30 July 2017

Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective (First Impressions)

As a rule, I've more or less forbidden games on my phones and even my iPad. It's not that I don't think the platform is a viable competitor to the likes of the DS or Vita (In fact, earlier today before editing this, I just beat Daxter on my first generation PSP I still play reguarly). The problem is I have something of an addictive personality, especially when it comes to puzzle games. Growing up on Tetris, Dr. Mario, and Bust-A-Move has engrained the genre in me as a kind of comfort food for the middle ground between my left and right brain. 
As a compromise, I limit one game per device, a maximum of one microtransaction if the game is free-to-play, and with very strict rules on genre, namely no puzzle games like Bejeweled (I still haven't forgiven my Dad for getting me hooked on it) or endless runners like Jetpack Joyride (my Dad still hasn't forgiven me for getting him hooked on it). Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective from Capcom, which at first I thought was a spin-off title in the Phoenix Wright series*, is almost a puzzle game. It's a point-and-click (tap-and-hold?) adventure game with logic and time-based puzzles. 

Hmm, that "D" looks familiar....
You play a disembodied spirit recently separated from his mortal coil by way of a convoluted murder conspiracy involving a group of blue men (No, not those guys). Unfortunately for you, not only did your red-suited carcass end up in a very undignified position, and not only have you completely lost your memory, but someone else in the same junkyard as you is about to be sworn in as a new denizen among the dearly departed by way of a golden shotgun. There is a light at the end of the tunnel, however, as another spirit in the form of a desk lamp named Ray (yes, as in "ray of light" tunnels notwithstanding) is quick to take you by the phantom limb and teach you to use your newfound powers of the dead. 

Like that there parrot that done ceased to be...
The gameplay reminds me mostly of Firefly's Diary (htoL#NiQ) on Vita, particularly with the Ghost mechanic. When in "Ghost" mode, you're able to possess various inanimate objects. The catch is that you've got a limited range, which can sometimes be hard to judge. Often you'll have to "join the dots" and move from point to point. Sometimes an object must be manipulated not only to solve the puzzle, but also to get you to another and more vital object. Think Final Destination with good intentions or Ghost if it was directed by Miyazaki. 

Manipulating possessed objects forms another third of your suite of phantom powers, called "Trick" mode for the sake of a title drop. Although the backgrounds have the same degree of awkward clutter as a hidden object game, the number and type of objects you can inhabit is limited, complete with a few red herrings thrown in. If Ghost mode reminded me of Firefly's Diary, this part of the game reminds me of Haunting with Polterguy on the Genesis. In that game, your goal was to scare away the inhabitants of a house. Your tricks here are a little more versatile and subtle, though getting attention via diversion and distraction is a core part of the gameplay. This part can become the most frustrating as many of the tricks you have to pull off rely on characters standing in specific spots, looking a certain direction, or performing some subtle action you're likely to miss more often than not. It always strikes me as a cheap tactic to reduce strategizing and problem solving to a time trial in order to make something more challenging. 

A Dead Dog, a Distressed Damsel, and a Dastardly... Dog-killer? Yeah, let's go with that.
Speaking of timing and trials, the last power of the dead at your disposal is a time manipulation mechanic. In addition to connecting with inanimate object, you can also contact the spirits of the recently deceased and rewind their last four minutes of life. Not only can you see their final moments play out from a limited third person perspective, but you can actually save them from dying with your dual-wielding of possession and manipulation. This redeems the "situational" aspect of the game, albeit it replaces quick reflexes with trial and error. Still, I'd rather have my Rube Goldberg machination not work because I missed a step or misjudged a character as opposed to not being able to swipe or tap or drag fast enough at the right time. 

The way the big guy slaps that command console always kills me.
I played the game on an iPhone 5c, and though it ran well enough for those first two chapters, I'd argue that an iPad is the best way to go. This is a beautiful game, especially the character designs. They're 2D sprites, but they're based on expertly-crafted 3D models that are either meticulously animated or diligently motion-captured. It may have made for a very slick and cool-looking platformer in the Prince of Persia vein. 

As of the time of this writing, Ghost Trick is available in its entirety for 10USD, and I can't decide if that's too much for a mobile game. I honestly don't know how much I've ever spent on a phone game, maybe 6 or 7 way back in the day for the Wolfenstein RPG, and frankly that may have been too much. Then again, I've easily spent over 40USD on all the various drawing programs across all my mobile devices. Of course, there's simply no comparing the value of a productivity app to that of a game, however addicting and fun said game may be. 

Does this count as interest?
One last note about the price: As I said, the game is available for 10USD. While that's a steal compared to the full price of its original release on Nintendo DS, in what I can only guess was a foreshadowing of Capcom's more dubious business practices, you can buy chapters in small "packs" for 5USD each. Obviously, the bundle is the better deal given the game is at least 15 chapters on top of the first two freebies. Still, I don't get this piecemeal/episodic setup because the game was ported all at once from DS to iOS. With most episodic games (especially those from TellTale), they're released several months (even years) apart at a premium, then bundled together at a discount for those who waited. It's a trade-off akin to waiting for a movie to be available for streaming rather than seeing it in theaters. For Ghost Trick, though, there was no waiting. It all simply makes me wonder how often someone paid for the chapter packs rather than going whole hog for the complete package at once. 

Suspect pricing structure aside, I enjoyed the first two chapters of Ghost Trick, and while I ultimately intend to unlock the full game, it's an odd duck even in the mobile games market and I don't recommend diving in without testing the waters first. Fans of "match three" puzzles and manic tapping may be turned away by the pacing, while fans of deeper experiences like "escape the room" or remastered ports of older games may find the total package somewhat shallow. The last comparison I would make is to Jordan Mechner's The Last Express. It's a technically ambitious work of art whose only real fault is simply not having more of itself to offer. That can leave a lot of gamers grumbling, but I'm of the mindset that if a game ends too soon, it was probably just long enough. 

*Ghost Trick was produced by the creator of Phoenix Wright, and once speculated on a crossover game, but the title sadly remains a one-off. 

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