Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective (PC) REVIEW – Resurrecting a Classic
June 30, 2023
PC, PS4, XBO, NS
Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective is a puzzle game. It is also a murder mystery, a visual novel, and a Rube Goldberg simulator. More than all of these things, according to my Twitter feed when this port was first announced at least, Ghost Trick is a diamond in the dark, a forgotten titan that should have been lauded nonstop since its initial release on the DS in 2010.
For a long time, the only thing I knew about Ghost Trick was that it has this sterling reputation as a cult hit, one of the finest titles of the DS era that never got its full appreciation. I never played the original, so its bona fides are a mystery to me. Like Sissel the spiritual investigator, I have a mystery on my hands: Why is Ghost Trick so beloved?
You play as Sissel, a recently-deceased spirit with no memory of his past, who finds himself at his own murder scene in a junkyard one night. A haunted lamp tells Sissel that he has until sunrise to solve the mystery of his past. A heck of a story hook on its own, but on top of that, there’s also a young woman being held at gunpoint by a hitman, and only Sissel can save her, with his ability to possess and manipulate objects, like swinging a crane, opening and closing an umbrella, or turning lights on and off. Sissel can also jump into dead bodies and travel back in time up to four minutes before he died, allowing you to right wrongs as the humans in your orbit will tend to get themselves killed many times over without your help.
You’ll toggle between the ghost world – where your spirit can move from object to object, provided they’re close enough for you to reach – and the real world, where you can manipulate objects to solve the puzzle at hand. These gameplay mechanics translate largely very well from the DS, where moving around used to be handled with the touch screen, although sometimes it can be a little irksome switching in between ghost world and real world during particularly complex solutions.
Narratively, this opening is just the tip of an ever-expanding iceberg. What follows is a sprawling crime story with a ton of moving parts, crooked characters, double-crosses, and soap opera-level dramatic revelations that never stop. I can’t give many specifics without spoiling the experience, but suffice it to say that even when you’ve figured out a number of huge revelations about who certain characters are and how they connect, you still have so much left to learn.
The narrative risks becoming a parody of itself, with so many dizzying reversals and revelations, but it’s a credit to the writers and localization team that this house of cards balanced on top of a spinning basketball never actually tips over, or even wobbles all that much. Every character has a clear personality and motivation, from our intrepid heroin Lynne whose headstrong nature keeps putting her in mortal peril, to Missile the overzealous hero Pomeranian, to one of my new favorite characters in all of games, Detective Cabanela, with his melodramatic giant white coat (to show he’s never made a mistake or “stained” his spotless record) and his irresistible habit of busting a move everywhere he goes. Sissel, though often forced to play straight man to all the zany characters in his orbit, is still a likable and interesting main character, and his often baffled response to anything he doesn’t remember from his life (like one early moment when he realizes he’s forgotten how to read) are always hilarious.
Some challenges involve pulling off multiple actions on multiple objects in a very short time frame – and some compound this by only being solvable in the last few seconds before a game over would occur, meaning you’ll have to be quick on the draw and flawless in your execution. Resetting a scenario is easy enough, with a dedicated rewind button that lets you immediately bail out when you know you’ve flubbed it, but you will often still have to wait for scripted events to play out and provide you an opening to try again. Still, when you’re in the zone and fully grasp each situation, stringing together ludicrous chains of events and executing your plan to perfection always feels like a well-earned victory.
In rescuing Ghost Trick from its DS purgatory, Capcom has preserved and enhanced another of the original’s greatest strengths in its beautiful, kinetic art style. Every environment is packed with brightly colored objects that make each puzzle easily readable, and every single character design is dripping in personality. Sissel’s red suit, black shirt and white tie ensemble is genius in its elegant simplicity, and his bolt of yellow hair makes him an instantly recognizable character. The same care and personality shines through in literally every character, with immaculate fashion and outlandish hair making it so you’ll never even come close to confusing any character with anyone else – a necessity for a game with a plot so pretzel-twisted it should come
The ripping soundtrack pairs excellently with the sugar-rush visuals as well, with every track bouncing with electricity and urgency. They truly don’t make video game scores like they used to anymore, and the Ghost Trick soundtrack is just brimming with personality that video game scores had before they began focusing more on ambiance over excitement.
Much of Ghost Trick’s personality, visual appeal, and rock-solid logic puzzles are likely due to its director, Shu Takumi, who is also the director of the Ace Attorney series. There’s a lot of shared DNA between Sissel’s and Phoenix Wright’s adventures, with the same sense of playful misdirection and solid-yet-convoluted logic to unraveling every new puzzle in Ghost Trick and every new case in Ace Attorney. Ghost Trick is every bit as compelling and brain-jangling as those legal thrillers, and with the confines of the courtroom swapped out for Ghost Trick’s immaculately laid out escape rooms, it feels like Takumi and co. were firing on all cylinders with each devious new trap they cooked up.
What’s most impressive about Ghost Trick is how it pulls off being a mystery that successfully makes you feel smart. Every puzzle can feel truly inscrutable at first, or, sometimes more bafflingly, the solution can seem extremely simple – I just need to get to this object here, or I just need to stop this thing from hitting that thing – and the mystery comes from deducing exactly how to make the obvious solution come to pass. Yet no matter how stumped I was (and I’m no Sherlock – heck, I’m not even Lestrade), when I finally scraped my neurons together to figure out the solution, it never felt cheap or unreasonable. I earned every success I got here, and each new solution felt like a genuine eureka moment.
The nature of Ghost Trick’s innovative problem-solving likewise extends to its twisty-turny plot. Even when events take some truly wild and unexpected turns, the developments never feel cheap, unearned, or deceitful. Rather, Ghost Trick’s narrative rhythms feel like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat, then calmly explaining how they did so by drawing a diagram, then flourishing and turning that very same diagram into a bouquet of flowers – there’s a cycle of surprise, explanation, and further surprise that continually builds until the game’s final reveal, with consistent panache.
If there’s anything to knock it for, some of these revelatory cutscenes can last as long as, if not longer than, the puzzles that preceded them, meaning you might finally nail a tricky sequence after untold attempts, only to have a post-puzzle conversation stretch on until you’ve lost that euphoric high you got from solving the level.
Having seen this case through to the end and witnessed every last revelation Ghost Trick has to offer, I can confidently say its reputation is well-deserved. Fiendishly clever, excellently paced, and endlessly full of surprises, Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective truly deserves its time in the spotlight.
A Steam key was provided by PR for the purposes of this review.
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Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective is a masterwork of puzzle engineering, with a fantastic cast, impeccable design, and no shortage of surprises in store.
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