In this recurring feature, guest blogger Matt Morris takes us through the lost, the forgotten, and the overlooked video games of yore. Consider him your guide through all the best and most secret Hidden Levels.
Game: Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective (2010)
Platform: Nintendo DS, iOS
Capcom and I have a complicated relationship. They’re one of the most prolific and celebrated Japanese developers of all time. Along with Konami, they virtually dominated the Japanese gaming landscape for years–decades, even. And unlike Konami, they have managed to avoid crumbling into a burning husk of despair that devours souls and shits out pachinko machines. (So far, anyway.)
These are all commendable things.
And yet, speaking as someone who’s been feeling deprived of Western releases from them lately, they do a totally abysmal job of promoting the works of arguably the most creative mind still working under their own roof. I’m talking about Shu Takumi, the creator of the Ace Attorney series. If you haven’t played any of the Ace Attorney games… well, you should go do that, right now. Yes, literally right now.
Okay, have you finished those? Good. Now that that’s out of the way, we’re going to take a look at Takumi’s even-less-appreciated masterpiece: Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective.
What is this game?
Ghost Trick is primarily an adventure game, and I mean that in a more traditional sense than you might expect in the post-Telltale-Games world we live in today. You won’t find a branching narrative here, with choices and consequences and multiple endings. Instead, you’ll find a specifically crafted narrative with one proper conclusion, plenty of failure states, and most importantly, puzzles.
The game introduces its basic setup succinctly: a red-headed woman is being held at gunpoint in a junkyard by a mysterious hitman, and between them on the ground lies your corpse.
For reasons unbeknownst to you, you are dead–and yet your spirit survives. Thus, with unclear memories of how you got into this predicament, you’re forced to come to grips with the situation. The voice of another spirit calls out to you and explains that you’re special, and that you have the power to avert the impending demise of the red-headed woman using abilities called “ghost tricks.” This is where the fun begins.
In a nutshell, your power allows you to leap into many of the inanimate objects around you and make them activate. For example, you might hop into a desk fan and cause it to turn on, or hop into a ball and cause it to roll off a shelf. The key is figuring out which of the objects around you to activate, and in what order, to stop the gunman from successfully killing his target. Unfortunately, you are not successful… at first.
The final component of your mysterious power is to travel back in time–to four minutes before a person’s death, specifically–giving you the ability to carefully devise a chain of events using inanimate objects that will avert the crisis. Think of it as saving lives by way of Rube Goldberg machinery. This concept is at the core of each of the game’s puzzles, even as new mechanics and abilities get added later in the story to spice things up.
From here, the game’s plot takes off. You as the player are filling the ghostly shoes of a dead man named Sissel, who is in pursuit of the truth behind his death as well as his missing memories. You jump from murder scene to murder scene, saving innocent victims with your Rube Goldberg powers and thwarting the plans of a sinister organization with unknown motives. And in true Shu Takumi fashion, the game concludes with an elaborate twist that ties the whole thing together in a shocking yet satisfying conclusion.
So what makes it so special?
As with Takumi’s other games, the strongest part of the experience is the writing and storytelling. Sissel’s journey to uncover the truth is gripping and absolutely jam-packed with mystery, suspense, and narrative contortions that render you unable to put the game down until the thrilling conclusion. At the same time, the game is replete with colorful characters and a playful sense of humor that keeps the experience from getting bogged down by seriousness. All of these elements are handled with aplomb by Capcom’s stellar localization staff, and the game’s text is a pleasure to read from start to finish.
Apart from being merely well-written, the characters are brought to life with some of the finest art direction and animations I have seen on the platform. This is not merely hyperbole–Ghost Trick utilizes 2D backgrounds and character portraits, together with 3D character models and shaders, to produce a distinct visual look unmatched by any other game on the DS. On top of that, the developers crafted brilliant animations to imbue each character with a unique personality that makes them special. One character in particular, Inspector Cabanela of the Special Investigation Unit, boasts what I believe to be one of the best character introductions in all of video games:
It’s worth noting as well that Masakazu Sugimori, who scored the first Ace Attorney game, has once again teamed up with Takumi to compose the soundtrack for Ghost Trick. The above video is merely a taste of the musical creativity at work here. Each character’s musical representation fits their personality perfectly, and the increasingly driving rhythms of the puzzle solving tracks heighten the tension as the moment of death draws closer:
As for the puzzle design itself, the game does not disappoint. Each puzzle presents an interesting new circumstance and forces you to think of creative solutions to odd problems. From straightforward scenarios like “stop the hitman from being able to shoot the victim,” to off-the-wall ones like, “stop a man’s bottle of heart pills from falling out of reach as he begins having a heart attack,” the game never ceases coming up with unusual ways for you to utilize your power over inanimate objects.
