Review: Ghost Trick Phantom Detective (Nintendo DS)

Ghost Trick Phantom Detective
Developer: Capcom
Publisher: Capcom
Genre: Adventure
Release Date: 01/11/2011

A murder has just taken place, and discovering the circumstances behind it and the culprit is imperative. But wait, there’s not a single lawyer in sight to investigate. There’s no spirit mediums either, yet the dead’s thoughts are quite apparent. What’s going on here?

This would be the premise of Shu Takumi’s latest title. If that name doesn’t ring a bell, he’s the brains behind the Ace Attorney games. I’ve played and enjoyed every game in that series, mostly recently Ace Attorney Investigations: Miles Edgeworth, so naturally when I heard he’d be branching out into a new IP, my attention was immediately piqued. The concept seemed interesting, and the plot promised to be just as humorous and charming as the aforementioned series. Let’s see how the final product turned out.

You play as Sissel (while he doesn’t learn his name right away, it’s right on the back of the box), who discovers that he has shifted off the mortal coil sans his memories. However, before he can ponder the turn of events that led to his current circumstances, he has to thwart a hitman’s attempts to off a woman who happened to be nearby at the time of his death. She turns out to be his only lead, making saving her an even more vital task. A desk lamp (yes, you read that right) named Ray introduces him to his “ghost trick” powers, which allows him to hop from object to object and manipulate them. From then on, his goal is to discover who he was, how he died, and why before dawn, at which point he’ll cease to exist. The game gives you a lot of loose ends to try and untangle and make sense of, but by the end most of them are tied up neatly. Along the way, it’ll throw you curveballs and then pitch you even more while you’re still trying to catch the ones it just lobbed to you. There’s a part of me that’s a little thrown by how the mystery of Sissel’s identity was resolved, but at the same time it’s still fitting, an the ending was touching.

While the cast isn’t as large as that in the Ace Attorney games, it’s still full of characters with their own amusing quirks and oddities. They’re endearing in their own ways, and there’s more to them than what you first see. There are a few small Ace Attorney references, such as a dog named Missile and two detectives that bear a small resemblance to Winston Payne and Phoenix Wright himself. One character even does the “OBJECTION!” pose to make a point. But you don’t need to have played any previous games in order to follow this game, as the game stands well alone, though of course having done so would help you catch little similarities and throwbacks like the aforementioned.

Much like the Ace Attorney series, death is abound. However, instead of trying to solve murder mysteries and nail the culprit, you’re working to prevent them from happening in the first place. However, despite all the death, the overall environment is still on the lighthearted side, and there’s plenty of absurd humor to be found. There’s one character that kicks the bucket repeatedly, but such experiences fail to dilute her cheeriness. In fact, most of the characters don’t seem to take dying too hard (or are in denial at first). The fact that deaths tend to be depicted in a more cartoonish manner helps uphold the more cheery feel – more than you’d expect from a game full of people dying, that is (even if the goal of the game is to make sure they get better).

The overall color scheme of the game falls into the bright vivid spectrum. The sprites are fluidly animated and do a good job of depicting characters’ individual mannerisms, such as Cabanela’s dancing everywhere instead of walking. There’s a lot of unique animations with their own nuances, like backing into a fence and looking back at it, which helps immerse you into the story and makes the game a pleasure to watch unfold. I found one of the prison guard’s Panic At The Disco – I mean, “Panic Dance” particularly amusing, especially when it’s in rapid motion. The animations in this game are somewhat reminiscent of the graphical style used in Out of This World. While the character portraits aren’t animated like in the Ace Attorney games, they’re still expressive and look good.

The soundtrack is nice to listen to, and it fits the overall feel of the game. Though I can’t say there’s any one track that stands out for me as memorable, at least quite as much as some of the ones in the AA games, there were still some songs I liked. Jowd’s theme and the track that plays during one of the last stages of the game come to mind, and the latter made playing through that puzzle feel more suspenseful.
There’s no voice acting, except for a brief male tenor singing snippet and a sneeze that’s reused for different characters if they do either of the corresponding actions. They don’t come up a lot, so it never becomes an issue.

Besides the ability to manipulate objects, Sissel also has the power to rewind time back to four minutes before a person’s death when possessing their corpse if they died within 24 hours. To that end, you tackle environment puzzles in an effort to avert some horrible fate befalling a character (which you get to view before the puzzles itself), which involves switching back and forth between the Ghost World and the real world in order before time runs out. You can use either buttons or the stylus, and either option is viable, though I tended to use the stylus for moving from object to object and buttons for advancing text. In the Ghost World, you move from object to object, and in the real world, you manipulate them in a Rube Goldberg sort of machination. Time stops in the Ghost World, and some puzzles require taking advantage of this because some objects must be manipulated within a specific window of time, such as using a piece of paper flying in the air to travel across a room or preventing something from toppling over. Oftentimes you’ll have to activate things in a certain order, and once you’ve moved them you can’t do so again, which forces you to start over. The fact that the puzzles take place within a limited time span helps in that regard, and the checkpoints are places well enough so that you never have to go back very far. You can only go a certain distance, so sometimes you’ll have to make something else move or jump into something that’s already moving in order to get close enough to the one you need. You can also travel between locations through phone lines, but in the past you can only do so if the phone is in use. This comes into play in that you sometimes have to decide whether to go to that place or stay at your current location. Later in the game you’ll gain a second character’s powers at your disposal, which lets you switch objects that are a similar shape regardless of size, such as a tire and a baseball. This adds another element to the puzzles, as you then have to switch back and forth between the two and use their powers in conjunction.

