Game Pile: Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective

I’ll spare you having to get through the blurb: Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective is one of the best adventure games that exists. If you have access to an NDS, you should pick it up and play it – It’s not even that expensive.

Ghost Trick opens in the middle of a junkyard with you sitting next to your corpse and realising that you are, in fact, quite dead. As far as cold openings go, it’s not a new one but it’s definitely effective. You’re then given two basic powers: The ability to possess and manipulate objects, the ability to reverse time to four minutes before the death of an individual. These two powers are obviously completely amazing, and then you’re told by an enigmatic desk lamp that you have until dawn – eight hours away – to solve the mystery of who the fuck you are and maybe save your own life. This simple premise then spreads out across over a dozen locations, spread across seventeen (or so) chapters of puzzles.

Ghost Trick is of the curious genre that, for want of a better way to express it, qualifies as a point-and-click adventure (sometime I’ll come up with a good genre system). You are limited in where you can go by objects’ proximity to one another, meaning a number of the puzzles are about constructing a path. Some items are fairly obvious in what they can do, and you can usually see in the visuals of the game the things that need to interact with one another, meaning that that challenge then gets to take a back-seat to how you do what you were going to do. Puzzles have a timing element as well – and this means the puzzles don’t have to develop their difficulty through obscurity, but rather work by creating a chain of how they interact. It’s one thing to see the glass of water and the dye on opposite sides of the room when you need to fake a pee sample; then you have to find a way to transport one to the other. The time-travel mechanism then lets them make puzzles with irreversable elements – order of events becomes important rather than just the events themselves.

A problem that the point-and-click genre has, especially right now amongst indy gamers is that they have no inherent way to encourage flow. Flow in this context is the way that a game encourages you to take the next step; flow is vital to pacing, and pacing allows you to change the tone and tenor of a game on the fly, thereby creating tension and drama, two things absolutely vital to storytelling. Many adventure games in the point-and-click genre have tried over the course of history to deal with these issues, in some examples by putting timers on specific puzzles and in other situations by telling you there’s a timer without putting one in place. These games purport to be cerebral and based around solving puzzles, but in most point-and-click adventure games, certainly thanks to the Lucasarts principles that became the law for the genre (death is hard, if not impossible), the way most people play point-and-clicks is to take a large number of seemingly-disconnected items and try jamming them together to see what happens. It’s not unlike a lego system, where you start by jamming small bits together, until you get something big enough and you can see what you’re working on take shape. This can make the earliest parts of puzzles and games feel very confusing or unconnected.

Ghost Trick has a pretty remarkable pedigree as a game, written by Phoenix Wright alumni Shu Takami. These games are a really bad example of this flow problem, where for the most part, you’re just smacking pinatas with a variety of different doohickeys trying to force them to vomit up sufficient information. These games have a remarkably bad game component – with minimal challenge involved in the actual mechanisms. During the non-court sequences, you can literally spend the whole game playing hunt-the-pixel, or just presenting items to random strangers to find the one that will advance the plot. This makes the adventure game logic even harder to find – because everything could work! The game doesn’t help out either – the addition of the Attorney’s badge is the introduction of an item that does not ever, ever yield a result in court, but it’s there, still. As the games advance, more puzzles came up – the final case in the NDS release of Phoenix Wright, the Apollo Justice games, and the eventual mystery-solution in Trials and Tribulations, these are probably when the puzzles were at their best, but the game interface was the worst. It wasn’t really until Investigations until they came up with something better.

Ghost Trick, however, gets away from that. It has the same well-written story, the same quirky-as-hell characters, and it even has some expies and references. The character dynamics are familiar indeed, to any fan of his games. It overcomes the failings of the Point-and-click genre by introducing mechanisms that offer pacing control, improve flow, and ends in a way that prevents a sequel which would dilute the glory of this game. It’s not Portal level brilliance, but it is brilliant.

All of this is without even mentioning the way the game uses its stylisation to enable artistic freedom in animation, which then lets the animators focus on making its models move smoothly. It’s not the kind of game that comes up very often, but if you like adventure/mystery/puzzley/point-and-clicky games, get it and you’ll be glad you did. Since this sort of game deserves to be encouraged and it’s three years old now, it shouldn’t be hard to pick up a new copy. In the mean time, here’s a short list of things in the game that stuck in my memory:

  • A telepathic Pomeranian who solves things by barking
  • A puzzle where you have to possess a chicken.
  • Preventing someone from dying by being crushed by a drumstick the size of a car.
  • An indestructable rat, on fire.
  • A dancing police inspector.
  • A seemingly perpetually wined-up author of terrible political erotica
  • An assassin who specialises in being short-sighted

I’m not sure any list like this will ever beat the glory of Psychonauts’ list, but seriously. Give this game a shot. It’s not just good, it’s great, an adventure that deserves to stand tall alongside such icons of the genre as Sam and Max Hit The Road and Day Of The Tentacle.

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