Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective

This post contains heavy spoilers for the ending of Ghost Trick, and I recommend having played the game before reading.

I view it as a mark of shame on my own self that it has taken me this long to finish playing Ghost Trick. I have owned the game on DS and iOS for a couple of years, but until playing it for this review I have never managed to get past the second chapter. This has been something I’ve been loath to admit, because the game’s writer and director, Shu Takumi, was responsible for the creation of the Ace Attorney series, and wrote what are its best entries. Ghost Trick is his first departure from that series in 10 years, and some fans hail it as his best game, or even his masterpiece.

To evaluate whether Ghost Trick is Takumi’s best game would involve comparing it to his other works, and the purpose of this review isn’t to do this. Instead, I want to talk about Ghost Trick alone, to attempt to come to terms with my own feelings about the game after having finished it; that I regard Ghost Trick as no real masterpiece, nor even Takumi’s best game, but that I found myself thoroughly enjoying it regardless.

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Last year, when I reviewed Breath of the Wild, I said that all of its various strengths can be easily shown off in its opening sequence and I think the same is true of Ghost Trick, so this post will use that sequence as its structural foundation.

When the game opens, it does so with spotlights; a visual flair Takumi is clearly enamoured with, given its use in his latest duology, the Dai Gyakuten Saiban series. It’s remarkably easy to see why – the spotlights instantly shine a light (pun very much intended) on the game’s unique sense of style. I tried, mostly in vain to think of an appropriate catchy name for this style, but the best I could come up with is ‘cheery noir’, which doesn’t quite work – but hopefully gives you a sense of what I’m going for. In its opening area and night-time setting, Ghost Trick has many of the trappings of a noir style; the city at night, in the rain, with an appropriately jazzy soundtrack and hitmen dressed in suits. The spotlights aren’t a traditional noir trapping, but given the genre’s heavy emphasis on the interplay between light and shadow, they fit right in. This noir theming continues throughout the game; even as the settings and plot become more and more ridiculous, the soundtrack and certain visual hints continue to connect this game to its noir influence.

However, as the game continues, the “cheery” side of my newly-minted phrase becomes more apparent. It’s present from the beginning in the use of certain strong colours in Lynne and Sissel’s clothing, but as characters such as Cabenela and Missile start to crop up, the game’s tone becomes more upbeat and does so almost seamlessly. This balance between the game’s ever-present noir influence and its at-times relentless optimism is really reflected in the game’s style; in its music, its settings, its character design. From a visual side, Ghost Trick represents a game coming very close to appealing directly to my own sensibilities, and I love it for it.

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Of course, visuals are only a small part of the game’s appeal, and after the opening cutscene, the game deigns to explain to you its main mechanics; the ‘Ghost Tricks’ themselves. I’m hoping and assuming that those reading this will have played the game, but for a quick refresher (or for you naughty daredevils who really don’t care about spoilers); the main gameplay thrust is solving puzzles that require you to manipulate objects around a room, poltergeist-style, in order to prevent the deaths of various kooky characters around a nameless city over the course of a single night. By rewinding time to 4 minutes before the person’s death, our protagonist Sissel watches the actions leading up to their murder, then possesses and moves certain objects in order to save their lives. For my money, the best example of this system at work comes in the manipulation of a literal Rube Goldberg machine (or Heath Robinson contraption for us Brits) in order to prevent the firing of a gun at the end of the device.

All of the action in Ghost Trick is presented on a 2D plane, aiding greatly with visual clarity. When manipulating objects, it should always be obvious what effect that object has and setting the game’s action in vertical slices of large environments makes it clearer to the player what’s going on, without sacrificing the game’s visual design.

In the game’s opening chapter, upon possessing Lynne’s corpse, the player is shown a quick video of her death, and this becomes one of the game’s best ideas for preventing the puzzles from being turned into just trial and error (more on this later). When the game shows you the events before the corpse’s death, it often shows you how certain objects interact, and therefore what you might need to do to change the fates of the unfortunate victims. Take, for example, the second chapter murder of Kamila. Here, the video shown beforehand informs you that the mice are attracted to the doughnut; that the dog, Missile, barks at the mouse; and that Kamila will follow Missile wherever he is barking in order to shut him up. When the game then tells you to hide Kamila when the hitman enters, you have all the information required to lure her where you want – the only thing to work out is how to move the doughnut to where you want it.

