Killing is banal: It’s aim and fire, or some variation thereof. Undoing a murder, though—there’s some impressive sleight-of-hand. That’s the objective in Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective, an idiosyncratic DS game whose hero warps time to bring victims back from the dead. It’s a low-concept adventure that doesn’t fit well into existing categories of games, yet it maintains its individuality without becoming inaccessible.
You play as Sissel, a flashy dude with the swagger of a 1980s Tom Cruise. Sissel is dead. Having lost his life and his memory moments before the game begins, he’s told by a mysterious friend in the afterlife that he has one night to rediscover who he is and why he was killed. That’s a tall order, given that he’s a corpse, but his ghost form comes with extraordinary, though limited, capabilities. Sissel can reach across short distances to inhabit the soul of inanimate objects in the game’s scenery, and once he’s inside them, he can perform “Tricks” to affect the living world—flitting inside a spotlight, say, and shining the beam in a would-be murderer’s eyes.
Even though Sissel is supposed to be solving the mystery of his own snuffed-out existence, he’s sidetracked by a noble desire to keep other people from meeting the same fate. See, another benefit of ghost-hood is that by touching a fresh corpse, Sissel can time-travel to four minutes before a person’s death. Then he uses Tricks to change the progression of events. The challenge in these four-minute panic sessions is to figure out exactly which objects to inhabit, and when to play Tricks with them, such that you alter fate enough to save a life.
Yes, that’s a lot of premise to take in, yet it’s all so intriguing that Ghost Trick doesn’t feel bogged down with setup. Ace Attorney series creator Shu Takumi concocted Ghost Trick, and it shows. The characters are flamboyant and the dialogues are hyperactive. Boldface exclamations of shock are the norm. Takumi has a talent for creating a memorable, loveable cast, although his scripts can lapse into logorrhea, and his direction allows for no filter on his self-indulgence. Does the posh detective character have to do that elaborate faux-Michael-Jackson dance every time he enters a room? Takumi seems to think so.
The mystery story is as clever as the best Professor Layton yarn, but the signature achievement is the way Ghost Trick develops its puzzle-solving challenges. Whether Sissel is saving a life or simply trying to reach the opposite side of a room, each chapter has players push the bounds of strategy, stretching Sissel’s abilities to unexpected lengths. The game’s cluttered spaces invite players to invent new functions for household objects, a celebration of creativity that’s tempered only by a touch of Alan Wake syndrome: If you don’t figure out a puzzle immediately, the game is all too eager to offer ham-fisted hints by way of expository dialogue.
Ghost Trick arrives at a pivotal moment in the DS’ life. Nintendo is set to launch the 3DS, and publishers are already rolling out the parade of rehashes—old saws like Resident Evil, Bomberman, and Super Monkey Ball, remade for yet another platform. As the cacophony of big-ticket remakes moves on to the new toy, the DS is enjoying a relative calm in which its smaller, distinctive games can shine. It’s a moment to be savored by gamers with eclectic taste. Ghost Trick is just one indication that the DS, in its twilight years, is also in its prime.