August 02, 2011

Review: Ghost Trick

I finished Ghost Trick 6 months ago and loved every second of it. After revisiting the game today (It’s amazing how much free time you have when recovering from pneumonia.) I realized the love hasn’t gone anywhere, and as such I though I ought to mention it in some way here, in the vast reaches of the internet. If you haven’t played the game yet, I urge you to do so. It’s beautiful.

The following post is based on a review published in the Finnish magazine Japan Pop, issue 2/2011. I’ve made an attempt to avoid spoilers, so it’s safe to read even if you haven’t played the game. (Avoiding spoilers makes it rather cursory, but it’s a price I’m willing to pay when reviewing a game that’s so delicately dependant on its mysteries.)

Mens Sana in Corpore Sano
A sound mind in a healthy body

The opening act of Ghost Trick focuses on a murder. This is not unusual in fiction, I know. Except, this time the one who dies is Sissel, the game's protagonist, which stirs things up from the get go: Who was just murdered? The protagonist, sure, but why? What did he do?

Sissel. True to the game’s lead designer’s love for puns, Sissel’s name derives from the japanese word シセル (shiseru), which is the katakana form of the word 死せる (shiseru, to die). This in itself is quite punny, but it gets even better! Shiseru is also a conjugated form – the potential form, to be exact – of 資す (shisu, to have a hand in; to play part in something). So, Sissel’s name means both dying and influencing. Note that by writing the name in katakana, Takumi obscures the exact meaning, thus incorporating both interpretations under one name, which is very fitting for Sissel.

Luckily, the universe is merciful and lets the unfortunate hero stay within the mortal realm until daybreak. Within this time limit, Sissel must unravel the mystery of his own death as well as help a whole bunch of other people who are related to him and his murder. The details of the situation are left somewhat vague, however, as Sissel suffers from the most frequent of game protagonist maladies: amnesia. He has no memories of himself and is totally clueless about the rest of the world as well.

The Basics of Ghost Trick

The chief designer for Ghost Trick is Shu Takumi, the same guy who's behind the acclaimed Ace Attorney series. The similarities between Ghost Trick and the Ace Attorney games are easy to notice, but fortunately the developers have opted for a fresh approach instead of trying to ride too much on AA’s success. Though there are familiar elements in Ghost Trick’s design, overall it’s refreshingly unique and original.

In terms of game mechanics, Ghost Trick is far removed from the conventions of Phoenix Wright. Actually, the distinction is pretty clear: The Ace Attorney titles are simple games with a deep plot, whereas Ghost Trick tries to deepen the game elements without sacrificing the complexity of the plot. This approach works surprisingly well, and Ghost Trick manages to strike a balance: It's more of a game than Wright's adventures, and the plot, though not quite as tangled and twisting as what the ace attorneys have gone through, remains just as sprawling and full of surprises as you’d expect from Takumi.

The heart of Ghost Trick is problem-solving, in which the player has to use Sissel's ghost powers to overcome all sorts of obstacles. As a ghost, Sissel's ability to operate in the world of the living is limited. He can move between objects that are sufficiently close to each other, as well as possess them and manipulate them in small ways. Sissel can roll balls, turn on electrical appliances, flutter cloth and so forth. Because of the limitations of his ghostly disposition, even the simple act of traveling from one end of a room to the other can prove to be a challenge. Combined with situations where Sissel has to manipulate the world in order to save people before a grim fate befalls them, players are up for some rather tricky levels. Sadly, one never gets to wander off from the linear path of solutions the game offers. What could've been a triumph of open-ended physics puzzles is now a series of strictly linear scenarios, in which there is but one way to progress. Though, in all honesty I must say I can't really be upset about this as much as I possibly should, since Ghost Trick's puzzles are built solidly and offer some great moments of tension and comedy. A non-linear approach could have made for an interesting game, but Ghost Trick would’ve lost some of its core charm in the process.

In between the brainteasers, the game's story rushes relentlessly onwards. The plot is divided into episodes, paced with Sissel's dramatic monologues. Episodic narration creates a rhythm of play that is perfect for a handheld gaming platform; There is drama and a real sense of progress even if you play through just one episode of the story at a time, and the constant cliffhangers at the end of each episode are a powerful tool for captivating the player's interest.

