A distinct memory I have of when younger was turning on Quake II, opening the multiplayer client, and just running around empty maps that should’ve been full of other people. They were barren, but they had plenty of things to jump on, guns to fire off at imaginary enemies, and other tools that, when combined with the imagination, made for a decent half-hour’s worth of entertainment. Then I’d get bored and turn on something else.

I was intrigued, then, when Ghostware: Arena of the Dead not only reintroduced this idea to my adult self but in a way that ties into an intriguing mix of cyberpunk storytelling, supernatural elements, and a healthy dose of nostalgic first-person shooter gameplay. Originally debuting on Steam’s Early Access program in early 2023, Ghostware: Arena of the Dead was developed by Daev Team and was originally set to be published by Hyperstrange before the two entities amicably went their separate ways. When it originally hit the storefront, it carried with it a lofty promise of techno conspiracies and reality-hopping shenanigans.

Now that it successfully left the program as of June 2024, does Ghostware live up to this promise? Is it a complete technical mess? Like most things, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. In this case, it thankfully leans more towards the former.

Ghosts, Guns, and Graphics, Oh My

Molly talking with the Wizard in Ghostware: Arena of the Dead.
Daev Team

As promised, Ghostware delivers on its intriguing premise by presenting something fairly straightforward at first. You play as Molly, a grey-skinned, no-nonsense woman whose presence in a strange virtual world is prefaced by the Wizard — a man exclusively comprised of fat, hair, and tight-fitting clothing. In a bid to recreate the computer games from his youth, Molly and a group of others have been seemingly raised from the dead to fight for the Wizard’s pleasure, duking it out in a variety of arena battles inspired by classic multiplayer shooters. At least, that’s how things go at first.

Bit by bit, the world you inhabit starts to come apart at the seams. Levels that were unfinished are suddenly accessible. A mysterious presence forcibly kicks everyone but you out of the arena. Previous levels are empty, now occupied by haunting noises and distorted apparitions. On top of everything else, a mysterious hooded figure is attempting to break their way into the game themselves. Who knows what’s really going on behind the scenes and how deep the rabbit hole goes?

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Though the story itself can be sometimes difficult to follow if you’re not paying close attention, Ghostware‘s most prominent way of addressing this is also one of its most unique features: WebScape, a fun tribute to Netscape. By revisiting old levels, you’ll be able to collect different interactive webpages that can be visited through WebScape. From there, you’ll get a better understanding of what’s going on in the background, as well as the wider context of the dystopian world you’re exploring. You can even find special upgrades through this method, should you know how to find them.

It’s an interesting story that ties into the game’s subgenre-melding antics in a way that’s pretty engaging. The surprising inclusion of in-engine cutscenes and voice acting was welcomed. There are plenty of characters to interact with, differing perspectives to consider, and some reveals you may completely miss out on should you go in a specific direction. Its score, composed by Mothership Loudspeakerz, is pretty terrific, blending droning ambiance with breakbeat tunes and ’90s-tinged electronic songs.

An Arena Shooter (Until It Isn’t)

An indoor battle taking place in Ghostware: Arena of the Dead.
Daev Team

Ghostware’s narrative is worth experiencing for yourself, especially given its briefness, so we’ll avoid specific story details here. That said, there’s still plenty to dissect regarding how it actually plays as a game.

It’s worth pointing out that the game’s description on Steam says that it is a “unique blend of retro-fps, metroidvania, and adventure.” Two of those things are certainly true. The worlds of retro shooting and exploration are fairly distinct from each other, and there’s a certain kind of fun in finishing a level before diving right back in to explore its numerous nooks and crannies. You get a real appreciation for the design that goes into these levels when you’re able to wander around with little else to distract you. Once you get to the final episode, you’ll be glad you spent the time stocking up on whatever you may find in them.

The game’s movement also deserves a mention. For being as simple as it is, it works very well, promoting the need to move fast and efficiently via jumping, wall-jumping, sliding, and the weaving of these abilities into a cohesive whole. It’s arguably one of the single most important things for a game like this to nail down, and it’s nice to see that this was thoroughly accomplished.

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As the game progresses, you’ll start hopping between two distinct sections that firmly divide what you’ve been doing thus far and what’s to come into two portions: the Virtual World and the Real World. The two halves present two unique design philosophies, one of them being the arena shooter you’ve enjoyed up until this split and the other being a more linear, narrative-driven shooter with weightier movement, checkpoints, and more numerous enemies. This extends to their respective arsenals. The Virtual World arsenal is a little more suited for fighting one or two foes at a time, whereas the Real World arsenal is meant for tackling a variety of enemies in different environments. The ability to revisit previous levels remains intact throughout, though you will eventually hit a point of no return prior to the third episode.

