Tokyo’s Shibuya district is one of the liveliest places on the planet. Day or night, it’s generally densely packed with people and positively thrumming with energy. Ghostwire: Tokyo shows us another side of this iconic urban hub, after a supernatural force leaves its streets eerily deserted. It’s a nightmarish vision, but an absolutely incredible recreation nonetheless – this city slice feels astonishingly like the real thing (albeit with more conspicuous shrines), and the game’s dedication to its setting is paired with an equal level of zeal for embracing Japanese folklore and tradition. The catch, however, is that it’s let down by bland mission design and one-dimensional combat, making it a lot less fun to actually play than it is to enjoy as a virtual tourist.
Ghostwire: Tokyo has not one, but two protagonists. Akito is the lone corporeal survivor of the mysterious fog that turned Shibuya into a literal ghosttown and was in a bad place even before the spirits hit the fan. His sister in a nearby hospital, he’s desperate to discover what’s become of her, but now finds himself in an uneasy alliance with KK, a surly spirit out to settle a score with the Hannya mask-wearing madman responsible for the attack. This “uneasy alliance” by the way, means literally fighting for control over the one body. Their initial angry clashes soon give way to a shared goal and growing understanding, and while I didn’t find either character hugely relatable, their family-focused backstories helped ground the grandiose main plot. Plus, with KK along for the ride, Akito gains a host of supernatural powers, all the better to deal with the many unsettling Visitors lurking on the streets.
Working towards discovering what’s actually going on will feel extremely familiar to anyone who’s played an open-world game since Assassin’s Creed. In this instance, the map starts out almost entirely cloaked in toxic fog, and it’s only by cleansing torii gates across it that new areas of the city become accessible.
It’s not actually such a bad thing that this open world starts out closed for business. Ghostwire: Tokyo is incredibly dense, so steadily working through new sections of the city to reach and purify gates meant that I got to appreciate every side of this game world, and it feels like there are hundreds of them.
Tokyo, after all, is a city of contrasts: between the glitz of modernity and the quiet reflection of tradition, between the intensity of its concrete jungle and the pockets of greenery that provide an escape, between tourist hotspots and forgotten tenements, and between towering shopping complexes and dingy back alleys packed with tiny bars. These aspects of the city are perfectly captured by Ghostwire’s sprawling map and incredible attention to detail, making it feel like a truly believable place… albeit one trapped within a perpetual night, where even the regular downpours can’t wash away the reminders that hundreds of thousands of people suddenly and inexplicably vanished. There are piles of clothes everywhere, trapped spirits floating in the air and ghosts with unfinished business to help.
Ghostwire’s world is also a thoroughly modern snapshot of Shibuya. This is not an idealised version of the area, but one which reflects its growing pains as prolonged gentrification changes its very nature. In this game there’s still plenty of the old, edgy Shibuya to explore, as well as numerous other aspects of the ward that exist outside the touristy core, but alongside those we have the shiny new developments that have fundamentally altered its skyline, not to mention a number of construction sites that herald yet more change. Ghostwire: Tokyo captures a specific moment in this district’s life, and it makes for an impressively multifaceted setting.
The Soul Mass Transit System
It’s dense with collectables, too. Saving the spirits hovering all over the city is a great way to net XP, while tracking down Jizo statues can help expand how much elemental ammo you can carry. There are also money pots to smash, consumables to stockpile, culturally significant objects to discover (and then sell, oddly), notes that net you instant skill points, tanukis in disguise and citywide sources of ether – the fuel for your attacks. It’s a lot.
Thankfully, your Spectral Vision ability lets you send out a pulse which highlights anything of interest nearby, from enemies on the prowl through to souls to be saved, so finding collectables never comes down to a pixel hunt. You’ll even hear chimes for objects of particular interest as the pulse spreads, letting you know when there’s something important close at hand just waiting to be found.
Yokai play a prominent role across the city, too; appropriate, given these many and varied supernatural entities play such a large part in traditional Japanese folklore. Different areas are home to different types of yokai, and receiving their power helps unlock more options within Akito’s skill trees. Yokai occupy other roles, too: flying Tengu can be grappled onto in order to reach the rooftop forests of the city, while yokai cat merchants are found across the map manning (catting?) convenience stores and roadside stalls alike.
While a big part of Ghostwire: Tokyo’s appeal for me is how rooted it is in Japanese culture and mythology, these elements sometimes feel like a crutch. The yokai hunts, for instance, rely on the “otherness” of the entities, along with some very light cultural insight, to make up for their lack of actual challenge. Sure, you might be tailing an anthropomorphic umbrella, but strip that away and all you’re left with is the simplest and least interesting form of gameplay possible.
Similarly, when thinking back to my playthrough, the side-quests that most spring to mind are the ones with the best Japanese window dressing: the trip into a neighbourhood sento bathhouse, a mural of Mount Fuji painted on the wall, or a park full of dead cherry trees that I brought back into radiant pink blossom. Side-quests that lack hooks like these, on the other hand, feel like busywork. Finding toilet paper for a spirit that’s on the crapper? I mean, I guess we could chalk it up as a PaRappa the Rapper reference, but instead of wandering a couple of metres to find a spare roll, this kind of task brings into stark relief the fact that I really should be focused on the madman planning on consuming thousands of souls in some kind of epic dark ritual. Why on Earth would I care about the spirit that’s stuck on the thunder box?
It doesn’t help that there’s limited ability to sell these small stories due to the fact that the NPCs are ethereal spirits with comically pitch-shifted voices who are minimally animated and have no discernable facial expressions. It’s hardly a storyteller’s dream. And again, it’s compounded by the rote simplicity of the tasks themselves.
