Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective review
With the probable exception of Goichi Suda, few developers stamp a more instantly familiar hallmark upon their endeavours than Shu Takumi. Creator of the Ace Attorney series, his work consistently manages to blend convoluted, long-term storytelling with delivery methods so charmingly disarming it’s hard not to feel a twinge of guilt when confronted with one of his many logical dead-ends. This latest offering mercifully seeks to leave such episodes on the cutting room floor, replaced instead with puzzle action of a more traditional nature.
Though similarities with Takumi’s back catalogue lie scattered like blood stains, in truth there has been somewhat of a genre shift since fingers were last dramatically pointed. It’s arguable Sissel undertakes periods of ‘investigation’ and ‘action’, however progress is far more reliant on prompt timing and chronological puzzles than it has to date been as narrative, alongside sense, takes somewhat of a back seat. Perhaps some elaboration is necessary. Amid a dark and foreboding early evening, players arrive just in time to witness criminal scenes. A shadowy figure sporting the trenchcoat stereotype holds a terrified woman hostage, the business end of his shotgun pointing directly where it shouldn’t. Before there’s time to react, a gunshot. The woman lies dead, her attacker escapes and your narrator captures every detail. The reason? He lies dead, but inches from where the woman fell. Waking into what we can only assume is purgatory, our hero, later revealed as Sissel, learns that death isn’t quite as final as the movies make out. Before midnight comes, he’s to conquer amnesia and discover the true cause of his demise, making use of powers granted only to a chosen few. Which sounds rather worthy, until you consider a table lamp delivers this information.
In practice, chapters bear perhaps closest relation to extended Ace Attorney investigation sections, only pre-loaded with a selection of physical puzzles. Players can ‘possess’ various on-screen objects by physically manipulating Sissel’s soul from one object to another. Once delivered, he can either activate its poltergeist movement (for example lowering a screen or extending an umbrella), or simply move on again. Besides utilising telephone lines as a personal transport network, seeking out information form those on the other end of the line, our central character will be called upon to repeatedly save the life of the unfortunate woman cut down at Ghost Trick’s opening. This is achieved via time travel (naturally enough), to a point four minutes before each death, where he must manipulate objects in familiar fashion to destroy such a disastrous turn of events. Without, somewhat importantly, any semblance of an inventory to split chains of thought between on equally likely solution and another, or those bizarre units of justice Phoenix Wright seems to benefit from each time he presents his attorney’s badge in desperation.
A large degree, therefore, of the enjoyment one might derive from guiding Sissel through his ghostly chores will hinge on whether or not this fresh structure strikes individuals as overly contrived. The objects our hero is permitted to possess are as plucked from fantasy as Ghost Trick’s central concept is, after all. Paper sheets will be positioned at the exact point all hope would otherwise be lost, drinks trolleys screech to a halt within millimetres of their target – not because other elements of some Rube Goldberg logical masterpiece constrains the given situation, but due to a puzzle title’s worst enemy – deus ex machina. Handily, the necessary simplification derived from a desire not to see players floundering over many insignificant details ensures this remains an academic issue, rather than an invitation to repeat, ad infinitum. Even when Sissel must rewind time to correct a fatal error, he’ll pop up with that a brand of strangely charming condescension best practised by a man in a blue suit with way too much product. Seasoned Takumi followers will hence be on extremely familiar turf, taking time to scour each environment, consume its half dozen or so articles of interest before drawing some sort of logical conclusion. Only with less tapping and more scraping. The meandering appreciation of an enthralling videogame story remains the title’s headline attraction – a comforting digital blanket in which to wrap oneself through long, dead commuting hours.
This being a Takumi videogame, each environment lies awash with engaging characters capable of development over a period of hours. Though our central star benefits from somewhat of a personality cut and paste, the auteur continues a decade-long obsession with bumbling law enforcement through police officers in awe of a sartorially elegant colleague, besides the more typical odd couple suffering cabin fever on their prison graveyard shift. There’s a knowing nod or two for more observant players (including a complaint from one of the above duo that his two dimensional, loop animated partner ‘always reacts the same way’ to his practical jokes), though elsewhere the boundaries of restraint prove about as fixed as those of death do to Sissel. At all times, though, dialogue retains that familiar quaint, upbeat nature, capable of enticing most from the courtroom. This marks, though, a tangible sideways shift for Takumi, transforming the novel/point-and-click hybrid with which he found success into somewhat of a more mainstream beast. While all the elements of any crime drama remain present and correct – mystery, intrigue, suspense – taking a Jeopardy approach and working backwards from the scene of the crime perhaps wasn’t the best structural decision. But then, the same could be said of having a dead hero that communicates with dogs, and that’s as amusing a concept as it is bizarre. So, a welcome distraction, then.