Poor Luigi. Dude’s obviously just not built to deal with stressful situations in a calm, collected manner. Ghosts least of all. Nobody in his world really seems to notice or care about his anxiety, least of which Professor E. Gadd, who you may remember from Nintendo’s strange little side project, Luigi’s Mansion. The manner in which the mad scientist ropes our hero into the events of the long-awaited sequel, Dark Moon, is more cruel than ever. Sitting comfortably in his cozy-looking house one moment, digitally evaporated into the air the next, Luigi soon finds himself the recipient of a brand-new Poltergust 5000 – 2000 better than his previous model – and sets out to restore the shattered pieces of the Dark Moon jewel, whose powers keep the ghosts who live in E. Gadd’s valley happy and, well, a lot less prone to spooking.
The basic itinerary hasn’t changed much since Luigi’s Mansion hit the Gamecube over a decade ago, but developer Next Level Games have done a good deal to update that original paradigm for both players and hardware alike. Luigi roams around E. Gadd’s large property, searching for ghosts and sucking them up with his vacuum. Being able to reach all the areas in a given location often requires some poking around or light puzzle solving, but nearly all areas end with a ghostly encounter of some kind. It was the highlight of the original Mansion, and Dark Moon manages to mature the combat in some great ways that keep things from staying too simple. Ghosts must now be stunned with a flashlight charge before they can be busted with the vacuum, for example, and often your foes will be wearing gear that prohibits you from using that simple two-step process. Sunglasses, for example, need to be sucked up before a ghost can be stunned, while ghosts with kitchen pots on their head must have their attacks dodged before becoming vulnerable. Still other enemies need to be revealed with an upgraded beam that phases certain anomalies into tangible reality. Although the basic process of disabling and then sucking up baddies doesn’t change much throughout the game, the combat does enough to keep itself interesting, and the way motion controls are used to precision aim your attacks feels awesome. The puzzles make much more clever use of what’s around you and how Luigi can interact with it, and there’s a good amount of thought that must go into cracking some of the more devious ones that make full use of your gear.
Dark Moon has evolved visually in no small way over the original, too, its adorable diorama-style rooms packed with tiny details that take advantage of the 3DS. Individually modelled tomes line the bookcases; unevenly folded laundry rests haphazardly on top of dressers. The world feels lived in and organic, and the ghosts animate and emote remarkably within the space, giggling when they trick you, paralysed with fear when you stun them with your flashlight. Uneven framerate aside, it’s tough not to love everything about how this game is presented, especially the more cinematic boss levels (which, believe me, you don’t want spoiled).
While the first Luigi’s Mansion consisted of a short, breezy jaunt through its titular homestead, Dark Moon contains multiple mansions that must be explored and eventually rid of their paranormal presence. Although a good amount of the set design begins to run together after a while, some appreciable changes in weather, lighting and floor plans extend the adventure admirably. There’s even a separate area called the Scarescraper that allows up to four colour-coded Luigis to tackle some puzzle and combat challenges together locally or online. You may need to find a certain item stashed away in an area, clear it of ghosts entirely, or race against the clock to move to the next floor. I don’t know that I’ll continue to go back to the Scarescraper after messing around with it for an hour or two, but it’s based on that same solid foundation the single-player adventure is built upon, and I presume it will find its audience.
The developers have done a mostly great job of stepping up both the puzzle solving and combat to accommodate the much longer run time, but not all of those extra hours feel essential. Instead of a single continuous area, Dark Moon is split into missions that generally run about fifteen to thirty minutes long. Each mansion has a handful of these outings, and a lot of them lead you to the same locations repeatedly. Enemy types and locations are usually remixed somewhat, but there’s a good amount of retreading without much reward. There are some hidden-away gems waiting to be collected for those willing, but they offer no tangible benefit. Luigi’s puttering pace can occasionally add to the monotony, but the lack of in-level checkpoints hurt more. Combat generally isn’t too tough. When it does get tricky, though, you’ll be facing many ghosts at once, most of whom will drag Luigi around the room by his vacuum, potentially into the damaging path of another spectre. Death means starting a given mission over from the very beginning. A few later mansions contain some grating late-level combat that, if failed, means having to redo the same half-hour of gameplay over again until you nail it. It’s a decision that feels weirdly unaccommodating compared to the rest of the game, and depending on what kind of player you are, this could be a more severe issue than I found it to be.
The moment-to-moment navigation and ghost-busting is so innately enjoyable that it often negated my complaints, though. Mostly, Dark Moon is an excellent adventure game that smartly builds upon one of Nintendo’s most unique and underutilized properties. It could have used a little more balancing and little less padding, but otherwise, this is a grand start to the Year of Luigi.