I bought Ghost Trick with a serious misunderstanding of what I was purchasing. Based on what I had seen prior to release, my impression of Ghost Trick was that it was going to be an Incredible Machine-style puzzler, with the player setting up chain reactions of objects to achieve certain ends, and thus saving lives. As a big fan of The Incredible Machine, I was more than happy to give this a try.
When I got the game home and began to play, I quickly realized that my prior impressions were mostly, if not entirely, incorrect.
And I couldn’t have been happier.
Murder Most Foul
Ghost Trick begins with the player in a bit of a pickle: they have no memory of who they are, why they are in a junkyard, and why a strange red-headed woman is about to be gunned down in front of them. Also, most importantly, they seem to have died. Despite all these handicaps, the player’s bodiless spirit is determined to help. Fortunately, in the nick of time, another spirit shows up and informs the player that they can still slightly affect the world around them through the “powers of the dead.”
Through this, we are introduced to the basic mechanics of Ghost Trick. The player, in their ghostly state, can possess the “cores” of inanimate objects. Once occupying a core, they can then perform a “trick” to make the object do something. Possess a desk drawer and you could trigger it to open; possess a basketball and you could get it roll across the room. Some objects can’t be manipulated at all, and the player’s movement is limited to a short range between cores.
Taking advantage of these new powers, the player creates a brief window of escape for the red-headed stranger, and she makes a break for it, only to be killed anyway mere moments later.
Not to worry!
At this point, your ghostly guide introduces you to a far more powerful ability you possess: the ability to travel back in time to four minutes before a person’s death to attempt to change their fate. Unfortunately, you can’t use that power on yourself, but you can use it to help the lady in distress. Blasting back through time, the player uses their new tricks to manipulate various objects around the junkyard to, ultimately, solve the issue by dropping a several-ton wrecking ball on the gunman.
While this solves the immediate issue of saving the red-headed girl, it still does little to shed any light on who the player is, and why they are dead. It’s then that “Ray” (your spirit buddy) tells you of your final power – the ability to travel through phone lines to different locations. With this array of powers, he believes you have the tools required to find the answers you are looking for.
One catch, though: spirits cease to exist at daybreak. If you want to solve this mystery, you have to do it tonight.
It’s a Mystery!
Whereas my initial expectations for Ghost Trick were for a series of separated puzzles, each played out and solved via some mechanical manipulation of objects, what I got instead was a story. Everything that happens in the game ties back to Sissel’s (the player’s name, as you eventually discover) quest to discover who he is and why he died. All the lives you save and the puzzles you solve are to work towards this goal.
The tale of Sissel’s death is one of vengeance, murder and ill-timed (or perfectly timed) meteor impacts. The many characters Sissel encounters along the way are all memorable in their own way, and the plot itself takes enough twists and turns that it’s never boring. Ultimately, the more I played the game, the more I realized that the puzzles were, in many ways, completely secondary to the story; saving lives was interesting, but most of my tricks were being used to navigate me to different locations to learn more pieces of the mystery, or to set up situations in which I could gather more information. And, again, I was perfectly fine with this.
Ghost Trick is, in many ways, an old-fashioned adventure game. Instead of simply walking around, you manipulate cores to create paths for yourself; instead of finding the Blue Key to open up the next room, you change the Red-Headed Woman’s fate so that she walks into it for you. The goal of the game is not to get a better weapon or level up your ghost powers; it’s simply to make your way through a well-told story. Old fashioned? Perhaps, but if you’ve got a strong enough story, then you will keep your player’s interest. More importantly, the actual puzzle mechanics are integrated skillfully with the story elements, and even take advantage of them to offer some “non-standard” storytelling techniques.
Never Say Die
As far as I can tell, there is no way to lose Ghost Trick. Now, as we’ve discussed in the past, finding ways to avoid the “Game Over” screen is a noble challenge for any designer to take up, but it’s important that they do something more interesting with it than simply let the player continually start a section over and over again. In Ghost Trick, with Sissel’s ability to travel to 4 minutes before a person’s death, it doesn’t matter how many times you screw up saving someone: you can always jump back and try again. Time is your plaything, and you can spend as much time as you like working out how exactly to change a fate.
That by itself would be well and good, but the designers of Ghost Trick take an all-important extra step: failure is not simply a “try again” option; there are often pieces of information you can gain only through failing. At the most basic, there are hints as to how to solve the puzzle you get through your failures – perhaps Sissel notices that a certain object moved a way differently than was expected – but there is more to it than that. In many areas, the player has the ability to travel away from the scene of the action and explore the world nearby (or far away, in some cases). A phone call may come in mid-puzzle, giving the player the option to jump to the other end of the line or to stick around where they are. Sometimes, this jump is necessary to change a fate, but more often than not it serves instead to provide the player with another snippet of story, another morsel of information, that they couldn’t get otherwise. In the act of getting it, they’ve probably failed at their primary task, but instead of feeling like they’ve lost, they’ve actually gained a sweet reward. Failure ceases to feel like a punishment, and slipping away from gunning for instant success starts to feel like a more viable option.
Ultimately, however, the player is still driven along the path of success, and in that fashion the game is decidedly linear. Though you may slip away down a side street now and again, the game still drives you to the same destination. The puzzles do not have multiple solutions, and there is only one conclusion to the game. This is not a game with a lot of replayability beyond finding story snippets you may have missed, but the central story is strong enough to stand on its own.
You’ve Got the Look
Though this isn’t usually something I dwell upon, I would be remiss if I didn’t take some time to mention Ghost Trick‘s art. The game has some of the best 2d animation I feel like I’ve seen in a long while, with a unique style that fits the game’s story perfectly. Every character in the game has a distinct look, accompanied by an equally distinctcharacter portrait, which serves to give them all a wonderful sense of personality beyond the dialog they speak. The animation is incredibly fluid, with a huge amount of variety: characters strut, they run, they fidget and they dance (oh the dancing!) each in their own unique way. The animation brought, to my mind, memories of Out of This World, though in a far more refined fashion. I’m not sure entirely what method the artists used to create the animations (3d models converted to 2d, motion capture, etc), but it turned out wonderfully.
Additionally, the game environments themselves are richly detailed, with plenty of animations for the “trickable” objects and more than plenty of background details to look it. There is not a single place in the game that felt sparse; these were living environments, evocative of a whole world beyond the confines of the screen.
As you might have guessed, I really loved Ghost Trick. It was one of those games I found myself breaking out the DS at home to play whenever I could, which is not something I do that often. The game hooked me with its story and wonderful art style, and the more I played, the deeper I was drawn in by its quirky charm and ever-growing mystery.
The game is not without its flaws; the puzzle mechanics occasionally take a jump into situations that require quick reflexes that seem incongruous with the otherwise steady pace, and the story is, ultimately, quite linear. That being said, the clever use of “no lose” mechanics means that even a failure of reflexes is never punished heavily, and the otherwise linear story has enough twists and turns and hidden gems to stand solidly on its own.
If you’ve got a DS, I would strongly recommend picking up Ghost Trick. It’s a unique game that most developers probably would pass on these days, and it’s executed with skill and style. It’s also got the greatest Pomeranian in the history of video games, and that has to count for something.