Version tested: DS
"This desk lamp knows a whole lot more than he's telling me..."
With these words, spoken by a red-suited spirit with Jedward hair, any fear that Shu Takumi had exhausted his inspiration creating Phoenix Wright is dispelled. Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective is in most respects nothing like Ace Attorney, yet it's also an unmistakable continuation of that game's exuberant design and cock-eyed humour.
As the subtitle suggests, the hero of the tale is a ghost. We soon learn that his name is Sissel but, like so many videogame protagonists before him, he's lost his memory. At least he has an excuse: he's just been murdered and this apparently takes quite a toll on your mental faculties.
Waking up in the ghost world, Sissel is introduced to the special powers he can now use by a talking desk lamp called Ray. Crucially, within the ghost realm, time stands still and your soul is free to hop around the scenery, using glowing "cores" found in everyday items. Your reach is small, however, so a lot of your mental energy will be spent working out how to move or manipulate the environment to create pathways you can use to reach the places you need to go.
Also, as the game's title suggests, while inside these items and once time returns to normal, Sissel can make them perform a specific action or "trick". This is both how you explore your surroundings and how you tackle the game's many puzzles.
Also in your supernatural arsenal is the ability to travel from place to place using telephone lines, but this pales alongside your most impressive gift: time travel. Yes, should you slink your soul into the corpse of someone who died recently, you can rewind the clock and relive the four minutes prior to their demise. During this time, you can use your ghost tricks to try to avert their fate, leaving them alive and able to help you solve the mystery of who you are and why you're dead.
From this peculiar skill set, Takumi has crafted another confidently strange adventure, one part point-and-click to one part physics puzzler. As with Phoenix Wright, everything is relentlessly plot-driven so there's no fannying about with pointless obstacles just because the designer wanted to keep you busy. No, you're always working towards a new character, or another location, or some vital piece of information that will shed a sliver of light on the labyrinthine back-story while throwing up a dozen new questions as well.
Nothing is wasted. Objects discarded in one scene prove to be vital parts of a puzzle the next time you return. Characters that you thought were just there for some comedic colour turn out to be pivotal in the unravelling conspiracy. Judged purely from a structural point of view, Ghost Trick is something of a masterclass in interactive storytelling.
It also looks stunning. The Ace Attorney games had their manga-esque charms, and no doubt spawned a million message board avatars, but there's no getting away from the fact that they were hardly dynamic. Ghost Trick sees Takumi seriously upping his game where visuals are concerned, with lush, detailed scenery populated by beautifully animated characters.
In some ways they're little more than stylised stick figures, with very little facial detail, but the way they move is a joy to behold. It's a lot like Another World and Flashback, Eric Chahi's adventure games on the Amiga, where simple figures looked almost like they'd been mo-capped.
For important dialogue we still get cartoon close ups, accompanied by familiar Phoenix-style sha-ching audio stings for punctuation and dramatic effect. It also helps that Ghost Trick's cast is every bit as memorable as Takumi's previous games, filled as it is with bickering prison guards, giddy pet dogs, pompous wine-glugging authors and exuberant chicken chefs. Special mention must be made of Inspector Cabanela, an unforgettable, preening supercop whose Michael Jackson affectations and Kojak dialogue make him a meme waiting to happen.
If there's any criticism to be made, it's that the game is often incredibly easy. With such a weird premise, Takumi is completely free to invent his own rulebook, but often the restrictions placed on your activities do nothing more than herd you inevitably towards the next solution. With a limited range of movement for your possession antics, and a small number of items available to you, there's only so many combinations to explore. The top screen shows you what your currently inhabited item will do, and there's only ever one function it can perform.
Sissel himself keeps you on track with frequent hints, and almost every line of dialogue during the puzzle segments might as well come with a giant flashing CLUE sign next to it. Lateral thinking is only really tested are during the four-minute rewind sections when you have limited time to work out a solution. Since you can replay these moments as many times as you like, with checkpoints inserted every time you change history, it's still not going to trouble most players for long.
This constant funnelling is more annoying than game-breaking though, and then mostly because it limits how much fun you can have by tinkering with the game's ingenious gameplay mechanics outside of the story. The prospect of playing as a poltergeist is enormously appealing, but there are relatively few moments when you're able to just muck about with the objects in view, or see what reactions you can provoke from the unwitting humans going about their business.
It all comes down to what you expect from your gaming time. If it's all about the challenge, then Ghost Trick may not be the game for you. It's never so simple that progress feels unrewarding, but nor does it demand much in the way of free thinking. This is just one of those games that, by design, would rather spell out its puzzles than risk leaving you stuck and unable to see the rest of its daft little yarn.
If you play mostly to enjoy the experience, however, then Ghost Trick is easy to recommend. It's one of the freshest, most original and genuinely funny games to hit the DS since a certain lawyer raised his first objection.
8 / 10