This review was originally published for the DS version of Ghost Trick, released in 2011. The iOS version of the game is identical in content. The controls have also been ported elegantly, though playing on the iPad adds a pixelated roughness to the character sprites. Ghost Trick iOS is available for free, but anything past chapter 2 must be purchased additionally in either three £2.99 bundles or one collected bundle for £6.99.
Designing a video game around the most tired of all narrative crutches - an amnesiac protagonist - is a beguiling decision. It's almost guaranteed to have the critics scowling, so why do developers consistently do it? Still, it's further proof of Shu Takumi's creativity and imagination that Ghost Trick's hero ultimately manages to succeed where so many foggy-brained characters have failed.
As the game's title suggests, our hero is a ghost. Becoming conscious in the middle of a junkyard shortly after midnight, the crimson-suited, sunglasses-wearing and Jedward-styling Sissel realises he's staring at his dead body. The amnesia is quickly explained: Sissel has been recently murdered, and the deceased seem to have a hard time remembering the specifics of their former lives.
With the friendly advice of a bouncing nearby lamp, Sissel learns that he's inherited a cache of swanky supernatural abilities - his ghost tricks, if you will, which neatly ties the purpose of the game with its enigmatic title. He's also told he'll disappear from existence at dawn, which adds the requisite sprinkles of urgency to the tale.
Designed as a bridge between an interactive novel and an adventure game, Sissel finds himself able to possess and manipulate inanimate objects, zip around active phone lines and rewind time to four minutes before the death of any corpse he stumbles upon. These become the player's toolbox for following the breadcrumb trail of mysteries to the game's narrative payoff and the eventual reveal of Sissel's lost memories.
The challenge, however, is often pitched a little on the simple side, with puzzles that generally offer only a single, self-explanatory solution. The necessary path in Sissel's ghost world is clearly illuminated by comforting blue dots, and it's a breeze to zig-zag from one object to the next to see which support further interaction. Here you switch back to the regular world and perform a 'trick', manipulating the object to modify the environment and open up further paths - for instance, umbrellas can be opened, fountains happily spout water and ceiling fans are begging to spin faster.
Nothing in Ghost Trick's world is thrown away, and the whole game is crafted out of a deliciously sparse economy where each piece of the puzzle plays its role in telling the overall tale. There's absolutely no wastage, with no clumsy filler chapters or piles of useless trinkets designed to add artificial length to your progression, and while this all combines to make a particularly taut thriller it comes with a heavy price. While there's a constant sense of enjoyment, there's never the definitive 'Take That!' moment of the Phoenix Wright series.
The majority of the game is using your tricks to move between two points. Sissel only has a very limited reach, and therefore can only move when there's a trail of objects scattered nearby. His other abilities are reserved solely to advance the narrative - phone lines are used to progress to the next area, and rewinding time only works when the game wants to trigger a timed sequence where you avert a death, usually that of redheaded rookie detective (and unwitting sidekick) Lynne.