Ghost on the Shore review: a haunting experience
The thing I love most about video games is their ability to tell stories.
Although the point-and-click genre will always be my number one, walking simulators aren’t far behind. They might not be to everyone’s taste due to a perceived lack of gameplay, but I don’t mind being swept up in a good narrative and following the characters on their journey.
Marie’s Room caught my attention a few years ago. It may have been free on Steam but there was a lot of quality evident in it: the polished visuals, great voice-acting and lovely soundtrack gave the impression I was playing something created by a team much larger than two people. When I heard that the duo had gone on to form a studio called like Charlie and were working on their first full-length project, I was looking forward to seeing what they’d come up with next.
I recently had the opportunity to play Ghost on the Shore thanks to a kind review key from Application Systems Heidelberg. I must issue an apology to both the developer and publisher here, as the code was provided back in February and it’s taken me a few months to get to the stage of posting this review due to my break from blogging. It was worth the wait though. After starting the game one afternoon, I didn’t move until I’d completed it around four hours later.
Players step into the shoes of a young woman named Riley who heads out in her sailboat seeking herself and adventure. She quickly finds it when a storm causes her boat to hit the rocks of a desolate island that’s not on her map, and it’s thanks to the advice of an amnesiac ghost named Josh that she manages to survive. Together they set out to explore the Rogue Islands, searching through the crumbling ruins of those who used to live here to discover what caused Josh’s death.
It feels like it’s been a long time since I came across protagonists about whom I wanted to discover more, as much as these two.
Like Marie’s Room which left me impressed with the voiceovers, the same is true for Ghost on the Shore. Nola Klop and Phillip Sacramento do a wonderful job of bringing the characters to life and showing their growing relationship. At the start of the game, they’re both lost in their own way and rely on each other for support but at the same time, there’s still that underlying suspicion about this person they don’t fully know yet. I guess it’s particularly difficult to build that trust when they’re a ghostly voice inside your head.
The player is given some responsibility for creating the bond between them. Several dialogue options are presented on screen during conversations and a limited amount of time is given to make your choice. As Riley, you can be open to your experience on the Rogue Islands and encourage Josh to share information; or you can be defensive and refuse to build a friendship. There may not be any game-over states here, but your decisions will determine which of four endings you’ll ultimately arrive at.
Although the island you explore feels open and I could wander among the trees and overgrown grass, subtle highlighting guides you down a linear path so I never felt unsure of where I needed to go next. It’s a beautiful, painted journey through silver birches, abandoned houses and sandy beaches, during discussions where Josh shares the memories coming back to him about these places and the people he used to know. Occasionally you’ll stumble across something which will push the story forward.
You can interact with most of the objects you find and picking them up will usually result in an observation from Riley or recollection from Josh. The former will sometimes take notes in her journal and draw sketches of the things she has seen, giving a little more background information if you take the time to check it. Handwritten letters and recorded cassette tapes reveal more about other people in a similar situation to Riley, enhancing the mystery of Josh’s identity and his relationship with these individuals.
Some very minor puzzles provide short breaks from the storytelling. At one point for example, you must find a key to unlock a filing cabinet in a school building and get your hands on an old newspaper article. It seems that these scenes can be bypassed if you don’t want to take the time to search but that would mean missing a few important plot moments. And although it’s good that there’s nothing here which will leave you reaching for a walkthrough, the adventure gamer in me would have loved a bit more challenge.
A situation occurs towards the end of the game which changes the dynamic of the relationship between the protagonists. The ability to choose whether to be friendly or snarky is suddenly taken away from the player and all dialogue choices turn more hostile. This felt slightly unnatural as it’s obvious it’s all a huge misunderstanding on Riley’s part. Her ghostly partner clearly didn’t do the thing she thinks he did, and it’s possible to guess at one of the main story points before it’s played out on screen.
As mentioned earlier, Ghost on the Shore does provide multiple endings and additional achievements can be obtained by locating all the items around the islands. This offers a level of replayability but I can’t say I was in a hurry to dive back in for another playthrough. That’s not a negative thing though. Despite the obviousness of certain parts of the plot, I believed the conclusion I’d arrived at was a satisfying one and it was lovely to see both Riley and Josh find their way at the end of their adventure together.
Walking simulators only truly work if the player can find a connection to its characters and get swept along in their journey. I might have had a few tiny niggles about the game as described above, but like Charlie absolutely nailed this part. It feels like it’s been a long time since I came across protagonists about whom I wanted to discover more, as much as these two. This is thanks to a well-written and believable script despite the supernatural elements, along with the perfect choice of voice-actors.
It may not add anything new to the genre, but Ghost on the Shore is well worth a play if you’re a fan of adventures who’s looking for a mysterious story. Seeing how much the developer has progressed from Marie’s Room to this, I can’t wait to see what they’re working on next.