Ghostwire: Tokyo - Split-Personality
It is perhaps appropriate that Ghostwire: Tokyo opens as the apparent corpse of its protagonist, Akito, becomes possessed with the shinigami spirit of its other protagonist, KK. This creates a player-character that is actually two people, and is perhaps just as well because said two characters (a young adult hung up with guilt over his sister getting trapped in a fire and a grizzled so-called spirit detective) lack substance. They need each other. Not just for story reasons, but also in order to make the first-person shoes that players are asked to fill feel fuller. Banter helps. Nonetheless, it would be better if both characters managed to be more interesting on their own merits.
This is only made more apparent by the fact that Ghostwire: Tokyo takes the most walked upon piece of asphalt on the planet and turns it into a literal ghost town. The entire premise is built on this. A strange fog has enveloped Tokyo and its citizens have disappeared, loose lumps of clothing and a disturbing number of convenience store bags filled with sandwiches, tea and onigiri serving as evidence of the life that a moment ago was throbbing all throughout the concrete jungle. Just exactly why Akito – and his sister, who is dangled like bait to give him some kind of drive – is still around isn’t meaningfully explained.
Or maybe it is? The storytelling is a bit naff all around.
The world-building, though? That bit is good. Tango Gameworks has clearly thought out the lore of its world, knuckled out a solid aesthetic and has made very good on an absolute commitment to Japanese mythology and urban legends. Japanese players will very likely innately understand things that will simply go over the heads of a Western audience that will likely, instead, have to take solace in just how much more exhotic and inventive it all seems. Whichever lens it gets viewed through, this is one aspect of the game that is wonderfully coherent and consistent. Ghostly ‘Visitors’ in the form of headless high-school students, slender businessmen sans faces and ghastly miko littler the world. The map is opened up by cleansing corrupted torii gates; finding tanuki hidden around the map forms the backbone of side-mission busiwork; clumps of lost souls are rescued by means of katashiro; capturing kappa and other such yokai yields stat-building rewards.
Convenience stores have been taken over by floating cats.
Even the rain effect itself, while sadly more impressive in stills than in motion, sees literal, watery 雨 kanji fall from the sky amidst the streaky droplets.
It takes a while to really splash around in the rain, however. While the events of Ghostwire kick off on the streets, at the point of Akito’s literal possession, his insistence on saving his sister sees a quick dash to a hospital. It gives an early impression of methodological progress, of crouching behind walls, using ‘spectral vision’ to highlight key nemesis and items of interest, of progress being earned, stealth considered, and restorative items moderated. During this time, while it seems at odds with Akito’s lithe build, the weighty nature of the movement and camera control seems at least thematically appropriate, in tune with the oppressive nature of Ghostwire’s Tokyo.
This impression only lasts a short while beyond the rescue mission inevitably deteriorating into an endgame-like goal. Ghostwire: Tokyo locks its (open) world off behind a lethal fog that must be lifted by cleansing the aforementioned torii gates, but the map is large – especially when traversed by foot – and it doesn’t take long to notice that combini bags to absolutely litter the streets, that this world’s equivalent of cash and ammo deposits to flow as if from a leaky faucet. Large areas are empty of nothing more meaningful than items to scoop up and pockets of spirits to rescue with your stack of paper dolls; it’s a rapid, somewhat disheartening descent into quick-fix, nutrient-empty distractions.
From this perspective, it’s almost painful that the general feel and vibe of Tokyo is just so, so well-realised. Ghostwire balances the neon saturation of postcard-ready main streets with the claustrophobic, crumbling feel of side-streets developed before any kind of road setback was included in the building code beautifully. The forest, when viewed as such, is a masterpiece; the actual trees, however, are less so. Few of the locations that Akito passes through are memorable in any way and navigation increasingly relies upon icon-vomit from the main area map. A victory of the macro at the expense of the micro.
More to the point, it makes Ghostwire: Tokyo feel unfocused and kind of at odds with itself, like two disparate design approaches that maybe compensate for each other but also leave you wishing that one would win out and just be done fuller, better. Ghostwire is often at its best when it’s being openly theatrical, when the world shifts and changes around you, corridors are cleverly crafted and the experience feels deliberate and directed. These moments are rare, however, and those weighty controls mentioned before, while adjustable in the options menu, never really feel fit the more sprawling, often frenetic feeling that much of the rest of the game wants to facilitate.
Beyond the opening moments, Ghostwire never really feels quite right, at least not on PS5. Even the performance mode is sluggish compared to the 30fps of many other games, and the ray-tracing option should be ignored entirely. For all of the horror trappings – and the atmosphere it creates is an absolute triumph – Ghostwire: Tokyo is very much interested in being an open-world action game. Conceptually, it’s cool as all get out: finger-guns blast blades of green wind, with water and fire following duley in suit; the equivalent of red barrels literally float in the air; an ethereal rope is used to physically tear the exposed cores from Visitors once you’ve blasted them enough with satisfying visceral physicality.
Combat is visually bananas, and it makes great B-roll for trailers. Unfortunately, in practice, it frequently amounts to backing down the street and blasting away as fast as you can. Ghostwire: Tokyo would benefit from feeling as frenetic as it often looks. The sluggish movement works in interiors, but is at odds with the overwhelming majority of the many combat encounters. Improved maneuverability would improve this game so much, it’s kind of heartbreaking to contemplate.
This extends beyond combat. Ghostwire has occasional moments of verticality, and Akito can use harpy-like creatures as anchors to grapple atop buildings. Why the skill tree, such as it is, doesn’t include things such as faster sprinting, bulled-time dodges, or expanding this ghostly grapple to the point where you’re almost moving around like effing Spiderman would be baffling were the likely answer not that the end product here feels like a collective mess of different visions.
The stealth mentioned earlier? Forget about crouching – most Visitors can be approached from the side or behind and insta-killed in a way that would make sneak attacks wholly unsatisfying where the actual banishment animations not so spot-on.
Likewise, that such hodgepodge is still somewhat enticing says at least something for what each conflicting vision could be, and of the talent of the team, particularly those involved in the presentation. Ghostwire is hardly a technical tour-de-force, often looking more like a high-end Pro version of a PS4 game than a PS5-level exclusive, but the mood is spot on. And the sound design? Simply excellent. The controller speaker (sorry, PC players) is used in tandem with the rest of the audio to create uneasy crackle and reverb with legitimate success, and a sense of spaciousness and directionality is accomplished to the point where even an aging 3.1 soundbar setup can manage some height information.
Like its dual-personality protagonist, Ghostwire: Tokyo feels like two not-fully-baked products that were brought together to create something more whole. The end result is actually pretty enticing, perhaps the most interesting good-not-great title that 2022 will see. That said, it’s hard to escape the sense that had either side of Ghostwire’s potential been focused on and polished with clearer vision, the end result may instead have been a nice, simple, fuss-free great one.