As Ghost Signal begins, the player embodies the Captain of the Aurora, a spacecraft that picks up a strange signal being beamed across the depths of space. Upon further investigation, you and your onboard AI are drawn into dog fights waged against much stronger enemies across different space sectors. You encounter alien species, huge alien creatures that hatch out of planet-sized eggs, and traders that are willing to help you out..for a price. Sooner or later, you will die, as all mortals must, only to discover that you’ve been thrown back to the very start, but with your memories and that of your onboard AI, intact. You realize that you’ve been caught in a mysterious and seemingly inescapable time loop, the cause of which will gradually reveal itself over successive attempts to unravel the mystery of the signal which drives you onwards.
As a genre, the roguelike is not well known for its narrative delivery. Most iterations offer flimsy reasoning as to why the player keeps regenerating, traditionally trading storytelling for action. Ghost Signal, however, does an excellent job of creating a compelling reason to keep playing from a narrative standpoint. Story components are nudged along in a way that both justifies the gameplay repetition and dangles the carrot of an evolving mystery, keeping the player engaged as details of the cosmic anomaly are discovered.
In addition to thematic evolutions, there are gameplay variations on the basic theme waiting for those skillful enough to complete a run. Ghost Signal has a clever hook to keep players coming back for more and although it took me hours to complete my first run, it became clear after that initial success that I was far from completing the game.
It is difficult to say more here without risking spoilers, but suffice it to say that Ghost Signal is far from a “one-and-done” experience.
The Far Side
The core gameplay that makes up the bulk of the time spent in Ghost Signal is centred around the player navigating the Aurora through a series of pitched battles across the solar system. Each new sector will provide a specific encounter, from standard battles against hostile intergalactic forces to trading ships and even facing off against planet-sized space beasties.
The roguelike elements of Ghost Signal are a relative masterclass. The progression system is well-developed and accessible, allowing players to take control over the way they wish to enhance future sessions without getting bogged down in “the grind”. Currency earned in each run allows for upgrades to be purchased which will remain persistent across each attempt. These points are well balanced, coming easily enough that rewards can be accessed frequently but not so cheaply as to become irrelevant.
As a counterpoint, there is a noteworthy perk system that ensures players will treat each run as unique. Within each attempt, a different array of perks (and detriments) will be available depending on the creatures and carnage that the player encounters. These can stack up to give players a devastating advantage or combine in unique ways which may prescribe a completely different play style from the last. It is as engaging and well-conceived as any other system in the genre and a real highlight of the game.
Look At All The Stars
Ghost Signal has an intuitive control system and within a fairly small learning curve players will expertly trace flight paths through the stars. The Aurora is armed with shields, boost thrusters and three weapon types each with specific strengths and weaknesses. In the sectors that involve combat, balancing these elements against increasingly difficult waves of foes provides an addictive dance in tactical destruction. Up to a point that is…
The basic gameplay in Ghost Signal is very good. So good in fact that I happily put over four hours into the game before the initial allure began to wear off and I began to focus on what was missing more than what was on offer. While the roguelike elements of the game are truly excellent and the action is initially exciting, eventually the combat begins to feel a little repetitive and unfortunately shallow as a result.
The moments that prove most satisfying are those where you are switching deftly between the weapons and manoeuvring through the chaos of the fight. In the heat of battle, balancing all the interactive components requires concentration and agile use of the controls and in these moments Ghost Signal is fantastic. However, there is not actually a lot that you and your ship can actually do, and after several hours in the game, the combat devolves into a reproduction of the same tactics things over and over again. Sadly there just aren’t enough “moves” to keep your strategies fresh and well before the game is fully complete the initial shine wears off.
With just a few more interactive components, Ghost Signal could have been absolutely amazing. All the bones of something outstanding are there, but it feels as though the main combat is just slightly underbaked. The addition of a few more evasive manoeuvres or the ability to direct shields towards certain quadrants of your ship and the cognitive balance would have tipped towards a more engaging long-term experience.
Similarly, the giant planet-sized beasties that inhabit the universe represent another missed opportunity. While they (generally) look great, they are largely decorative and with a few rare exceptions these enormous creatures offer nothing in terms of interactive gameplay. It seems such a waste to encounter so many giant creatures but have almost none of them present much more than an obtuse environmental threat.
Like so many games set in the void of space, Ghost Signal struggles to create a visual environment of meaningful interactions. Don’t get me wrong, it is a good-looking game that does admirably to hide its playable area within a well-wrought skybox, but trying to make the vast vacuum of space feel grounded and immersive is challenging, to say the least.
The planet-sized creatures and space stations that make up the background elements look appropriately grand, but they highlight how little environmental interaction has been fused into the gameplay. The immediate environments that the combat inhabits are strewn with asteroids which can be used tactically and create a usable sense of physicality, but as the only visual offering in the actual game space, they feel far too sparse.
Ghost Signal could be greatly improved with sectors that incorporate more direct environmental challenges. Battles which rage around or inside the carcass of a deceased monster or the decrepit remains of a once-thriving space station would have been a vast improvement. Sadly this lack of visual panache translates directly to a lack of gameplay options and Ghost Signal suffers both visually and fundamentally because of it.
Depicting the empty void of space may work from an atmospheric point of view but immersive gameplay demands a more creative approach to the way that deep space can be interacted with.
The Final Frontier
Ghost Signal is a thoroughly enjoyable space roguelike that excels in a lot of areas, but ultimately falls short of excellence. Delivering an outstanding story for the roguelike action to exist in, with truly excellent progression and perk systems in play, it is easy to recommend as being well worth the humble price of admission. However, with combat mechanics that a slightly too shallow to fully capitalise on the otherwise exceptional elements on offer, Ghost Signal drifts into the inky void long before it has the chance to live up to its considerable potential.