Furthermore, as the game progresses, you get access to interesting new mechanics like the ability to swap the positions of two objects that are similar in shape. This adds a whole new wrinkle to puzzle solving in that it forces you to think in more abstract ways about the objects you’re interacting with. For instance, at one point you are forced to swap a bullet in mid-air with something similarly shaped but less lethal.
All of this can be a little brain-bending at first, but as with any good puzzle game, the moment of realization when the solution finally becomes clear is an incredibly gratifying one. Some of them even manage to elicit laughter at how creative they can be.
If there is one frustration I can think of with Ghost Trick, it’s that the gameplay concept involves a good amount of trial and error. Most of the time, your first pass at a given puzzle involves toying with the various objects within your reach to see what they all do, then beginning to formulate an idea of how to make them interact in the correct ways afterwards. The next few passes are usually dedicated to getting a grip on the timing of events, as in many cases nailing the timing correctly is of paramount importance.
This can become tedious for players who just want to dive right into trying for a solution. Your mileage may vary, of course, depending on your level of patience. The game does not punish you for rewinding as many times as you need; rather, it actively encourages this approach. But I can imagine that it may not be for everyone. (As far as I’m concerned, all the work you put into each puzzle is paid off perfectly by the satisfaction of finally figuring out the key to making it all work.)
Lastly, the game’s epilogue borders on being confusing. Without spoiling anything specific, I will say that there’s an additional twist layered into the story at the last minute that flirts with the line of being too complicated. I would argue that it skates by without being too troublesome, but again, it’s a matter of opinion and I can certainly imagine someone disagreeing with me on that front.
Why was it overlooked?
Truthfully, the game just didn’t sell all that well here in the West. It has a reasonable fan following online, so I wouldn’t say that it’s the most “hidden” of gems, but the fact of the matter is that Capcom put very little effort into marketing the game at the time. As a result, it never really broke the barrier into the mainstream the way it could have.
It was reviewed well when it came out, and it remains comfortably in the upper echelons of DS games when it comes to review averages. But I would argue that a lack of visibility really hurt the game’s chances of becoming the breakout hit that it deserved to be.
How can I get a hold of it?
This month, you’re in luck: I’ve finally selected a game that’s reasonably easy to get a hold of. You can purchase the original DS cartridge on Amazon for 22 dollars at the time of this writing, which is a great price and allows you to play the game in its original incarnation on your DS or 3DS.
For those of you who don’t have a DS or 3DS handy, there is an iOS version available which runs on both iPhone and iPad. It’s free to download, and contains the first few chapters of the game, after which you can pay to unlock the rest of the chapters piecemeal, or pay $10 to unlock the full game. There’s no excuse not to at least give the game a try! I tested out the app on my iPhone 6S on iOS 10 and it ran well, but I cannot personally vouch for older models or operating systems.
Ultimately, and perhaps somewhat surpringly, Ghost Trick is a story about valuing the time you have with the people you care about. While the mechanic of being able to constantly rewind time and fix your mistakes may seem at odds with this concept, the truth is that the characters Takumi has crafted here embody it fully. The Minister of Justice sits despondent in his office, filled with regret that he did not appreciate his estranged wife and daughter while they were with him. Detective Jowd, wrongfully convicted for the murder of his own wife, sits on death row with precious little time remaining to see his daughter Kamila one last time. Lynne, the red-headed detective who admires Jowd, is determined to save his life as the clock ticks. Even Sissel himself has only until the morning to save the most important life of all–his own.
As all of their stories interweave and they come to trust and rely on each other, the gravity of your ghostly powers becomes clear: you are the key to giving everyone a new lease on life, a second chance at making amends for past regrets. It’s a touching setup, and more importantly, it really allows the game’s whizz-bang conclusion to shine all the brighter.
Once again I’m in the sad position of longing for a sequel that may never come. The conclusion of Ghost Trick‘s story leaves ample room for it to become the launching point of a franchise, but to this day I have not seen any indication that Capcom intends to capitalize upon that.
(It could also be because they’ve locked Shu Takumi in a closet and told him he can only work on Ace Attorney spinoff games.)
Regardless, Ghost Trick is an experience not to be missed. The bottom line is that the story is immensely satisfying, and the presentation is top notch. If Capcom ever looks away from its piles of Street Fighter and Monster Hunter profits long enough to realize that fact, maybe they’ll understand that they really had something special with this game and allow us to revisit its world once again. But until that time, Ghost Trick will continue to live on in my memories.