Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective is a classic example of “less is more.” Throughout the game, you play as a new ghost who just happens to have the power to go back in time four minutes before an individual’s death and manipulate objects in order to save them (those being the eponymous “Ghost Tricks”), and the locations you do this in are always a bit on the small side. In addition to that, there are a limited number of objects you’re able to “inhabit” and thus interact with at any given point. This actually works in the game’s favor by providing a certain amount of focus to the story, and it’s when Ghost Trick starts to think big that everything falls apart.
The end is a train wreck
I’ll get into the reasons behind this being the case a bit later, but I feel like this should be the first thing I mention; the story and mechanics are horrible toward the end, so steer clear of this game if you’re the kind of person who can have the entire experience ruined by a poorly-designed ending. That being said, the majority of the game is thoroughly enjoyable and worth a try. The overarching story just doesn’t resolve in a satisfactory way, and the mechanics start to break down to rely more on luck and repetition than anything resembling logic.
If you’ve ever played a Phoenix Wright game, you’ll be immediately familiar with the kind of weirdness that the characters exhibit. Put simply, every character in this game has their intensity set to 11 with the knob torn off, and they all have incredibly quirky personalities to match. There’s a disturbing romance author, a guy who walks around with a pet pigeon, a bunch of blue-skinned people, a police inspector who dances around and calls people “baby,” and a death-prone detective who you have to save repeatedly throughout the game. All of them are interesting enough, but no character is quite as lovable or memorable as Missile, a Pomeranian who you have many conversations with over the course of the game (because being dead apparently breaks down language barriers).
Once you’ve gone back in time and saved someone from death, they retain the memory of being dead and can still communicate with you, so being a ghost is a less thankless job than it probably sounds. This allows for some truly strange conversations as living people talk to you, a ghost, in front of people who are entirely unaware of your existence. This is a pleasant bit of weirdness.
The beginning holds your hand too tight
Ghost Trick’s mechanics aren’t exactly complex. Basically, you can enter a mode where time freezes and you’re able to zip from inanimate object to inanimate object, manipulating certain ones in order to change a scene’s outcome. For example, early on you have to thwart a killer by turning on lights that shine on his shooting locations until he’s forced to move to a spot where you can drop something heavy on him. Despite the simplicity of these mechanics, however, the first chapter or two are unbearably slow and treat you as though you’re incapable of understanding how this works. It gets to be a bit much after awhile, and I can’t help wish that they had backed off of the hand-holding a bit in the beginning.
Those mechanics go right out the window
The game is at its best when it’s focusing on main character Sissel’s Ghost Tricks that allow him to manipulate objects and go back in time (always at predetermined spots) to prevent people from dying. However, there are a few instances, especially toward the end, where things randomly switch up and force you to play the game in a completely different way.
The first instance of this happens while you’re trying to free someone from prison. The lights go out and you’re suddenly forced to guide him from hiding spot to hiding spot, trying to avoid moving guards in the process. There are no words for how terrible this section of the game is, but even it pales in comparison to the late-game’s tendency to rely on scripted sequences to progress. For example, in one section of the game you have to set a scene up a certain way, then purposefully wait until the “time until death” timer hits zero, at which point time freezes automatically to let you finish that section of the game.
You’re given no indication that waiting until that timer runs out is the right thing to do, however, so you can easily wind up restarting 20 times to try out different ways of solving the level before finally realizing what you have to do. Almost every scene toward the end of the game suffers from this kind of poor design, and it makes the last few chapters truly painful to have to play through.
Two ghosts is one too many
Sissel isn’t the only one who gets ghost tricks, though the other characters who have them only come along toward the end of the game. Still, those late-game chapters require switching back and forth between ghosts and using their unique powers in tandem to progress. This wouldn’t be a problem if they were able to occupy the same spot, but trying to move a ghost to the same spot occupied by another ghost causes you to engage them in dialogue. This, combined with the relatively few number of objects you can interact with in each level, means that you’re constantly getting in your own way and having to switch back and forth to move one ghost out of the other’s way. This gets to be a bit tedious after awhile.
Elements of timing
One of the things that I found interesting about Ghost Trick is how timing often plays a crucial role. For example, one scene has a chef cooking chicken, and he has an elaborate animation that involves moving his hat all around. This looks like an inconsequential detail at first, but you eventually realize that his hat animation is the key to reaching a switch that you need to interact with; Sissel has a limited reach that keeps him from being able to zip to any object he wishes, so waiting for an animation to allow you to move forward is often the key to figuring out how to progress. This also adds a bit of tension to the gameplay, because the scene I just mentioned also involves distracting another character so that they don’t notice when you use the switch. Scenes like this, despite their initially simplistic appearance, are actually quite intricate and well designed.
The story is great until it isn’t
It’s almost impossible to explain why the story takes such a sharp downturn without spoiling the entire thing, so I’ll instead talk about what makes the early parts of the story work so well so that you can understand what the later sections lack. In a word, that would be “plausibility.” I don’t mean plausibility in the sense that ghosts capable of manipulating objects are realistic, but rather than there’s a certain internal consistency to the world’s rules that’s well-defined. Some ghosts gain the ability to manipulate objects, others don’t. Sissel can go back in time four minutes before a newly-dead (and only a newly-dead) character’s demise and then return to the “present” time. Ghosts can only travel through telephone lines. These are all rules and limitations explained in the game, and a large part of what happens in the early story happens as a direct result of those rules.
Then the later chapters of the game throw all of that out the window: characters are suddenly introduced who serve little purpose, people demonstrate powers that are never really explored outside of “game magic,” and you’re left with a huge, incoherent dump of information toward the end that’s nowhere near as tightly written as the rest of the game. It feels like a huge middle finger after all of the time you’ve spent with the game, like whoever wrote the story suddenly got bored and tied everything together as quickly as possible.
It’s surprisingly long, though
DS games (and mobile games in general) don’t tend to be very long, but Ghost Trick is quite a bit longer than I expected it to be. In fact, I felt as though I was blowing through the chapters early on and was sure that I’d be done in a matter of hours. Later chapters are quite a bit longer than their earlier counterparts, though, and while I can’t even guess at how long it took me to get through the game, it has 18 chapters and lasted me several days.
Being dead rarely looks so good
The graphics are another bright spot, with colorful graphics and character designs that bring together fedoras, sunglasses, and all kinds of other subtly noir elements while mixing them with a more lighthearted Japanese aesthetic. The result is incredibly unique, and even better, many of these characters are animated to have remarkably smooth movements. That said, you’ll be spending quite a bit of your time with time frozen, and in that state everything has an ugly redness to it. Other than that, however, the graphics are a huge success.
Repetitive music is the enemy
Ghost Trick’s music, on the other hand, kind of sucks. There’s an upbeat track that’s pretty good, but other than that, the soundtrack is incredibly mediocre. Not only is it repetitive, beginning each chapter with the same track, but the tracks that are repeated throughout the game are themselves incredibly repetitive in their note structure. The result is that the music quickly becomes fatiguing.
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