Ghost Trick is the strangest game to ever make perfect sense.
What is it? Solve a murder. Surprise! It's yours.
Release date: June 29, 2023
Expect to pay: £24.98 / $29.99
Reviewed on: i7-10750H, RTX 3070 (laptop), 16GB RAM, SSD
A murder mystery in the form of a puzzle game, Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective, from creator Shu Takumi (Ace Attorney, Dino Crisis 2), stars a dead person who routinely says things like "Come to think of it, the desk lamp is right" after talking to a possessed inanimate object. And the lamp was right! In the world of Ghost Trick, even a light source can help you crack your case.
Our recently deceased amnesiac hero, Sissel, has just been told he can travel four minutes into the past to prevent a young woman from getting shot by a nearsighted assassin using a mixture of bicycles, flags, and old guitars—just so she can get shot again somewhere else. And Sissel will save her life then, too. And again after that.
Instead of the usual mystery's selection of keys to find, scrawled notes to read, and people to interrogate, you instead use your ghostly powers to possess everything from umbrellas to telephones to change the lives of the unfairly doomed in the final crucial moments before their deaths. Doing so puts you on the path to reveal the many, many secrets behind your own death.
Ghost Trick's cast-iron internal logic saves this time-twisting weirdness from descending into a supernatural mess. The script takes the time to directly answer questions like "If I can possess things, then why can't I just possess my own corpse and walk out of here?" early on, and then goes on to pre-empt all the other "Hey, why can't I…" situations that pop up afterwards.
Another truly elegant bit of puzzle design in Ghost Trick: I can't examine or manipulate anything that isn't going to be useful. It's one of those small details that makes a huge difference, because no matter how strange Ghost Trick gets—and oh boy is this a deliciously odd game—I'm never left grouchily hopping from one ridiculous object to another, wondering what the hell I'm supposed to do with a fridge and a blender.
Ghost Trick not only wants me to solve its layered onion of a mystery, it makes a real effort to cheer me on too. Sissel knows exactly as much about his current situation as I do, so it always feels like we're working this whole "suddenly being dead" thing out together. And whenever I've got ghostly company I can almost guarantee they'll enthusiastically pipe up with something positive when I'm on the cusp of solving another problem, transforming the otherwise straightforward placement of the final piece of each puzzle into an exciting climax. And if I make a big mistake in those final moments? Ghost Trick doesn't mind. Sissel's ability to rewind time means screw-ups and retries are literally baked into the plot, and there's a good chance I'll learn exactly what went wrong in the process anyway.
This chipper attitude would normally feel out of place in a game that can't seem to go five minutes without someone being murdered, but Ghost Trick knows how to keep things light. Your spectral activity always has a strong dash of ACME-like logic to it, and before you know it you're rolling donuts around and possessing Christmas ornaments like you're the star of an old Looney Tunes cartoon. This knowing absurdity made me invested in death after death without it ever feeling macabre—it's supposed to be silly and besides, if you can work out how to save them then every casualty of this long, dark night will be perfectly fine.
Even when I was struggling and I'd exhausted every scrap of dialogue I could find, the gorgeous, artistically exaggerated animations of the stylishly textured cast kept me going. I'd never seen a lady with a wine glass glued to one perfectly manicured hand light a match on her backside before now, but that memory will live with me forever. I swear, nobody in this game is capable of so much as sitting on a chair without making it look like an event.
More than just beautiful, these extravagant flourishes give you glimpses into each character's personality. You can immediately see the contrast between the uptight guard and the one slouched over the back of his chair before they've said a word. The expertise of a hired gun shows in every one of his precise movements. The junkyard superintendent casually slides down the stair rail in his office, silently demonstrating his familiarity with the building.
Whatever screen resolution, windowed/windowless mode, or aspect ratio you choose from the game's rather small range of graphical options, Ghost Trick is always displayed within a 4:3 play area in a pillarboxed window. You'll probably wonder why Capcom didn't add fullscreen 16:9 support to this HD remaster of an old DS game—isn't that, like, a bare minimum feature? It soon becomes clear, though, that every intriguing puzzle and every revelatory cutscene has been designed with this very specific field of view in mind. To go asking for more feels as wrong as asking an AI to draw whatever's just outside the Mona Lisa's picture frame.
Ghost Trick is so beautifully crafted I'm happy to call it art, and you don't zoom-crop the top and bottom of art, or stretch it out or invent new things to go around the edges (except unobtrusive wallpapers, which Ghost Trick has a healthy selection of). It is a shame that Capcom didn't include better aspect ratio support, though. There's no way to take advantage of the extra space of the Steam Deck's 16:10 screen. And bizarrely if you set the resolution down to 640x480, perfect for a CRT, you lose tons of space to pillarboxing and letterboxing instead of the play area filling the whole 4:3 window.
But this is the gaming equivalent of an unmissable crime novel, a gripping mystery where every answer leads to three more questions and connects 10 seemingly unrelated people or places together in a way you'd never imagined. I honestly couldn't stop until I'd seen it through to the end and when I did all I wanted to do was dive back in again, deadline be damned, to pick at every line and poke every object, to see what more I could discover in this treasure of a tale.
My PC game library is simply better for having Ghost Trick in it, and I'm sure yours would be too—especially as the game's Steam Deck verified, so you can (and should) take this unforgettable adventure on the go.