Back when we first heard about Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective, everything about it was just as mysterious as a poltergeist plot - 'how does it play?' we asked the computer screen, but the only reply was some bumpin' trailer music and a visual style that seemed positively out of this world. What's more, the characters inhabiting the screen looked to be decked out with iconic designs, from the ghost-wisp shape of protagonist Sissel's updo to that clashing yellow overcoat of his red-haired partner, and they're all filled with personality quirks, to boot.
If the premise and a few in-game quotes weren't enough to intrigue you, then the idea of an entirely new game by the creative director of the Ace Attorney series, Shu Takumi, would hopefully be enough to pique the interest of even the most jaded DS gamer. While the Phoenix Wright games started off on the GBA and were ported over, Ghost Trick has the auspicious honor to be one of Takumi's first projects developed entirely for a new generation of gaming.
For this gamer's money, the promise implied there comes through in stellar fashion, and I'll let you know whether it'll become a favorite for you, too, after the jump!
First, let me paint you a picture. Being on the edge of one's seat for a game with almost no gameplay footage is an especially hopeless sort of hope. Would I be any good at it? Would my roommates see the shroud of anxiety and depression creep over me as I struggled to understand an experience whose visuals put almost any other 2D game to shame? For that matter, would the pretty rotoscope-looking graphics hold up after a few dozen scenes, or would they start to blur together as the puzzle madness took its hold? Finally, if I did manage to get a knack for 'ghosting' and 'tricking' enough to see it through to the end, would Ghost Trick's story be a sufficient reward for all the mind-bending it took to get there?
I have arrived at the end of my spirit-journey, fellow travelers, and I am here to tell you that a worthwhile experience awaits in the land of the dead.
As Shu Takumi put it, "I'm a very kind of pure person, and just made what I wanted to make since I have all these ideas, so I just kind of made it... And then, yeah, basically all the marketing people are like, 'How do you expect us to promote this? Way to go.' And I'm like, 'Oh, I'm sorry.'"
Trying to explain to someone how Ghost Trick works is a bit like trying to explain the mechanics behind a bicycle--you could spend hours futzing over gears, differentials, handles, and let's not even talk about staying upright--but if you make someone jump in and experience it themselves, an understanding just naturally comes. This is likely why the game was so difficult to portray in any meaningful fashion outside of trade shows and preview builds: to understand what makes Ghost Trick tick, you need to spend more than just a few seconds with it. Ideally, you'll have access to one of the demos Capcom has released, and see sufficient intrigue to acquire the real thing.
The developers have wrung surprising depth out of the game's two verbs: 'Ghost' and 'Trick.' If you've seen the title's previous coverage, you know that Sissel's powers of the dead allow him to 'ghost' to possess objects that are sufficiently close together, then 'trick' to manipulate them in some small fashion. Once you see the world through Sissel's eyes, each particular puzzle becomes simple pair of challenges: slide, shuffle, and ghost your way to where you need to be... then use your poltergeist powers at the right time to save someone's life.
The game does a fine job of unfolding its own unique universe as naturally as any twisted setting: the first half of Inception with its dream-logic comes to mind. In Ghost Trick, one of your powers is to travel back to four minutes before a person's death. As Sissel, you use those four minutes to try and alter fate, creating a 'new present' wherein this person is somehow saved - though not always to the end you'd hoped.
Sissel's power over small objects in the living world can effect big change, when used correctly. The most satisfying experience in Ghost Trick is the moment of clarity when the final piece of the puzzle slides into place - you know what order to move about the room, ghost up a flagpole, distract the killer, or deliver some donuts. Luckily, the game's time-traveling rule lets you replay a sequence as often as you need to get it right.
Another brilliant part of the storytelling comes from the final trick: Sissel's ability to travel through phone lines during a call. This means the story is told in a continuous line - no jumping around mysteriously from one destination to the next. Within the context of the narrative, you have a mission to complete and no time to waste by resting between scenes. Of course, the game does feature some nice exposition to keep you caught up on Sissel's unique struggle to figure out who he is, as well as a handy chapter system that encourages you to break between puzzles.
But, just like any well-crafted mystery novel, Ghost Trick is at times impossible to put down. The meager scraps of storyline that one can gather from trailers and box blurbs are just the tip of the iceberg - by the middle of the game, any player will be puzzling over who had a hand in Sissel's death, as well as the pattern of targeted hits going out over seemingly all your important contacts in the city. There are clues dropped throughout that fall into place well into the final acts of the game, and the twists start to layer upon each other fast & furious by the time you meet the entire cast of characters.
