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Ghoulboy - Dark Sword of Goblin (PC) artwork

Ghoulboy - Dark Sword of Goblin (PC) review

"It's ceaselessly dark and unremarkable, but the day or two of platforming challenges is probably worth it"

Welcome to the eldritch land of Gunzabar, a land of darkness ruled by a cruel goblin king, Gamunbal (which sounds a lot like cannonball, and that makes me smile). It was prophesied that a ghoul hunter would kill the last goblin king, and Gamunbal assumed that meant he was the one going down. As such, he planned a preemptive strike against Galdar, the only ghoul hunter known to him. The king found Galdar and locked him in a dungeon, a curiously merciful and shortsighted move for such a cruel dude to make. Anyway, his more egregious oversight was failing to similarly find and capture Galdar's son, the brave but foolhardy Thulgar... otherwise known as Ghoulboy.

Once we get past the hilarity of these random fantasy paperback names, we prepare ourselves for Thulgar’s mission, which is to save his father and assassinate Cannonball. It all feels a little early Castlevania, as the adventure features methodical movement, a melee main weapon and limited-use, ranged subweapons. But the game also brings to mind Ghosts 'n Goblins with its incessant darkness. I get that the developers wanted to conjure an atmosphere of dread, and they win points for that, but any goodwill earned for the mood-setting goes the other way in a hurry when the feeling sets in that you’re playing one long, depressing level.

The dark and monotonous backdrops aside, Ghoulboy offers up some good, fairly challenging old school action. Thulgar himself is a formidable warrior notwithstanding his strong resemblance to a random, scrawny elementary school kid gussied up to go trick or treating, wearing tinfoil viking hat and bearing an impossibly tiny sword. He can take a few hits before his vitality bar is depleted, but he's still fairly fragile by today’s platformer standards, so this isn't a game you're just going to fly through. Although...! Early in the proceedings, Thulgar ditches his default prison shiv and finds a proper broadsword, and enemies start to fall beneath his blade much more easily.

The newer weapon cuts a large swath that begins over your head: useful for taking out pesky flying foes and ground-dwelling ghouls alike. Hooded skeleton archers; broom-riding, magic-casting witches; green goblins in tattered clothes casually bearing scythes -- will all put up a fight, before succumbing to your sense of timing and sheer persistence. But soon, all too soon, Thulgar will have saved up the scratch to buy the flail, and from that point onward, no enemy will really stand a chance, and the only serious challenges presented will be by the game's platformer elements.

The flail is a ball-and-chain combination that I wasn't actually able to find hidden within any level during the course of my playthrough: I found that it was available for dirt cheap in the game’s menu store. I didn't figure that out until later in the proceedings, but it was definitely available and affordable very early on. And somewhat regrettably, the flail is literally a game-changer: once you have it in your possession, Ghoulboy becomes far easier -- probably too easy for a game that otherwise feels like it wants to be that 'tough as nails' platformer.

I enjoyed the level of difficulty that I faced when I bore the great sword. Enemies took a bit more effort and strategy to put down; the sword’s range and power ‘deficiencies’ by comparison forced you to get creative, get in and out quickly, and pick your battles. When I revisit areas where I struggled a bit, now with flail in tow, it’s a blood bath. I can comfortably crush monsters from just outside of their effective range, so long is the chain, and so heavy is the ball.

That said, on the whole, Ghoulboy still presents more of a challenge than most games of its ilk that I've come across of late. Aside from the usual crumbling platforms, moving platforms, and disappearing platforms, all with spikes or the great void gaping beneath them, there is also the spear chucking function at your disposal. Sure, the spears aren't your only subweapon -- there are daggers and double daggers to toss, which function sort of like boomerangs (the double daggers use up twice as many daggers despite not appearing to do twice the damage).

But it's all about the spears, which, while not quite as effective as the dagger at putting down enemies (since the dagger hits on the way out and back in), more than make up for it with their primary function: making platforms. Can’t quite make that big jump from your disappearing platform here onto the grassy area atop the cliff face beyond? Quickly toss a spear into the cliff face before making your jump, and when you fall shy you’ll be saved by your makeshift platform.

You can use this platform-making ability to scale the seemingly unscalable, and to find secrets, and sometimes you'll be able to do some real sequence-breaking and bypass entire sections of the game. In addition to all the spear-aided rock climbing you'll do in the name of exploration, you'll also be able to walk through false walls and find treasure chests bearing currency and vitality, and you’ll sometimes happen upon a traveling store owner offering vitality and subweapons for sale.

Ghoulboy offers four bosses, the first two being pretty basic 8-bit boss archetypes -- monsters whose movements require from you simple pattern memorization. The third boss is the always stress-inducing monster that fills the screen from the left and implores you to keep moving rightward lest you end up in its jaws. Yes, that guy. Here, he is manifest as a garish purple fish head pushing inexorably onward like some Innsmouth-tainted nightmare. Finally, the last boss is appropriately difficult to beat, and doing so will elicit something like real joy.

I enjoyed my time with Ghoulboy. At 23 levels, it might last you a day or two if you're decent at platformers; if you're a guru, this will be one day's work. That said, the game isn’t actually easy, and with most levels providing just one checkpoint, you will be sent back upon dying, and you’ll have to repeat your progress just as you would in a true oldie but goodie. In fact, after your three lives are exhausted, say goodbye to that checkpoint, as you’ll be starting from the beginning of the level. As such, there might be some marginally frustrating moments where you almost make it to the end of a level only to die and have to replay the entire thing, and some of the later levels are fairly long for this kind of game, but this is a good answer to those who believe that today's platformers are generally too forgiving. Ghoulboy, while it won't trip you up or even occupy you for long, cannot rightly be accused of being easy, even with the flail in hand.


Masters's avatar
Staff review by Marc Golding (June 03, 2018)

There was a bio here once. It's gone now.

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