Dead men do tell tales
It's hard to quantify what makes a game like Ghost Trick so endearing. Much like the Ace Attorney series before it, Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective just has a kind of immeasurable charm that is difficult to accurately express through language alone. Perhaps it speaks solely to the strength of the writing, but if one thing is for certain it is that Shu Takumi has delivered once again on the concept of an enthralling virtual narrative.
It's hard to talk about Ghost Trick and not at least pay mention to the Ace Attorney because, although it may seem contrary, the games are indeed very similar. Ghost Trick is essentially a linear murder mystery in which you, as the ghostly protagonist Sissel, attempt to uncover your lost identity by saving the lives of others using your supernatural "Powers of the Dead" to roll back time four minutes before a person's demise and manipulate the inanimate objects around them in an attempt to change their fate. The way the game plays out is, essentially, identical to an Ace Attorney game. You are more of an observer rather than a participant in most cases, and that isn't a bad thing.
The draw here isn't necessarily you, as the player, having an impact on the story. Much like the Ace Attorney games, Ghost Trick's main attraction is watching the tale unfold and, in this case, seeing how the plethora of unique characters come to terms and deal with a world in which ghosts do very much exist. It's an interesting story, to say the least, and it takes perhaps a bit more than its fair share twists of towards the end. The conclusion is satisfying, however, and of a nature that you may feel compelled to replay the game almost immediately. It is one thing to say that a game has a good story, but it is quite another to say that a story both encourages and improves subsequent playthroughs.
That being said, there is one area in which Ghost Trick takes a sharp turn away from its predecessor. Unlike the Ace Attorney games, the gameplay in Ghost Trick is perhaps a bit more rewarding, and certainly faster paced. The main crux of the game, namely the possession and manipulation of inanimate objects throughout an environment, is smartly implemented and expanded upon as the game progresses. While new elements are sparse and rarely introduced, each of the environments in Ghost Trick is completely unique and built to handle at least one, if not several, unique puzzle scenario.
The flow of Ghost Trick's gameplay is split into two separate phases. There is the present in which Sissel can travel between any two locations connected via phone and solve puzzles at his leisure with the benefit of limitless in-game time, and then there are the sections four minutes into the past in which puzzles must be solved within an allotted time limit in order to save someone's life. As time, and characters, are prone to progressing forward with or without your interference, a rewind button is introduced in sections taking place in the past as a means to reset the world to its original state should you miss a prime opportunity to change fate. These reset points are, thankfully, checkpointed after each time a significant change is made in how a scenario is played out meaning you won't have to wait too long to take another crack at any specific section. It's really an interesting system and one that, unlike most adventure games, makes you take real time into account. Although you won't necessarily be forced into making quick decisions on the fly, there is a level of speed needed in order to execute some of the more complex maneuvers that ratchets up the intensity quite a bit during later sequences.
If there is one thing that is immediately striking about Ghost Trick though, it is its presentation. The music is palatable with a few noteworthy anthems that may get stuck in your head, but the real highlight here is the visuals. Like many interactive novel styled games on the DS, a majority of interactions between characters are accompanied by large detailed character sprites and equivalent 2D backgrounds. The art style is very angular and comes off as dynamic and exciting to look out. These, on there own, would probably be enough to convey the story of Ghost Trick, but unlike many other games in this vein though, Ghost Trick also employs character models moving about the environments to illustrate its tale as well. The interesting part here is not that this method is used, but how it is used.
To my knowledge, no other game has ever used an animation style like this before. I'm hardly an expert in the field, but it seems like the team at Capcom actually took still images of 3D models and constructed 2D sprites out of them. It's beautiful and incredibly fluid, completely unlike anything I've seen in a game before. The animation on its own is almost reason enough to pick up Ghost Trick as it adds a tremendous amount of life to otherwise static characters. In a lot of ways it feels like a natural evolution of the Ace Attorney story telling formula, an achievement that the currently running Ace Attorney Investigations series has failed to match.
But really, when it comes down to it, this is a game that, much like its protagonist, is dedicated solely to telling its story. A good story, but also a very quirky one. Yes there are quite a few clever puzzle elements and some stunning visuals, but if you aren't on board for a lengthy trek through the valley of strange personalities and odd motivations then it may be best to steer clear.
At the end of the day, Ghost Trick is about its characters. There are a lot of great elements built around it, but the narrative is the core of the experience.
And that's probably a good thing.