Monday, 5 September 2011

Review - Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective (Nintendo DS)

Capcom's Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective begins by posing a question to its player. This question, which may be familiar to the mystery fan - and which is possibly in danger of becoming rather clich├ęd - is, Who Am I? The player is therefore immediately confronted with the basic plot strand of the game, yet Ghost Trick is not about to give you just one vague mystery to solve. In fact the game continues to pile mystery upon mystery even to the very end, and it is truly a testament to the writers of the game that it holds together so impeccably well. Because, while Ghost Trick may open with a generic question, it is the game's concise and entertaining narrative which drives the player on through till the very end.  
There are certainly traces in Ghost Trick of lead developer Shu Takumi's previous work on the Ace Attorney Series, but here the plot is even more refined and though not always completely water-tight, its few holes are forgiven due to the charismatic and eccentric characters who populate this mystery, as well as the beautiful presentation of the game as a whole. It is best not to delve too deep into the plot for the moment (I really wouldn't want to spoil the game). Suffice it to say that the myriad plot twists rival Shyamalan at his best, yet remain pleasingly believable in the game's rather bizarre universe.

This universe itself is immediately striking for its visual beauty. Backgrounds are colourful and bold, while character animation is remarkably smooth - especially as, according to Takumi, they were all initially animated using 2D sprites, without the use of motion capture. Characters move about with stunning fluidity and this smooth animation is further used to the advantage of characterisation. The often absurd characters express themselves with their movements as if they had no other way, strutting around the screen or dancing in panic - the animation beautifully serves the game's comedic tendencies and in turn realises the characters as unique, if slightly unhinged, individuals.

Expect lots of dancing
 If my review so far has focused on the visual side of Ghost Trick it is not to do a disservice to the gameplay. However, if we are to find fault with Ghost Trick it is perhaps here that we will find it. It is worth noting first that Ghost Trick's gameplay is still pretty unique. You play the role of a disembodied spirit who has the ability to possess and manipulate objects as well as travelling through time. You move about the game's various locations by jumping from one object to the next and solving puzzles by manipulating these objects to cause or prevent events from happening. The puzzles usually involve either finding 'paths' across locations or using the right object at the right time. This is further broken down into non-timed puzzles and timed puzzles.

The timed puzzles occur when you use your other 'ghost trick' - the ever helpful ability to save someone's life by travelling to the brief moment before their death. These sections reveal the game at its puzzling best. Making you work to a time limit gives the proceedings an urgency not usually seen in puzzle games. Equal parts observation, intuition and good timing, these puzzles are incredibly satisfying when you get them right, yet can often become frustrating if you miss something. This is perhaps the problem with Ghost Trick's gameplay, it can sometimes feel altogether too reliant on trial and error. You may find yourself replaying a puzzle over and over again, just trying to get the timing of an action right or flicking about on screen unaware that you've completely missed an action necessary to completing the puzzle. I didn't find this too much of a problem, but it was the main source of frustration in the game.

Also, while there are two primary forms of puzzle, there is perhaps an issue with repetition. There are inspired moments in the game where puzzles become utterly unique (one stealth section stands out as well as a brief puzzle in which you have to disarm a torpedo) but these are relatively brief and don't crop up nearly enough. Instead the puzzles are usually a case of doing what you learn to do best - which is not to say the usual puzzles in the game aren't compelling, it's just that a tad more variety wouldn't go amiss.

Despite these criticisms it is hard not to recommend Ghost Trick. If the puzzles are at times frustrating or repetitive it is not to the detriment of the whole gaming experience. For one thing, when have you ever played a game that didn't have a little frustration somewhere along the way? Ghost Trick's overall excellence allows us to overlook these small problems. It is a game unique in both gameplay and presentation. With remarkably smooth character animation and beautiful background locations, the game allows its unique puzzles and mechanics to be nestled in a striking gorgeous world. The story is also excellent and is perhaps the most compelling I've seen this year. At times it travels at breakneck speed and delivers one shocking revelation after another, yet it never feels utterly ridiculous (though it does get pretty close) and maintains its eccentricities wonderfully. Ghost Trick is not just one of the best puzzle games I've played this year, it’s one of the best games full stop. An absolute gem!

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