A woman is in peril! Unbeknownst to her, a killer is leaning out from the shadows, murder weapon at the ready, and only one man can save the day. Just one problem—her potential savior is a ghost, invisible and intangible. Guess it's time to get creative.
That may sound like the plot to a Righteous Brothers-reviving 1990's Patrick Swayze film (which it is). It's also the plot to Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective, a much-lauded 2011 adventure game that arrived at the Apple App Store last week in fine form.
Ghost Trick was originally released early last year (in North America) for the Nintendo DS—it is published by Capcom and created by a team led by Shu Takumi, the goofy storytelling auteur behind the beloved Phoenix Wright/Ace Attorney games. It's a story-intensive puzzle/adventure game, and probably closer to Machinarium than Monkey Island. Like the Ace Attorney games, Ghost Trick made great use of the DS' touch-screen, so it is tailor-made for the iOS touch-screen. (In fact, the Ace Attorney games are also going to make their way to iOS. And there was much rejoicing.)
The game's story concerns a man named Sissel who has been murdered and finds himself floating above the crime scene, a ghost with a case of amnesia and the uncanny ability to manipulate small objects in the environment around him. Through fast thinking and some guidance from a helpful desk lamp (long story), he is able to quickly save the woman standing over his body from also being murdered. From there, the two of them form an uneasy alliance and begin a night-long odyssey to discover who he is, how and why he died, and to help her solve a sprawling, involved mystery.
Each time Sissel comes into a new room, he is limited to occupying certain items—a lamp but not a book, a glass but not a drawer—and he can only move so far in one go without latching onto a new object. As a result, traversal from point A to point B is often a puzzle unto itself. For example, to get from one place to another, he'll have to flip open a picture frame, jump up to a fan, turn the fan up so that papers begin to blow around the room, hop onto a paper, and ride it to his destination. Or, ring a bell on a table to call a waitress, then jump onto her water-pitcher to ride with her back across a restaurant.
In other sequences, Sissel jumps into the spirit of a recently-killed person and travels back in time to 4 minutes before their death, at which point he is able to make an attempt at altering their fate. If he does so, he saves the victims' life. It's all played for laughs, with a welcomely dark edge—a bit like that (criminally overlooked) TV series Pushing Daisies, actually.
The life-saving puzzles get highly Rube-Golbergian, with swinging suits of armor, floating umbrellas, and fluttering flags all conspiring to stop murderers and help Sissel save lives. For the most part, the puzzles are funny and enjoyable, but they're strictly linear and like the Ace Attorney games before them, don't allow for much experimentation or replay value.
What's nice, however, is that so far, the puzzles have been very logical, and with a bit of creative thought, I've been able to figure out how to solve them with minimal frustration. The Ace Attorney games could often toss up egregious stumpers that required insane dream-logic to solve. While Ghost Trick's puzzles often require too much trial and error, they are for the most part logical. Rather than being a pain, solving them is generally a pleasure.
But Ghost Trick's real draw is its story, and boy is it a page-turner. I have been monumentally sucked in by this game—I've played it every day after work, on the bus, and I regularly put in time before going to bed. I have missed bus stops multiple times simply because I'm enjoying myself so much. Take this as an endorsement: I've been blowing off even the highly enjoyable Resident Evil: Revelations just to play more Ghost Trick.
More so than even the best of the Ace Attorney games, Ghost Trick is like a good book—a ripping yarn that grows more and more complex as it goes. Rather than several cases, like the Ace Attorney games, Ghost Trick concerns itself with a single story, and it's much more focused and compelling as a result. I'm ten chapters in (about five or six hours, I'd say, and maybe 2/3rds of the way through the story), and not only am I enjoying myself, I have it on good (unspoiled) authority that the ending does not disappoint, so I'm very excited to see it through.
The events of the story play out over discrete periods of ten or twenty minutes on a single fateful night. There is a breathless energy to everything—A woman is in danger! A man sits on death row! A conspiracy is in play! What is really going on?—and as Sissel dives deeper and deeper into the night, it becomes all the more engrossing and compelling. Some gamers might not like Ghost Trick's focus on story—at times, you can tap through a good five minutes of dialogue before getting to anything resembling gameplay—but I didn't mind it one bit.
In addition to a good story, Ghost Trick is goddam groovy. Stephen always makes fun of me for using the word "groovy" as much as I do. It's not just a jazz-ism, I swear! In this case it is warranted—this game has style dripping out of its eyeballs. The characters are all lovingly animated, and move with a grace and finesse that is so deliberate and cool… you have to see it in action to appreciate it. The trailer here gives a sense of the aesthetic, but really, you gotta play the game—the character-illustrations, the environments, the way it all moves… there is even a restaurant called Chicken Kitchen, a.k.a. the most terrifyingly delicious eatery in the entire Miami area. And then there's the music. Oh, man, the music.
Ghost Trick is most definitely an iOS game that you'll want to play with headphones on. The soundtrack doesn't attempt the kinds of emotional highs as Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP does, but all the same, this is one of the most flat-out enjoyable video game soundtracks I've heard in quite some time.
The score was composed by Masakazu Sugimori, the composer behind the beloved-by-me music of the Ace Attorney games. Ghost Trick represents something of a departure from his past work, featuring more hyper, driving beats and more etherial, detective-show themes as well. Listen to the main theme and try not to get pumped.
Maybe the best part of all of this is that you can play the first two chapters for free. So what the heck am I even on about here? You can just go play the damn game! You'll be able to tell within the first two chapters whether this game is for you—it is, resolutely, a game that is "for me," but I acknowledge that it is not for everyone. This isn't Jetpack Joyride or Tiny Wings, this is a full-fledged narrative game, a throwback to the adventure games of yore, and it's intended for an audience that wants that kind of thing.
But if that sounds like it might be up your alley, let me tell you—it most likely is way up your alley. You can buy the later chapters in installments for $4.99 apiece, but you may as well drop the full $9.99 and get the whole game. Unlike many other iOS console ports, Ghost Trick does not feel overpriced, and equally importantly, it feels tailor-made for the iOS touch-screen. It's something special, an often-overlooked 2011 gem that deserves a second life as richly as its phantasmagoric protagonist does.
What more can I say? Play this game.
Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective [App Store]