Even when there’s a topic with some weight, such as a series of suicides in a rundown building, the resolution is invariably simplistic – an evil specter! – as is the gameplay. While this particular location was enjoyably bleak and atmospheric, the reality is that clearing rooms, purging spirits and finding a key that’s demeaningly close to hand, is just more of the same. So disappointing were the side-quests on balance, in fact, that I largely stopped paying attention to them midway through my playthrough.
It’s combat, however, that fuels most of Ghostwire: Tokyo’s gameplay, and its system of elemental attacks offers a pretty fresh take on first-person ranged combat – it just doesn’t go far enough to develop it into something special. The presentation is excellent though, from the hand movements that accompany attacks through to the way enemy cores are revealed and then ripped away using ethereal strings. And while many of the enemies aren’t necessarily exciting to fight, I do like the idea of mixing the otherworldly and the mundane in their designs. After all, what could be more fitting on the streets of post-apocalyptic Tokyo than to be fighting faceless office workers and uniformed school children?
I also loved the small touch that you’ll occasionally see a Visitor engaged in a basic but very human action, such as knocking on a door, or seemingly paying its respects at a grave, as this haunting echo of normalcy left me wondering whether these creatures really should be so mercilessly dispatched.
Wind, water, and fire attacks form the baseline of your arsenal, but you have a number of other options, such as stealth kills, talismans that can stun and distract, a weak strike attack for close quarters, a bow for longer range, and the ability to block to minimise incoming damage, or – if timed correctly – parry an enemy. Despite all this, I spent the vast majority of Ghostwire: Tokyo employing two simple tactics because they were so effective I rarely needed anything else.
The first was to Quick Purge (stealth kill) absolutely everything. The Visitors are about as basic an enemy as you’ll find in a modern video game, which makes sneaking up behind them laughably simple most of the time. And with Spectral Vision, you can easily stay out of sight close by and just wait for the right moment to strike. Taking out enemy after enemy this way definitely starts out satisfying – helped in no small part by the fantastic purge animations and sound effects – but it’s ultimately very one dimensional, as my approach didn’t need to change significantly even as new enemies or fresh variants of old ones were introduced. All but a couple of the most powerful overworld enemies can be insta-killed with this approach. On hard difficulty too. And once I realised how powerful and simple to execute it was, I sunk skill points into speeding up my crouched movement and juicing up my Spectral Vision to make it more efficient, and eventually found some beads that reduced my likelihood of detection to top it off.
And for scenarios in which stealth wasn’t an option, or when I was detected, well, I just took the vast majority of the combat options I mentioned before and put them into a box labelled “back up plan,” because the BFG (or Big Fireball Grenade, in this case) was the obvious solution to every problem. And, thanks to the rudimentary Visitor AI, I could just back up while charging it; and like lambs to the slaughter, they would come to meet my fiery vengeance. Fireballs are devastatingly effective against both individuals and groups, and given enough space you can outpace even the fastest Visitors. All I had to do was find time to rip the cores out of enemies without being hit, avoid projectiles, and manage the severely limited fire ammo, and I was golden. Like stealth kills, this one tactic can be applied to almost every situation, regardless of the enemy makeup, resulting in another one dimensional, one-size-fits-all combat strategy.
To be fair, I did use the other elements. Once I’d levelled up my wind attacks a little they actually felt pretty powerful, and came in handy when I ran out of fire ammo or wanted to finish off a straggler or two. Again, given the basic AI, you can back up while Visitors walk into your wind shots just as effectively as you can with fire. It’s simply slower. And as for water, well, I used charged water attacks against Visitors holding umbrellas out as shields, but rarely used this element otherwise. It just feels completely ineffectual out of the gate, which is a shame because I’m sure you’re probably meant to use specific elements against specific enemies. Instead, my Prince Zuko-esque dedication to literal firepower was all-consuming.
The downside of this approach was constantly running out of fire ammo, and thus having to spend time in the middle of fights running off to punch crystalised cars and vending machines to try and recover it – a slow process, given fire ether is by far the rarest type and scarcity is the sole check on its power. This meant that while I exclusively used charged fire attacks to beat the final boss, I had to spend more time running around the arena punching things to gather ammo than I did actually fighting it… which is not really what you want from a final boss.
It also meant that other systems were so irrelevant that I often forgot about them. I think I used the Wire In special ability, which refills Akito’s spirit ammunition and heightens his abilities for a short period, only a handful of times in 20 hours, and while two of the talisman types in my inventory definitely came in clutch in a few instances (stunning groups of enemies in particular is a great way to get damage in) it would have been nice if these had been part of the regular makeup of combat, as opposed to a case of “smash glass if you remember these exist during an emergency.”
And for a game that likes to play tricks on your mind during story missions, it’s a shame Ghostwire doesn’t do more of that during its moment-to-moment gameplay in the overworld. Some of the stronger enemies sometimes triggered environmental effects, like rain falling upwards, corruption seeping into the surroundings, or paint on the road lifting up to flutter in the air, and that stuff was brilliant, enriching the atmosphere and creating a feeling of simmering psychological uncertainty that I really enjoyed. I only wish that Ghostwire went a couple more steps down that road and into more of an outright horror stance.
And as for the main story itself, at its heart this is a game about the growing openness between Akito and KK, and in turn, their quests to be at peace with the lives they’ve lived. The importance of family is a recurring theme in both the heroes’ stories and the villain’s and while I appreciate many aspects of it, the resolution of Akito’s inner turmoil in particular missed the mark for me somewhat. Similarly, the villain’s messianic zeal and theatrically grand plan mean he’s never more than a cartoonish big bad, so ultimately boiled down to being just another obstacle to overcome instead of a truly memorable character.
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Author: Cam Shea