Review – Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective HD

Overview

Developer Capcom
Publisher Capcom
Genre Visual Novel, Puzzle
Platforms Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, Xbox Series S|X (reviewed), PC, iOS, Android
Release Date June 30, 2023

If you’ve ever played or even heard of a visual novel (VN), you’re likely familiar with the Ace Attorney franchise. Known for its wacky characters, excellent animations, and bizarre storylines, the AA franchise is sure to come up in any conversation about VNs. But what if I told you that AA creator Shu Takumi had an entirely different VN under his belt, and one that got a lot less attention than its spiky-haired, blue-suited older sibling? That game was Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective, released in 2010 on the Nintendo DS. And if that name sounds familiar, it should. We got a surprise announcement of an HD remaster earlier this year, with the official drop happening on June 30. So what does Takumi have to offer when he’s not letting us interrogate parrots and channel dead people? Turns out…he really has a thing for spiky hair, primary-colored suits, and that whole “channeling dead people” thing.

Content Guide:

Language: D*** in a few forms is used sparingly throughout. A character uses “when the devil” as an intensifier. Someone says that there will be “hell to pay.”

Violence: The game centers around death, so naturally, there’s a fair bit of violence. However, there is no blood shown, and the game usually whites out just before the moment of death as a sort of censor. Various deaths include gunshots, crushing (generally portrayed in a Looney Tunes-esque way), heart attack, explosions, execution by electric chair, and impaling. A dog gets run over by a moped. Other violent content includes a torpedo being fired at a submarine, which sinks with characters inside. We hear a mention of someone using a flamethrower. A character mentions performing an autopsy. A character requests the death penalty from his prison. In several iterations of events, a child is killed. In a flashback, a child is taken hostage, but is ultimately left unharmed.

Drug/Alcohol Use: A character has a (presumably) prescribed medication, but takes the entire bottle in a moment of distress. A character carries a glass of wine at all times and toasts frequently.

Sexual Content: A female character wears a form-fitting and somewhat sexualized suit and high heels. An author is writing what is implied to be erotic fiction, with phrases like “cell of love” and “whip of passion.”

Spiritual Content: The game centers around your character, Sissel, being dead, and being given the ability to possess and manipulate objects to save others. Sissel is a ghost, and the game plays fast and loose with the idea of death and reversing fate, including reversing deaths. Various characters mention “the gods,” both as a brief epithet and when giving credit for someone’s life being saved. A character refers to the “rock of the gods.”

SPOILER

A character is later revealed to have the ability to possess and manipulate living people.

SPOILER END

Other Negative Elements: Various police officers have a borderline creepy attachment to Lynne, a young female detective. A couple splits, with the mother taking the child and moving out. When saving people, you occasionally must kill other people who are attempting to murder your friend.

Positive Elements: Sissel has a high regard for human life, insisting upon saving the lives of everyone he can, even when he has good reason not to. He states that he’s “not going to use [their] life as a bargaining chip.” The child of a separated couple is shown to be very observant, saying she doesn’t want to be used as a pawn in her parents’ fight. A police detective expresses great remorse for needless violence in his past duty.

Review:

I’d actually heard of Ghost Trick over the years, but assumed it was one of those hidden DS gems that I’d simply missed out on and didn’t really pursue it any further. I didn’t have any idea of the game’s connection to the Ace Attorney franchise, even after I’d given Phoenix Wright’s adventures a shot. So when the HD remaster was announced earlier this year, I was shocked. A cult classic game, from the DS no less, coming out of the woodwork in a beautiful update for modern consoles? I knew I was in.

The game opens…with your death. The body of a man in a striking red suit is strewn out in a junkyard, with a redheaded girl nearby, sitting in shock. Suddenly, the screen goes red. Your soul, a lonely blue flame, appears from nowhere. As it turns out, here in Ghost Trick, death really isn’t the end; souls stick around for a while afterward. And, if they’re lucky, they’re given special “powers of the dead” that they can use to manipulate the world around them. You don’t get too much time to think, however. A hitman approaches the girl and levels a shotgun at her. Before you can say “who ya gonna call,” the girl is shot and killed. Horrifying, right? Well, thankfully for her, you’ve got powers of the dead. A voice calls out to you from the void, telling you that not only can you manipulate the world around you, but you can reverse time to 4 minutes before someone’s death. This means that you can change the circumstances around their death and stop it from ever happening in the first place. Your task now: save the redhead from the hitman.

Oh, and you’ve got amnesia. And your soul will only last until tomorrow morning. So…you’ve got a lot on your plate this evening. The voice, Ray, tells you that the only way to solve the mystery of your death and get your memory back is to unravel the mystery of this night, and you’ve got until dawn to make it happen. Thus begins your trek into the world of Ghost Trick, and boy, is it a ride and a half.

I won’t go into any more detail regarding story, because quite frankly, you need to experience it for yourself. And while that’s true for just about any visual novel (they’re called “novels” for a reason), I want to give a special warning against spoiling yourself for this game. I was hooked from the very first chapter all the way until I rolled the credits, precisely because the story kept twisting and unraveling up until the last moment. The pacing is absolutely phenomenal, giving you just enough information to keep you coming back for the next story beat without just letting you figure everything out for yourself. The game introduces new plot points and key players often enough that you never quite get your feet underneath you before it pulls the rug out from under you again. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt this engrossed in a video game story, and I was genuinely sad when the game ended. I got so attached to the world and characters that it was like saying goodbye to good friends by the end of it. If I had spoiled anything about this game beforehand, I would have lost that.