The blend between these two areas is certainly unique, even if it veers more thoroughly into linear territory the more you play. If you strictly want more of the arena shooter gameplay, there’s also the arcade mode as well, which lets you play an arena battle with a number of specific, adjustable parameters.

In short, Ghostware has a lot going on. A lot of wholly different things going on. A lot of different, competing things whose sum is greater than they are individually.

Arena of the Bugs

Molly fighting a giant robot in Ghostware: Arena of the Dead.
Daev Team

The relatively brief time I spent with Ghostware was littered with bugs in a variety of forms. There’s no sense in being overly harsh with this, as none of them were particularly intrusive. The game never crashed or otherwise had any unexpected performance issues, and with hardware that greatly exceeded its minimum requirements, the actual act of playing Ghostware was smooth throughout. That said, it’d be disingenuous of me not to mention a few anomalies that I encountered:

  • The weapon viewmodel would occasionally completely vanish after talking with an NPC. Using an ability to drop a health kit nearby would thankfully resolve this.
  • Character dialogue in cutscenes would occasionally not start properly. Hitting the “skip” button would seemingly set things straight and play the cutscene as intended, but I’d otherwise be stuck staring at a character’s idle animation until I did so.
  • AI, both friendly and unfriendly, was inconsistent at best and unresponsive at worst. Some have noted in Steam reviews that the friendly AI in early levels doesn’t properly play the “Domination” game mode as well as it should, which I can also attest to in the full release. I’ve also noticed that enemies will occasionally not detect my presence despite my close proximity. Sometimes, they’ll just stop attacking outright, which is what happened during the final boss.
  • The game’s arcade mode has a dedicated character select screen. The textures on each of the characters seem to have some issues, either not loading in properly and resulting in bright purple placeholder textures or somehow placing themselves on characters that aren’t designed for them. The results were funny but most likely unintentional.

With everything that Ghostware is trying to do, it’s an incredibly uneven experience as well. When you learn how to master the arena battles, you’re sequestered away from them for a significant amount of time before returning for a single battle prior to a boss fight. Cramped arenas give way to vast islands and high-tech military bases. The line between the Virtual World and the Real World even becomes arbitrary after a certain point, as story events see the two mingling close together. Some bosses will even dump you straight to a game over screen instead of respawning you elsewhere. There’s so much going on that there aren’t really peaks and valleys — it’s jumping all over the place with every passing minute.

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Despite these issues, something kept me playing Ghostware. Maybe it was the odd mix of genuine mystery and nostalgic remnants from a bygone era, or maybe it was the charming presentation and intriguing worldbuilding.

Ultimately, what Ghostware does so well is the very thing it sells itself on. While individual elements can be found in other retro shooters — and arguably done better — this bizarre mix of adventure, mystery, decent platforming, and competent shooting makes for something I genuinely wanted to see through to the end. I can look past the few flaws here, as minor as they are, and find enjoyment in something that I can only describe as Unreal crashing into Unreal Tournament. That’s something to ultimately commend. It probably won’t be my pick for game of the year, but it’ll be one of the first games in line whenever I think of things that I played in 2024.

While Ghostware: Arena of the Dead likely still has a few more kinks to iron out, it’s arguably one of the most interesting retro shooter releases of 2024 in terms of what it’s trying to do. If you’re in need of something a little different when it comes to your retro shooter of choice, this intriguing title is sure to scratch a strange but compelling itch. Consider waiting a little while longer for additional patches or maybe a steeper sale.

Ghostware: Arena of the Dead is currently available on Steam. Texnoplasm, a game by Mothership Loudspeakerz set in the same universe, is currently in development. A demo for Texnoplazm is currently available to play.

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REVIEW OVERVIEW
Ghostware: Arena of the Dead
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Sean is a devout data hoarder, CD collector, and purveyor of weird things. When he's not scouring the depths for the odd and macabre, he's usually playing video games, trying to learn Blender, and subsisting on coffee and protein bars. He also knows how to "get things."
ghostware-arena-of-the-dead-reviewWhile Ghostware: Arena of the Dead likely still has a few more kinks to iron out, it's arguably one of the most interesting retro shooter releases of 2024 in terms of what it's trying to do. If you're in need of something a little different when it comes to your retro shooter of choice, this intriguing title is sure to scratch a strange but compelling itch. Consider waiting a little while longer for additional patches or maybe a steeper sale.

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