Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective review: Dead and loving it

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A pill bottle is knocked off of a table, and you have to get it back within the reach of the man in the throes of what appears to be the thrashing precursor to a heart attack. It would be easy to pick it up and walk it over to his desk, except you don't have any legs. Or hands. Because you're dead. Luckily, you've been given the mysterious power to inhabit and manipulate inanimate objects. And so what would be easy for a living person, but impossible for, you know, a corpse, becomes merely ridiculous, as you jump from decorative armor to curtain rod to urn, tweaking every variable to create the perfect chain reaction in order to get that pill bottle where it needs to be.

That's Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective. It turns fetching a bottle into just as heroic an effort as preventing a hitman from reaching his target. And I don't think I've had a better time doing either elsewhere.%Gallery-109469%Sissel wakes up in a junkyard as a roaming spirit with no memories, in front of a stylishly dressed body he deduces to be his. With the intervention of another ghost inhabiting a nearby desk lamp, he learns that he has two abilities: first, he can move between objects and interact with them, and second, he can go back in time to four minutes before the death of any nearby person. Using these skills (and the very handy ability to travel through telephone lines), Sissel sets out to learn who he was and solve his own murder, preventing several others along the way.

In each of nineteen chapters, Sissel has to navigate a (thankfully) cluttered environment, first in an exploratory capacity, and then, faced with the four-minute countdown clock, to effect the changes required to prevent death. Sissel can re-rewind time as often as he'd like, and Ghost Trick includes a "checkpoint" of sorts whenever he manages to change the victim's fate a little, so the game allows for a lot of trial and error. Did you accidentally spin the globe off the shelf the wrong way? Did the umbrella drop too early? You can try it again. With the knowledge that you can eventually figure out where you're going, Capcom was free to make some pretty devious puzzles. Most of them can be figured out fairly easily, but there are a few that I didn't even understand until I'd performed half the steps. Part of the fun was in seeing just what I had been setting up.

Ghost Trick combines this puzzle gameplay with a complex, layered storyline. If you've played any of the Phoenix Wright games, which were written by Ghost Trick director Shu Takumi, you'll pretty much know what to expect: flamboyant, bigger-than-life characters, all connected by mysterious unsolved crimes, involved in a story too full of insane twists to predict. It's only fair to have some deus ex machina elements in a story about spirits entering machines, right?

But without the hours of dialogue afforded by Ace Attorney's courtroom scenes, we have less time to learn about everyone's quirks -- though, to be sure, Ghost Trick is more dialogue-heavy than you'd expect a puzzle game to be -- or, for that matter, a game starring a dead person. Ghost Trick solves the issue of characterization in two ways: first, by turning up the volume on everyone, making them even more showy and outrageous than anyone from the previous games, and second, by imbuing each character with a unique physical presence thanks to the best 2D animation I've ever seen in a video game. Everyone has a wonderful theatricality to their movements, from the detective who dances into every scene, to the writer who lifts her wine glass to every event, to the man with the Fred Sanford-style heart problems. It's only fitting, given the unusual care put into highlighting the characters' movements, that the game makes liberal use of theatrical spotlights for stylistic effect.

Another similarity between Ghost Trick and the Ace Attorney games: upon completing Ghost Trick, I was immediately saddened to be unable to play it again (for a while, at least). Despite the more freeform appearance, Ghost Trick is actually every bit as linear as its text-adventure predecessors. There appeared to be only one way to solve each puzzle, so after all the plot points unwind themselves, and all the solutions to the puzzles are revealed, you'd just be going through the motions if you go back into the world. I'm kind of hoping I can lose my memories of the game over time, like Sissel lost the memories of his life, so I can play it a second time.

This review is based on a retail copy of Ghost Trick provided by Capcom.
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