Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective was a game that really blew me away when I first played it well over a decade ago on the Nintendo DS. It received an iOS port in Japan shortly after, but that took a couple of years to release worldwide.
More than a decade has passed since then, and the game was always in the back of my mind. Now modern players can finally easily play it on a TV. Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective has aged just fine in most respects, and it remains both an intriguing mystery and satisfying puzzle game that looks and plays better than ever, thanks to a solid port from Capcom.
Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective begins with an unnamed ghost watching as a young woman is murdered by a hitman in black. It doesn’t take long for the ghost to stumble upon his own corpse and learn that he has special powers. Namely, he can interact with the corpses of others and return to four minutes prior to their demise and, importantly, possess and manipulate various objects.
After saving the life of the young woman in question, players learn of a mystery involving a prisoner tied to deep machinations that will have massive effects on the game’s world. The storytelling is satisfying, and Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective is brimming with personality thanks to the snappy dialogue, well-defined characters, and charming presentation.
Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective comes courtesy of Shu Takumi, the writer/director famous for the Ace Attorney games, so the proceedings have a similar flare. The main difference is that this game feels much more like a game than those do. Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective’s story is broken up into nearly 20 chapters, each with its own scenarios.
Despite predominately being a puzzle game, you can often switch between many persistent locales, giving the game more freedom than it would have otherwise. While the game was heavily pixelated back on the DS, here, it’s gorgeous. The character art is smooth and detailed and buoyed by excellent animation. It’s hard to believe that this is a 13-year-old DS game, but it is.
Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective is broken into two main segments: using ghost tricks to move about the areas and gather information and save someone’s life. The original release was based on using a stylus, but the PC version keeps the same functionality. Sissel’s soul (and later, another character’s) is clearly outlined on the screen and can be dragged using the mouse or by using keys or the control stick of a gamepad. Objects scattered around will be highlighted, and you can use your soul to possess them. Many are just used to move about the locations, often in clever ways.
“…the real meat of Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective’s premise is in the segments where you have to accomplish something on a time limit.”
For instance, the very first area has lower and upper levels connected via stairs. As a ghost, you obviously can’t take the stairs, so you need to jump between objects and interact with some to create additional opportunities. This area lets you jump to a refrigerator you can open, which contains a blender. You can use the blender to move to a fan, which you’ll need to activate alongside the blender, to then possess a flag that will be blown by the fan and raised by the blender, allowing you to reach higher ground.
Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective is littered with similar scenarios, whether you possess a piece of paper that is then grabbed by a character or possess a stool that you then propel to the other side of the room.
It’s a highly unique system that’s also relatively intuitive. It’s a wonder more games didn’t attempt to copy this (although Koutarou Uchikoshi’s Punch Line clearly took some inspiration). But you can’t just freely move around individual areas during these segments, but move to other ones. Whenever you possess a phone while a call is being made, you’ll trace it and then be able to jump to it as long as you’re in a trick segment.
However, the real meat of Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective’s premise is in the segments where you have to accomplish something within a time limit. You’ll often find a dead body when venturing to new areas, and you’ll generally need to use your abilities to save that person’s (or animal’s) life.
Whenever you possess a dead body (other than the one belonging to the player character, that is), you’ll be able to talk to their soul and jump back in time to four minutes before they died. At this point, it’s up to you to possess and manipulate objects to change fate and save your target, all while an hourglass on the right side of the screen is counting down. If time runs out, death will be the result, but you can jump back to the start and do it again. Once you actually make a major change, a sort of checkpoint will be created that lets you return directly after fate is changed. It’s an excellent system.
“…Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective is a classic game that stands the test of time to be even better than before thanks to the treatment the visuals have been given.”
These scenarios can be fairly tricky and require good attention to detail and timing to boot. To stop a character from getting shot to death by a gun triggered by a light switch flipping on, you’ll need to time things out, so you can swat a tennis ball onto a makeshift ramp and stop a flaming arrow from being fired. If you mess the timing up, it’s back to the start with you.
These scenarios are varied and quite clever, which leads to Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective being just as enjoyable today as it was when it first debuted, albeit more so due to how fantastic the visuals are. Being able to play the game with just a mouse on PC also keeps the experience as close to the game’s original control scheme as possible without a touch screen, which I greatly appreciated.
However, one thing I didn’t appreciate back at launch is still very much present. Much like the Ace Attorney games, Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective makes near-constant use of short, bright flashes for dramatic effect. This cannot be turned off, despite how blinding and obnoxious these can be. When Capcom ported the first three games in the aforementioned beloved satirical courtroom series to the Wii years ago, these flashes could be turned off, which sadly wasn’t included when the games made their way to other platforms in recent years.
It’s much the same here. I had to turn my TV’s brightness down considerably just to be able to play the game, as I’m somewhat photosensitive, and the flashes are far too common. There’s no good reason for them not to be optional.
Other than that, however, Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective is a classic game that stands the test of time to be even better than before, thanks to the treatment the visuals have been given. It’s an engrossing, intriguing, and outright funny game that anyone with a penchant for mysteries and ghost stories would be remiss not to experience. There are even some little bonuses unlocked here and there to sweeten the deal for a game that there’s no good reason (other than the flashes) not to play.