The Phoenix Wright games are some of the most memorable on the Nintendo DS. You can argue that they technically began life as GBA games, but for most English-speaking gamers, the DS is the real home of the franchise. With their clever writing and engaging story lines, the Phoenix Wright titles fill a niche that had been empty up to that point. While there have been plenty of similar titles released since then, many people still think of Phoenix Wright first.
Although the Ace Attorney franchise is doing quite well for itself, the team behind Phoenix Wright hasn't just been cranking out sequels. Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective, the newest game from Shu Takumi, the director and scriptwriter of the Ace Attorney titles, is proof that they're not limited to courtroom drama. Ghost Trick maintains a lot of the humor and mystery elements of the Phoenix Wright titles, but the gameplay and style are different enough so that it stands on its own.
Ghost Trick opens up with the death of your protagonist. The main character, Sessel, wakes up in a junkyard. He can't remember who he is, where he came from, or even most basic words. His own corpse is on the ground, and a woman named Lynne is being menaced by a mysterious assassin. Trapped in an incorporeal form, Sessel is helpless to do anything but watch as Lynne is killed before his eyes. As he laments his fate, a mysterious voice offers him help. It will teach him how to use a mysterious power called "ghost tricks" to avert the girl's fate. In doing so, he can use her help to figure out who he is, why he was killed, and uncover the source of his strange ghost trick powers. However, Sessel is given a time limit: At dawn, his spirit will fade away, leaving his murder unsolved. Along the way, he'll get twisted up in Lynne's own mysterious adventure. Lynne is a rookie police detective who has been framed for Sessel's murder and is now on the run. She has her own agenda and has no problem with using Sessel to solve her problems. Since she's the only lead that Sessel has, he has no choice but to help her out of many a tight jam.
I have a hard time remembering the last time I had as much fun with a video game story as I did with Ghost Trick. There are certainly more meaningful or mature stories on the market, but like Phoenix Wright, Ghost Trick has a blend of likeable characters and interesting-enough mysteries so that it remains engaging and funny. I found myself chuckling often at the antics of the crazy cast of characters. The relatively small cast works to its benefit here, allowing characters more time to grow out of one-note jokes. The actual mystery of the game depends a lot on the fanciful and supernatural, but it feels more in-tone here than it did when Phoenix Wright got far into that territory. The resolution to the plot feels slightly contrived, but it is enjoyable enough that one can overlook the occasional misstep.
The translation is quite good, and while it sometimes looks like the story has made internal logic errors, they're usually addressed later in the story. Perhaps the only problem is that Sessel will occasionally use phrases or words that don't fit with the story logic. Despite having amnesia and being unable to remember basic words, he'll occasionally pop out phrases like, "Rube Goldberg machine," which sound pretty out of place for someone who doesn't know what a missile was.
The gameplay is part adventure game and part puzzle. Since Sessel is dead, he can't interact with the physical world normally. Sessel's "ghost trick" ability is the manipulation of objects. Many objects in the world have "cores," so he can move from core to core and use this to travel around the world. Some objects have stationary cores and are used to go from point A to Point B. Sessel's reach is limited, and he can only move a short distance away from his current core, but at certain times, he can do a little more with objects. He can push buttons or make something wiggle, but that is about the extent of his power. In order to travel around the world in Ghost Trick, you have to figure out how to manipulate the environment to bring cores within reach. For example, you can turn on a fan and quickly inhabit a piece of paper to be blown over to the other side of the room. You can unfold a ladder or open a door to change the core's position so that you can move further. Sessel can also use phone lines to travel great distances, but only if he has already traced the line between two phones.
Sessel's second power is more unusual. If someone dies, Sessel can touch the corpse's core in order to travel back to four minutes before their death. At this point, Sessel can manipulate objects in the past to try and change that person's fate. If he succeeds, time is altered and the victim survives. You only have four minutes to save the victim, so these segments are more strictly timed. His abilities are more limited in the past, so he can't travel through phone lines but has to wait for a phone call instead. If he makes a mistake or travels to the wrong place without any cores, he may be stuck. The good news is that there's no penalty for failing. If the victim dies, Sessel can inhabit the corpse and give it another shot. There's no punishment for failure, except the victim getting annoyed with him for screwing up over and over.
