GHOST TRICK / Capcom / Nintendo DS
As a fan of PC adventure games growing up, I'm hardly a stranger to "dream logic" being used in games. In fact, some of my favorites from the period -- the first two Monkey Island games, Kyrandia 2 -- were pretty egregious offenders when it came to puzzle solutions that had no real discernible thread of logic and just required you to screw around with everything available until some sort of wacky solution started to take shape.

I bring this up because Ghost Trick is also very firmly commited to dream logic and trial-and-error puzzling. It's not of the old Western adventure game lineage, however; it comes to us from Japanese Visual Novel World, a frightening foreign land that has no compunctions whatsover about wasting great gawping amounts of your time making you do (and read) the same shit over, and over, and over, and over again. The old adventure games were different in that when you were stuck, you were simply stuck; you wandered about the available area trying stuff until you figured out how to proceed. Ghost Trick, on the other hand, holds a constant timer over your head, and will force you re-do the same segment multiple times as part of the process of coming to grips with its wacky Rube Goldberg-esque puzzle solutions.

No surprise then that this comes to us from developer Shu Takumi; Ghost Trick was the next big project he moved on to after completing the original Phoenix Wright trilogy. Phoenix and all the other Ace Attorney games are most definitely from the Visual Novel School of Design, and similarly had no compunction about making you re-read an absolute shit ton of dialogue and watch the same repetitive animations over and over if you screwed up in the middle of a case. Those games were far less dream-logicy, however; you always had exactly what you needed in your inventory, careful examination of everything you were holding would eventually break just about any sticking point, and (most importantly) you were given all the time you needed to make decisions.

Not so much with Ghost Trick. Here's the premise -- you regain consciousness in a junkyard as a spirit, hovering over your own dead body, with no memory of who you are or how you came to be dead. Fortunately, there's a talking possessed lamp on hand to show you the ropes of spirit world. For some reason, you're a special dead guy, imbued with the ability to possess non-living objects and make them do stuff. As the game demonstrates at the outset, you'll primarily be using these abilities to save key people in your life from being hunted down and killed by a group of assassins, so that you can hover around them long enough to find out what the heck is going on and whether or not you can maybe make yourself not dead somehow.

For reasons that I don't think were ever adequately explained, you can save the lives of recently-murdered people by rewinding time to exactly four minutes before they were killed. You'll then have that little window of real time to roam about the area in ghostly fashion, possessing and using objects to try to lure the victim out of danger or otherwise impede their killer.

It's a pretty neat premise on paper, but here's how it goes off the rails in execution. First of all, there's nothing dynamic about all this, like a Haunting Starring Polterguy type situation; there's only one rigid set of steps to get through every scenario. You're also not allowed to move freely on screens, restricted instead to jumping between adjacent "possessable" items, which is kinda arbitrary (and you also have a really short movement range). Given all this, scenarios tend to be a matter of simply jumping to what's available, and performing the one "trick" you can do in each to see what happens. For example, opening doors sometimes causes unexpected items to roll out of them, or similar results you can't reasonably be expected to predict beforehand.

Which would be OK if you weren't under a short timer in so many scenarios, and also if some actions that you take while experimenting around didn't irrevocably screw you over and force you to restart the scenario. There's also a few scenarios where the key to completing them is taking advantage of a one-time event, like someone moving through the background; miss that and you get to restart the whole thing. Get stuck and need to quit out of the game for awhile? When you come back you have to restart each chapter from the very beginning, even if you'd previously made it to mid-chapter checkpoints.

I notice that most of the professional reviews acknowledge this in some way or another, but insist that it's worth the frustration because the ongoing mystery is so good. I don't agree there. I was never particularly invested in the mystery or the characters, and being forced to constantly repeat things pushed me into not even giving a shit if the cute little girl you're forever having to protect gets murdered. It's that Phoenix Wright style of oddly mashing up serious crimes with both a game world and characters that are goofy and zany, which was always a tricky tightrope to walk in those games and doesn't come off as well here.

I'm guessing Shu didn't play much in the way of Western adventure games coming up, because he repeats the serious design mistakes that those games had to fumble their way through as the genre evolved. You don't put players in no-win situations, especially if you leave them ignorant of the condition while they continue on. And you don't make them repeat dialogue and non-interactive scenes shit tons of times while trying to figure out an abstract puzzle. Both of these things are done right from the jump and continually with no fucks given whatsoever here, and it drags down what otherwise could have been an amazing game. The novelty of the premise and the lovingly-rendered 3D animation of the characters (about the best you'll see on the DS) probably still make it worth a look at a reasonable price, but this is yet another one that forum fanboys toot around all the time without making mention of its crippling structural and gameplay flaws.
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