We all know that the visual novel does not enjoy the same level of success abroad as it does in Japan. Maybe it’s because we would rather be mindlessly shooting zombies, robots, and terrorists. Critical thinking, logic puzzles, and most importantly, reading, are not strong sells for the mass world market.
Nintendo set out to change this perception on the original Nintendo DS with an early showing of games from the genre like Trace Memory, Touch Detective, and Trauma Center, all titles that revolve heavily around a narrative with various puzzle and precision mechanics to provide actual gameplay to the experience.
Most games were met with varying degrees of success, but there is no question which series ended up on top. Level 5’s Professor Layton puzzle series became an important staple of the Nintendo DS’s library.
However, an even earlier critical success story came from Capcom, who ported the previously Japan-exclusive Game Boy Advance series Gyakuten Saiban to American shores. That’s when Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney was bestowed upon the unsuspecting Western audiences.
After porting the three original games to the DS and creating a legitimate DS sequel, Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney, series creator Shu Takumi took a quick break from releasing new games before re-emerging onto the scene in 2010 with another original title. After years of writing comedic videos games about solving murders, he claimed to have felt inspired to create a game about preventing them from occurring in the first place.
Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective was born.
Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective stars super cool Sissel, a man with no memory of how he was murdered and a penchant for sunglasses and slick red suits. He awakens on a murder scene, his own, and finds a damsel in distress at the wrong end of a shotgun belonging to his presumed murderer.
Desperate to help the lady, he learns he can manipulate time to travel back four minutes before any being’s death and reorder objects to help change their fate.
His brief encounter with the young woman and a mysterious talking lamp named Ray set him on a one night journey to discover his identity and unravel a conspiracy with international repercussions. He has until dawn before his spirit vanishes, so he must act quickly if he wants all the answers before his time is up.
Sissel’s mission takes him through a handful of wonderful scenarios in which he must save the lives of the colorful friends he makes along the way. The Ace Attorney series has never been shy of creating some outlandish characters, and Shu Takumi carries this talent over brilliantly to Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective.
Before the night is through, Sissel will have befriended an entire cast of weirdos who are all somehow wrapped up in the same mysterious murder case. Their path might not always make sense, though, as some Japanese mystery stories have a weakness of ignoring sense and simple logic.
The slow build up and proper care given to each individual in the story peaks at a twist ending that nobody will see coming. It’s so good that it will seem like Takumi and his writers are cheating the audience at first, but Sissel and his actions prove brilliantly true after further thought.
Tilt This Thing Here, Put This Here, Burn This…
Visual novels are nothing more than stories without gameplay, so Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective also adds a genius level of puzzle solving along the way. Sissel obtains the ability to travel through phone lines between chapters, and more often than not, one of his friends will be dead on his arrival at the scene.
He uses his ghostly powers to rewind time, and see how the murder takes place. Players will have to pay close attention to sometimes even the slightest detail to make something happen that will change the outcome.
Rube Goldberg machines created with random objects in the environment play a huge part in preventing deaths, and Sissel’s limited range of jumping between objects will leave him looking for alternative paths to an important puzzle piece.
Other instances of world manipulation have Sissel aiding his friends in escaping dangerous situations or simply getting their attention as he is invisible and needs to create commotion to be noticed.
The trial and error formula can be a bit grating for those who just want to continue with the story. The game provides only vague hints from the dialogue on how best to proceed with a challenging puzzle. None are difficult enough to require reading a walkthrough, but some of the more difficult ones towards the end might prove challenging enough to require a runthrough a handful of times.
Luckily, Ghost Trick provides checkpoints for some puzzles, but does not have an option to skip already seen dialogue.
Classic Presentation Methods Made Modern
The intricate Rube Goldbergs and characters benefit greatly from perfectly animated sprites. The timing needed for some puzzles would not be possible with simple sprites, so Takumi’s team went out of their way to create some brilliant and freakishly realistic movement using a classic method of animation called “rotoscoping,” in which artists draw over actual actors.
It’s the same technique used in classic games like the first Prince of Persia, just taken to a whole new level.
The game’s soundtrack also screams of classic Capcom. Capcom’s composers have always had a special knack for using music to intensify situations. The Ace Attorney series relied heavily on musical cues and quick editing to create tension in the story, and while Ghost Trick might not reach the emotional heights of a solid Phoenix Wright story, its music is reminiscent of the best songs Capcom has ever produced, dating all the way back to the NES.
Future of Shu Takumi and The Visual Novel
It’s hard to say where the future of the visual novel lies. Chunsoft has their Virtue’s Last Reward series running hot and Capcom is gearing up for another Phoenix Wright game, without the involvement of Shu Takumi mind you. The 3DS will most likely carry the burning torch even further than the original possibly could.
The genre is blowing up on the iOS and Google Play markets as well, and classic PC point-and-click adventures are back in style with the ease of digital distribution and expanding indie market. It’s an exciting time to be a fan of the genre.
Where does Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective fit into this whole equation? It’s not a game changer or anything revolutionary by any means. It’s just a really solid one-shot showing from a game designer who is quietly becoming one of the freshest and most brilliant minds at the ailing Capcom, a company in need of top of the line game directors again.
Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective is available on both the DS and iOS marketplace, but stick to the DS version. Capcom advertises Ghost Trick as free for iOS, but every chapter after the first two will have to be paid for individually. Just find a cheap DS copy on Amazon or eBay and pay for your entertainment up front. Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective is worth every penny.
Disclaimer: We bought Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective with our own funds and played the story mode to completion before writing this review.