[REVIEW] Ghostwire: Tokyo – Balancing on a very thin line

If you know your Shinji Mikami stuff, you know he has a thing for death and “the other side”. Resident Evil had us roaming through the world of the living full of creatures that weren’t. The Evil Within made us scour a STEM-powered shared consciousness riddled with horrifying entities that weren’t actually there. Mikami’s latest project – Ghostwire: Tokyo – sort of follows suit but tries to deviate from the standard survival horror approach that Mikami and Tango Gameworks are known for. And that takes a little getting used to. Especially when the in-game world is so vast that it can sometimes feel more dead than the spirits within them.

It all starts with fog. The deadly kind. As the bustling city of Tokyo grinds to an abrupt halt because of it, so does all human life. Except yours, apparently. You are Akito, a Japanese guy who just took a fatal tumble on his motorcycle. But for some reason, you’re very much alive while the rest of Tokyo’s residents breathn’t. That’s because of KK, a spirit using your mortal shell to finish some unfinished business. Business that includes dealing with a group of Hannya mask-wearing individuals.

Since Akito is all of the sudden deadn’t, he might as well make good use of it to settle some of his own wrongs. With the life of a loved one in the balance, Akito uses the powers granted by KK to fight for another shot at redemption. Then again, those aforementioned Hannya fellas aren’t going to make things easy on Akito. He’s going to need to get to the other side and back to get that part sorted out.

With all this spirit, other side, and freaky mask-wearing antagonists talk going on, you’d think that Ghostwire: Tokyo doesn’t really try to step away from horror. And on paper, you’d be right. But trust me when I say that Ghostwire: Tokyo absolutely isn’t. You should consider it a Japanese I Am Legend / Doctor Strange / Ghostbusters mash-up with action at the core. In fact, the game’s structure is set up in such a way that I’d be surprised if you got frightened at any point in time.

First of all, we’re not dealing with a classic horror-style environment. It’s just Tokyo at night, bright with colors and everything. Stores have that recognizable vibe with upbeat Japanese tunes and you’ll find cute and affectionate stray dogs and cats everywhere, waiting to get petted. The only thing that makes this Tokyo slightly off-putting is the lack of people in it. The only evidence of former life comes in the form of clothes, piled up where the fog claimed the souls of those who wore them.

Ghostwire: Tokyo makes abundantly clear that you’re not in it for the jumpscares. Mostly, there’s a general lack of an imminent threat as you walk the streets. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not there. As the speaker of the DualSense controller starts to output a panting white noise – giving me somewhat of a Silent Hill-ish vibe – malevolent entities enter the scene. These entities are hellbent on harvesting wandering souls, collecting them for a greater purpose proposed by the leader of the Hannya clan. And since you’re actively trying to disrupt that by saving those souls, things might get a little messy.

The thing is, spirits don’t really care much for conventional weaponry. Bullets would go through them like morning coffee. But that’s where KK comes in. Granted the ability to wield the power of water, wind, and fire, Akito can charge those entities in a Doctor Strange-like way. Just make some hand gestures and *POOF!*.. you just gunned down a spirit with nature’s power. And if you spend your skill points right, you’ll be stringing those attacks together like a pro. And if push comes to shove, you can always resort to a special bow which you’ll eventually pick up. Do enough damage and you can snatch their core to fill up your “ammo” and health. Just make sure you’re out of harm’s way when you do so. There’s nothing dumber than getting downed while trying to down something yourself.

To be fair, this is pretty cool, until you grow weary of it. As opposed to conventional shooters – where you carry around so many guns you’re essentially a one-man army – Ghostwire: Tokyo keeps it minimal. This also means that you’ll have to make do with just those three powers for 8 to 10 hours straight. And once you have your favorite one maxed out in the very rudimentary skill tree, things can get repetitive. Plus, Tango Gameworks’ choice when it comes to building up tension isn’t really helping either.

The thing is that Ghostwire: Tokyo is a very slow burn during the first few chapters, of which there are six in total. While I get what the team is trying to do – making you figure out slowly what happened – gameplay becomes quite of a drag. A handful of different entities await you here and there and you have to take them out to get places. These places mostly consist of so-called Torii gates which need spiritual cleansing to make the fog go away. Think of those as Assassin’s Creed’s synchronization points, without the tedious climb.

It’s only after wading through the first two chapters that the game starts to pick up steam. From that point, malevolent apparitions start to become more diverse and harder to vanquish. Hell, some of ’em are downright disturbing. Japanese folklore has so many evil spirits to offer that a headless schoolgirl or an umbrella-carrying Slenderman becomes the least of your worries. It’s when they all start to pour in in bunches that Ghostwire: Tokyo starts to show its potential. Unfortunately, these occurrences are limited if you stick to the main storyline. Not even the bossfights – which look impressive but actually are quite simple – can change that all that much.

Therefore, Tango Gameworks really tries to draw you to sidequests. In many games, sidequests are so insignificant that you’d rather skip them unless you’re a completionist. But in Ghostwire: Tokyo, sidequests are designed to paint a bigger picture. By interacting with trapped souls with unfinished affairs, Akito can figure out more about Tokyo’s current state. For once, it actually pays out to stray from the beaten path to do some chores on the side. It’s just a shame that your minimap gets absolutely littered with them, something Tango possibly picked up from open-world connaisseur Ubisoft.

Now, most of these slight inconveniences can easily be forgotten when you wrap your head around the graphical splendor. I mean, Tokyo looks absolutely amazing in Ghostwire: Tokyo. Even if it’s not 100% accurate, it sure comes across as such. Filled to the brim with neon signs and quirky shops – some staffed by Yokai – it’s the next best thing to actual Tokyo. But it’s when the plot throws some supernatural phenomena at you – similar to… let’s say… Remedy’s Control – and the world around you starts messing with your perception that Ghostwire really knew how to impress me. But only while playing in Performance Mode, since several other modes resulted in horrendous screen tearing.

I wish I could say the same for the story though. Even though it ain’t a horrible story, it just didn’t grab me in the way I hoped it would. If there’s a twist to be found in it, it’s a meager one at best and its timing infelicitous. It’s probably also the point where Ghostwire: Tokyo loses the suspense building and switches to full-on action since there’s very little plot to unravel at that point. It’s great for the people that were almost dozing off because of the lack of action, but it does provide the game with a very harsh transition.

Nevertheless, Ghostwire: Tokyo knew how to keep me busy for 10 hours. It can amuse others for a hell of a lot longer if they clear every sidequest and cleanse every Torii gate, but that ain’t my thing. Maybe I should have because the core of Ghostwire’s premise can be considered somewhat underwhelming. Then again, I don’t feel like walking miles on end to do the same thing over and over again, just to hear a different story told by a lone soul. I dunno man, I kinda liked Ghostwire, and I also somewhat didn’t. I like the vibe of the first half and hated its lack of variety. Then again, I hated how tension dropped in the second half but loved the action. Talking about walking a very fine line…

Balancing between life and death
The "Naisu desu ne"
Tokyo looks absolutely gorgeous
You can walk around pretending to be Doctoru Strangu
Once enemy diversity kicks in, you're in for some disturbing creatures
There's plenty to do in empty Tokyo (maybe even too much)
Superb voice acting
The "Sou wa omowanai"
The first two chapters are a turn-off due to its slow burn
The story isn't that compelling once the plot twist surfaces
The few powers you have max out quite fast due to a very basic skill tree
Only seems to run without screen tearing on performance mode