GHOST TRICK: PHANTOM DETECTIVE is a videogame developed and published by Capcom for the Nintendo DS. It was directed by SHU TAKUMI.

Ghost Trick was a game I purchased mainly because of its cover. It is pleasantly odd and unique. Instead of your average collage of floating heads or the game’s protagonist posing menacingly just to show you how much of a badass he or she is, the focal point of Ghost Trick‘s cover is a lifeless body in a flaming red suit, with his body slumped over at the shoulders and his buttocks facing the Almighty. This dead body, posed in a comical and somewhat pathetic fashion, is the central point of interest of the picture, his red figure greatly opposing with the generic shadowy town and debris at the background. For the Japanese cover, this is made even more obvious by removing all but the dead body – and, while at it, adding a spotlight illuminating it. The cover I’ve purchased shows the phantom of this dead body rising from this miserable body. With more sober colors, it stands so proud, cool and confident we barely notice his bizarre hairstyle. The contrast is glaring and incredibly effective in conveying the game’s premise: death is too trite an obstacle to stop you.

Shu Takumi certainly seems to think this way. His most famous creation, Phoenix Wright from Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, often had to deal with the interferences of the deceased in order to find the truth. Here, however, it is the deceased who has to deal with the shenanigans of the living, who still keep that annoying habit of dying, in order to uncover that truth.

We play as the disembodied spirit of Sissel, the mixture of Valentino and Johnny Bravo whose body is featured on the game’s cover. Killed on the outskirts of town, he awakens without a memory (insert your recycled complaint or snarky comment about the convenient amnesia cliché here) and is told that he has only one day to find out who he is, why he died and who killed him before tomorrow comes and his soul vanishes. The living cannot see Sissel, nor talk to him. His only means of interaction with them is by possessing and manipulating objects, which would be a rather useless ghost trick had the people who might lead to the answers he is looking for not be constant targets of accidents, crimes committed by a sinister group of blue-faced villains and even destiny itself. By aiding these people, Sissel gets help and information that will move him closer to his goal.

So what happens is this: these people will die and you have to return 4 minutes before their deaths in order to manipulate objects in order to save them. If you don’t… well, in that case you will rewind time and try again, this time with the knowledge you’ve acquired from your last attempt. It’s like The Butterfly Effect, but without Kelso’s hammy acting.

Now, if you were reading this review at, say, Gamespot, the reviewer would keep things moving along. Not me, though. I’m still stuck at that last paragraph. Four minutes? Why four minutes? It’s the kind of arbitrary concept that has Takumi’s signature all over it. Much like Apollo Justice’s Perceive System and Phoenix Wright’s Psyche Locks (why can I only use those VERY USEFUL powers only when the game says so?), these four minutes are determined for the convenience of the screenplay. It’s a swell screenplay, mind you. Even with the occasional paradoxes that come with the time-travelling agenda and one very glaring (and annoying) plot hole. Takumi’s games are littered with lovable idiosyncrasies – but more and more I sense these idiosyncrasies are preventing him from being a great director instead of a great genre director.

And as far as adventure games are concerned, Ghost Trick is certainly the game to get. It’s certainly a genre great game.

The most easily recognizable characteristic of a Takumi game is its cast. Just like you know you are watching a Tarantino movie when it contains Samuel L. Jackson, Harvey Keitel and bare feet, you know you are in a Takumi game when all the characters, even the prison guards, are eccentric loonies with comical nervous habits – except for your main character, who is as bland as it comes (though perhaps one can blame that not-so-convenient-anymore amnesia for that), despite wearing pointy hairdos, smart and boldly colored suits and, in Sissel’s case, sunglass all the time. There is also the Takumi’s quintessential Takumi’s muse, Lynne. She plays the part Maya Fey and Trucy Wright played on his previous games: that spunky and often very excitable girl, who seems incredibly naive but is secretly filled with the wisdom gained from some trauma. Yet, two characters managed to steal the game’s spotlight early on never to return again.

Ghost Trick received significant praise for it...

The first one is Inspector Cabanela, the lovely lanky dancing man! If you read anywhere about Ghost Trick’s mesmerizing character animations, which achieved by designing them with 3D polygons and then rendering these polygons and all the motions into 2D sprites, it’s about Cabalena they were talking about. Cabanela moves like butter and so does his lines, which hold enough ambiguity to be taken as overtly sweet or oddly menacing. The second one is Missile, a dog so cute it deserves a new word to be created just to describe how adorable he is. Blooby-blooby.

Together with always engaging and sometimes endearing characters, another Takumi mark is the presence of a soundtrack signed by Masakazu Sugimori – whose work usually outlive the games they are from. Sugimori’s music is always designed with a specific mood or character in mind. Maybe that’s the reason why the characters in Ghost Trick end up being defined more by their musical themes than,  perhaps, by Takumi’s own writing.

These characters are the things that will stay with you the longest after you finish Ghost Trick as the main mystery itself is completely forgetful. Unlike the Phoenix Wright games, which have many self-contained mysteries and, sometimes, an overarching plot, Ghost Trick contains several little self-contained setups with one overarching mystery cobbled together by one improbably devious magic comet.

Still, it is exactly in these smaller set piece where the game reach genre greatness, for Takumi was able to finally deal with that most typical of complaints about adventure games (*If you are not IGN, that is. For the typical complaint an adventure game gets from IGN is that it is wordy, which I suppose it a great point for the toddler audience.): irritation derived either from their trial-and-error nature or from not knowing if you are missing an item or a specific piece of information in order to advance the plot. Takumi himself has always struggled to keep his games from being frustrating when the player made a wrong choice, with the cost of making the gameplay too safe. Remember when Phoenix Wright had to choose between raising an objection and giving up and, if you chose give up, Maya would say Come on, Nick! We can’t give up now!? Well, that kind of bullshit is finally over. Because the game puzzles takes place in short periods of times that are constantly being re-looped until you fulfill your goal, which involves analyzing how each move of yours will affect the action flow during that period, there is no more failure modes but a continuous learning process. Meanwhile, the fact the game’s concise set pieces are contained prevents you from worrying whether or not you have skipped over that one very important item from Scabb Island.

I have some reserves about the game’s ending, however. It’s too neat. Everything clicks into place after a Deus Ex Machina about whose implications the game doesn’t care too much – and soon all main characters see themselves in what appears to be Takumi’s default ending for everything: with lunch. Is this another sign that he is trenching further down into his own mannerisms? Sure, but if you can set that aside, then Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective is a better game than most things out in 2011.

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