Preventing most of the murders involves setting up unusual strings of manipulations to protect the victim. One of the first rescues involves stopping an assassin by manipulating various spotlights to lure him into a position where he can be squashed, cartoon-style, by a bunch of boxes. Later on, things become more convoluted. For instance, you'll encounter inanimate contraptions that need to be sabotaged to prevent a murder. Certain murderers become aware of Sessel's presence, requiring you to be more subtle in your actions or risk them killing the victim before you can alter his fate. The toughest aspect is when you get one chance at moving or manipulating a core. If you miss your moment, that's that, and you have to restart from the last checkpoint. It's usually easy to see when these moments are coming, and the game even provides an optional warning if you're worried about missing them.
As the game progresses, you'll get access to a second character and a second power. To preserve the story, I'll avoid naming the second character, but I'll say that s/he lends an interesting new dynamic to the gameplay. Whereas Sessel has the ability to manipulate objects, this other character can swap objects — that is, switch any object with a similarly shaped object. Size doesn't matter, so you can switch a giant tire with a baseball if you wish. The second character also has substantially longer reach than Sessel, so s/he can access places that the main character normally can't. The only problem is that this game mechanic feels underused. You only use it a handful of times in the game, and only one time feels like you really have to think about it. It's a really cool concept, and it would have been nice if it had gotten a little more screen time.
Overall, the puzzles in Ghost Trick are very well designed. I never felt that my reasoning didn't match up with the game's logic, and that's actually a step up from some spots in Phoenix Wright. Perhaps the most frustrating elements involve the "one chance" puzzles, where you have to take advantage of a momentary movement. If you miss it, you must restart the puzzle. It's not a minor problem, but it can grow tedious to sit through the playback and wait for your opportunity to come up again. The puzzles were a tad too easy. The later puzzles can get pretty involved, but even near the end, things feel too simple, especially since it's relatively difficult to make mistakes in the first place. A lot of the rooms are small, so there are only a few options available. Even through trial and error, you'll figure out what to do soon enough. For a fairly short game with little replay value, I should have strained my brain more to get through it.
This is probably Ghost Trick's one major flaw. While it lasts, the game is clever and constantly enjoyable. It doesn't last that long, though, and you can probably run through the game in five to six hours without much difficulty. Once you're done, there's no real reason to replay the game, so you're done. The puzzles don't change, the plot doesn't change, and if you replay it, you lose a lot of the fun mystery aspects. The writing is certainly fun, but it's the sort of game you'll put away and replay in a few years. The story lasts roughly exactly as long as it should, but ultimately, it's not a lot of value for your gaming dollar.
I absolutely adore Ghost Trick's graphics. The characters are well-designed and brightly animated, and it never gets old to watch the various actions play out on-screen. Their movements are fluid, and there's a surprisingly little amount of recycling involved, so the game is a real treat to watch in motion. The strange Rube Goldberg situations that comprise the murder scenes are interesting to watch, especially as you start twisting and turning things around. The soundtrack is also excellent, with a lot of memorable and dramatic tunes that fit the mood quite well. The lack of voice acting is noticeable but doesn't actually detract from the game. The omission of voice actors likely prevented the existence of several potentially annoying characters.
Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective is cheerful, funny and interesting, and the puzzles, while simple, are engrossing and never grow boring. The character animations are stylish and memorable, and the game is a joy to watch. The game isn't very lengthy and it lacks replay value. If you're a fan of Phoenix Wright games, Ghost Trick is a must-have. It hits the same funny-and-clever niche, and it has a lot more energy and spirit than some of the later Phoenix Wright titles. It may not be a game you'll replay often, but Ghost Trick is a joy the entire way through.
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