One of the things players dislike most in adventure games is meeting with an unexpected death. Eager to address this concern, Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective removes it entirely by starting just after the player character has died. In the latest handheld adventure from Ace Attorney creator Shu Takumi, players control a non-corporeal wraith who has just one night to solve the mystery of his sudden, violent death. Fortunately, the game proves a lot more substantial than its protagonist, featuring an excellent use of the DS touch screen, an intriguing story that keeps you guessing right to the end, and creative gameplay that is thoroughly pleasing, whether you are actively trying to solve a puzzle or simply tinkering with the many optional possibilities.
Early one evening, in a junkyard at the edge of an unnamed town, a man lies dead. With no memory of his past life or even how he came to die, a disembodied blue-flame spirit wakes to find, not only this sad sight, but also a hitman intending to add to the body count. At the prompting of a possessed desk lamp, the spirit discovers that he too can possess certain inanimate objects and use the titular ‘ghost tricks’ to control them. Warned that he will fade away with the coming of the dawn, our heroic ghost (soon identified as Sissel) sets out in a race against time to discover who he is and why he was killed.
Thus begins the story of Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective, and the subsequent tale reveals that there is a lot more at stake than the fate of one man. The story is split into eighteen chapters, each representing a small portion of your single night and each ending with new revelations, often overturning things you already thought you knew. This drip-feed of twists and turns in the plot spur you on to keep playing, as the solutions to early mysteries create even more mysteries to mull over. Whilst constantly throwing curveballs at you, the game is also full of plot hints of varying degrees of subtlety. These ensure that most of the revelations are “Now it makes sense!” moments rather than “Where the heck did that come from?” leaps of logic, making them all the more satisfying. The only downside to the story’s complexity is that events play out in a strictly linear fashion, forcing you to solve the puzzles in a set order.
Like the Phoenix Wright games, Ghost Trick has a wry sense of humour and is full of strange, larger than life characters. The hitman in the opening chapter is known as “Nearsighted Jeego”, a man who has never missed a mark, provided he gets to shoot at point-blank range. Elsewhere, a prison guard has to constantly write reminders for even his most basic duties, and performs his family’s traditional “Panic Dance” when things get out of control. Even Sissel himself, despite having no memory of his past, is visually striking in his bright red suit and sunglasses, with hair swept back to form a single huge blonde spike. With such striking qualities, characters could have easily ended up being defined solely by these exaggerated traits, but whilst this is true for some of the minor characters, the major characters all have more complex personalities that make them more realistic, despite their quirks.
Of course, a game needs enjoyable interaction as well, and Ghost Trick does not disappoint here either. After the opening cutscene, you are shown a standard real-world view of the junkyard, centred on where you died. Sliding the stylus around or using the +Control pad allows you to scroll the view to see the entirety of your current location. A quick tap of an on-screen button flips you over to the ghost world view of the same location. Here the touch screen changes to a stylised view of the same location, heavy filtered in red and largely blurring the details of the scene. Some objects are highlighted in blue with glowing dots, known as cores, somewhere within their outline. Sliding the stylus to a nearby core allows you to switch to that item to move around. The top screen displays a picture of the item you currently possess and the action you can perform with that item, if any. Returning to the living world and tapping the “Trick” button performs the associated trick. Initially these actions are directed to saving the young lady the hitman is pursuing, as she may represent the only lead for investigating your death. As the larger plot becomes clear, however, your personal quest takes a back seat as you begin to use your powers for the greater good.
There are a huge number of tricks available, ranging from simply opening a door to making ceiling fans spin at unsafe speeds and triggering emergency alarms. Your ability to move from object to object has a limited range, so working out how to reach places outside that range forms a significant part of many puzzles. This does not mean they are repetitive, though, as the means of covering larger distances are as varied as the tricks. At the start, simply swivelling a lamp so it points in the direction you wish to go may be enough, but later puzzles involve trying to knock items off shelves into a gap otherwise too wide to bridge. You’ll eventually even try to direct the actions of the living, solely through external object manipulation.
Sometimes it is necessary to move quickly, such as when you push a button and need to leap to the door before it opens. This can prove annoying as you have to hit the “Trick” button and switch to the ghost world almost immediately. Timing is also an issue when you want to transfer to an object that moves independently, such as a motorised plane mobile. For these you need to switch to the ghost world just as the object reaches a point where you can jump to it. When the object is moving quickly, this can be tough to achieve. You also have the ability to trace telephone calls by possessing phones in use, which subsequently allows you to travel to any location traced. The simplicity of movement and trick operation, combined with the variety of results from a series of tricks, make even idle experimentation an effortless joy. Living world time is stopped while you are in the ghost world, so you always have plenty of time to view your options before moving into action.
To help you form a plan, small thought bubbles occasionally pop up on screen as well. Tapping these allows you to see Sissel’s thoughts on your current situation, which usually contain hints if you are stuck. These go some way towards overcoming the linearity issue, preventing your game from being entirely halted by an intransigent puzzle. Later in the game, you will periodically receive the aid of another spirit whose goals overlap with yours, a button available in both worlds allowing you to switch characters at will. This spirit has a different kind of power than Sissel, and both sets of abilities are needed to resolve their shared challenges, adding an extra level of complexity to the puzzles involved.Continued on the next page...