Ghost Trick Phantom Detective: The First Hour Review

Originally, I missed this release when it came out in 2011, but thanks to Capcom’s spree of remastering, remaking, and re-releasing some of their all-time greats, I was able to jump in and play the new-to-me Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective. For the unfamiliar, Capcom describes Ghost Trick Phantom Detective as a “supernatural puzzle-solving thriller.” I was originally struggling to figure out how to describe this game, and frankly, that sums it up pretty well. You play as the charismatic Sissel, whose origins are initially obscured. Ghost Trick tasks you with solving a series of puzzles to complete various scenarios that slowly unravel the mystery surrounding your own death. That’s right, you’re dead, and it’s up to you to use your Ghost powers to navigate and manipulate inanimate objects to solve puzzles, save lives, prevent deaths, and figure out just what’s going on and why you’re dead. Right off the bat, that struck me as a unique story concept. We don’t get many games like that, so I was intrigued as I booted it up. As I tend to do, I gave myself an hour to play Ghost Trick Phantom Detective, and here’s what I think of it.

Ghost Trick wastes no time making a good first impression. From a number of perspectives, this game demonstrates that its developers know exactly what they’re doing. From the way the story is presented to the intricacies of the level design, to the character personalities, this game knows what it wants to achieve and is expertly crafted to immerse you. Take the tutorial as an example. By now, we’re all used to the “this is the Tutorial Level” feeling. The feeling that you’re not really expecting to get much story and a character points out buttons or features that don’t make sense inside of a game. It’s the feeling that the game is talking to you, the player, not to the characters within the game. Ghost Trick is aware of that and mitigates that feeling pretty well by seamlessly blending its controls with its story. I felt like I was watching a conversation between two characters that was simultaneously informing me (the player) and Sissel of what was going on and how to interact with the game. This type of writing is superb, as in the context of the game, it all makes sense. Sissel has just discovered that he’s dead, and at the start of the game, he has no idea what he’s supposed to do as a dead guy. Similarly, you as a player have no idea how to interact with this game you just picked up, so the feeling that you the player and the character are both learning how to interact with the game just works on a level that other games either don’t do or don’t make an effort to attempt.

Source: Capcom

That leads me into a bit of the characters. Normally, I’m not into text-based games, for the simple fact that I think a lot of the ones I’ve played have poorly written characters or stories. Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective is not among those. The writing in this game is great; it gives each of the characters their own personalities. From a Desk Lamp named Ray who serves as your guide in the opening minutes to an overly excited Pomeranian to the villains, each of them is distinct in their writing and the text presentation. Blended with the game’s lighthearted humor, these characters are interesting, even down to the seemingly disposable henchmen. Besides the writing, these characters are wonderfully animated. The way the characters interact with the world is so smooth and uniquely detailed, blending the individual personalities of the characters with the actions they’re doing in the world. Where some games may have “canned” animations that play out across the entire game (think kicking a chest open in another game), Ghost Trick presents you with bespoke levels that seemingly all have their own animations, and that leads to each character feeling unique with how they operate within the space they’re occupying.

From a story perspective, I may as well also talk gameplay because during my time with the game, I found the two to blend extremely well. Let me back up a second and give the example of Final Fantasy XVI: the gameplay felt disjointed from the story. While it was fun gameplay, it was like “do battle until you get to the next story point.” Yes, they’re very different games, but having disjointed story and gameplay isn’t a genre specific issue. In Ghost Trick Phantom Detective, I didn’t have that feeling. The game’s story is divided into chapters, which are essentially smaller scenarios that you need to solve. Solving those puzzles directly moves the story. For example, prevent the red-haired girl from being murdered by a hitman. Within that scenario are several smaller puzzles. This could be as simple as figuring out how to move across the level, and doing so causes the scenario to progress. Like moving from your dead body to a road barrier causes the story to move, then interacting with (or “tricking”) the road barrier further causes something to happen in the story.

