First released on iOS and Android way back in 2010, the Vera Blanc series has been grabbed by Ratalaika Games for repackaging on the Xbox. Vera Blanc: Full Moon subsequently came out in November of 2020, delivering us some werewolf visual novel shenanigans, and now we get a ghostly tale only a couple of months later.
If you’ve not played the first game and are interested in Vera Blanc, we recommend that you dive into Full Moon first. Vera Blanc: Ghost In The Castle delivers a recap that explains Vera’s origins, but fails to cover pretty much anything that happened in Full Moon, which defeats the purpose of a recap, really. It will make a hefty difference to your enjoyment, as the big-bad of Ghost In The Castle is continued from the first game, and we suspect that you’ll be bewildered without it.
Vera Blanc: Ghost In The Castle is an oddball, just as Full Moon was. You play a psychic investigator of the paranormal, and your role is to unravel a Scooby-Doo-like mystery, unmasking and all. You move to locations from a very simple map, starting conversations with the characters there. But it’s when things get dramatic that Vera Blanc: Ghost In The Castle shows its weird colours: as the music surges, Vera Blanc becomes something like a 99p puzzle book you’d buy at your local newsagents.
You can reveal any thoughts rattling around a suspect’s head, for example, by playing a game of Hangman or Wheel of Fortune, which serves to represent your psychic abilities. There’s a couple of blank sentences and room for three mistakes, and completing the phrase will progress the story. It doesn’t stop there. Chase sequences take the form of a number-memory game, where you’re shown four-to-six numbers in a row and must recall them if you want to keep up. It’s like being asked to suddenly remember your PIN number. Investigation sequences become a spot-the-difference, and a house fire plays out as a flip-the-card memory game, because nothing conveys the intensity of being a firefighter than turning cards over in a sequence.
It really shouldn’t work, but it kind of, sort of does. The story is so camp that suddenly tumbling into a game of spot-the-difference makes an odd, Saturday-morning-kids’-telly kind of sense. You’ll need to buy into it if you’re going to enjoy a Vera Blanc game, and you probably know, reading this review, whether it’s too silly to be your bag. Sure, there’s an option to turn off minigames, but it reduces Ghost In The Castle to an extremely substandard visual novel, so why would you do that?
This case whisks you off to Bargi, Italy, where you’re employed by a millionaire named Roberto Anastasi to investigate a ghost on the grounds. Almost as soon as you arrive, a local photographer is found hanging from a tree, supposedly goaded on by a waiter who was serving you gazpacho only moments earlier. There’s a whiff of foul play, so off you go with your partner, Brandon Mackey, to investigate, with a notion that the ghost may have played a part. Ta-da: that’s pretty much everything your given in this murder mystery. There’s a parallel plot that brings in Eva and The Master from the first game, but it’s mostly there to muddy things.
Coming into Ghost In The Castle off the back of Full Moon, it’s clear that we’re in a ‘more of the same’ camp. No advances have been made here – not a single one; this is just another episode in the Vera Blanc ongoing series. It was perhaps inevitable, as this was released only a few months after the original game.
Unfortunately – and perhaps fittingly for a game about a spectre – there is an overwhelming sense of diminishing returns. Ghost In The Castle has sequelitis, and the disease is visible in three different ways: it carries over the original’s mistakes, has a much weaker story, and – perhaps inevitably – just doesn’t have the shock value that the first game had.
In terms of carrying over mistakes, the first game’s puzzles went from serviceable to woeful. The Hangman stuff worked fine, for example, but the spot-the-difference was bizarrely fumbled for something that should be easy to execute. Well, in Ghost In The Castle, it doubles-down on the spot-the-differencing and actually makes things worse. You can’t hold the analogue stick to move the cursor, and instead you have to tap the stick continuously to move. Then there are the pictures, which – rather than having a clear difference like a different-coloured hat, say – adds weird scratches to the picture, like the artist accidentally slipped or dropped a hair. In Full Moon, they were easy to find; in Ghost In The Castle it’s like finding a rogue pube in a pubestack, and there’s one puzzle in particular that will have you hate-scanning the environment pixel by pixel.
Full Moon also had a habit of leering at its main star – the nubile Vera – and it got to the point of being uncomfortable. In Ghost In The Castle, the game wears its creepiness as a badge of honour. I kid you not, but absolutely every single character comments on your good looks in the opening five seconds of meeting them, tries to get a grope, looks down your top or – in the case of the women you meet – downright hates you for your good looks. Vera’s just a gogglewagon that pulls into town, and the writers seem to think that her boobs and pouty lips are a personality trait. It’s not helped by Vera herself, who giggles and chuckles, dropping a strap or stripping off to make her way through the case. If you’re particularly forgiving, you might say that Vera emerges at the top of the heap by exploiting everyone’s thigh-rubbing antics. But let’s be honest, this could be taught at schools as an example of the male gaze.
In Full Moon, the story was massively unbelievable with plot holes you could have spelunked through, but at least it made a coherent sense and had fun doing it, with Vera and Brandon making choices that had the outline of common sense. Unfortunately, Ghost In The Castle collapses into ectoplasm almost immediately.
There is absolutely no reason that the case should exist, for a start. No crimes have been committed, nobody cares about the ghost, and your benefactor is plain disinterested about you being there. When murders start happening, seemingly without ghost involvement, you see the plot-cogs turning and realise the writers needed some ghost investigators in early, even though the ghost’s irrelevant at the start. Fatally, the spectre doesn’t even show up much later on, so the paranormal elements (and the reason you’re there) take a backseat to rumours about the Mafia, madhouses and more. It means that you’re mostly in the way, tripping up the police who seem to be doing a much better job than you are. You’re not exactly Columbo, and you end up feeling like you’re on the outside of the investigation, looking in.
Away from the new messes it makes for itself, Vera Blanc: Ghost In The Castle is more of the same. The dialogue is still pulpy and occasionally mistranslated, the map is weirdly hard to use (why is it so difficult to see the highlighted area?), and there are moments that make you smile, thanks to the odd, parallel reality that everyone lives in. It’s about a third shorter than Full Moon, but at £4.99 it’s still decent value. Regardless, we can’t help thinking that Ghost In The Castle proves that you only need one Vera Blanc game in your lives, and we can’t think of a single reason why it would be this one.
Vera Blanc: Ghost In The Castle on Xbox is a spectral shadow of Vera Blanc: Full Moon. It feels similar, but the story is thinner, less threatening, it doesn’t last as long, and the kitschiness is replaced with misogyny. If you absolutely must have more of Vera Blanc’s bizarre blend of puzzles and visual novels, then fill your boots. If you’re anyone else, then this is a weak spirit that’s best poured down the drain.