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Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective DS Review

28/05/2011 Thinking Microcosm Gamer Review
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Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective DS

Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective




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Other GamePeople columnists have reviewed this from their perspective - huh?:
Story Gamer (DS)
Family Gamer (DS)
Teen Gamer (DS)
Tech Gamer (DS)
Reporting Gamer (DS)
Novel Gamer (DS)
Odyssey Gamer (DS)
Reluctant Gamer (DS)

Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective DS is a flamboyant mystery adventure. Although quite simple to traverse, its charismatic characters and unique concepts are engaging and memorable, raising microcosms of fate and responsibility.

The other day I walked up to a stranger and said a polite hello. Naturally, they immediately launched into an involved story about their family and business. With a conspiratorial look they pulled me aside to describe a deeply personal problem they couldn't talk to anyone else about, but maybe I could help them?

If games are to be believed this sort of thing happens all the time. You are so obviously important and trustworthy people are eager to share their life stories and seek your help. I don't mind this approach, even if it is unrealistic. It's a shortcut for replicating personal-level stories and emotions in game worlds.

Shu Takumi, of Ace Attorney fame, decided he could do better than that. With Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective he wanted to get away from an episodic format, and tell a longer story with more focus on character's personal lives. So, he took the only logical route and made the main character Sissel an amnesiac ghost.

It's a kind of madness to think supernatural shenanigans are the best way to connect with characters, but there is some method to it. Sissel himself has more mystery than personality, but being a spirit gives him access to other people's otherwise private lives.

Ghost Trick is very different to Ace Attorney's court room investigative drama, but it does share a similar exuberance and characteristically quirky characters. Rather than using motion capture, the animations were created by hand in 3D before flattening to cel-shaded 2D sprites. The result is fluidity, with the freedom to exaggerate character traits.

The lively cast is full of odd mannerisms and catch phrases -- usually subtle characteristics of people you know, but here dialled up to eleven. Somehow, in the midst of the talking desk lamps, giant chicken dinners, and dancing prison guards the writing still feels captivating and personally relevant -- particularly as the game conjures up themes of fate, hope and responsibility as I discuss below.

You are so obviously important and trustworthy people are eager to share their life stories and seek your help.

Acting like a fly on the wall feels a bit invasive, although it isn't actively malicious. Sissel's motivation is selfish -- trying to determine who he was in life and why he was killed -- but along the way he becomes an unlikely guardian angel. He has the ability to travel back in time to four minutes before each character's death and alter their fate.

He does this by manipulating objects through Ghost Tricks. These are simple poltergeist abilities, like unfolding an umbrella or banging a door. With a little careful timing and co-ordination, you can completely alter the situation, like directing a butterfly effect sequence.

Ghost Trick is completely linear and there is only ever one solution to a problem. There is also no real redundancy: if you can manipulate an object it's there for a reason. This makes it all rather easy, and careful timing is the only factor to watch out for. The puzzles aren't so simple you'll get the solution first try, but each attempt is treated more as information gathering than failure, with frequent hint dropping.

There are few enough objects to work with that you'll settle on the solution quickly enough. The goal here seems to be primarily to tell a story, rather than get bogged down in mind-bending puzzles. It keeps up the pacing, but I was disappointed with the lack of difficulty.

It's a game that wants fate to have a sense of fairness, so rather than being negatively manipulative you are setting things right. Bad things should only happen to people who deserve it. If only this had any basis in the real world.

An alluring fairy tale, where conclusions feel justified and emotionally satisfying.

What does have a basis in the real world is a pervasive concept of universal fairness. So, if something really nasty happens, it can be easier to assume the victims brought it on themselves than to accept we're all vulnerable. Even the most uncontrollable natural disaster will have its share of people calling it fair retribution for some terrible crime. It's tragic, but that's how some people feel safe in what can be an ugly world.

Ghost Trick is genuinely fair and just, in a way our world can't be. That's an alluring fairy tale, where conclusions feel justified and emotionally satisfying.

Simple stories like these can create unrealistic expectations about how the world works, but they can also give us perfect models to aspire to. Fairness exists when we choose to create it, rather than the universe handing it to us on a platter.

Maybe it feels too hard -- perhaps you're dead and only have these insignificant little Ghost Tricks. Or maybe, if you just do what you can, you'll discover every small choice matters.

Written by Amber Gilmore

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Amber Gilmore writes the Microcosm Gamer column.

"Games provide me with a diverse range of miniature worlds to explore. I'm fascinated by the myriad of ways these microcosms recreate elements of reality. Even the most fantastical or abstract games stem from real world concepts when studied under the scope. Far from being mindless escapism, playing games prompts me to reflect on the concepts presented and how they inform my outlook."

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