The best way I can think to describe this integration of story and gameplay is that it just “flows” really well. It’s not like “solve X number of puzzles,” and the camera will pan over to a door that flings open. Ghost Trick’s scenarios and chapters progress and evolve as you move through them and solve the little puzzles throughout, offering up little tidbits of the story within the scenario itself and the overarching story. If there’s one place that this game shows its age, it’s in the way you transition between levels. The scenarios I witnessed have you travel by way of telephone wire to a new location. In the context of the story, it works, but if this game had just released today, given its seemingly modern setting, people might consider “landline telephones” to be a little out of place. However, armed with the knowledge that this is based on 13-year-old source material, it’s passable and does the genre service (considering noir-style detective thrillers often had at least one phone booth scene or rotary phone in them). Either way, my first impressions left me feeling like this game knows how to balance its story, and I found myself sucked into it more than I thought I would be.

Source: Capcom

Part of being sucked into this world is the world itself. I’ve touched on how the characters are all interesting, with their own personalities, and that extends to the game world and levels themselves. From what I’ve seen, each of the spaces is unique and seems to reflect the mood or personality of the people that inhabit them. From dark and gritty junkyards to lavish high-tech villain spaces, each level looks and feels cohesive. I found that in the context of the game, I didn’t have to suspend too much disbelief or question “why is that the way it is?” very often. I think this is simply because the game is very self-aware; it’s silly and knows that that is part of its charm, so it doesn’t really need to explain some of its quirks because that’s just how the game is. That’s blatantly laid out in the tutorial for one mechanic where Sissel asks why he can’t do something, and the narrator just says something to the effect of “You’re dead, it doesn’t need to make sense,” and that totally works for me. That strikes me as something that you only do in a game if you’re confident in what you’re presenting, and Ghost Trick absolutely nails it.

Source: Capcom

To speak to some of the game’s negatives, we really have to get into the nitpicky territory to find a ton of them. For me, the movement seemed almost a little too responsive at times, but given the game’s requirement to time movements occasionally, I’d rather have the game be overly responsive than under respond to input. While on modern platforms now, it does clearly have the Nintendo DS vibe of being rather simple in terms of audio. That’s really about it for me. When looking at technical details for games, I think it’s important to rate them in terms of the presentation that they’re trying to put forward, and technically speaking, there’s really not much to complain about here, other than maybe the Switch version dropping frames here and there, but that’s the Switch for you.

To sum this all up, my time with Ghost Trick Phantom Detective was surprisingly good. Its story, characters, world, flow, and gameplay are all well-executed. It has its own identity in a way that’s hard to describe, but if you play it, you’ll know what I mean. As someone who didn’t really enjoy using a Nintendo DS, I think bringing this title to modern platforms really gives it a new lease on life (no pun intended), allowing players like myself to experience this great story on the hardware of their choosing. Coupled with the discounted price tag of $29.99 USD, I have absolutely no regrets with purchasing or recommending this game. Even for “on the fence” gamers, you can grab the Ghost Trick demo to try before you buy. After the first hour with Ghost Trick, I had to force myself to stop playing it to wrap up my thoughts, and frankly, with this review model, that’s exactly what I’m looking for in a game. I want to not feel like I’m wasting my time and feel like there’s a reason to keep playing. If a game can command my attention and interest and demonstrate that there are hours of enjoyment to be had, I’m all for it, and Ghost Trick absolutely does just that. It’s for those reasons that I think Ghost Trick Phantom Detective is absolutely worth your time.

About the game:
Ghost Trick Phantom Detective
Release Date: January 11, 2011 (Nintendo DS), February 2, 2012 (iOS), June 30, 2023 (PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PC (Steam))
Developer: Capcom
Publisher: Capcom

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Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective

9

Ghost Trick Phantom Detective’s colorful characters, engaging puzzles, and story all make this re-release well worth both the price and time needed to see it through to completion.

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