Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective

Ghost Trick is a wonderful, charming game, and it’s a real shame that it doesn’t seem to have gotten much attention. It’s a bit on the easy side, overall, but that’s fine by me, since the puzzles are generally interesting. Since there’s no inventory, and each puzzle is more or less restricted to a single room, the potential solution-space of a given puzzle is fairly narrow, and the game is pretty aggressive about giving helpful feedback about wrong guesses, so a little trial and error was generally all that I needed. (The one exception is a sequence which can be added to the list of bad stealth sequences in games that aren’t primarily focused on stealth mechanics.) Many of the core puzzles in the game have a time-pressure element to them, but they’re very well-tuned, so I never felt overly harried, and the penalty for failure is quite light, and well integrated into the game so that there isn’t really a true game-over screen. I can’t think of a better implementation of time-pressure and fail-states in an adventure game. Three more great features of the game after the jump:

1) The Gameplay Ramp-up
Even though puzzles don’t get a whole lot harder as the game goes on, the core interactive mechanics get extended and tweaked in entertaining and varied ways. The game is always good about training these new mechanics within the main game itself, rather than having to resort to the awkward kludge of pulling out to a separate tutorial.

2) The Storytelling
The translation is top-notch. As other outlets have noted, the writing for Missile the dog is particularly exemplary, but the writing all around is consistently entertaining. The story itself is very much like a Phoenix Wright story, where there are a couple of key mysterious events from the past that connect and motivate the characters, and whose secrets are slowly revealed over the course of the game. But because it’s not constrained by the 4-case structure of the Phoenix Wright games, instead going with a series of shorter, 20-30 minute episodes, it’s able to reveal its mysteries at a more consistent pace, usually with a new revelation towards the end of each episode. At the same time, it does a great job of linking together these individual episodes better, never losing sight of the overall arc-plot. After playing Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway (which I’ll hopefully finish writing an entry on soon) I was halfway convinced that this sort of level-based structure with an overall arc-plot was fundamentally broken, but Ghost Trick shows that it can work extremely well, when the individual levels are relatively short, and when they all tie back strongly into the main plot. The story itself sort of swallows its own tail towards the end in a way I found unappealing while it too easily brushed away a major sin of one of its villains, and there’s even an argument to be made that the game is a little bit racist. Nonetheless, I found the narrative immensely compelling. It’s cliched, but I had a lot of trouble putting the game down. The game never drags, and it feels like it’s just the right length.

3) The Art
It’s amazing how expressive the sprites are. Comprised of large characters composed of blocks of colours, they dance and sing and eat with so much personality. It makes it easy to tell what’s going on. It perfectly reinforces the humour and style of the writing. I’ll single out the dancing detective in white, the panic dance, and the creepy, marionette-like way a particular character’s corpse reanimates. Even the stealth sequence I maligned above is partially redeemed by the great sneaking animation.

So, yeah, it’s a great game. I would be shocked if it didn’t make my games of the year list (coming January 2012). It’s also very well suited to the DS. It doesn’t make a lot of use of the top screen, so I could see it being ported fairly readily to iOS, but a lot of the core interaction with the game involves fairly precise dragging, which can be uncomfortable and awkward on an iPod/iPhone screen. At the same time, I’d love to see the art in the higher resolution that such devices afford.

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