For a generation of players, the Ace Attorney series significantly uplifted (if not outright defined) text based adventure games. Since the games first turned about in 2001 they’ve grown into a multi-media franchise and genuine icon. That level of popularity and success, most of it under the direction of Shu Takumi, would make it easy to deem Phoenix Wright the be all end all of the genre.
Look just a bit deeper though and you’ll find another handheld effort that didn’t get its due. Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective was first released back in 2010 for the Nintendo DS, and while it shares several aspects with the aforementioned litigiousness it manages to be its own unique experience. Its unique gameplay hook, compelling storytelling, and impressive visuals led to a cult following. And that has led to this – an HD rerelease for current platforms, and another chance for this fantastic game.
A junkyard, a hitman, a detective, and a corpse.
That’s where Ghost Trick begins, with you as the conveniently placed cadaver. Or rather the spirit occupying it, freshly killed and without any memory. Thankfully there’s a most illuminating mentor nearby in the form of a sentient desk lamp. With his guidance you’re able to intervene, eventually saving the detective Lynne and learning that your name is Sissel. Unfortunately you only have until sunrise to solve the mystery of your murder (you know, ghost rules), with Lynne your only lead.
From there it’s chapter after chapter of unexpected reveals, chicken dinners, prison phone calls, a very good doggy, a blue-skinned cabal, impeccable stair dancing; and plenty more I can’t discuss here in the interest of spoilers. It never stops being interesting or entertaining, remaining an exceptional story from beginning to end.
From a gameplay perspective Ghost Trick plays nearly its entire hand within that junkyard-set opening scene. You may be dead, but you’re also able to manipulate objects for specific contextual effects. While possessing an umbrella you can open it, for example, with its proximity to other objects determining how useful that’ll be for your current objective.
This is accomplished by changing your view of a given scene. There’s the normal world, where people and things move in real time. Then there’s the red-tinted ghost world. It’s there that you can travel from core to core of specific objects. Whenever you switch to the ghost world time will stand still, letting you take stock of the available cores and assess your possibilities. Switching is done with the press of a button, though I will admit that in certain chapters the frequency of those switches can get dangerously close to annoying.
While the overarching goal is to solve the mystery of Sissel’s untimely end, it’s a bit difficult to commune with the living. Fortunately there’s murder afoot, and by interacting with souls of the recently deceased you can rewind time to four minutes before their death. That particular trick serves multiple purposes, as it means you can always turn back the clock to certain points in a chapter as you progress their puzzling setups. By making use of the aforementioned manipulations and effects you can prevent these deaths from happening in the first place, gaining allies and information as you do.
It’s how these scenarios grow in both complexity and urgency that the gameplay remains engaging throughout. An early puzzle sees you trying to derail a killer contraption that’d make Rube Goldberg proud. What you’re doing here is no different from earlier ones, but now the specific timing of your actions becomes even more important lest the machine triggers – both literally and figuratively. Other developments push possibilities even further but it’s when they lean into the narrative (as opposed to being conveniently placed random objects) that I’d end up most pleased and impressed with what the game does.
These set pieces and scenarios continue to wow until the very end, though they wouldn’t be half as enjoyable without that story behind it. I love Ghost Trick’s world and characters, and all the twists and turns they encounter. This was already one of my favorite DS games, but revisiting it on Switch reminded me why that was the case.
Don’t let the themes of death and detective work fool you though. When it wants to be Ghost Trick can be hilarious, in ways both overt and subtle. Much of that comes from over the top side characters and the interplay between Sissel and Lynne. It’s also given the world one of the greatest video game dogs in the form of Missile, the self-proclaimed top pomeranian with infinite positivity in his smol body.
Another strength of the game that deserves praise is its eye-catching animations. Characters and objects move with an impressive fluidity made all the more so when you remember these were gorgeous in their own right on DS. Now they get to wow in HD, with Inspector Cabanela’s dance moves more buttery smooth than ever.
Perhaps the only complaint I have with this rerelease is that certain aspects don’t translate as well from the original platform. Though I understand the reason behind them I’m not a fan of the borders on the side of the screen – even if they’re the new home of the four minute hourglass. There’s also a part of me that misses the somewhat pixely look of the game, though that’s not to say the new models aren’t appealing in their own right.
As a final note, this version of the game also comes with some extras that longtime fans are sure to appreciate. The illustration gallery is a delight, and we have a full soundtrack of new arrangements to enjoy, with the original soundtrack also available if you prefer. You’ll definitely want to be playing this one with the sound on by the way, because Ghost Trick’s soundtrack never quits.
Though it has more contemporary competition in its genre, Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective remains a remarkable and one-of-a-kind adventure game. Watching its story unfold from a poltergeist-like point of view would be compelling in its own right, but the nature of its puzzles never fails to impress. Capcom’s given us a gift by making it more readily available in shiny HD. Now it’s up to us to change Sissel’s fate and make this one the success it always deserved to be.