Story. Gaming on the Side
HIGH The character animation on-display here is phenomenal.
LOW Me: "Oh great, is that the 30th character or the 40th?"
WTF The only way to the truth is with the help of a dead Pomeranian.
How much story does a game need? Should a story knock off your socks every time you play? As expectations for the medium expand and contract, we see more and more just how story responds to the needs of each game's "play" construct—some naturally require more story, some less. The best and most memorable titles (that make anything of their story) seem to marry their storytelling to the facets of their gameplay, giving rise to true "Chicken & Egg" conundrums. The rest, of course, either cut-and-paste their narratives with nary a motive or overstuff their plots until they're meaningless. Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective is certainly one of the latter. Like a puffy soufflé created with 37 different flavors of bubblegum, Ghost Trick is full of vibrant colors and amazing tastes, but it's not going to get rid of that hungry feeling.
Simply: it shouldn't have been this way. Shu Takumi knocked it out of the park with Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney so many years ago (originally for Game Boy Advance in 2001!). Since then, each game in the Ace Attorney series has had less to give than the one before. What set its siblings apart from their progenitor were their strict adherences to the first's compact, yet epic formula. Where the first Phoenix soared by combining its excellent and light-hearted yet disparate elements into a cohesive and epic drama, the four others in the series have flailed by trying to recreate its inimitable shift. Each game strives to tie up their seemingly unrelated threads into big tapestries of wow, but consistent following of this trend has only lead to weirder setups, more outlandish developments, and "surprise" character revelations that mushroom out of control.
Ghost Trick, unfortunately, falls prey to these same epic desires. The opening puzzles reveal a delightful game mechanic and an intriguing mystery setup. The first stages are exciting and hint at some real dramatic possibilities. Any hope of a cohesive plotline, though, is gradually thwarted as the story begins to balloon to outrageous proportions. Dozens of characters begin to emerge from the story's woodwork, and before the puzzle mechanics can truly evolve along with what we hope will be a gripping story, the entire concept is swallowed whole by the increasingly-bonkers narrative.
Now, I'm not against kooky for the sake of kooky, mind you. The problem is that kooky works best as a palate-cleanser. Ghost Trick's story begins with a fantastic leap and never looks back. Most gamers could be expected to swallow the idea of a ghost that can affect reality by possessing objects. Asking the same gamers to then follow along, however, with not only this ghost, but three detectives, a criminal, a writer, two young girls, a talking dog, two distinct corrupt criminal organizations with multiple members, an undercover cop, a scientist who wears a living pigeon as a hat, a justice minister, a crazy homeless man, and a gaggle of supporting cops and goons (breath)—AND THEN to care about how all of these characters are related in a sweeping drama that goes back to the mysteries of a falling meteorite ten years ago is just plain goofy. The simple and effective nature of the gameplay is completely lost to such overreaching fluffery.
I agree wholeheartedly with Sparky's main review opinions that the game is excellently functional, and that the characters are well-composed, both linguistically and physically. Truly, I haven't seen better animation in a game in years. The care that went into creating the visual and aural presentation in Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective are absolutely top-notch. It's also sometimes pretty funny, to boot.
I just can't come to grips with the fact that the sins of the Ace Attorney series's diminishing-returns live on in Takumi's new outing. I'd be thrilled to play a new Phoenix Wright game that was only about the wacky trials of a slightly feckless defense attorney—no silly lore required; and the same is true here. Not every game needs to be an epic masterpiece, and some resemble one even less when attempting to be.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via retail and reviewed on the Nintendo DS. Approximately 11 hours of play was devoted to its completion.