"Dark Moon? More like a Full Moon."
Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon is the first and only sequel to the GameCube launch title Luigi's Mansion. Both games strike a tone that Nintendo doesn't use often—fear. Well, I wish I could say that about this game. While the first game was very much filled with an irrational fear of phantasmagoric enigmas, the sequel is a walk through the plastic-joke-coffin aisle at your local department store before Halloween. To put it simply, the first game is scary-scary and the second game is funny-scary. Dark Moon is full of these contrasting qualities, and, while some of them are innately positive, others just don't have the Luigi's Mansion spirit anymore.
The Puzzle Master
Where Dark Moon does excel is in the puzzle and gameplay department. Dark Moon contains five mansions to play through. Each mansion is broken down into (usually six) missions. This gives Dark Moon ample opportunity to specialize the gameplay for each mission. Furthermore, the mansions each have their own “theme.” For example, one mansion is an abandoned snow-encrusted crystal mine to the north; another mansion is an overgrown experimental botany lab. Yet another is a sandy abandoned clockworks. Again, this allows Dark Moon to experiment with all sorts of puzzles, ghosts, ghouls, tricks, and haunts from mansion-to-mansion. Dark Moon also manages to maintain a sort of comprehensiveness with each mansion—you very nearly explore the mansions completely and each mission is tied into the overall mansion design stunningly well.
And this game does it all with only a souped-up vacuum cleaner, a strobe light, and a blacklight. Go figure.
So, I've been raving about the puzzles, but I haven't mentioned why they deserve such praise. The most important part of any puzzle is that they aren't too easy and they aren't too hard; furthermore, they must be intuitive enough to make you have that “Aha!” moment when you discover them. It's not so much a puzzle-puzzle as an obstacle-puzzle. Dark Moon manages to strike the delicate balance between too easy and too hard, between too much obstacle and too much puzzle, and between too familiar and too foreign. After you complete each puzzle, it should absolutely make sense why it worked—well, in the context of paranormal activity, it should!
For instance, in one of the first mansion's missions, you need to get past a few huge spider webs that have blocked off an entire section of the hall. At first, it seems impossible—the webs will not budge in any way, shape or form. However, at the beginning of the hall, there's a candle burning intensely. If we investigate the end table that the candle is sitting on, the candle will fall over slightly and set a small cobweb next to it on fire. Fire! It seems so obvious now! If we look to the ceiling, part of the web hangs from the ceiling in the form of a bundled ball of silk. We can pull it pack with our trusty Poltergust (the souped-up vacuum cleaner for those who are unfamiliar) and into the candle flames. The ball of silk now acts as a fuse, allowing us to proceed down the hall a little bit farther! But there's another web and our fuse is gone; nevertheless, the last web dropped a movable ball of silk that we can also ignite and use to burn through the last web. Presto! It's those kinds of puzzles that define Dark Moon. While they seem so obvious in hindsight, they are inherently difficult, not just because of their ghostly origins, but because of their innate design. The Dark Moon developers did a wonderful job creating a brilliant set of puzzles.
And each mansion brings in its own little twist. While the first mansion uses fire to burn spider webs, the fourth mansion uses fire to thaw ice. While the second mansion uses water to make plants grow, giving us paths to other rooms, the fourth mansion uses water as an obstacle and ice as a friend. The developers are simply not afraid to turn the tables on you in Dark Moon. However, after a while, some of the puzzles and obstacles can get to be very predictable—whether that is because of an increased acute awareness to puzzles after playing the game for a great while or because they are too similar to each other remains to be seen. What I do know is that there is a significant number of sufficiently new puzzles for each mansion and each mission. Dark Moon really is the ghastly puzzle master.
Furthermore, Dark Moon also reserves some collectibles that are not necessary for completing the game. While it is very possible that you'll stumble across a few of the 15+ collectibles per mansion, it is unlikely because the developers have saved their hardest puzzles of all for these little gems. Well, that's it—most of the collectibles are gems! The difficulty value to locate each gem is approximately doubled, meaning you will likely have to do twice the figuring to reach the Gem. While there are some Gems that are simply feats of controllable prowess, other Gems are masters of unobtainable puzzling conquest. Finally, Boos have returned and tucked themselves in every single mission somewhere. Sometimes they're easy to find, other times they're out-of-the-way.
Moreover, the fact that Dark Moon is able to accomplish create such elaborate and intricate puzzles for each and every mansion is only amplified by the feat that they did this with only three tools. Three. This isn't the Legend of Zelda where you have ten different tools that create five, predictable puzzles; this is the Luigi's Mansion where you can use three different tools to create five-hundred intuitive puzzles! You only explore the mansion with your Poltergust—basically your crutch for the entire ride, as it is realistically the only way to move other objects—, your Strobulb—the strobe light that isn't used too often, but, when it is, it's used well—, and your Darklight—the blacklight that exposes hidden objects. The use of the lattermost object is simply astounding; because the objects are hidden, you'll have to check nearly everywhere! While there are certain “cheap shots”—namely Boos held in areas where you don't necessarily go in a certain mission—the majority of Darklight uses are astoundingly predictable. That is, if you can notice them. It may be as unnoticeable as a missing vase or it may be as guessable as a missing bridge. Nevertheless, what the Dark Moon developers manage to accomplish with three tools is something the Zelda developers can't do with ten.
