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Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective Review

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How on earth did this game get made? I would love to know how something so incredibly oddball got past the design stage. All credit to the team who made this bizarre little gem—it’s a cracking game with a great story and some very odd mechanics.

The game kicks off in a junkyard, in elegant side view depiction, with a young woman held at gunpoint by an unsavory, purple-faced assassin. The lighting fades in to reveal the hero of the story—our protagonist—who is quite dead. It’s soon revealed that, as a ghost, you have certain special powers which allow you to move between inanimate and, sometimes, living objects. You can on occasion also inhabit the bodies of the recently deceased, and rewind their timeline in order to alter their fate.

As the game itself points out, none of these “ghost tricks” are particularly logical abilities, but who knows what makes sense in the world of the dead? Obviously, your powers (controlled with pen, finger, dpad or analogue pad, and a bare minimum of buttons) are meant to tie the game and story together, and the game tacitly acknowledges this by referring to DS buttons even when dialogue is in-universe. It really is refreshing to see the game just getting down to brass tacks—presenting the player with some mechanisms that form the basis for gameplay—and not trying too hard to make the game fit the story—which story is excellent, by the way.

gameplay

The world your character inhabits is made up of a number of locations connected by telephone lines. Being a ghost, you can hitch a ride when characters in the game talk to each other long-distance. As the supernatural detective story progresses, you bounce around the city, perhaps stuck in a prison guard room, listening to the jaded but amusing guards natter about their prisoners, or moving from light fitting to sliding door in a strange and theatrical lady’s apartment. Who are all these people and why are they connected? The game teases you along with a unique, strange story you’ll feel compelled to unravel.

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From a technical perspective, the game does exactly what it needs to. The save system is robust, but checkpoints are a little spaced out, so you may end up relying on the DS’ hibernate system if you want to play this game in short bursts. The artwork is splendid, animations especially so. I was reminded a little of Delphine’s Flashback in terms of the subtle, fluid 2D character work, although the game itself is very different. Koki Kinoshita does a splendid job of creating amusing, almost Disney-esque, animations for all the main characters and their idiosyncratic behaviour. Over time, many of the weird or dangerous people you meet will end up being firm favourites in the main story, usually due to the care and attention lavished on the animation.

The code is solid, with no crashes or cul-de-sacs you can’t rewind time to fix. Speech bubbles give you plenty of optional extra information, hints and backstory, and the game moves and scrolls smoothly. The few criticisms I would throw at the game are that a few of the puzzles are lopsided, involving solutions that are a little obscure, and the sometimes trial and error approach you end up taking on some of the screens. Ultimately, however, the game compels you past these (rare) hiccups, and they don’t serve to distract from the addictive pleasure of finding out where your character will end up next.

animation

In summary, the story is bonkers, the game mechanics are novel, and the animation is first-rate. I still don’t understand how this game got the green light, but we should be grateful it did, and that Japan still leads the way in creating odd, interesting, story-driven games. If you have an NDS, a 3DS, or suitable iOS machine to play this game on, I would strongly recommend giving it a go. You probably haven’t played anything like it, and in an increasingly homogeneous gaming world, truly new experiences should be treasured.

(A little subsequent research shows that the game was created by Shu Takami, who was probably able to leverage his success with the Ace Attorney series to pursuade Capcom to fund this new venture.)