Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective

With all the hoo-ha this week over the upcoming launch of the Nintendo 3DS, with its launch line-up heavy with remakes, reboots, updates and conversions, it strikes us that the games we'll remember from the DS era aren't the usual big name franchises – good as some of these were – or even the Mario and Zelda titles – brilliant as these have been. Nope. We think the games we'll remember from the DS era will be those oddball, leftfield titles that would never have existed on another console; those weird, wonderful little games that threw away the rulebook, took us somewhere new, and helped bring a new audience into games. For us, there's a long line, ranging from Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney and Elite Beat Agents through to Hotel Dusk: Room 215, Professor Layton and Super Scribblenauts. And now there's a new entry: Capcom's Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective.

Ghost Trick actually stems from the same mind as the Ace Attorney series, Shu Tukumi, and it shares that series' love of mystery and overblown drama, not to mention its weird characterisation, dialogue and sense of humour. In terms of style and gameplay, however, it's very different. In fact, it's fair to say that you've probably never played a game quite like it ever before.

 

It opens with a classic scene of hard-boiled noir: a deserted junkyard, a dead man, a girl and a killer in a suit. The twist is that you are the dead man, and that you have no idea who you are or what has happened. As is soon explained to you by (steady) a possessed anglepoise lamp, you're now a spirit, but that doesn't mean you're powerless. You can, as your new friend, the lamp, explains hop from object to object and activate any function they might have. Time pauses while you're moving, so you can stop and start the unfolding action, practically at will.

Best of all, by possessing a corpse, you can chat to the now dead soul and rewind time to a moment 4 minutes before their untimely death. Having done so, you can help them avert their fate, manipulating objects in the area so that whomever or whatever caused them to die no longer has the same effect. Finally, you can travel through telephone wires from location to location, though with restrictions that become clear later on. 

Oddly enough, all of this makes a certain amount of sense while you're actually playing, and while each scene is effectively a single complex puzzle, with you moving around the scene, manipulating the objects, experimenting and then rewinding to try again as required, it all slowly builds up into one big tale of mystery and suspense. The scenes grow more and more complex and the solutions more and more obtuse, but Ghost Trick scales things perfectly, dividing each puzzle up into manageable sections, and hinting when you've got things irretrievably wrong. It's reasonably difficult at times, but never so tricky that you feel like your only recourse is an FAQ. The result is a game that keeps you glued to the screen for hours at a time.

 

Ghost Trick's success also comes down to a matter of style. Like all the best DS games, it has its own distinct look, combining side-on, 2D scenes that show a cross-section of the  environment with beautifully animated characters that remind you of the original Prince of Persia or Amiga classic, Another World. When the dialogue kicks in, we get more conventional, close-ups and speech bubbles, but it's all framed and edited with the same flare as the Ace Attorney series. In screenshots, it looks weird. Moving, it just looks cool. 

The characters and situations, meanwhile, are every bit as baffling, bizarre and weirdly engaging. From promotion-obsessed hitmen to lanky detectives with a penchant for Michael Jackson dance moves, or sinister Junkyard supervisors to plucky Pomeranian dogs, Ghost Trick has more than its share of lovable and despicable nutcase stars, and the kind of dialogue that makes you wish more games would take themselves a little less seriously.

In fact, the only two complaints we can make about Ghost Trick are that the puzzles get a bit too easy once you've had a bit of practice, and that eventually, it's going to end. The first is worth a little grumble and maybe a point docked from the score. The second is just a sad fact of life with any game that's this much fun.

Verdict

Ghost Trick isn't going to be for everyone, but if you're a fan of the DS's more leftfield games, then it's pretty much a must-buy. Smart, witty and engaging, it's another example of why you don't need high-end graphics and 3D gimmicks to make absorbing handheld games; just imaginative design, good writing and a sense of style. Let's hope it's not the last of its breed.