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The problem comes in later chapters where the game is stingier with its information. Take, for example, the Chicken Kitchen chapter. Here, the video of the death is taken from inside the car, and helpfully shows the cause of death. However, all the actual manipulation to be done is inside the kitchen, an area you know nothing about until you arrive there. This is, to be fair, a lesser example – the puzzle inside the Chicken Kitchen is relatively simple, but this is a problem that shows up at various points; it’s there in the Justice Minister’s Office; in the Superintendent’s Office near the end of the game and in the Submarine, so it’s a shame when such a clever solution to an obvious complaint is abandoned so quickly.

The puzzles themselves, then, do often contain quite a lot of trial and error. While most are simple enough not to be too much of a problem, I don’t think that’s an excuse for the game’s worst habits. Trial and error can be fun; working out each object’s role is often a captivating experience, but it throws up two distinct problems.

The first of these problems is the lesser one. When the player is forced to mosey around the landscape for a while, working out how different things fit together, this often removes a lot of tension from the situation. Although it’s easy to argue that the time-travel mechanic means that these situations were never meant to be tense to begin with, the music and dramatic visual cues hint otherwise. I think this is probably something exacerbated by the last chapters, and you can tell that the final chapter was made easier to mitigate this problem, but it’s still worth pointing out, even if it might not have affected every player.

More importantly, the trial and error natures of the puzzle kills a lot of momentum that the game has, especially when you consider the fact that the puzzles are really just video manipulation. You see, the game often makes you pause and wait for a certain action to happen in the video before you can act. So the game, and not you, dictates when and how you can move, or even solve the puzzle.

Just as an act of facetiousness, I decided to look up a walkthrough of Ghost Trick and cmd+f to see how many times the word “wait” appears (it’s 34 times in 16 puzzle chapters). Of course, it would be fallacious to claim that this meant the game made you wait exactly this much, because this is based off of a perfect walkthrough guided playthrough. What’s more, most of this waiting is inconsequential, or won’t even be noticed by the player because they might realise what the next action should be when the video is at the perfect place for them to act on it. You could, however, twist it the other way; a player who doesn’t know what to do will often find themselves creating new wait opportunities for themselves, as they might mess with objects that require the action of another character to return to their original state (to continue with using Chicken Kitchen as an example, the fans in that room can be turned on by the player, but they then have to wait for the waitress to turn them off).

Regular followers of toatali reviews, or those who chat to me outside of it will know that I get more frustrated than the average person of a game wasting my time, even in minor ways, and at certain points I did wish the game streamlined itself with the inclusion of a fast-forward or rewind button. I’m sure that this was brought up in development, but if I had to imagine why it was shut down, it was probably due to the addition of certain timing challenges, such as realising that you have to use the split-second opportunity to move to the Chief Justice’s water jug in the puzzle in his room. With a rewind button this puzzle would be completely trivialised. As the variety in the style of puzzle the game presents is already slightly thin on the ground, I don’t think that abandoning this kind of puzzle for the slight convenience of a rewind button would be worth it as the game stands now.

This whole section might have sounded pretty nitpicky, especially to those who never picked up on these issues during their playthrough. For the most part, the puzzles were simple and well-telegraphed enough that the wait time issue wasn’t too big a problem. However, even if it only affected a few people a few times throughout the game, it would still be worth touching on.

I would like to reiterate, however, that I am still a big fan of Ghost Trick’s puzzles. They are extremely unique to the game, and for the most part, extremely clever in how they manage to tie together seemingly disparate objects and movements in order to string together some complex chain reaction that prevents a murder.

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There’s also a lot of smart little details to how the game plays with its puzzles. That the initial setting of the tutorial is a junkyard, for example, allows the game to use whatever objects it wants in order to make the puzzle solving mechanics obvious to the player. Or that a central plot device is a Rube Goldberg machine, which is a perfect distillation of the game’s environments into one device. The later addition of Missile’s object-swapping mechanic makes for some really clever puzzles, but it’s also impressive that the game can still think of innovative ways to use Sissel’s manipulation abilities so long into the game, with puzzles like guiding Jowd around making for some ingenious variations on the classic Sissel-based puzzles.

I think I’ve said enough on the gameplay, so let’s go onto story. In the introduction to the game, a number of central questions are asked that provide a core running hook to keep the player invested throughout the game. The main one is obviously “Who Am I?” but other subjects brought up at this point include Lynne and the case she’s investigating, the desk lamp Ray and his identity, the motivations of the hitman, and whatever the hell “Temsik” is. These plot threads all spiral off into multiple branching questions, until, at around the midpoint of the game you may have trouble just identifying what it is you’re looking for. At a certain point, the main narrative thrust becomes following a chain of dead bodies without knowing how this is connected to the central mysteries. But the game eventually deftly ties up all these plot points, capping it off by answering the two most intriguing questions; who are you, and who is Ray?

In focusing so much around a variety of questions, however, Takumi creates a problem for himself, and one that rears its ugly head as soon as the player talks to Lynne for the first time. There are quite a few names for this problem, as it’s certainly not exclusive to Ghost Trick. It’s linked to JJ. Abram’s infamous ‘mystery box’ style of storytelling, and it’s something that Takumi has become so fond of that a friend of mine had to address it in their review of Dai Gyakuten Saiban 2, referring to it as ‘pointless abstraction’. And of course, people might notice me doing it just there, as I name-drop the existence of this ‘thing’ without telling you what it is. To that effect, I’ve decided to, perhaps cringeworthily, name it the “ano hito” problem. “Ano Hito” literally means “that person”, and it’s because I’ve noticed this problem in quite a few Japanese TV shows and games that I decided to use that language in my desperate attempt to add at least one phrase to the pop-culture lexicon.

Anyway, enough beating around the bush – the problem in Ghost Trick is that Takumi loves to beat around the bush at any occasion given to him, because drawing a player in is more important than having characters address one another coherently. Sometimes it shows itself in the way I described, with characters saying things like “we have to tell that person that that thing is happening tonight”, but more often it’s strange character choices such as Lynne not telling Sissel about the case she’s working, even though he’s a ghost who just saved her life. Or perhaps when Jowd tells you that he killed the criminal in the park, just so the meteorite revelation can be a twist. If you look out for it, there’s a whole lot of plot convenience in the way people talk in Ghost Trick.

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I think that the ‘ano hito’ problem is a direct result of the kind of interconnected story that Takumi tries to tell here and in the Dai Gyakuten Saiban franchise; stories with sprawling plots and a myriad of twists and turns. Many of these twists are executed with pinpoint precision. I was, for example, a huge fan of the twist involving Sissel’s identity, which manages to be well forecast, and explain some of Sissel’s annoying character quirks, such as not knowing some basic English vocabulary. Other twists, such as Ray’s identity or Cabanela’s true good nature, build perfectly on characters we know.

Other twists left me slightly cold. Another problem of Takumi’s writing that surfaces in Ghost Trick is his reliance on tragic past events to inform character motivations. It’s there in DL-6, and SL-9, as well as 6 other cases throughout the trilogy (being generous), and of course crops up in Apollo Justice’s final case. Ghost Trick has two tragic crimes that become integral to solving the mystery of the present, and while past tragedies aren’t necessarily a bad motivation for character, it’s disheartening to see Takumi fall back on this old crutch.

More damning for me, though, were the twists that felt tonally inconsistent. Take my least favourite – the Rube Goldberg death of Jowd’s wife. It’s a tragedy, for sure, that Kamila ends up killing her mother (what is it with writers for AA and matricide?), but the murder method is just a bit absurd. While Takumi is a master of tonal balancing, he often strikes that balance by segueing between the absurd and the emotional, and when he jams them into the same scene, it tests my suspension of disbelief more than I would want. Kamila’s matricide could have been more of a gut punch were Yomiel to have simply manipulated Kamila into directly shooting her, as he later does with Lynne, but this isn’t the case. The Rube Goldberg death might have even been acceptable if the game had hinted prior to the revelation that Kamila was a fan of building these machines, but instead that’s a detail it casually throws in after the fact, when you’ve already seen a woman get shot with a birthday cake delivery machine and asked to buy it with a straight face.

