some third-rate action against mindless gunners or demon-fire-spewing imp babies. Your attack options are always limited but your ammunition is infinite, so survival is never really an issue (death is often even impossible if the host body isn’t required to complete the task). And then it’s on to the next possession… and the next… and the next.
But watch out for those boss encounters. The epitome of the game’s frustrating tendencies, these enhanced minions are sometimes extremely difficult, and more than a few will threaten to have you put down the controller for good. Most involve possessing somebody or something to kill a nasty demon or superhuman minion that happens to be tougher than four El Gigantes from Resident Evil 4 combined. When many of these simply involve dodging blistering gunfire with non-responsive targeting, a terrifying camera, and bugs galore (prepare to get stuck in just about every nook or cranny you squeeze into), these little trials are a game-killing nightmare.
Geist is mostly disappointing. Unlike the far superior Psi-Ops, which made up for its similarly shallow plot with a masterful engine dedicated towards telekinesis and a much more logical third-person perspective, Geist fumbles what should’ve been its biggest selling point. The scare-and-possess mechanic gets old fast and it borders on the ludicrous and cheesy more often than the clever and creepy (bathroom scene with the showering ladies, aside). The graphics, voice-acting, and environments barely pass the grade; worse still, the action isn’t thrilling, the story is more bland than eerie, and the sexist treatment of women is offensive. Perhaps Heist is a more apt title. Geist won’t just steal your hard-earned cash, but also a bit of your time, your life, and well, your soul.