Capcom's Shu Takumi appears to be obsessed with dead people. As if killing off Phoenix Wright's lovely and wise mentor Mia Fey after the very first chapter of his classic Ace Attorney series wasn't enough, he murders the protagonist of his latest game, Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective, before the story even begins.
Much like Mia, Ghost Trick’s detective Sissel doesn’t waste a lot of time before coming back as a spirit. Unlike Mia, however, Sissel has no memory and only has until dawn to figure out why he was killed before his spirit passes on.
This is easier said than done, seeing as how he has no body, can only travel a few feet at a time between objects, and can't communicate with the living. Fortunately, Sissel has a couple "ghost tricks" up his spectral sleeves, post-mortem superpowers that allow him to possess inanimate objects and rewind time up to four minutes before someone's death. Using these tools, Sissel sets about investigating the bizarre series of events that lead up to his murder.
Taking a queue from Quantum Leap’s Dr. Sam Beckett, if he's to get to the bottom of his own mystery Sissel must frequently use his limited powers to save the lives of unsuspecting characters. This is usually accomplished via a series of puzzles in which players must manipulate the environment to stop a potentially tragic series of events from unfolding. For example, rescuing an unwitting girl from an intruder involves extending an umbrella, rolling a cart, spilling donuts, and luring a rat, all in a specific sequence in order to lead the potential victim out of harm's way.
It's an intriguing idea, and composing such makeshift Rube Goldberg contraptions is undoubtedly fun. There's a fair bit of variation, too, with some sequences relying heavily on timing and others, late in the game, introducing entirely new mechanics. Outcomes are generally surprising and rewarding, such as when Sissel helps a woman escape an assassin, cleverly turning the tables on him in the process. For the most part the puzzle's solutions are logical and clever, though there's a lot of trial and error while sorting them out.
Aside from his love of the dead, Shu Takumi's also has got a real knack for characters with ridiculous haircuts. Phoenix's turbine-whooshed spikes were merely a jumping off point, as Sissel's cosmic cone 'do seems sure to make even the most ardent Gaga fan raise a glittery eyebrow.
Ghost Trick's cartoonish aesthetic is often at odds with its rather tragic story. But somehow the dichotomy works, and I grew to love these characters not in spite of their freakish design but because of it. Animations are fluid and lively, giving each character his or her own distinct quirks -- like, for example, a disco dancing detective. Takumi paints in broad strokes, but his eccentric sensibilities pay off in a big way. While the cast is uncharacteristically sunny in light of their circumstances, they're all likable, interesting, and enigmatic. Getting to the bottom of the overarching supernatural mystery remains a highlight throughout.
It's a good thing too, because a huge amount of the game's emphasis is placed on telling its story. Like Phoenix Wright before it, Ghost Trick is talky. Your mileage may vary on how much you enjoy that, but it’s not uncommon to go over 15 minutes simply clicking through slowly scrolling text without any agency whatsoever. Even during puzzle sequences the abundance of natter and hand-holding bog down the game's otherwise snappy script. As I plodded through its mountains of text, I began to contemplate my own mortality... and not for the right reasons.
This is made more irritating by having to replay those same sequences for the umpteenth time due to Ghost Trick's aforementioned trial-and-error design. Since I wasn’t always sure what the reaction will be to manipulating something, I spent a lot of time haphazardly clicking on stuff before I was cognizant of all the pieces to a puzzle. With little room to deviate from its aggressively linear path, Ghost Trick often feels like a on rails point-and-click adventure with too much exposition.
Despite its languid pacing and scripted nature, Ghost Trick is still a success due to its captivating premise and compelling story. While not up to the lofty heights of Lucasarts’ similarly death-centric caper Grim Fandango, Ghost Trick is still a fine adventure in its own right. It's genuinely enticing and unpredictable with warm, humorous characters, and has a splendid visual style; with a little more freedom of exploration and tighter editing it could have been amazing. As it stands, Ghost Trick is unique and charming, yet its staid design remains haunted by the ghost of Phoenix Wright.
Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective was developed and published by Capcom. It is available for the Nintendo DS.
Jeffrey Matulef is a freelance videogame journalist based in Portland, OR. His work has appeared at G4TV, Eurogamer, Joystiq, and Gamasutra among other places. He can be found on twitter @mrdurandpierre.
Watch the trailer for Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective: