These Are My Ghost Adventures
Do you like Japan? No, not anime. Nor eastern games. And no, JRPGs are not an entirely different thing. I’m talking about actual Japan. The geographical location with history and traditions. The neon lit sights of Tokyo, the rich folklore, cultural customs, and the glistening glaze of matarashi dango. Do you like THAT Japan? If so, I absolutely recommend Ghostwire: Tokyo. I’m confident you’ll love it, like I did. But my ardent affections do not make a perfect game. Ghostwire has quite a few successes to celebrate, but also failures. We’re going to get into many of them. However, it’s worth prefacing that your esteemed critic grinned with glee every time a kappa was on screen.
Ancient Mystic Yokai... Turtle-thing
Ghostwire has somewhat of a dual-protagonist thing going on. You see, you play as Akito. A young Tokyo-ite whom we later learn was going through… a lot. The game opens on a shot of his near lifeless body – the outcome of some car crash – while a mysterious fog engulfs the titular city. As Akito lays there, the surrounding fog ostensibly rapturing its victims, we’re introduced to the second protagonist. He goes by KK; he’s a ghost and seems pretty bitter about it. We meet him as he’s frantically looking for a body to possess, and he just so happens to stumble upon the aforementioned almost-statistic. KK latches onto the vessel, and now the souls of both inhabit a single body. However, KK didn’t expect Akito’s body to still have a bickering soul attached, and Akito understandably doesn’t wanna share. This leads to some initial apprehension from both, but eventually they find common ground in saving Tokyo. KK to thwart the nefarious Hannya and Akito to save his sister, who coincidentally is apart of the villain’s machinations.
Essentially, it’s a buddy cop story with a metaphysical twist. The two start their journey with an uneasy, almost resentful, alliance. And by its end, they learn to appreciate and rely on each other. It's a fun enough arc. Not that this two-minds-one-body set up is ever implemented in gameplay. From the player’s perspective, they play as Akito, who always has full control of his body despite what the occasional cutscene implies. KK just amounts to Ghostwire’s Navi. But from a narrative perspective, it’s a somewhat interesting gimmick. It certainly keeps in line with the setting. And what a fantastical settling it is.
You can pet the dog!
Tokyo is gloriously realized. From its well-known city lights to its more subdued residential neighborhoods. More often than not, it feels like a real city. There are construction projects, shopping centers, traditional temples, and street food carts aplenty. The whole game takes place over the course of a gloomy, rainy night. The rain and puddles really accentuating the beauty of the city’s lights. And, of course, this is all during some otherworldly phantom apocalypse. The clothes of “raptured” inhabitants are strewn across the streets and yokai have taken the opportunity to populate the now human-less Tokyo. But you don’t fight yokai in this game. Instead, you fight… well, I don’t really know what to call them. The game names them “visitors,” but I’m unaware of any actual supernatural entities they're akin to. They’re not ghosts, because ghosts are a different thing in this universe that you routinely save. I guess they’re like hell-beasts or demons, spooky specters with only hostile intentions for humans.
Well, whatever they are, they’re really fun to kill. Ghostwire: Tokyo has some of the most invigorating action design I’ve seen in any recent game. Your primary means of attack is firing magic projectiles, called ethereal weaving. You’re given three variants: air, your basic go-to blaster; water, a short-range horizontal slash; and fire, a long-range piercing blast. Or to put it another way: pistol, shotgun, sniper. There are some nuanced differences, but they effectively equate to standard FPS weapons. You also have access to a bow with enchanted arrows and several throwable ofuda that can stun enemies or even provide temporary cover. But I never used them and never saw any need to, so I wouldn’t say they play a big part in the game’s combat as a whole. All three arial weaving styles also have a secondary fire, provided a charge before firing. You get a semi-auto blast, a wider slash, and essentially a grenade, respectively. All three styles are a flashy, dazzling display of particle effects. They do lose some of their otherwise commendable imaginative design by functioning so close to genre staples. That does not make them any less fun or satisfying, however.
Your typical encounter goes how you might expect. Shoot the tangos dead. But Ghostwire differentiates its combat in one inspired mechanic. See, you can just shoot the ghastly apparitions until they stop moving. But it’s somewhat advantageous – and just plain funner – to rip out their hearts. Once an enemy has taken enough damage, their spectral core becomes exposed and they enter a stun state. Now, with the pull of a trigger, Akito will grab their core with a neon string (perhaps the eponymous “ghostwire.” But it was never referred to as such, so I won’t assume) and tear it right out of them. The animation and feedback of which never get old.
Wanna see something cool?