The first boss alone could probably sell as its own iOS game for $0.99. Seriously, that boss is simply amazing! While the others don't manage to top such an act, they do manage to create fun, puzzling, and, at times, difficult bosses that, again, don't rely on simply Poltergust-ing skills. No, they rely on—you guessed it!—puzzles. The first boss is one intricately planned puzzle that manages to use a few very well-placed tools to create a boss battle that would've been three minutes long and extend it out to twenty minutes long. Without any help, this battle can take a very long time to figure out. While that may not bide well for some of you readers, the solution is so simply brilliant that you will wonder how you could miss such a neat trick. Other bosses do not come to match this first boss, but they do manage to create interesting battles with subtle intricacies.
What astounds me the most is how little ghost-catching there actually is! It's just—wow. Even in boss battles, the “battle” itself is not about catching the ghost; rather, it's about getting to the point where you can catch the ghost. Sure, catching the boss ghost tends to be more difficult than your average, old Greenie (the “Goomba” of the ghosts), but that's not where the difficulty and the fun of this game is derived from. Even simple ghost-catching can manifest into advanced puzzle-solving. For instance, the Greenies I mentioned above can use objects laying on the ground to shield them from your strobe light—which is used to stun ghosts—and to attack you with. This simply adds another layer of complexity, wondering what object the Greenies will use next. I mean, look at the cover—that Greenie has shades on!
Some Presentational Missteps
Yet, while the vast majority of the gameplay is solid, there are some notable missteps when it comes to how the game actually gets to be presented. I alluded to many of these in the opening paragraph—this game isn't really a Dark Moon. It's more like a comically-half-shaded-gray-lighthearted moon. A Full Moon.
The Mission System
While the mission system does allow for great variety within one mansion, it also creates a setup where there is very little actual connection between each mission. Yes, the missions are beautifully connected, but why are there missions in the first place? They seem wholly irrelevant—especially in the second, third, and fourth mansions where little changes from mission-to-mission. These missions simply clamp down on exploration and true ingenuity. Furthermore, the addition of “missions” seems very last-minute; it's as if each mission wasn't actually supposed to be broken up, to be honest. One mission will pick up where another left off! Just keep me in the mansion rather than sending me back to E. Gadd to talk about something he could easily tell me over the Dual Scream! In that regard, the mission system seems frankly unnecessary.
Moreover, the connection between the mansions has basically devolved into a fetch-quest. Whereas the first game was a search for Mario, this game is a search for some inept Dark Moon Fragments. Well, what do the Dark Moon Fragments do? Absolutely nothing. They are useless. Worthless. It was simply written in that they take you from one mansion to the next. At least take the time to create some connection! There is some foreshadowing, but it only presents itself in the third mansion—by then, you should already be wondering what the hell you're doing all this for. Sure, Dark Moon can get away with this by throwing in the fetch quest, but it doesn't take much effort to create a premise for the entire quest. Or to even create an actual story!
This is very much a personal qualm of mine that many people won't have, but it simply annoys me how inherently lighthearted this game is. Isn't this supposed to be a scary game? With ghosts? The first game was very much scary—which was, in part, derived from the comprehensiveness of the game lost by creating multiple mansions in this game. This game just loses the scary. Rather, it's funny. Why am I laughing in a game about ghosts? If I wanted to laugh about ghosts, I would watch Scooby-Doo. This seems like an erroneous misstep, but it was likely in an effort to appeal to all age groups. Thankfully, Nintendo implements the funny-scary masterfully.
A Great Game; Not a Great Scare
I'm starting to see it. Sticker Star. Mario Kart 7. Mario Tennis Open. NSMB2. And now--Dark Moon. Nintendo has created a wealth of great games that appeal to all audiences—I'm daring to say that the 3DS is even more casual than the Wii was. They are all very solid, polished games, but they lose the GameCube charm their predecessors had. They take a direction—a stance—that simply is not conducive to the game itself. Unfortunately, it seems to be a trend that is going to continue in the Mario games henceforth. So, here I am again with another Nintendo game telling you that, “It's great game with great puzzles and a wonderful lighthearted atmosphere, but it doesn't scare like it used to.” Throw us a bone already, Nintendo. Give us an actual story—it's not as if the actual inclusion of a story will prevent the masses from buying your games, Nintendo. Give us a premise—maybe throw in the scary, Nintendo.
Buy the game, regardless. It's one of the best games for the 3DS along with Uprising, Awakening, and Dream, Drop, Distance. The gameplay is more than worth $40.
+ Amazing puzzles that truly define the playing experience
+ Intuitive gameplay with the simplicity of using only three tools
+ Some of the best bosses
+ Catching ghosts is the right difficulty, and the controls are intuitive
- Can get slightly predictable toward the end
+ Decent foreshadowing
- An unfortunate lack of any real scare factor
- Mission system disrupts the story more significantly
+ Atmospheric sounds are as great as ever; truly creates the Luigi's Mansion feel
+ Luigi hums along to the music
+ Some of the best 3D graphics available
+ 3D fits the game
+/- Slightly short; still significantly longer than the original
+ Scarescraper adds extra hours with multiplayer
Reviewer's Score: 8/10
Game Release: Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon (US, 03/24/13)