The revelations behind the ghost trick powers of the dead that involve the meteorite Temsik also didn’t quite strike the right note with me. I was happy to buy that the powers of the dead just were; I didn’t need a space radiation-based explanation. My biggest problem with Temsik, however, is that occasionally it’s used to cleverly explain certain aspects of the plot, such as who gets ghost powers and how the appearance of certain cores differ – but occasionally I feel like it’s used to write its way out of certain plot difficulties. Most jarring to me was the half-hearted explanation as to how ghost powers change over time so that the game can explain away some of Yomiel’s, and later Missile’s, actions. If the game hadn’t even tried to explain the powers of the dead, I think I would have probably just bought all of it, as I did at the start of the game, but when they are explained it casts them under new scrutiny as a plot mechanic rather than just a gameplay one, and they hold up less well.

Ultimately, I’m left wondering if Ghost Trick is really the right game for this kind of story. In Ace Attorney, a game that also revels in its twists and reveals, those twists are delivered in the hands of the player. We expose the murderer, we reveal how he got away with it, and we expose the truths behind tragic cases from the past. In Ghost Trick, Sissel is a useless character outside of gameplay; the various plot revelations are just told to him, and it feels more like watching a film with occasional semi-related gameplay breaks, as opposed to being a ‘Phantom Detective’ myself. Were the game to allow you to solve the mysteries, I wonder how I would have reacted to some of the more outlandish twists, having proved them myself, but as they stand, I can only fully get on board with a few of them.

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If there’s an aspect of the plot I can get fully behind, it’s definitely the characters. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I think the characters turn Ghost Trick from a game I like to a game I’m very close to loving. The main characters are fantastic; each are surprisingly static in terms of character development (Cabanela seems to be the only character who changes much, but it’s hard to know if it’s him that changes, or simply the player’s perception of him), but the emphasis is mainly placed on getting you to want to spend time with them. If the plot of Ghost Trick is a rollercoaster, then the main characters are the people you’d want to experience it with. This may sound sentimental, and I think it is a bit, but it shows the power of Takumi’s writing.

If I can single out one specific thing Takumi does well, it’s writing animals. I’m not just talking about Missile, who is a stunningly well written little doggie, but also about Sissel himself, who was the perfect kind of begrudgingly friendly that the revelation that he was a cat all along was surprisingly natural.

It’s not just the central cast, however; the world of Ghost Trick is just such a bizarre pleasure to be in. The way Takumi writes the bit parts in Ghost Trick has, I feel, improved from his Ace Attorney days, but he’s aided by the game’s animations. The characters were originally rendered and animated in 3D, before being squashed onto the 2D plane, and this allows their range of movement to be unlike any other I’ve seen in an adventure game. There’s a subtlety to their actions that allows wordless scenes to convey character as well as any of Takumi’s writing. In an interview Joystiq did with Takumi, they point out the way Lynne backs up against a fence in the opening scene and quickly looks back against it. When admiring Ghost Trick’s animation, it’s easy to think of Bailey’s panic dance or Cabenela’s shimmy down the stairs, but I think it’s these moments that make the animations such an essential part of Ghost Trick.

Is Ghost Trick, then, Takumi’s masterpiece? I hope I’ve proven to you why I think that it isn’t. The game has too many minor issues that niggle away at the back of my mind to come even close to matching the two games I think best showcase his writing (Trials and Tribulations and Dai Gyakuten Saiban).

That’s not a problem, however, nor is it a deterrent that prevents me from really enjoying this game. When I finished the game, I messaged a friend of mine that it was a “lovely little game”. I think that this summation of the game is a little flippant, but to dismiss this instinctual reaction would also be wrong. I think that Ghost Trick has so much going for it; the gameplay is fun and original; the writing is funny and engaging. Even if it can’t reach the heights it might aspire to, I’m still just happy for its existence. I thought that writing about it might sour me on the game, as it has done for others in the past, but ultimately I’ve just been reminded of its charm in spite of its flaws.

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