I don’t read. I don’t know at what point I forgot that simple fact about my personality, but I did along the line and now for some unfathomable reason, I have reviews of a novel, an anthology and now a visual novel on this site. I don’t know what, exactly, reading did to me as a child, but I’ve been against it since before I can remember. I’m a very capable reader, but the story has to interest me for me to finish it. Ghost Trick, the new book from the author of the Ace Attorney series of video gam–I mean books, is a delightful read. Lots and lots of reading. So very much reading. It’s delightful reading and engaging reading, but reading nonetheless. They aren’t called visual novels in Japan for nothin’, folks.
A visual novel is a unique kind of video game that’s almost exclusive to Japan. Its gameplay to story ratio is perhaps the lowest I can imagine; it’s almost entirely sold on the story of the characters and what they go through and its plot and the gameplay is just an interesting quirk of the experience. Visual novels, or at least the ones I’ve read thus far, have a visual style highly reminiscent of comic books and anime, with sprites in often static poses while reams and reams of dialogue scroll through a box under their face. They’re also typically unvoiced, which means all you hear while these reams and reams of dialogue are scrolling through this box is a hollow clicking. Don’t let that description throw you–these games are often shockingly immersive and affecting. Done properly, the writing alone carries you.
In Ghost Trick, you are a spirit named Sissel. You wake up one night to find that you’ve lost your memory, you’re alone in a junkyard and you’re dead. Hence the spirit thing back there. Your only company at the moment is a moving, talking desk lamp named Ray who tells you you’re a ghost with special powers of the dead. You can use these special powers of the dead to save lives. That prospect doesn’t interest you, but when Ray says that it could be a way to find out who you were, you’re intrigued. Even more so when it turns out you’re gonna disappear at dawn. You can save people by going back in time to four minutes before their death as long as they’ve only been dead a day or less. Then, you possess objects and swing’em around in what is hopefully a sequence that keeps people from dying.
The first person you keep from dying is a plucky redhead detective named Lynne. Lynne, it turns out, is investigating the case of her former mentor Jowd. Jowd is in prison for murdering his wife, who is Lynne’s adoptive sister’s mother. Lynne having taken her in as a favour. Along the way tonight, you will run into several quirky detectives, including a walking Michael Jackson impression named Cabanela. You will run into prison guards who dance to stave off nervousness. You will run into colourful inmates of a special prison, a very determined pomeranian, several blue skinned villains and a pair of young girls tragically mistaken for one another. You also run into a recurring Rube Goldberg Machine, but that’s neither here nor there.
Gameplay-wise, the game is solid. You play as a burning soul in a bleak, hopeless spirit world. You can reach out to different objects and possess them via their cores while in this spirit world. This is accessed by the Ghost button. You can then go back to the land of the living and move them or manipulate them by the Trick button. Your reach can only extend so far in the spirit world, thus making puzzles about three things: logic, reach and timing. If you know what to look for, find a way to get to it and manipulate it at the right time, almost all of your problems will be solved. Then you’re free to talk to more people about more things as they jabber and jabber on.
I made an analogy earlier on this year when I said that video games were like reading a book, but every chapter was hidden behind a lock that you had to pick. And you had to pick it using whatever was around you, and woe betide you if you aren’t any good at picking locks. Never is this analogy more true than with Ghost Trick. I refuse to be ashamed of having consulted walkthroughs just to get through parts of this game. It is not an easy game to take on, especially not for your first gaming experience. The puzzles get a bit moon-logicky at times, and they get a bit “you did one thing wrong and now Lynne’s going to die. Again.” at times.
Story-wise, however, Ghost Trick is quite nearly peerless. Its only peers that I’ve read would be the Ace Attorney series, and I think it’s cheating to go with different books by the same author for comparison. The plot is involving, the characters are well fleshed-out and fascinating, and almost nothing is what it seems at first glance. I have literally given you almost none of the story in this review because, like a book, the joy is in reading it and finding out for yourself. If I told you the princess wasn’t in the first seven castles, you wouldn’t call me a dick. You’d just say “yeah?” and keep playing. There are several twists I haven’t spoiled here that you would crucify me for telling you early. And that just doesn’t happen with other genres of game aside from the visual novel.
Visual novels are a curious form. They aren’t comics, they aren’t books and they aren’t movies. They’re some weird, interactive hybrid of the three forms with gameplay elements that manage, frequently, to be more than the sum of their parts. More immersive than a movie, more kinetic than a comic and more accessible than a book. I like visual novels, but I had to get a copy of this game off a shopkeeper who took a couple extra just in case. No one in North America wants some plot with their gameplay. Shame, really–I think Sissel and the gang deserve a fandom. THREE AND A HALF STARS