Poor Luigi. His biggest claim to fame is that he’s constantly overshadowed by the exploits of his brother. It’s not often that Luigi gets a chance to stop following in Mario’s trailblazing footsteps and prove his mettle on his own terms, but Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon gives him the opportunity. And at first, this ghostbusting adventure seems like a success for gaming’s most well-known second fiddle. Luigi is an endearing hero; fantastic animations provide some great moments of physical comedy; and exploring the game’s haunted mansions is a spooky delight. But alas, before all is said and done, things take a turn for the grim that casts a pall on Dark Moon’s lively charm.
Dark Moon’s greatest asset is its atmosphere. The game perfectly captures the sort of genteel spookiness typified by Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion attraction. The five mansions you explore are the sorts of shadowy places children (and young-at-heart adults) can venture into and conquer, feeling all the braver for it, not the sorts that are going to cause any nightmares. Creaky old suits of armor covered in cobwebs line stately hallways. Flashes of lightning cast huge shadows on the walls. Contraptions that look like the work of mad scientists clutter old laboratories. Luigi may be afraid to discover what’s behind each new door, but you’ll be eager to uncover each mansion’s mysteries.
Luigi is a reluctant hero, more or less forced into once again taking up the mantle of ghost wrangler by professor E. Gadd. The kooky professor’s docile spectral assistants turn hostile when the magical dark moon vanishes from the sky over Evershade Valley, and old Elvin Gadd conscripts Luigi into service, sending him into the valley’s creepy old domiciles to retrieve the artifact’s scattered pieces. The professor’s idea of humor is so groan-worthy that it may elicit a few reluctant chuckles–in a self-proclaimed moment of genius, for instance, he decides to start referring to the modified DS he gives Luigi as the Dual Scream–but for the most part, the game’s humor comes not from its writing, but from its animation. You observe ghosts getting up to all sorts of amusing mischief, and Luigi’s encounters with traps often result in him getting knocked about in ways that Buster Keaton might have approved of. The sound design supports the game’s silly spookiness, as Luigi often inexplicably hums along with the gently foreboding music.
Making your way through the mansions is enjoyable not just because of the expertly crafted atmosphere, but also because of the wealth of objects you can interact with. Often, nudging an object or manipulating it with the force of your PolterGust 5000 vacuum cleaner/ghost-catching machine has no effect, but opening that dusty nightstand or making that rickety old merry-go-round spin rewards you often enough with coins, cash, and gold bars that you feel compelled to leave no stone unturned. Even when your reward is just a visual gag–vacuuming up a painting of a cheese circle to reveal a painting of a partially consumed cheese circle, for instance–you feel like your time interacting with anything and everything is time well spent.
With the aid of his not-so-trusty pixelator device, E. Gadd transports Luigi into the game’s mansions, always with a specific goal or set of goals to accomplish. Whether these goals involve recovering pieces of a machine ghosts have made off with or rescuing one of E. Gadd’s familiar-looking assistants, accomplishing your task always involves a combination of solving puzzles and catching ghosts. Any lever, painting, fountain, plant, or other object might be crucial to your progress, so solving puzzles often requires both careful observation and the use of your darklight, which can reveal objects that pesky ghosts have turned invisible, as well as do things like illuminate the paw prints of playful ghost pooches, called polterpups. The layouts of the mansions can make it tricky to figure out how to get from where you are to where you need to be, and working out the solution often brings with it a pleasant “aha!” moment as things click into place.