Over the past decade, the Metroidvania has seen a tremendous resurgence in popularity. And yet, it’s easy to forget how far we’ve come. If we rewind the clock back to the year 2013, the Metroid and Castlevania franchises were on ice and the indie Metroidvania scene was only just beginning to take off. That’s when Matt White launched a Kickstarter for a Super Metroid-inspired game, titled Ghost Song, which smashed through its original funding goals and went into full production. Now, nearly a decade later, Ghost Song has finally been released on Nintendo Switch, and it is a wonderful homage to some of the genre’s greatest entries, although Switch perhaps isn't the best place to play.
In the first few minutes of the game, you’ll immediately notice that Ghost Song has two primary inspirations. Level design, enemy designs, and atmosphere influences are clearly based on Metroid. Single-block vertical platforming reminiscent of Super Metroid and the primary enemy design looking eerily similar to a Chozo will make any Samus fan feel at home. As for gameplay, however, Ghost Song instead draws heavily from Dark Souls. You lose your currency when falling in battle, having to trek back to where you last died in order to reclaim them. Using those, you can choose to level up certain stats, like health or damage, at statues around the map. There estus flask equivalents, which can be used at any time and refilled at save points.
Arguably the biggest Soulslike inspiration comes from the game’s difficulty. In Ghost Song, there is very little room for error. Enemies hit very hard and very fast, and you have little in the way of invincibility frames. More often than not, you can easily get trapped in a corner with an enemy repeatedly attacking you until you die. And because you lose your currency after each death, the difficulty can get incredibly frustrating. Thankfully, there is an “explorer” mode you can select before starting the game, which is perhaps preferable for first-timers or people who prefer to drink their Metroidvanias without a large slug of Soulsborne. Upon dying, you retain your currency, and simply respawn at a checkpoint. Without question, we'd recommend most people start with this when playing for the first time, as it doesn’t make the gameplay and combat less difficult, but it does make dying far less punishing.
Although Ghost Song pulls heavily from its inspirations, it also has several ideas of its own. One of the best additions comes from your combat options. At all times, you will have access to both your gun and a melee attack, as well as a third slot to add a secondary weapon. What makes the combat stand out is how the game encourages you to switch between weapons on the fly. Using your blaster too much will make your arm glow red, meaning your firing speed is reduced and your blaster deals less damage. But, when your blaster is glowing red, your melee attack will do significantly more damage. However, your melee attack has a stamina meter attached to it, meaning you can’t abuse it either.
This risk-versus-reward element of battling makes combat far more interesting, since you are constantly changing your strategy mid-battle. Your third, equipable slot can be filled with any number of items you find throughout your journey. This ties into the parts system, where, rather than always finding permanent upgrades throughout the world, upgrades need to be equipped. These can range from powerful missiles to a melee upgrade or the ability to see enemies’ health bars. Since you can only equip a certain number of upgrades at once, you never truly become overpowered, but the system does give you flexibility to craft your loadout to your own unique playstyle.
Outside of combat and the game’s Dark Souls-inspired systems, Ghost Song is a very standard Metroidvania. You’re exploring a large, open world, gathering upgrades and making progress throughout the story. Unlike Metroid or Dark Souls, the story plays a much larger role here. Discovering who, what, and where you are is your primary goal, and along the way you’ll encounter several characters (some more alive than others) who will help you along your quest. The mysteries of The Deadsuit and the history of the planet you’re exploring are highlights.
As for playing the game on Switch, however, there are unfortunately some technical problems that detract from the overall experience. Visually, the game looks great, with highly detailed backgrounds and a fantastic art style. The same cannot be said by how well the game runs, however, as there were regular frame drops and input lag during combat and exploration. Even worse, loading times between screens are incredibly long, sometimes upwards of 10-15 seconds. Considering how often you are traveling between screens, especially while backtracking, the load times significantly hamper the pace of the game. These issues could be addressed through patches, of course, but at launch they add a significant qualification to what would otherwise be a very strong recommendation.
Ghost Song is a game that wears its inspirations on its sleeve with pride, and although it may feel a bit derivative at times, it is still able to create its own identity through a great combat system and unique worldbuilding. While the game can be brutally difficult, “explorer” mode makes the game more accessible than it would otherwise. Unfortunately, the game suffers from significant performance problems on Switch, from an inconsistent frame rate to extensive loading times that destroy any flow the game has. If you’re willing and able to look past those issues, Ghost Song is an easy recommendation for any and all fans of the Metroidvania genre.