Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective DS
Very few video games open like Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective. It’s as blunt and as uncomplicated as one could possibly get. We see the protagonist Sissel – lying face down and motionless in a dingy junkyard, his arse raised Johnny Sasaki style like an antenna to the heavens. The evening is still early and he has been shot.
Oddly, and the primary drive of the plot, Sissel remains alive (I’ll leave the debate as to how alive a corpse can be to the existentialists) though confined to a metaphysically spectral approximation of his former self. Before he has time to ponder his plight, he is asked to intervene by a mysterious disembodied voice. Death has dealt Sissel a favourable hand, granting him the ability to possess inanimate objects and manipulate them to his advantage. Consequently he has all the tricks up his sleeve to help the woman before him. Who knows; perhaps she knows something…
The way this works consists of tapping ‘Ghost’ on the touch screen when the prompt appears, activating a red tinted form of second sight, pausing time and highlighting available objects to possess with a blue dot. Using the stylus, you can drag Sissel from one object to another and, by exiting ‘Ghost’ mode and tapping ‘Trick’, Sissel can perform an action on the object. The choices of what objects can and can’t be possessed and the tricks that accompany them are very limited; each ‘Trick’ prompt causing only one fixed outcome- though many of which can be reversed, which is just as vital for navigation and solving environmental puzzles.
It can feel disappointing considering, at heart, Ghost Trick is an adventure game and anyone with a taste for the classics such as the Monkey Island series will be used to greater freedom, but such limitations rarely clash with the game’s overall enjoyment.
Sissel’s heroic rescue attempt results in failure. Fortunately this is all part of the course as Sissel can visit the four minutes prior to a character’s death, the goal of which is to prevent fate from taking its natural course and saving their lives as if their death never occured. The difficulty curve with these challenges is managed well throughout. They begin simply enough, but before long the player is asked to break the chain of a seemingly unstoppable Rube Goldberg device and, on two occasions, prevent the death of a character whilst already in a flashback preventing the death of another.
The motivation for doing this is simple. Each death is linked to Sissel’s own murder. The prevention of these will allow him to uncover more about who he is and to what purpose these murders owe. It’s just a shame that the game settles for an amnesia sub-plot to make this work, seeing as it is now seen as one of gaming’s most tired clichés.
Ghost Trick was conceived, written and directed by Shu Takumi, best known as creator of the superb Phoenix Wright series; a collection of games that took the concept of a light-hearted courtroom melodrama and made it more fun than in had any right to be. He understands the fundamental basics to developing a handheld game; by splitting the action up into eighteen bite size chapters and allowing the player to save at any time. The episodic structure tries to hide the game’s short length – a gripe few gamers may not fully come to terms with – as does the plot point that Sissel only has one night to uncover the conspiracy surrounding his death.
Takumi and his team have a knack for creating memorable characters and Ghost Trick is no exception. Each member of the cast is beautifully animated, colourful, loveable and expertly realised. Even the villains are likeable, dastardly rogues in love with their own villainy but with just enough menace to pose as a legitimate threat.
A few early standouts include the flamboyant Inspector Cabanela, who enters the room with a dance routine, a pair of security guards who bicker like a married couple and an electric lamp named Ray (for it is easy to admire the concept of a talking electric lamp named Ray.) Even characters who say next to nothing stand out in the back of my mind, praise which sadly can’t be said for most mainstream titles.
That said the dialogue can feel redundant and patronising at the worst of times. Without giving anything away the game actually tells the player what a torpedo is and what it does, i.e. explode. The prevalent humour helps diminish the frustration but the game is happy to make the character wade though too many lines which exist purely for the sake of its own self.
The ending was the greatest sour point of my experience. Whilst the game has an abundance of endings, there was no real sense of closure. A mystery is only as good as the grand reveal and, with everything that I had done to reach it, I didn’t feel particularly satisfied. Ghost Trick throws too many game-changing twists one after another. It feels tawdry, contrived and it is one blatantly obvious area in which the game ought to have shown some restraint.
Whilst the ending is a disappointment, the game gets so many things right it is all too easy to succumb to its charms. Special credit needs to go to the art team for crafting a look that combines the film noir iconography of the forties and fifties with bold, primary colours and an exaggerated comic book style to produce one of the most aesthetically distinctive DS games available. A script editor would have elevated the game from ‘very good’ to ‘excellent’ but the parts that shine will stick with you for quite some time.