There are a great deal of truly unpredictable moments in Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective (some of which remind me of the mystic, deus ex machina style in one of my least-favorite Phoenix Wright episodes), but it's not far-fetched to say that the strongest part and most compelling part of Shu Takumi's latest game is, undoubtedly, the plot. It's a well-crafted rollercoaster, leaving you hanging breathlessly one moment and chewing over an entirely new view of events the next. It's easy to imagine some gamers might be disappointed in only seeing one storyline during the course of the game--as opposed to the 4+ that come on each Ace Attorney cartridge--but character count is pretty close on both sides, and Ghost Trick has the advantage of tying almost every scenario into the plot seamlessly. By arriving at a death scene and then saving the lives of key players in this mystery, Sissel naturally learns more about how he's connected to the complex play of events that led to his own death.
If I had to give one takeaway from my impressions of Ghost Trick, it would be: Come for the graphics, stay for the storyline. Because while there's no way to sweeten the pot of the plot without spoiling the broth, anyone who looks at the game will be instantly struck by its unique style. That's according to plan, says director Takumi:
We wanted to differentiate the style from that of the Ace Attorney franchise, so in a way it stems from Ace Attorney. The protagonist is a ghost and he is an external existence - this view is what the players will see and I very much focused on this theatre style.
The first thing one notices about the characters of Ghost Trick is how full of life they seem - the art directors strove to add as much fluidity and natural motion as they could to the characters, but without using motion capture. The graphics are actually 2D drawings of 3D polygon models, with much of the visual 'pop' coming from two-toned shading and contrasting colors. It's a testament to the character designers that, even with no outlines, there's never a time when the game's cast ever looks to blend into the background. One of Takumi's goals when he greenlights character designs is that they must have a striking silhouette - whether it's the unique hairstyles of Sissel and detective Lynne, the lanky angles of Inspector Cabanela contrasting with his rotund rival Jowd, or even smaller players like the odd waitstaff at the city's quintessential meeting place, the Chicken Kitchen. The characters are just as well animated, but the real joy is when they pause to talk. Just as in any of the Ace Attorney games, the personality and banter of the cast is fun and appreciable for gamers at any level, and if a particular actor doesn't charm you the first time around, they'll likely win a place in your heart by the second or third time you meet them.
Interestingly enough, the most striking part of the visual style, for me, came from the director's comment about Sissel being an 'external existence.' Throughout the entirety of Ghost Trick, you perceive the world with a side-on view, giving you access to things the living aren't even aware of, such as the spaces between rooms and the occasional hidden passage. Even when it has no bearing on the puzzle, this struck me as one of the most deliberate and powerful parts of playing Ghost Trick: as a ghost, Sissel is stuck with a slightly unnatural perspective of the living world, and part of your goal is to use that to your advantage even as it threatens to unnerve you about your own surroundings. In the closing chapters, the game plays with this locked perspective in some very interesting ways, but I'll leave that for the reader to decide if they'll see it through!
In the end, Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective was not quite that game I expected. The plot has a great basis in multiple murder-mysteries, but the supernatural element takes away some of the mystique of those stories. Still, there are more twists in this game than a pretzel factory, and each of them left me wanting more. The puzzles themselves are obviously more physical in nature than in the Ace Attorney games, but they also sometimes require the same trial-and-error style in order to figure out what trick causes which piece of your desired outcome. The logic is at times arbitrary and confusing, but that doesn't keep you from feeling awesome when the 'Chapter Solved' music plays. And of course, even the most frustrating puzzle is alleviated by some of the most delicious 2D art on any handheld so far.
So I'd say Ghost Trick is even better than the game I expected it to be: all that time stressing over the trailers, trying to pick up the tricks of 'tricking,' absorbing the overall concept - it was all time well-spent, but the story takes off in directions most gamers wouldn't even dare to imagine, the puzzles are delightful even when they're dense, and the music and visuals bring new heights of drama-action to the mystery genre started in the Ace Attorney series.
When asked for more, Capcom has played coy:
When [Takumi's team] originally made the first Ace Attorney, they put everything into it, not really thinking about making it a sequel, not knowing if they could even get a sequel. Same thing for Ghost Trick. If people really want a sequel, if there is really a demand for it, we'd certainly love to create a sequel or whatever down the line. But right now, we're just happy with Ghost Trick having made that game, putting everything into it.Looks like we'll have to wait even longer before we have word of another ghostly adventure! In the meantime, I hope this review has helped make your mind on whether Ghost Trick is a good choice. And you can trust me - there's no way I'd use my newfound trick powers to manipulate anyone's will, right...?
Ghost Trick was reviewed on a self-purchased retail copy. It was played to completion, and took about eight hours.