We live in a world where fans of a game can and do make the games that the big developers aren’t making for them. The first two Paper Mario games are cult classic RPGs, but the series went in a different direction after those games. So, in recent years indie games inspired by those beloved games have begun to crop up, including the charming Underhero and the phenomenal Bug Fables: The Everlasting Spring. The Outbound Ghost is another attempt to capture the magic of early Paper Mario by the fans at Conradical Games. Unfortunately, the game not only struggles to do so but further fails to find its own identity.
The Outbound Ghost begins with an amnesiac ghost who wakes up on the outskirts of Outbound, a town where a serial killer murdered everyone. Many of the victims still cling to the material world as ghosts. You quickly learn of another spirit, Adrian, who also has amnesia. What better way to discover the secret behind your amnesia than to speak to another amnesiac? Unfortunately, Adrian isn’t pleased to see you and leads you on a wild goose chase across the city of Outbound and the wilderness surrounding it. A colourful cast of adorable ghosts helps or hinders your endeavour to identify the underlying cause of your amnesia.
It’s a solid premise that could have made for an intriguing mystery tale. Regrettably, the subsequent story is clumsily told, oddly paced, and sadly hollow. A few mysteries solve themselves without any fanfare, while others are never really given a resolution. The humour rarely lands for me too, which hurts the characterization of the ghosts.
The issues with the story extend to exploration. The zones you explore are large and meandering but empty of things to discover beyond the occasional material. Many of these areas you explore multiple times, and with nothing new to find, doing so is tedious. The locales are graphically quite stunning despite frequent pop-ins, but there are a lot of repeat assets, and even the most disparate locals start to feel humdrum. You obtain a few tools like a torch to light other torches or a shovel to dig up treasures, but these are used immediately after gaining them and then largely ignored for the rest of the game.
Apparitions roam around the field maps and are the monsters of The Outbound Ghost. Running into an apparition starts a turn-based battle where they clash with your party of figments. Figments are alike to pokémon — you collect them as you go through the game, some just from following the story, and others from defeating optional bosses scattered around. You can only use four in your party at once and find quite a few, so there is some strategy in choosing your figments. Every figment can make a basic attack, but they also have skills that can do everything from healing and resurrection to area of effect attacks and status ailments. A red, orange, and yellow meter appears whenever you select an action. Then, a cursor moves across this meter in a set pattern tied to an action. Hit the button when the cursor is over yellow, and you get a critical hit. Meanwhile, orange is a normal hit, and red causes you to miss entirely. Frankly, the lack of audio and visual feedback from these timed button presses makes them far less fulfilling than those in Paper Mario, and I could have happily done without them.
You defeat enemies when their HP becomes zero, but your attacks also increase their stun gauge, which, when filled, prevents them from acting on their next turn and increases the damage they take. It is all straightforward, and despite the options that skills open up, it is a numbers game in the end. If you battle every apparition you encounter, you will be strong enough to face every boss. You also fully heal after every battle, so it is in your best interest to always go all out, which makes the game easier than it could be.
You can also use the materials you pick up and obtain from defeated apparitions at anvils to forge aspects. Aspects are The Outbound Ghost’s version of Paper Mario’s badges or Bug Fables’ medals. Each figment can equip three, which offer stat bonuses, passive abilities like life steal, or add new skills to a figment’s arsenal. In practice, these don’t provide as much character-building as their counterparts in Paper Mario or Bug Fables. Without the absolute predictability of damage dealt and taken in Paper Mario, it is hard to tell what a +7% attack bonus might mean and to feel like it influences battle. Not only that, but there is little incentive to get creative when your best bet seems to be to deal as much damage as fast as possible in any given battle.
The Outbound Ghost has its fair share of bugs: out-of-place sound effects, areas where you can get stuck, and graphical anomalies. For example, if you finish a battle with an attack that deals multiple hits, you must complete its button presses even though the battle-clear window has already appeared. While these are not significant issues, they are still worth acknowledging, and I did also experience a game-breaking bug. Thankfully, and to the team’s credit, they promptly patched the game and fixed the bug (and others) on day one. However, attempting to skip the issue did highlight another problem for me: you can’t skip cutscenes, even if you have already viewed them.
I want to highlight an aspect in which The Outbound Ghost excels: settings. You can adjust the game’s difficulty through sliders. So you can increase or decrease things like the percent of damage taken or dealt or EXP gained. You can even turn off apparition spawns or prevent death entirely. There are also various modifiers you can apply to a new game, such as randomizing the order you obtain figments, starting the game with all of them, or even preventing any joining beyond the first! I am impressed with this mindfulness and hope the developers carry these options forward into future titles.
I wish I liked The Outbound Ghost more than I do, but I am glad games like it exist. There will always be genres and ideas that big publishers and developers don’t see as viable, and the indie space is a perfect place to explore them. I don’t recommend The Outbound Ghost at this time, but I hope the developers continue to improve it with patches and continue to make games in genres they care about. While there is a lot of promise here, The Outbound Ghost just doesn’t reach its potential.