Poor Luigi. He’s always second banana to Mario, running behind in a futile attempt to escape his brother’s shadow. Even when he gets a game all to himself, it takes almost 12 years to earn a sequel. Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon continues Luigi’s ghost hunting side-job, and while the atmosphere, characters, ghosts, and overall story are utterly charming in every way, the actual gameplay is disappointingly bland.
Professor E. Gadd has been continuing his ghostly research in the time since Luigi first met him, peacefully residing in a valley with his spectral helpers. This can’t last, of course, and it all comes to an end when King Boo breaks the Dark Moon, causing the ghosts of the valley to change from friendly and helpful to destructively mischievous. Luigi promptly ignores the obvious question of why the souls of dead humans need to be placated with a magic crystal in order to bind them to servitude, and instead sets out to retrieve the shards from the mansions they’ve been hidden in.
There’s three primary tools used to explore the haunted houses — the Poltergust 5000 ghost-capturing vacuum cleaner, a regular flashlight that can also emit a bright strobe of light, and a dark light accessory to the flashlight for revealing hidden objects. The most versatile tool is the vacuum, of course, and it’s useful for far more than ghost catching. It can pull in environmental objects like drapes and vines, shoot a steady stream of air at ceiling fans to activate hidden mechanisms, and is used to pick up and carry around limited-use items for puzzle solving. Second place for general handiness goes to the flashlight, which comes with a strobe light that stuns ghosts and eliminates the smaller enemies like spiders, crows, and bats, and also activates various devices and other surprises kicking around the mansions. As for the black light, it just reveals hidden stuff, although sometimes that stuff is a classic Mario-style Boo. There’s one Boo per level, and finding all of them in a mansion opens up an extra bonus mission.
As Luigi explores each mansion, he’s contacted regularly by the professor, who gives him goals and keeps him on track to find the Dark Moon shard. Each level has a primary objective that brings Luigi a step closer to the shard, but there’s always complications along the way. Once the objective is completed, though, the professor teleports Luigi back to the lab, whether you wanted to explore a bit more or not. There’s regular ghosts and the single hidden Boo to seek out, money to collect, secret gems, and all sorts of environmental goodies to play with. Levels are replayable, so you can try for a better ranking, but replaying them feels like a chore.
It’s fun to explore the levels the first time through. Activating devices and vacuuming up ghosts is a decent enough time, but aspects of the controls never stop being annoying. When Luigi uses the flashlight or vacuum he switches to strafe mode, and the only way to break out is to stop using it and reorient yourself. I eventually accepted this as a quirk of design, but it always felt like something to work around rather than anything that’s actually useful. When Luigi is in strafe mode, however, the 3DS’s motion sensitivity comes into play and it can be tilted vertically to give a different viewing or attack angle on the room. It’s a very clever way to peer up into the rafters looking for hidden gold or other devices, but it also means the 3D slider gets turned down to the lowest setting to avoid losing the viewing angle sweet spot. When you’ve used the black light to find an invisible bit of furniture and the will-o’-the-wisps you need to vacuum up in order to solidify it are floating all around, you can’t tell if the wisps are in front of or behind Luigi because the 3D is all but completely off, and using the vacuum puts you into strafe mode so you’ve got to hope it’s pointing in the right direction, these features change from gameplay quirks into outright annoyances.
Ghost fighting works out a bit better, thankfully, but that comprises a surprisingly small percentage of gameplay time. Somewhat under half the rooms of a level will be haunted, although usually by multiple ghosts of various types. When a ghost appears you can stun it with the flashlight’s strobe, then start reeling it in with the Poltergust. As Luigi tugs on the ghost it tries to escape, dragging him across the room and across the paths of other ghosts not caught up in the vortex, leaving him open to attack, so it’s frequently good strategy to try to take down multiple enemies at once. As you’re dragging them in a gauge fills up, and once active you can tap the A button to severely weaken the ghosts. Eventually the Poltergust can have multiple levels on the gauge, and the higher it fills up the greater the reward for the ghost’s capture. Get two or three ghosts in the vortex and max out the gauge for an impressively large gold payoff.
As Luigi wanders through the mansions solving puzzles and battling ghosts, it soon becomes apparent that the game’s greatest asset is its charm. Luigi is a perfect protagonist for the environment, in that he’s scared enough to be fun to watch reacting to the endless surprises but strong enough to deal with them as they appear. He’s constantly bossed around by the professor but more than capable of handling the occasional Toad found trapped and terrified in the mansions’ paintings. As for the ghosts, they’re always fun to watch before starting a confrontation, as they goof around, cause trouble, and are entertainingly mischievous in all sorts of ways. Dark Moon drips with an adorably spooky style, and it’s a shame the gameplay doesn’t quite live up to it.
The problem with Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon is that eventually the game boils down to “poke everything”. Check all the furniture, strobe all devices and plants, send a blast of air towards anything fan-like, and throw a little black light around for good measure. It doesn’t take long to figure out which tools are best used where, and while it’s fun to see the levels respond, it only occasionally feels like you did anything clever to make it happen. The ghost fights can be tricky if you’re trying to max out the gold from each one, but otherwise they’re pretty straightforward even when battling several different types. The controls are flawed, the 3D would be impressive if it didn’t need to be turned off, and the levels lack replay value unless you really enjoy poking at every single piece of furniture you come across. Fortunately, it’s still good fun to see the sights and enjoy the atmosphere the first time through, vacuuming down all the ghosts in your path and looting every bit of the mansions’ hidden treasure. Dark Moon is a likable if flawed journey through an enjoyably spooky world, and while it may not hold up to a long-term residency, it’s certainly worth a weekend getaway.
Platform: Nintendo 3DS