You can expose and lasso multiple cores at once, too. Which is awesome to do, but offers no benefit whatsoever. Or you can get in close and pull it out with your bare hands. Which is slightly faster, I think. But otherwise… no benefit whatsoever. It’s a testament to its undeniable viscera that tearing out cores is the ever-present goal to any encounter. Even when its strategic advantage is seldom essential. You have the option to get an upgrade that recovers some health with every core snatch. Which is a mechanic so dynamic I question why it wasn’t a default ability. But even then, the fact of the matter is another single shot to any stunned enemy usually results in a kill. There’s very little mechanical reason not to just go for that last, quick shot. But where’s the fun in that?
Never. Gets. Old.
The combat sets a good theme for most of Ghostwire’s gameplay: flashy and fun, but lacking mechanical purpose. There’s a really cool effect where, while stealthing about, the ghouls turn nearby light posts from a vivid yellow to screen-illuminating red corresponding with their alert level. It’s visually striking and inflates tension when you’re trying to sneak around. But they also gave the player an alert wheel on the HUD, which does the same thing but more efficiently. This delegates the light post effect to a mere visual effect. They could’ve easily removed the derivative wheel and had a wholly unique and entirely functional way of telling the player they’ve been seen. Then it would’ve actually played a role in gameplay. And the more limited perception would’ve made bouts of stealth much more nerve raking, which would’ve complimented the light horror the game occasionally goes for.
Enemies can affect the environment in other ways. Some might reverse the gravitational force of rain, or infect the immediate area with rot. These make for mesmerizing entrances, but, like the aforementioned light posts, pertain very little to gameplay. Why not incorporate environmental effects into tangible gameplay? I noticed they programmed rain to not fall where there’s coverage overhead. What if a wraith summoned acid rain, forcing the player to find cover? How about an enemy that emits deafening wails? Or, better yet, a blinding fog? It practically writes itself. Seems like a missed opportunity to introduce a uniquely Ghostwire mechanic. That aesthetic augmentation is really the only interesting thing done with enemy design. There are a couple notable late-game enemies, but the most common one just creepily speed-walks towards you and lunges an attack your way. Or throws something. There’s also flying enemies -- they just shoot stuff. There are healers, bullet sponges, rushing enemies, and other typical types. It all works and there’s enough variety to keep group compositions interesting. But it’s nothing we haven’t seen done before.
Unfortunately, that uninspired streak continues with the level design. While I’m quite fond of the game’s action design, its level design is a bog-standard – if serviceable – affair. Expect to run from waypoint to waypoint through Tokyo, facing off against random groups of enemies and grabbing collectables along the way. It’s all very familiar. I’d go so far as to say it’s unbecoming. It’s a shame that such a phenomenal setting is expressed through such a typical game. The level design is competent enough. I frequently got into the routine of casual completion. Even once the rewards started becoming meaningless, I was still compelled to run from task to task just for the sake of doing them. Although towards the end of the game, when side missions were recycled more and more, I eventually gave up on most of the side content.
Again, it’s simply unfortunate. Moreso as I get the sense the game wanted to be something more, but failed. One of the more interesting elements the game offered were haunted, shifting corridors. Removed from the open-world, the game occasionally provides the visual trickery seen in contemporary horror games. These effects range from really cool to legitimately unnerving. They could’ve made for a wonderful reprieve from the usual gameplay. Yet, like a lot of other ideas in Ghostwire, it’s lacking depth and follow through. For starters, while this style of design is often used to elevate visual story-telling, Ghostwire barely tries this. And when it does, it’s seldom poignant. Worse still, there’s absolutely no attempt to meld this roller coaster of contortion with Ghostwire’s actual gameplay. Whenever the developers want to throw some psychedelic visuals at the player, the game effectively becomes a walking sim. Ghostwire could’ve so easily set itself apart from the games it's so clearly derivative of by adding combat into such sections. But it doesn’t. It’s all just cool looking stuff for the sake of looking cool.
Ghostwire: Tokyo is a game with a lot of good ideas and clear passion that fails to elevate itself. It’s a marvelous thrill ride through a Tokyo wrought with supernatural dangers and sights. And that’s really all it can offer. The game can be spooky, but never steps into the realm of true horror. Its setting feels, at times, wholly different from anything I’ve explored before. Yet I’m doing the exact same things in it I’ve done a million times. The game’s weaponry can only be fully understood through video aids, but simply making a few comparisons would give most a sufficient understanding of them. It all manages to be so derivative despite appearances. From the first moment I saw Ghostwire, it looked like something new and fresh. I couldn’t have imagined so much of it would come from such well-worn sources.
Imaginative Vigor – 3/4
You know, I want to give Ghostwire full marks in this category – really I do. Every corner of this game is overflowing with inimitable charm. The setting, art direction, lore, and even some elements of the story. If the gameplay wasn’t so typical, the game would excel in creativity. But too much of it feels like any other game. Ergo, I can only say it’s great in the terms of this qualitative pillar.
This phenomenal looking set piece transports you to a generic combat gauntlet. Yay!
Entertainment Value – 3/4
As frequently stated throughout, Ghostwire is a fun game. Of all alike open-world games I’ve played, Ghostwire easily made for one of the most enjoyable. I’d mostly accredit this to the sandbox. It’s simply smaller and denser than a lot of contemporaries. The result is a game much less interested in wasting my time, which equates to an all-around funner game. It helps that the majority of tasks littered throughout the world ask for very little investment. However, that doesn’t make Ghostwire immune to genre failings. As one might expect, missions start repeating themselves. But more troubling than that was the core combat and exploration losing their appeal. Which meant the entire game became laborious before the credits rolled. It remains impressively entertaining – core snatches, baby – but it’s nothing extraordinary.
Emotional Resonance – 3/4
Ghostwire is a surprisingly emotional game. It does all center around death, so maybe I shouldn't have been surprised. Even just watching a spirit pass on peacefully after completing their side quest can resonate. The actual story has quite a few powerful moments, particularly towards its end. Buuut, it also has a lot of misses along the way. Moments meant to be touching might fall flat. Character development can feel artificial. Even uncovering the protagonists' pasts, which is a big part of the story, can fail to compel. The game’s antagonist has a lot going for them, but they were never as intimidating and thought-provoking as the game wanted them to be. Oh, and I just gotta say it straight, the game is never scary. It feels like it wants to be sometimes. But it never is. Still, I found myself more emotionally invested than I expected. Hence, the game manages to be successful in this regard.
You can pet the cat too!
Technical Function – 2/4
This one feels a little unfair. Ghostwire has very competent design. All of it comes together well enough and there’s nary a technical hiccup in sight. If the game was only trying to be a first-person, open-world completion-thon – and if I didn’t think that sub-genre’s design is fundamentally clumsy – I would reconsider this scoring. But I feel like Ghostwire wants to be more than that. It wants to scare the player. It wants to have a profound villain. It wants to feel original. And it just fails at all of that. The game has enough missed opportunities to fill out an entire blog. The game is adequately functional. But that’s the most I can say.
Artistic Depth – 3/4
All right. The gameplay lacks depth. I’ve been over that a few times already. There’s your main reason Ghostwire doesn’t score higher here. Moving on, I want to talk about its narrative a bit. So, the game has a basic set-up. Humanity in peril, damsel in distress, evil dude looks evil doing evil. While playing, I thought the game had very little to say. But the narrative’s ending really adds a lot to the proceedings. Motivations are redefined, relationships challenged, and the parallel between protagonist and antagonist becomes apparent and meaningful. The actual ending of the game brings together the themes of loss and acceptance the whole game had been quietly establishing SO well. Typically, during a lesser game’s end credits, I’m just thinking about what to play next. But during Ghostwire’s, I was taken aback by its message. It’s simple, yet profound. Culminative, yet unassuming. It elevates the artistry of Ghostwire: Tokyo beyond merely passable. Well into the realm of greatness.
Imagine a game where you, like, fly through these gates. But who would star...?
Okay, I’ve waited for my slightly unhinged addendum to say this: Ghostwire: Tokyo is another Ubi-like. In fact, in a lot of ways, it’s just Far Cry. Except spirituality replaces primal instinct as its thematic core. And I somewhat resent it for that. Or maybe I resent it for getting me to love it in spite of its nature. Even when I went back just to grab some content for this review, I fell right back into that Ubi-like completionist routine. It wasn’t for too long, but I have to admit I was getting lost in it for a bit. And enjoying myself all the while. Oh! And while I’m blatantly referencing the production of this review, I did rename “input/output design” from my last review to action design. You’re welcome.
My main takeaway from Ghostwire: Tokyo was the want for a sequel. There’s so much more they could do with this series. I would love to play a successor that iterates and nourishes the game’s unique qualities rather than focuses on the ones it’s taken from elsewhere. But I’ve a sneaking suspicion that this’ll end up a one-off. Maybe the team will go on to bigger and better things, but I’ll always have a place in my heart for a Ghostwire 2. But, hey, at least we’re sure to get more Ubi-likes! Truly a magical industry we follow…