It feels appropriate that Ghostwire: Tokyo--a game set in a version of Japan's capital city that has been overrun with demons, spirits, and otherworldly forces--feels both familiar and unlike anything I've seen in a while. While watching an extended demo, I was mentally ticking off checkboxes for the ingredients of a modern open-world action game: expansive city environment; areas that need to be liberated by interacting with landmarks; skill trees that develop your arsenal of weapons and abilities; an emphasis on traversal; check, check, check, and check. But while these, and some other aspects of Ghostwire: Tokyo, look typical for your run-of-the-mill open-world game on paper, their execution in-game is anything but.
Ghostwire: Tokyo is a marked departure from what we're used to seeing from developer Tango Gameworks. Its previous two games, The Evil Within and The Evil Within 2, carried the DNA of studio co-founder Shinji Mikami's most famous work: Resident Evil. Ghostwire: Tokyo, however, seems like the studio's way of saying it's more than just Shinji Mikami and Resident Evil 4-alikes. The irony of this is that Ghostwire: Tokyo actually began life as a sequel to The Evil Within 2.
"Yes, [Ghostwire: Tokyo] did start as a sequel to Psychobreak, the Japanese title for The Evil Within. I think the next in the series, at least," explained director Kenji Kimura. "And through a long and winding road, it has evolved into this different idea to create a fun game that's based in a city in Japan. At the time, there weren't that many games that were using a city in Japan as a base. And so we thought there was a big opportunity there to make something really fun and cool."
In this line of thinking, Kimura and his team are technically correct (the best kind of correct). Fans of Sega's beloved Yakuza series will no doubt "um, actually" the idea that games set in Japanese cities were a rarity, but beyond that series, there aren't many Tokyo-based games. And, outside of Square Enix's The World Ends With You and Atlus' Shin Megami Tensei titles, I've never seen the city depicted as strikingly as it is in Ghostwire: Tokyo.
The influence of Japanese mythology is immediately evident; this is a game steeped from top to bottom in the culture and history--past and present--of the studio's home country. My gameplay demo began with a description of Ghostwire: Tokyo as a "supernatural action-adventure thriller set in an eerie, haunted vision of Tokyo." Taking the idea of the familiar clashing with the extraordinary, the game's setting looks like the Tokyo you're probably familiar with. The one with gleaming buildings and advertising billboards stacked on top of each other and spread across your sightline, their eye-searingly colorful lights shimmering in on a sheen of rainwater spread across the ground, and bouncing off the puddles pooled here and there. A kaleidoscope of shopfronts are crammed into each block, with smatterings of vibrant foliage standing defiantly amongst the concrete and glass. Close your eyes and think of Tokyo or search for it on Instagram, and that's it.
"You know how you see some of the YouTubers out there showing Japan, like a travel channel type thing? It does definitely have that kind of essence to it. In a way, the execution of how Tokyo is made in GhostWire: Tokyo, is pretty detailed," said combat director Shinichiro Hara. "Sometimes you can actually find some cup of noodles in a store and you can actually see it. You can see the logo, and you can read those words and stuff--it's that detailed. You can't quite go that close to objects and stuff like that in a third-person game. So this particular game has an essence of visiting Tokyo in a way, very much like those YouTubers who actually show off [the city] from their point of view, in a first-person style."
But then, naturally, something has also gone terribly wrong in this version of Tokyo. A deep red blood moon ominously hangs over the city, which seems to be blanketed in perpetual darkness. Places that should be bustling with life, like bar-lined back streets, convenience stores, and restaurant districts, are devoid of life. Even the iconic Shibuya Crossing, where people are almost always stampeding back and forth, is eerily empty. Actually, it's worse. There are clear signs that people have been snatched from the world and spirited away: piles of clothes remain where they once stood, and in their place, horrifying monsters wander the streets.
The Tokyo depicted in the game is dense in detail, to the extent that I suspect that it's not likely to be as expansive as some of the open worlds that we come to know, love, and then be exhausted by--though that's just a hunch on my part for now. Regardless of its eventual size, I can confidently say that it was stunning, and it certainly helps that you experience it in first-person--a perspective shift that is also a first for Tango.
"We [used] a first-person camera because immersion was the keyword that we chose to be paramount for us. It's the most important thing," said Kimura. "Story- and scenario-wise, we had this normal human as our main character, who upon the path of the story, meets this other being that has superhuman, supernatural abilities.
"When they get together and try to accomplish a specific goal, they go through this process of walking through this city and encountering supernatural elements. Together, they become like a hero. We wanted to have that sense of the character that's inside the game actually be the person that's playing the game. We wanted to help break that wall between the game and the actual [player]. And to help with that is the first-person camera."
The narrative setup for Ghostwire: Tokyo involves the population of the city mysteriously vanishing and a flood of supernatural creatures called yokai appearing. The design of these beings is sure to catch your eye either because they're familiar to you, like the headless schoolgirl or the featureless Slender Man-like figure walking around in a pristine suit, or they're just so weird that you can't help but stop and stare, like the large office worker man wielding an umbrella, the lady that is just a big gaping maw with sharp stained teeth, or the very tall lady wearing a wide-brimmed hat, and wielding a comically large pair of scissors. Move over, Lady Dimitrescu.
The story begins with you, a mostly ordinary lad, awakening in the fallout of what is being called "The Vanishing." However, you've now got a voice in your head and the ability to harness elemental powers. The phantom hitching a ride in your body has its own agenda but, for the time being, it aligns with your own objective, which is to find your missing sister before she is spirited away by an ever-encroaching fog.
The idea of the "passenger" is something that is pretty common in stories but, more recently, has become popular again, particularly in fantasy anime and manga like Jujutsu Kaisen, for example.
"The concept here is definitely a normal person character. Then, through this meeting with this other worldly thing, his world is turned totally upside down, where everything becomes non-normal. And it's just a strange experience," said producer Kimura Masato. "And that happens in other forms of entertainment, but in our game, what we thought was unique is that it's taking you into Tokyo, and especially into a city like Shibuya. We wanted to create a world where there's nobody there. What would that feel like? And it's that uneasiness that makes this game a little bit special, a little bit more spooky in regards to the other universes that might exist in other brands of entertainment."
"I love Tokyo Ghoul and Jujutsu Kaisen. And I have been reading those, but I never actually compared them to Ghostwire: Tokyo," explained Kimura. "But the thing we are really trying to go for is, in this game, you're looking for things that you normally cannot see. And also, you're being threatened by things that you cannot see. But they're all in the usual world, in the familiar Shibuya that we normally walk around in.
And for example in Jujutsu Kaisen, the characters there and the enemies there, yes, they do have superhuman abilities because of those supernatural things inside their bodies. But the story there is basically based on humans versus humans. And so that might be a little different between our game and those other similar-sounding forms or brands of entertainment."
That brings us one of the core pillars of the game: combat. Again, that idea of something ordinary seemingly being delivered in an unconventional way carries through to the combat. Interestingly, Hara describes the game as a "first-person shooter," and he's again technically correct (still the best kind of correct). But there are no guns in Ghostwire: Tokyo. Instead, there's something way cooler: hand seals, which are used in a mystical art called "Ethereal Weaving"--it looks as badass as it sounds. The idea is that the player is able to channel an energy called ether to use elements like wind, fire, and water spells to aid in offense, while using perfectly timed blocks to mitigate incoming damage in defense.
"When I actually joined Tango, making this particular game in the first-person shooter genre was already decided," said Hara. "Going with something like firearms--submachine guns and other guns against these ghost-like enemies--it is not quite fitting. So we explored how you would actually defeat these enemies and what actually came to our minds was Ethereal Weaving, which is similar to a magic type [where you're] casting gestures that shoots out projectiles basically.
I thought this was actually interesting because [in] most first-person shooters, you have the rifle come up, then the shotgun, and you have these switches [between weapons]. But actually the transition between the weapons are not really cool. If you actually do it with these cool hand gestures, transitions between these weapons switching can be exciting."
And based on what I've seen, they certainly seem to be exciting. I will admit that I've been a massive sucker for hand seals and gesture-based combat since watching Kakashi take on Zabuza in Naruto as a teen, but even still, there's something undeniably cool about seeing the protagonist in Ghostwire: Tokyo rapidly form different shapes with his hands to fling magical spells from his fingers. It's like if you did finger guns and a different, dazzling firework appeared every single time--sometimes it's a fiery missile, other times you can have a whip of deadly water cutting through enemies, or a two-fingered flick of energy that staggers a target on impact.
