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While playing Ghostwire: Tokyo, an action-horror game that incorporates the most terrifying aspects of Japanese mythology and the eerie emptiness of modern Shibuya, I found myself most unsettled by something unintentional: the main character’s misshapen, claw-like hands.
I don’t think Akito’s hands are supposed took look strange. Since it’s the only part of him you regularly see, I get the sense the animators wanted them to look elastic. But in trying to make hands that look both mostly realistic and also inhumanly flexible, they’ve ended up camped deep in the uncanny valley. I spent an embarrassing amount of time holding up my own hand in front of the screen and looking from it to Akito’s, trying to pinpoint what about the latter looked so wrong.
Ghostwire: Tokyo is very close to being a great game — and it’s not a bad one. Its setting and atmosphere are excellent, the design is great, and the story and voice acting are perfectly adequate. But the gameplay itself isn’t particularly compelling, and without it, all of the other elements can only save so much.
Something is wrong in Shibuya
The game stars Akito, a young man critically injured in a car accident minutes before the entire ward of Shibuya has their spirits ripped from their bodies. A ghost named KK jumps into his body and this joining is enough to keep Akito’s own spirit bound to the mortal plane. In joining with KK, Akito gains the ability to use magical powers for attack, defense, and radar.
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Though initially resistant to each other, they eventually find common ground in purging Shibuya of evil spirits, or “Visitors.” Together, the two must save the people of Shibuya from the machinations of the evil Hannya. It’s basically the setup of Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor.
Like many stuck in Forbidden West/Elden Ring tunnel vision, I hadn’t heard much about Ghostwire: Tokyo and wasn’t exactly sure what kind of gameplay to expect. So let me clear something up for those like me: Ghostwire: Tokyo isn’t a horror game. It’s an open-world exploration game with horror and action elements. But I didn’t find it particularly scary except in a few places.
As I said earlier, the setting is amazing. I’ve not yet had the pleasure of visiting Shibuya myself, so I don’t know how accurate the rendition is. But the urban sprawl and claustrophobic streets convey the feeling of a modern metropolis. The Japanese cultural accuracy is, again, not my place to judge, but I thoroughly enjoyed being in this game’s world.
While I said the game isn’t scary, the emptiness of the city is deeply spooky.
Hannya has rendered everyone in the city incorporeal, but their belongings remain in place. You find piles of clothes, purses, shoes, and phones lying where they were dropped. Sometimes you can even discern context: An empty baby carriage, a whimpering dog lying next to a handbag, clothes in piles at the bottom of an escalator.
Akito and KK apparently save people’s lives by collecting their souls in katashiro (small paper dolls), and turn it in via series of transmitters hidden in phone booths. I won’t get too into the story details, but I do find it odd that the other characters say, “Good work, we’re going to save these people by reuniting them with their bodies … offscreen, elsewhere … despite the fact they no longer have bodies.” I suppose I don’t have to question that too closely.
We’ve got Visitors
The enemy design in this game is also a high point. While the allied characters are dogs, cats, and various yokai (supernatural creatures) that Akito encounters; the Visitors he fights look disturbingly human. The game describes them as the embodiments of negative emotions, including rage, anxiety, and emptiness.
The basic enemy looks like an eyeless businessman in a suit — Slenderman on every corner. These are created, according to the game, from people who work so much they’re exhausted and depressed. This isn’t stated in-game — only mentioned in flavor text — but I think seeing these besuited, slumped figures trundling along conveys the feeling well enough.
Other enemy types include women in prim dresses with Silent Hill-style bandaged faces, headless schoolchildren, a tall woman in a white dress with a wide-brimmed hat (hmmmm), and various things that float in the air and shoot fireballs at you if you get too close. My favorite is the Lamentation, which is all arms and hair, and, when knocked out of the air, will crawl or fling itself at Akito. This was the only creature in the game to make me jump at all.
With regards to the horror, the game does get much creepier when it puts the player in more confined circumstances. In some places, Akito and KK must investigate haunted houses and office buildings, and those are much closer to scary than the open world. I almost wish more of the game was like that. My favorite side quest involved a haunted underground area with labyrinthine hallways.
In case you’re wondering, you’ll find plenty of Japanese yokai in the game. However, they’re almost always either harmless or friendly. The missions where they feature were my favorite in the game, and I think it’s interesting that the creatures in the game are all either cute or funny, while it’s the human-shaped beings that are creepy.