Ghost Trick suffers from the same drawback as Ace Attorney games: a lack of incentive to replay after completing the game. A chapter select option gets unlocked as you go through the game, and you can look through the notebook and read all the updates to character and place descriptions that occur as the plot progresses. Other than that, though, there’s no new content unlocked with clear game save data. With the amount of space and objects you’re given, I do wish that there was more than one solution to some of the puzzles, as the interactive objects invite experimentation and trial and error. Nonetheless, the puzzles are enjoyable enough for another playthrough at some point in the future, especially if you let it sit for long enough that you mostly forget the solutions for each puzzle. Trying to spot foreshadowing of later events can also be an enjoyable endeavor, and the plot and characters are charming in and of themselves. However, if you’re looking for different endings and branching paths like in Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors, you won’t find it here.

There’s no penalty for failing, as even if you fail to save the person on time, you can rewind time as many times as you want. The puzzles don’t get onerously difficult, and you can eventually solve the puzzles just through trial and error. You also get hints at what to do, and the game even tells you if you need to just rewind time again. Of course, that’s not to say the puzzles are a cakewalk. While they do start off easier to ease you into the gameplay mechanics, they get more complicated as you go further into the game. At times you’ll have to decide whether to warp to another location while you’re trying to save someone. Since you can only travel through phone lines in the past when they’re being used, this is often a one way trip. So if you decide to go to a place before you need to, you’ll have to restart. Some parts also require precise timing, and if you miss your window of opportunity, you guessed it, restart time. There were a couple of pules in particular that I got stuck on, but even those I was able to get through eventually. The one I ended up having to retry the most was a stealth mission, and it took several tries for me to get the timing right. In another puzzle, I was trying to go further up the screen, and there seemed to be no way to get there. I ended up failing, but then when I tried again, I started right where I needed to be. I found that a bit strange since that sort of thing never happened anywhere else, but at least it let me get on with the game. Overall the game hit a sweet spot between being challenging enough to keep the player interested while also not making the game nigh inaccessible in difficulty.

The plot had me hooked, as I wanted to learn what everyone’s deal was and how they were connected. The character interactions were amusing to watch and made me care about averting any horrible fate befalling them. Even when I was stuck on a puzzle, I still wanted to keep playing until I got it, and the hints dropped were enough to push me in the right direction, even if they came a bit close to outright telling me the answer at times. Tinkering with various objects and figuring out how to use them in conjunction with each other. The pacing never dragged, and there were enough twists thrown in to invite intrigue until the big reveals at the end of the game.

Those who like the Ace Attorney games will very likely enjoy Ghost Trick as well, as it feels somewhat like a more interactive version of those games (unsurprising, considering the same person created both). The concept was fairly well executed and was different enough to not feel like a rehash of those games under a different name and veneer. Text heavy games do fall under the niche umbrella, but this one has more interactivity in between the text, which could appeal to those not normally inclined towards such games. The fact that Shu Takumi is behind this will also draw Ace Attorney fans, not only because of the style of gameplay, plot, and characters, but also for the little easter eggs that people who’ve played those games would be able to catch. I’d like to see another game, though with the way the story was resolved, it could be a bit tricky to continue it from where the ending left off. Then again, the Ace Attorney games did all have closure, and yet the series is still ongoing, so I’m sure Takumi will find a way to make it happen if the game sells well enough.

The Scores
Story: Great
Graphics: Good
Sound: Good
Control and Gameplay: Very Good
Replayability: Bad
Balance: Enjoyable
Originality: Very Good
Addictiveness: Great
Appeal Factor: Enjoyable
Miscellaneous: Good
FINAL SCORE: GOOD GAME

Short Attention Span Summary:
Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective proves to be another strong showing from the mind behind the Ace Attorney games, and it retains much of the charm and humor from those games while also branching out into new territory. The animations are nicely done and have somewhat of a noir feel to them. The environment puzzles are enjoyable, and it’s fun to experiment with manipulating objects. While the game does provide challenge, it also helps prevent you from being perpetually stuck on any one spot without crossing the line into handholding, which helps keeps you engaged and encourages you to keep playing. The plot and gameplay are linear, but they’re well worth playing through.

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