Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective

I think text adventure games might be starting to grow on me. It’s nice to be able to settle back during down times and enjoy some good, humorous writing accompanied by an entertaining cast of characters and some light gameplay. After finishing Trials and Tribulations, I heard about Ghost Trick. And my interest was piqued. Ghost Trick is a DS game, from the same mind that created the Ace Attorney series, Takumi Shu. And it shows, in many ways.

Like any Ace Attorney game, the game features a convoluted story filled with twists, turns and secrets. The immediate plot--which stretches over the course of a single fateful night--begins with Sissel, who has come to realize that he is in a bit of a predicament. He’s dead, you see. Not only that, he can’t remember why or how he perished. Or even why his consciousness still exists. Really Sissel can’t remember anything at all. To make matters worse, the only person who might have some insight as to how he kicked the bucket--a young woman we later learn is named Lynne--is currently being held at gunpoint herself by a hitman. See? He’s in a bit of a pickle.

But all is not lost, as is soon pointed out to Sissel; he’s been given special powers. These abilities, known as Ghost Tricks, let Sissel possess various nearby objects and manipulate them to varying effects. For example, Sissel can possess a nearby guitar and strum it to spook Lynne’s hitman, distracting him just long enough for her to attempt to make a break for it. In this case, it changes her fate only slightly, however, as the hitman soon catches her once more, and this time he manages to kill her. And this is when we’re introduced to another of Sissel’s abilities. Though he can’t manipulate corpses, by interacting with one he has the option of rewinding time to exactly four minutes before that person’s death, with the aim of altering their fate.

This is where the heart of Ghost Trick’s gameplay is. Many times throughout the game, you’ll witness the death of important individuals, only to rewind time. You’ll then have a limited amount of time to use your Ghost Tricks to somehow prevent the person’s death from happening, before the tragic event simply repeats itself. In Lynne’s case, after distracting the hitman a couple more times, I was able to goad the hitman into standing in just the right place to get squashed by a wrecking ball dropped when I possessed the overhead crane (the game’s prologue takes place in a junkyard). And thus Lynne’s fate is changed for the better. For the people he saves, Sissel’s Ghost Tricks are not without side effects, though. After dying once and having access to the Ghost World (where time stands still), characters gain the ability to mentally communicate with ghosts--namely, Sissel. Furthermore, even though they’re alive, they still remember the experience of their death.

With Lynne saved, after establishing that she is clearly connected in some way to Sissel’s death, the two decide to work together. Thus Sissel embarks on a long, bumpy road to figure out who killed him, and why. The story will take you to something like a dozen a different locations, and you’ll have run into over thirty characters by the time Sissel’s journey has reached its end. Some of them are more integral to the story than others, but rest assured you’ll end up changing the fates of each and every one of them. And because this is a game from the same mind that spawned the Ace Attorney series, you can expect each character to have their quirks. For example, Lynne dies so many times in the story that it becomes a bit of a running gag, with her more or less waiving away each death without batting an eyelash. Her mentor figure of sorts, Inspector Cabanela always arrives on the scene with a hop and a skip, finishing with a pirouette and a flashy dance step. The Justice Minister is a squirrelly, distressed man prone to heart attacks, while his wife, who has temporarily left him due him not succumbing to her demands makes her livelihood writing trashy romance novels. Always seen with a full wine glass in hand, she will toast to anything she deems fit. Sissel himself sports a gel’ed up hairdo, and his lack of any memory of his life in the human is sometimes used to comical effect.

As a ghost, Sissel has only two forms of movement. He can move through areas by moving from one object to the next, but can also travel greater distances by moving between the phone lines. By possessing a phone while somebody is using it, Sissel can also not only listen in on their conversation, but also trace the number of the person on the other line, thereby opening up a new area to explore. There are limitations, however. Sissel can only possess objects that are within his fairly short reach. He can only use the phone lines to travel when the lines are active, and only to phones whose numbers he has traced.

Despite the apparent freedom that being able to visit most places you have unlocked anytime you have access to a phone grants, Ghost Trick is actually quite linear; almost restrictively so. There are only certain items you can possess, and even fewer that you can manipulate. There is definitely a very arbitrary limit to what can and can’t be done with Sissel’s Ghost Tricks. Despite what the concept of being able to manipulate many things in an area to change a given situation might imply, there’s only one solution for virtually every predicament presented to you. The challenge then, is not figuring out what to use, but when to use them. Timing is a key aspect of Ghost Trick. Certain objects must be activated in a specific order, and at specific times, forming a carefully orchestrated Rube Goldberg-esque sequence of events. Understandably, this will sometimes require a lot of trial and error; luckily, Sissel can rewind time and return to the four minute mark as many times as necessary until you get it right, with no penalty.

Ghost Trick’s writing, characters and story are all very intriguing and very entertaining, but what really caught my eye as I got acquainted with the game were its visuals. During dialogue, characters are represented by portraits, just like in most other text adventures (such as the Ace Attorney games); and visual novels, for that matter. The art style distinguishes itself from the crowd, however, by being extremely sharply drawn, and well defined. Better still is the animation. I can’t quite place my finger on what makes the simple fluidity of the characters’ movements so visually appealing, but it’s not something you see often in a 2D game.

As a text adventure, Ghost Trick’s audio is understandably the smallest part of the package. The character’s aren’t voiced, and there it feels like the soundtrack is composed of a mere handful of BGMs. It’s a good thing, then, that each of the tracks are pretty good listens, and manage to complement whatever situation they play under nicely.

Ghost Trick is, overall, a very good game. The premise--a protagonist who is already dead--is fascinating enough to drawn you in, but it’s the sustained variety that will keep you going. New recurring characters are introduced on a frequent basis, and it’s never long before the game is sending you to a new location. Sure, you revisit places as well, but you never feel like your backtracking or seeing recycled content. The plot quickly snowballs into quite a tangle of events, but I’ve gotten used to that. All things considered--there are some tropes introduced into the plot later in the game that have historically been very difficult to pull off without leaving the reader behind--the story actually ties together pretty well. The one true flaw to the is its overall lack of replay value. The story is pretty meaty, featuring about 18 chapters, but the single solution approach to each puzzle means that once you’ve figured them out the first time, you’ll at least have a pretty good idea of how to progress during subsequent playthroughs. 8.0/10

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