Dividing the story and interjecting Sissel's monologues between each segment also help make sense of the plot which, in genuine Shu Takumi fashion, is riddled with flashbacks and surprises. This tangle would soon become difficult to navigate if not for the monologues that neatly draw the player's attention to whichever details are the most important for the plot at the moment. The monologues also serve to remind the player of clues relevant to the following episode. At times such assistance feels a bit patronizing but overall it's an effective way of ensuring the player doesn't miss a single turn in a complex - and rather good - story. When the big mysteries of the plot are unveiled, the effect is so much more potent when the player knows (or thinks she knows) what's going on.

Smooth Moves

The game's visual functionality is clearly based on the same tradition the Phoenix Wright games drew their influence from. Ghost Trick’s dialogue scenes comprise of static character graphics and dialogue boxes (or bubbles in this case, rather), and are instantly recognizable by anyone who has ever played Japanese adventure games. Unlike the more traditional japanese aesthetics of Phoenix Wright and companions, however, Ghost Trick’s art direction leans to a more modern approach, with sharp and pointy lines and stronger, often clashing colors. The visual style is somewhat reminiscent of The World Ends With You, though Ghost Trick takes the exaggeration of its characters further. The style suits Ghost Trick perfectly and it compliments Takumi's over-the-top writing in a way the Ace Attorney games never quite managed to do.

In a clear break from the visual elements of the Ace Attorney variety, Ghost Trick utilizes a lot of animations. Animation is used to the point that it becomes a clear defining element of Ghost Trick's visuals. There's a lot of animated frames in the game and all of them are, without exception, first-grade. The characters move smoothly and the animation adds an extra layer of characterization to the already kooky cast. Shu Takumi writes some of the quirkiest characters in the industry, and the game's animation really manages to highlight that. With animation, Takumi's characters gain a new depth of oddness that immediately feels natural for them.

In addition to being a good tool for characterization, the game's animation also has a practical application. Often the key to solving a puzzle or figuring out a use for an item lies in observing the characters and their movements, habits and actions. It is perhaps the greatest proof of the animation’s quality that it manages to deliver both great characterization and effective puzzle telegraphing.

As the game wore on, I realized I was constantly waiting for the appearance of Cabanela, the dancing disco cop, just to see how he'd do his entrance this time.

Ghost Writing

I would love to get a chance to ask Shu Takumi why he's so obsessed with death. Of course, it's a great way to create drama, but clearly he has a penchant for circling the topic with a particular passion. The spirit world and ghostly encounters were a staple in each Phoenix Wright game and the same thematic centerpieces are used in Ghost Trick as well. This time the dead tend not to stay dead, though, since one of Sissel's powers lets him rewind time and alter the fates of people who would otherwise have met their demise.

Luckily, Ghost Trick clearly deviates from the Ace Attorney games with its approach to death. Whereas Phoenix concentrated on finding out the details and motives of a murder, Sissel is kept busy erasing the deaths altogether, without regard to the finer details.

In Ghost Trick, the whole story revolves around the death of the protagonist and preventing the deaths of many side characters. Yet death does not carry the same dramatic weight as it does in the world of Phoenix Wright. The ever-present death is a constant motif, but it's kept - perhaps wisely - in the background. Death adds an interesting and grim tone to the story of Ghost Trick but it does not hog the spotlight. Instead, it leaves room for the narrative to explore other themes as well: In the end Ghost Trick is about something entirely other than ghosts, death and the spirit world.

Story-wise Ghost Trick shows Takumi at the top of his game. The mysteries unfurl with perfect pacing and precision, and the story doesn't slow down at any point. By avoiding slowing down the story the game ends rather quickly, of course, but on the other hand the relentless pace creates such a breathtaking narrative barrage that the whole game feels like one big ending climax. There are no highlights in a plot that’s written to be one giant highlight in itself.


In these final days of the DS's lifespan (development-wise anyway, I'm going to keep using my unit for as long as I can!), developers have plenty of experience of the system's strengths and weaknesses. Takumi's team has clearly utilized every bit of this knowledge: Ghost Trick is pure bliss right from the start. It's a brilliant game with strong content and matching technical implementation.

The story starts out a bit wonky but quickly picks up the pace and ends up in a complex tangle of drama and mystery. Supporting the story is a groovy soundtrack, composed by Masakazu Sugimori (the artist responsible for the unobtrusive but catchy tunes of the first Phoenix Wright game), a solid set of game mechanics and an excellent visual style. Ghost Trick works as a game as well as a story, and is a fine example of a game that is crafted with skill, vision and love.

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