Ghostwire: Tokyo Review
Ghostwire: Tokyo is a fabulously conceived horror epic that ought to be one of the most gripping, unique games of its generation. Unfortunately, its open world design fundamentally holds it back from being pure joy at every turn. If I had told a younger version of myself that I’d find a first-person Tokyo ghost-hunting game full of neon-lit streets and lore oozing with detail and rich writing somewhat boring, I think that younger self would call me a liar.
In Ghostwire, you play as Akio, whose soul has fused with spectral investigator KK after a mysterious calamity that has desolated Shibuya and brought the city under a deadly poisonous fog. Akio searches for his sister, Mari, only to find that she’s been kidnapped by a nefarious group of hooded, masked individuals who have designs to use her for a ritual to further their goals.
Ghostwire’s premise is neat, and it has a lot going for it. For a game of this scale, it’s uniquely melancholy, and you’ll spend much of the proceedings alone, with only KK as your guide (though KK has some friends, who will largely communicate with you through audio or during the game’s story moments). Tokyo is now littered with spirits in place of the people who vanished in the calamity, and they’re left behind in the form of glowing blue auras. Those spirits hold the game’s myriad sidequests, which typically have the player find something that a spirit in a nearby household has been haunted by or is attached to, or you’ll be a special item that has now been tainted with malevolence, by drawing a symbol onto it with your hands.
These side stories are a treat for fans of J-horror, as they’ll have the player exploring mundane households and investigating items that lead you to learn about a family’s terrible history, or how a relationship went wrong. However, there are simply too many of them, and the formula wears thin after the initial hours of play. You’ll start to recognise the same rooms being re-used, and tense, exciting escapes — perhaps after you interact with a haunted item, the rooms in a house may rearrange themselves, similar to Remedy’s Control — are oft-repeated.
It’s played in the first person, and you interact and attack everything using your hands, which can now fire a variety of spiritual attacks. Your basic blasts, which can be rotated with the shoulder buttons, are aqua, fire, and wind, and they’re essentially a shotgun, bomb, and standard gun blast. As you continue, you’ll also acquire a bow-and-arrow, and various wards with effects, like one that shoots out electricity to stun enemies. It’s refreshing to play an action game with no guns and no blood, and I applaud Ghostwire for bringing some fresh air to the combat of open world games. You also have a block button which can be used for certain benefits if you perfectly time a parry, like regaining health and ammunition. Food is used as health items, which you’ll be using constantly, as your health does not recharge on its own, and Ghostwire grants the player with benefits for overusing health items. The more total items you use throughout the game, the more your health is permanently boosted.
Navigating is done by running from waypoint to waypoint, as is par for the genre course, and Shibuya is chock-full of stairways, towers, and monsters that allow you to grapple to them to find a vantage point. The fog that’s descended over Shibuya must be cleared in bits and pieces by cleansing Torii gates, which have some sort of surrounding battle arena, and set of rewards for conquering. The Torii gates then become fast-travel points. You also have the ability to glide through the air and fall without losing any health, and when you first use the gliding ability, it truly feels like a world of opportunity is going to open to you. It’s initially thrilling to look around at the rain-drenched streets and pick and choose a rooftop to try to make it to, but you’ll often drop right before your desired destination with a ker-plop.
Ghostwire never quite feels like the free-flowing parkour-fest it had the potential to be. There are so many gates to be cleared. There are several points in the game where the main story comes to a screeching halt until the player clears more Torii gates. The run speed in the game is molasses-like, and you’ll find that more often than not, when you jump to grab at a rooftop, nothing happens because you’ve missed the trigger point by an inch. There’s simply no flow to anything, and the pacing in general is abysmal.
Even when I had made up my mind that I wanted to avoid optional content and focus solely on main story missions, I’d find navigating to the next point a chore, and often anxiety riddled as there are so many items, side quests, Yokai monsters, optional fetch quests (though most of the main missions also involve fetching), collectible spirits, and cursed areas surrounded by enemies that need to be cleaned. There is simply no way to play this game without running into a million distractions. This detracts from the insular, lonesome mood. Furthermore, the enemies have too much health, and battles last far too long. The enemy types are legitimately unnerving and right out of the most horrible Junji Ito comic — think faceless traffic officers, running little girls, screeching, towering women holding monstrously large pairs of scissors, among other fiendish designs — but I found that I could only rip the soul out of a ghoul’s body and watch it wretchedly scream with the same animation so many times before I just wanted to start the next damned mission.
The story missions are mostly very good, and the writing is excellent. Ghosts have a variety of wants and needs and memories, and there are both alternatively devastatingly sad and wryly comedic side quests. Animals in the game also have surprising functionality, from pointing out secrets, to having just a little thought of their own. There are also recordings and artifacts of lore and side characters that are rendered in excruciating detail. If you’re someone interested in learning more about Japanese mythology, Yokai, and Shinto, you’ll find an embarrassment of riches.
Many aspects of the game do not benefit from the disease of more, though. There’s a largely extraneous, rote RPG-lite upgrade tree, allowing you bolster certain abilities that ought to have been stronger from the get-go. There’s even stealth in the game, and it’s fairly joyless and imprecise, as ghost’s seem to detect you from surprising, oblique angles, and there are rewards for tackling the game’s relatively simple combat scenarios in an experimental fashion.
Traversal is similar, as it never feels quite exciting or refreshing to try to take different paths from point A to point B. I found myself just finding the highest points of the map and gliding as far as I could to skip portions of the game, or just sprinting through encounters completely when I just wanted to brute force my way to the next point in the main story, in spite of the game’s litany or distractions. Frankly, I don’t know why the game needed so much navigational fluff, and I question whether the entire experience could have been a classic if it had been designed as a linear experience.
Visually, the game is rough around the edges, there are never too many enemies on screen at once, and certain items and buildings are blocky and generic. However, it is a memorable depiction of uncanny horror in an urban setting — the enemy designs are disturbing, story characters look great, and there is a memorable attention to detail in the city’s many vending machines, malls, and signs. Streets are filled with empty vehicles and clothing that is set aside to look exactly like it’s missing a person. This is another area where less would have been more — if I had seen less of these individually great elements repeating, I would probably remember them more.
The audio, which transitions from curious bells and ambient droning to violent woodwinds and drums, suffers from the same philosophical approach. As you wander around the city from side quest to main story to battle area, each of the cues drown each other out and become irritating. Each of the individual tracks are atmospheric, but they transition into each other so quickly, and the directional audio often brings in distracting sounds any time you’re just trying to settle into a moment.
Ghostwire: Tokyo suffers from a jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none mentality at every turn. What ought to be a thrilling fusion of action and horror falls into the trappings of repetitive design and an overwhelming bounty of side-content gets in the way of the worldbuilding of an idiosyncratic, and hopefully evolving original story property. I wanted to love Ghostwire, but found that each time I wanted to climb an apartment complex overseeing the dizzyingly rich landscape of Shibuya, I’d fall and catch myself aggroing three enemies, and after spending ten minutes disposing of them, have multiple ghosts begging me to take their sidequest. It’s like sitting through a perfectly directed horror film, only to be subjected to jump scare after jump scare.
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