GAME ON: Get in, ID your ghost and get out before it kills you

Are you obsessed with paranormal investigation TV shows such as "Ghost Hunters," or faux-documentary horror flicks like "Paranormal Activity"? If so, then "Phasmophobia" (which translates to "fear of ghosts") might be just the game for you.

For an early access indie game developed by a single person, "Phasmophobia" offers a surprising depth of gameplay, and there's nothing else quite like it on the market.

"Phasmophobia" is a cooperative, four-player game about tracking, identifying and collecting evidence of ghostly activity by using a high-tech van and various high- and low-tech ghost-hunting tools. As journeyman ghost hunters, players start with some basic equipment, such as an EMF reader (electromagnetic frequency) and a flashlight. By completing contracts to investigate for the presence of the supernatural, players will earn money and level up, unlocking the ability to buy more advanced spirit-hunting gear, as well as more difficult locations and more dangerous ghosts.

At the start of the game, players are in a garage and must decide what equipment to bring on the job, and then accept a contract from one of several choices. Ghost-hunting locations include small residences such as farmhouses or suburban homes and larger haunts, such as schools or an insane asylum. Each mission is procedurally generated, so you never know what kind of ghost is present, what room it's haunting or how it will act.

One of the most interesting aspects of this game is the sense of immersion created by making players' voice chat part of the experience. Anything you say into your microphone the ghost can hear and may respond to.

At mission start, players will receive some information and optional side missions on a whiteboard. That information can include the ghost's name, whether it's violent and so on. Here's your first tip in ghost hunting: Avoid saying the ghost's name out loud. It makes them angry.

At the basic, amateur level, players start missions with a five-minute setup window, during which they will be safe from the ghost. (On higher difficulties, this window drops to two minutes, and then no window at all.) During the safe time, players will want to enter the house and try to find clues. The first step is to find out which room the ghost is haunting and then set up observation equipment.

Each of about a dozen ghosts can be identified by certain signs of paranormal activity. For example, an infrared light can reveal glowing green fingerprints on windows, light switches and doors. The presence of ghosts can be seen in other ways, too, such as lights turning on or off, doors slamming or objects moving. Many ghosts have similar signs, but each ghost can be identified by a unique three-sign combination.

The goal is to get in, identify the ghost and get out before dying. And yes, players can die. After the setup time is over, the ghost has a random chance to go into a hunt mode for about a half minute. During this time, lights will flicker and all radio communication between teammates will cease, and the exit doors to the house will close and lock.

Players can survive by shutting off all their light sources, running into a closet or locker and staying very quiet. Remember how I said earlier that the ghosts can hear your microphone? Don't scream. Don't call out for teammates. It'll hear you.

Also, look down at the ground. Some ghosts get very angry if you see them, and seeing a ghost can affect your character's sanity.

The more time a player spends in the house, or witnesses paranormal events (such as seeing the ghost, or seeing a teammate attacked), the more sanity goes down. The lower the sanity, the more frequent "hunts" are, and the more likely it is people will die.

Each type of ghost has different patterns and levels of aggressiveness, and no two ghosts are exactly alike. Some ghosts are shy and relatively peaceful, but peaceful ghosts don't give off a lot of signs, so sometimes you'll have to actually rile them up on purpose. It's also possible to just talk to the ghost, using a Spirit Box attuned to certain radio frequencies. Players can ask it questions, such as, "Where are you?" and "How old are you?" and, sometimes, it will answer.

Players will need to develop strategies to coordinate with one another, to defend against attacks and to identify the ghost quickly.

"Phasmophobia" is still in active development, but it has already gained a big fan-base, and more improvements are coming. It's also available for an immersive virtual-reality experience, which sounds absolutely terrifying.

It's the perfect spooky game to play with friends this time of year — or it can be played solo, at night with all the lights off, if you're truly daring.


Platform: PC, VR

Cost: $13.99 on Steam

Rating: Mature for horror themes

Score: 9 out of 10

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