Hitting the pavement
To clarify, Ghostwire: Tokyo is an open-world title — specifically, it’s a map game. You know the kind: You visit a landmark to clear fog from a map, and explore to find a series of collectables, sidequests, and the clusters of souls that are hidden all over Shibuya. And this is where the game starts to get weak for me.
Basically the bulk of the gameplay, should you choose to engage with it — and the game forces you to engage with it through vast stretches — is about trekking around the map finding things.
We’ve all played these kinds of games before — heck, Forbidden West was also a map game. I would have no problem with Ghostwire: Tokyo using this formula as a way of telling a cool, spooky action-horror story in modern Tokyo. But the problem is that, in practice, the game quickly turns into a boring slog, especially if you want to try and do more than the main story path.
The gameplay isn’t flexible or fun enough to support open-world exploration or the search for collectables. For example, one of the main mechanics is finding the aforementioned clusters of souls. I could liken them to various collectibles, but the ones they remind me most strongly of are the orbs from Crackdown. They are scattered all over, such as on top of roofs. Okay, you think, so this game must have strong platforming and climbing mechanics?
Well, not really. They’re not the worst I’ve ever seen, but they’re neither proficient nor well-designed enough to make the experience fun. I spent more time than I would have liked going up narrow flights of steps in order to reach otherwise inaccessible roofs, because the game has almost no vertical movement options. The game does give you the ability to travel up quickly by spawning a tengu as a personal grappling point, but it’s a fairly expensive skill in the tree you won’t get right away.
Another problem is that you’re restricted by the map’s fog. Unlike in other games, where the fog is more of a visual metaphor for your lack of knowledge of your surroundings, here it’s literal. Akito has to visit Torii gates and cleanse an area before he’s able to explore. I’ve come to accept that “visit landmark, do something that clears fog” is part of the gameplay of open worlds. But in this case, I don’t like that I must do this in order to move freely around the map.
I ain’t afraid of no ghost
The combat is another area where the game is not quite good enough: Akito has three forms of elemental attacks: Wind, Fire, and Water. Each has its strengths and weaknesses — water is good for short-range crowd control, fire is for damage, etc. However, in practice, I just used whichever one was equipped until I ran out of spiritual “bullets,” then switched to the next one. They aren’t actually that different from each other. I knew they were different in theory, but in the moment-to-moment gameplay, it didn’t really matter much against the typical enemies.
You can also charge attacks for supposedly more damage, but I found that I could achieve the same effect in less time by simply spamming the attack button quickly. Keep in mind, that’s supposed to trigger fast, light attacks. Death by 1,000 cuts should not be faster and more effective than a shotgun blast, but that’s about the shape of it. Perhaps this problem is more balanced in the higher difficulties, but I don’t think it really matters.
Outside of elemental attacks, Akito can also wield a bow and arrow as well as a variety of paper talismans. The latter can do things like stun enemies in a radius, make their cores easier to expose, or divert their attention elsewhere. Both of those weapons have the same problem, though: While you can occasionally find arrows in the world, for the most part the only way to reload your stock is to buy them from nekomata (cat spirit) shopkeepers.
Money is not terribly hard to come by in the world of Ghostwire, but ether to refill your elemental attacks is plentiful in literally every square foot of space in Shibuya. You will trip over more ether refills than you will ever need to use. I even bumped the difficulty up to see if ether crystal containers would be rarer, and I don’t think they were.
So spending money on ammo that could go towards more katashiro or dog food for my four-legged friends felt like a waste. It got to the point where I would only ever use the bow or talismans during the brief sections where Akito and KK are separated and the former can’t use the latter’s powers.
Hello from Shibuya — wish you were here!
I will repeat: Ghostwire: Tokyo is not a bad game. I was interested enough to stick with it and engage with as much of it as possible. If you have more patience for open-world exploration and tedious collectable-finding than I do, then you might get more out of it. I didn’t go into detail about this, but the story is decent and well-told, and that counts for something. This game is also bursting with visual flavor and interest, the kind of which you won’t find elsewhere.
But the majority of the game is spent in that open-world formula. Clear fog, gather items and souls, turn in for XP and money, do sidequests and tasks for that area. It’s all in the service of filling a percentage bar, and it just gets boring after a while. No matter how pretty or interesting the surroundings were, once I got well and truly stuck in the rut, I honestly stopped noticing.
Ghostwire: Tokyo launches on March 25 on PlayStation 5 and PC. Bethesda provided GamesBeat with a PS5 code for this review.