The spells aren't infinite, as they have what is effectively "ammo" for each one, but one way you can replenish your energy seems to be tied to another cool mechanic. Against weakened enemies, it becomes possible to connect an ethereal golden thread to a core inside them, at which point your character pulls at it until the thread is taut enough to tear the core away, giving him a bit of ether to use. Even on-screen, without actually doing it myself, it looks pretty satisfying.
On top of those abilities, Tango has said there will be a range of traditional tools at the player's disposal. In the gameplay demo, I was shown an ornate bow and arrow number being used for ranged attacks.
"I think when you hear about magic casting, people have this idea that magicians are not really physically strong, or [that they're] not very powerful," said Hara. "But in GhostWire: Tokyo, we wanted the player to be like a magic-casting badass, basically. It's actually quite physical. So it's almost kind of combining magicians with martial artists in a way. We needed to define this element, the actual mechanics of how you defeat the enemy, [in a way] that it's fitting to this world. That's where the casting stuff came into being.
"All the things that the player can fire are actually projectiles. So they do actually travel through the world. And it's not instantaneous, like hitscan stuff. So it does actually contribute to that kind of element of the actual combat style. The other thing is, it is consistent with the enemy as well, so everything an enemy shoots is a projectile, too. It's not like some of the military shooters where when an enemy fires, you instantaneously get hit, and the only way to actually avoid that is hiding behind the cover."
He continued: "But also, we implemented the guard and parry system. So the projectiles, you can actually parry and deflect that stuff against an enemy and the enemy gets knocked down. It's not a [must-master] feature in order to finish the game, but it feels quite good when you succeed in parrying enemies' attacks and so on. As far as accessibility is concerned, it's not punishingly hard, because parrying is a risk-reward thing."
One aspect of Ghostwire: Tokyo that I didn't expect was verticality, which is leveraged by the traversal options available to the player. By grappling onto a Tengu Yokai, it becomes possible to take to the skies and land on rooftops, where another dimension to gameplay reveals itself. Though it remains to be seen how well it's realized, it seems there's a fair bit of platforming in Ghostwire: Tokyo. While on the rooftop, the player in my demo was shown using a katashiro doll--a human-shaped doll made from paper--to absorb untethered spirits to free them and earn experience. While up on the roof there were combat encounters, torii gates to cleanse thereby uncovering more of the map, and it was possible to latch on to other distant tengu yokai to move around. The player also leapt off a rooftop and entered a glide, carrying them further before dropping back down to street level. Interestingly, Tango says that there's a fair bit of the game that takes place underground, too.
"We consider this game to be a sandbox type of game," said Kimura. "It's not huge, but sizable, as the city of Shibuya. And so it's fairly big, but we wouldn't call it huge. The thing here that's different from other games would be that it's not just a horizontal-sized map, it's also vertical, because there are some buildings that you can climb and go to the rooftops. And also, some parts of Shibuya [are] underground in the game. It's a pretty big, wide space.
In normal life, when we're walking around the city, especially places like Shibuya, you would stay on the main streets, basically. You would see the side alleys and the back streets between the buildings and stuff, but you would never actually go into those small alleys because it's dark, or it might be a little too scary. There might be paranormal things. There might be spiritual things, but we just don't know. We just go about our normal lives."
He continued: "So in this game, we wanted to help scratch that itch in regards to that curiosity that's being piqued there, by allowing you, in the world of GhostWire: Tokyo, with the help of the yokai, like the Tengu, to the rooftops and see. So that you can see for yourself what kind of cool things might be there."
Despite not having played a single second of Ghostwire: Tokyo, I came away from my look at the game incredibly excited. There are a lot of familiar open-world game design elements that I know work for me, but I have derived little satisfaction from them in games from the past few years due to their traditionally iterative implementation. Ghostwire: Tokyo is setting itself up to be a distilled version of the open-world games I love, while also delivering the loops I want in their most potent form. Aspects like combat, traversal, and progression are familiar, there's no doubt about that, but it all comes across as considered, offering mechanical depth alongside visual and stylistic flair. I was always going to be intrigued by whatever Tango Gameworks had to offer, but Ghostwire: Tokyo has quickly become one of my most anticipated games for 2022.
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