Takumi has always been known for his off-the-wall characters; you don’t even have to get past the first chapter of the first Ace Attorney game to know that. But the characters in Ghost Trick far outshine any of the ones we meet in the AA games. From the designs to the writing to the wonderful animations, every character is bursting with a polish and flair that’s in a league of its own. Special shoutout goes to Inspector Cabanela, a lanky disco detective who dances around crime scenes like it’s 1973. From his musical theme to his distinctive speech to his detailed and snappy animations, he’s by far my favorite character.

But, of course, there’s more than just a phenomenal story here. The gameplay centers around you traveling around the world as a spirit to solve the mystery of your death. You do this by jumping between “cores,” which are objects you can possess and manipulate. Since you’re a ghost, you can’t just walk around and pick things up, and you’ve got a pretty limited reach. By using your ghost tricks, you can manipulate the objects in the environment to create a path for yourself. Every environment is wonderfully detailed, and every situation is different. You’ll have to think creatively about every object you come in contact with, since they all operate differently and have different effects on the environment.

And then there’s the “4 Minutes Before Death” sections. Throughout the story, you’ll come across quite a few dead bodies. Whenever you do, you can connect to their core and talk to them in the Ghost World. This is how you get a lot of the story beats, but it’s also how you’re able to stop their death in the first place. When you connect to a core, you’re able to travel back in time to the last 4 minutes before the person’s death. You watch a replay of the whole situation, then, you’re given the opportunity to use your ghost tricks to stop the death.

Every death is a puzzle in and of itself, and they all play out differently. Sometimes you’ll be juggling different situations, and sometimes you’ll have to wait for just the right moment to activate a trick. Sometimes you’ll travel back and forth between different areas in an environment, manipulating everyone present to stop the situation. As you play, you’ll find new ways of interacting with the world that adds even more complexity. The game never gives you the same situation twice, and it’s constantly forcing you to think about puzzles in a new way. Just when you think you’ve got a handle on the way the game works, it throws a new angle at you. The pacing of these mechanics even matches the pacing of the story; as the story grows more complex and confusing, the death situations get more and more convoluted, even involving a literal Rube Goldberg machine at one point.

The only time I felt that the gameplay worked against itself was in one particular chapter. You need to guide a character out of a room without being caught, and you have to time every trick perfectly. Instead of giving me time to figure out what to do, I was forced to set up perfectly timed traps to make a way, and, because Sissel’s reach is so small, half the time I couldn’t actually get where I need to get in time before the window had shut. It’s only one chapter of the game, so it’s not a huge downer, but it was frustrating nonetheless.

One other complaint I have has less to do with the gameplay and more to do with how the UI interacts with the gameplay. Takumi games have a tendency to use flashing lights and screen shakes for emphasis. In the Ace Attorney trilogy on Switch, you have the option to turn these features off, but Ghost Trick doesn’t have anything like this. And every time you enter the Ghost World to swap between cores, the screen flashes and shakes. Most of the time, this is fine, but in some of the later chapters, you need to swap back and forth between the physical world and the Ghost World a few dozen times, and you need to do it fast before the person dies. This means that the screen is flashing and shaking more often than it’s still, and it started to hurt my eyes after a while. I would have appreciated the option to turn it off.

Everything I’ve said so far applies to the original game’s design and writing, but what is it about this remaster that makes it so special? As I mentioned before, the original release was on the DS, which means the graphical quality was something more akin to a TV covered in sand than anything resembling high definition. An HD remake is exactly what this game needed. It takes the grainy models and illustrations from the original and renders them in a beautiful cel-shaded artstyle that pops on modern TVs. Every environment is wonderfully detailed, and you even unlock the backgrounds as concept art as you complete each chapter. The animations in the original were impressive for the time, but now that you’re able to view them on a screen bigger than a credit card, you can really appreciate the time that went into stylizing this game.

The music has even been completely re-arranged. The original soundtrack, by Ace Attorney composer Mazakasu Sugimori, is absolutely phenomenal, with every track having its own flair and feel that fits the situations perfectly. However, given its original release on the DS, the original version is bit-crushed to smithereens. The new re-arrangements allow the compositions to shine in all their original glory, with sharper percussion, more fleshed-out instrumentations, and overall higher quality, without changing too much to lose the original’s spirit. And, if you’re feeling nostalgic, you can switch the music over to the original recordings at any time.

Conclusion

Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective is a forgotten masterpiece, and I don’t say that lightly. The story’s pacing is phenomenal, its characters are fun and memorable, the themes are deep and touching, and the gameplay is addicting and unpredictable. The entire experience is a masterclass in game direction, with every element contributing to a cohesive and intriguing final product. And, at a reasonable 12 hours for the main story, the game does what it needs to do and doesn’t overstay its welcome. It’s not often that I can say a game left me wanting more and mean it in a good way, but that is certainly the case here. I loved the story I got, but I just wanted to hang out with the characters more afterward.

If you haven’t played Ghost Trick, you owe it to yourself to give it a shot. It comes with my highest recommendation. The story is engaging and gripping enough to pull in players that aren’t already fans of the genre, and the fun characters and addicting gameplay loop will keep you hooked until the credits roll. This HD remaster is exactly what the title needed, bringing new life to a title that had been murdered by the passage of time and letting it roam the land of the living once more.

The Bottom Line

 

Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective is a masterclass in storytelling and design, with an engaging and twisting plot that is backed up in every way by engaging and evolving gameplay.

 

9.5

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Wesley Lantz

Wesley's first memory of video games is playing through Super Mario World with his mom when he was 3 years old. Since then, he's been a classic Nintendo kid, but has branched out to the far lands of PlayStation in recent years. He enjoys the worlds that video games create and share with their audiences, and the way video games bring together collaborators from so many different disciplines like music, visual art, literature, and even philosophy. He is an advocate for excellency in all things, but isn't immune to a few guilty pleasure games, which may or may not include Disney's Party for the GameCube.

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