If exploring the dark rainy alleyways of the downtown Tokyo district Shibuya by your lonesome searching for lost souls sounds like your ideal evening, then this review of Ghostwire: Tokyo might help scratch that very specific itch of yours…
First announced back at E3 2019, with the memorable line from Creative Director Ikumi Nakamura, Ghostwire was pitched as a ‘new kind of action adventure game’. Not being a survival horror game that the studio is known for developing previously like The Evil Within. The initial trailer dripped haunting Japanese imagery and certainly caught plenty of attention. Merging first person shooter mechanics with some good old adventure game skill trees, collectables and some simple puzzle solving, Ghostwire certainly delivers on its promise of being a unique experience, but possibly outdated design and narrow subject matter might turn away players.
Story: A Spiritual Bond
The game starts with the scene of a traffic collision, and a free floating spirit named ‘KK’ is flying over it. You’re already sort of dead, or at least you will be, unless you follow the guidance of the grizzled Japanese man who has now partial possession of your corporeal form. Suddenly, a ghastly fog rolls over Shibuya, and malicious spirits come stalking out of it. You are the younger Akito, and you’re only still alive due to KK inhabiting your body granting you access to magic powers.
At first Akito is understandably at odds with this arrangement, worried for the fate of his sister Mari, who is comatose in a nearby hospital. Trekking over to her hospital leads you to an encounter with the mastermind of this whole affair, a man in a ‘Hannya’ mask who wants to use Mari for a twisted ritual to merge the worlds of the living and the dead together. This leads to KK opening up about his profession, with Akito and him finding common ground to work together to stop the spiritual threat.
Akito and KK are a great duo. The younger, slightly arrogant Akito being in the spotlight while the older, more experienced KK guides and teaches from the shadows. The two connect throughout the game with stories about their past, family and skillset. A great touch is that as Akito becomes more competent with his skills, KK is more commentary and less harsh in his dialogue towards him. KK will often be commenting on your performance after your combat encounters.
Supporting characters come from both Akito and KK’s side of the story. The helpful Rinko, never overstays her welcome and has a great rapport with KK’s stubbornness. Mari’s story is mostly told through flashbacks with Akito and their past. In a way that communicating the fond memories Akito has to the player. Even Ed, the faceless man behind the payphones has some quirky traits via his voice lines.
Overall the story has its roots in family and friends, life and death, the bonds between them and the way they shape how you grow as a person.
Gameplay: Satisfyingly Simple
First off, I have to say, this game starts out with some of the worse default settings I have ever seen. At least on the PS5 version (v1.004). For some reason, the default settings have pretty intense motion blur, slow camera speed and way too much padding on the camera acceleration. The anti-aliasing settings are also messed up which caused screen tear and added to the massively noticeable input lag. I played for about 5 minutes before getting motion sick (something that never happens for me!). It wasn’t a great first impression having to spend 10 minutes at the start of the game playing with settings. If you have a similar issue, here are my recommended settings to reduce the input lag:
Combat: A First Person Shooter with a Twist
With that fixed, we can jump into the core mechanics of the game. In combat, Akito can cast different types of magic with hand gestures, inspired by a form of Kuji-kiri or ninjitsu. Each form has its own element, effect and ‘ammo’. Wind is your standard single shot ‘pistol’ affair. Fire is a powerful piercing projectile with an AOE blast and limited ammo. Water is a short range ‘shotgun’ wave gesture. A little further along in the game Akito can use a bow and arrow, and even consumable paper talismans with unique effects such as growing foliage to assist with stealth sections.
Enemies can sometimes feel quite spongey when you’re seeing your limited ammo tick down, and as far as I could tell, the elements used didn’t play into any sort of ‘type’ advantage. Encounters with these ‘Visitors’ range from a suspenseful clash in an enclosed space, to a manic street brawl against a crowd of hungry yokai. Once Visitors are worn down enough, their ‘core’ is exposed and Akito can use his ‘Wire In’ ability to execute them in a stylish finger bending animation. All of your combat abilities can be upgraded via the standard skill point affair upon levelling up. Nothing too special there.
Visitor designs themselves are formed from the negative spiritual energy based on Japanese yokai and myths. Rain Walkers are overworked, faceless Japanese businessmen who use their umbrellas to attack. Paper Dolls only appear to support other Visitors and create bullet hell-like patterns to dodge, based on women in the service industry who always maintain a smile. Right up to the child like, freaky Lamentation, legless abominations that have large mouths and sharp hair. Most of the basic Visitors have variations that change their appearance and behaviour slightly. I found Male Students more aggressive than Female Students for example.
Exploration: An (Eternal) Night on the Town
One of Ghostwire‘s most alluring aspects is it’s setting. Based in Tokyo’s Shibuya district, the scale of the map may not be as big as other open world counterparts, but the density of Tokyo’s sprawling urbanism more than makes up for it. Faithfully recreated almost 1:1 are dark alleyways, side passages, buildings and shrines crammed into roundabout places. Flying Tengu hover over most buildings, acting as demonic grabbling hook points. There is an impressive amount of verticality to the map design, with you gliding around buildings or exploring the underground in some sections.
Initially, most of the map is covered in a deadly fog that can be cleared in sections by praying at spiritual Tori gates, and cleansing the area, Assassin’s Creed watchtower style. In doing so, you will see little side quests and points of interest pop up. These side quests usually involve helping lost spirits find peace, be it hunting down a malicious yokai that plagues them, or finishing off something in the material world for them. The quests themselves can differ in complexity, ranging from interesting sub stories involving haunted dolls, to ‘go kill a wave of enemies for me’.
Alongside the side quests, there are various collectables to be discovered that grant various boons. Kappa paddle in street fountains that you have to sneak up on and capture, Karakasa (possessed umbrellas with one eye) need to be chased down as they hop away. Various Tanoki are hidden around the city disguised as anything from a pot to a billboard.
Graphics and Sound: A Faithful Perspective of Tokyo
One of the biggest pros of Ghostwire is its graphics. It is an undeniably beautiful game thanks to its attention to detail in re-creating Shibuya. While the constant rain does get a little weary after a few hours, it really helps the atmosphere of a dark and abandoned Tokyo district. The lights and particles of the surroundings and combat encounters are reflected on the wet concrete and tiles of halls and buildings.
As someone who is interested in Japan in general, I spent the first few hours examining every nook and cranny for all of its details. I inspected every vending machines content, every twin tailed cat-yokai run shop and signpost held at least some interest to me. Scattered piles of clothes hint at the activities Shibuya’s residents were doing before they became lost to the demonic fog. Photo Mode lovers rejoice, as it’s the only place you’ll properly see any of Akito’s unlockable outfits properly.
Visitor designs hint at the dark origins of their malice and creepily stumble around the rainy streets. When engaging with them a lot of the animations convey the anger and aggression the game tells you these spirits are filled with. Most of them wildly swing at you while with guttural growls and snarls, while ones without arms are eager to pounce or shoot those pesky evil orbs at you. They are threatening at the start of the game, seeing and hearing them prowl the streets but quickly turn into standard run of the mill trash that holds little threat.
The soundtrack is very ambience focused, you’ll be hearing a lot of rain. Ghostly wavelengths compliment the often peaceful soundscape, with hints of traditional sounding Japanese instruments. In combat the ambience is ramped up with pounding drumbeats supplemented by the sounds of your various spell effects. Don’t expect any upbeat anime themed tunes here.
Ghostwire: Tokyo was reviewed on PS5.