It feels like aeons ago now from when Ikumi Nakamura (then of Tango Gameworks), former Creative Director of Ghostwire: Tokyo, first announced the game at Bethesda’s E3 2019 press conference. Her presentation injected a gleaming dose of excitement and mystique into an otherwise bland showcase. The very same showcase has since yielded a mixed bag of games, including the tasty Deathloop and the more yucky Wolfenstein: Young Blood.
With the world since ravaged by a global pandemic, ZeniMax Media (parent of Bethesda Softworks, thus Tango Gameworks) now Microsoft-owned, and Nakamura’s quiet departure from the project, it feels a little surreal for me to be sitting here and writing about my 20-ish-hour experience with the game on none other than a Sony PlayStation 5.
And yet, here I am about to gush (and whine) about a first-person Doctor Strange-style shooter delightfully masquerading as a virtual tour of an occult-ridden, after-hours Tokyo.
Tokyo Ghost Tours
There are many things to gush about in Ghostwire: Tokyo, but I’ll start with the immediately apparent: the artistic themes and the world design. Based on what appears to be a total virtual remake of Shibuya with its iconic Crossing, galore of eateries and convenience stores, dingy back alleys, and tucked away Shinto shrines, Ghostwire: Tokyo is a showcase of what virtual tourism can look like at its very best.
As a fan of Yakuza: Like A Dragon’s first-person camera mode because it felt otherworldly being able to explore and experience a player-driven immersion tour of a Japanese city (particularly amid a pandemic), Ghostwire: Tokyo exudes similar qualities albeit in a darker, damper, and spookier manner.
The weather forecast for your entire trip will be wet and foggy for story-related reasons. Still, the attention-to-detail in the largely interactable locale feels immersive and intriguing nonetheless. It feels like the city is calling out to you, asking to be uncovered. Collectable documents and relics are scattered across the open-world map, each providing a glimpse into the lives of its residents in the buildup to the event that has caused the entire population to vanish into thin air.
There’s something weirdly satisfying about climbing Japanese apartment staircases and riding fully-functional lifts to explore underground subway stations, which provide players with plenty of agency to discover the city in whatever manner they deem fit.
Drawing heavily from Japanese folklore and occult, the game features stories of ghosts, the afterlife, and tales of mischievous yokai that roam and haunt the streets of Tokyo. Sharing conversations with spirits trapped in the material world due to unresolved desires and hunting yokai for their soul-juiced Magatama makes you feel like an ancient Japanese ghosthunter living in the 21st century.
The game does a fantastic job at juxtaposing occult lore and Japanese folk stories with more modern Japanese cultural tidbits like the inventions of the Gara-Kei (Japanese flip phones) and the history of yakitori (grilled bird skewers).
Diving into the game’s lore database feels like a visit to the world’s most immersive museum experience – assuming you’re a fan of museums. To that end, I can only describe Ghostwire as a virtual tourism experience that fully embraces and celebrates Japanese cultural heritage in both its traditional and folky, and its more modern and technological facets.
Master of the Mystic Arts
But you didn’t come here to play Tourist Simulator 2022, did you? Thankfully, underneath its glistening exterior (yes, there’s raytracing implemented in a handful of the many visual fidelity options), lies a meaty combat system that provides an excellent range of eerie Visitors for you to take out with your finger guns.
For all intents and purposes, Ghostwire: Tokyo is a first-person magical-mythical shooter. Instead of your standard array of pistols and whatnot, our protagonist Akito is armed with shaman-esque powers with heavy inspirations drawn from eastern mystic arts (think Doctor Strange or Chinese Wuxia shows).
Conjuring the power of the elements, Akito can shoot pistol-like blasts of wind, Greninja-style water-shuriken slashes, and penetrating bolts of fire and explosions that even Sparky Sparky Boom Man would be proud of. I hate to admit it, but this is probably the closest we’ll ever get to a quality The Last Airbender game.
Combining the power of the elements with sidearms, including a powerful but limited-ammo bow and a range of paper talismans that enable you to control the field, you’ll spend much of the game taking out hordes of enemies in a variety of fighting spaces. Each enemy possesses a core, something like a “ghost heart”.
Combat, thus, involves beating up the bad guys to expose their cores before yanking them out with Stephen Strange-style magic strings (ethereal weaves) or up close and personal with your bare hands.
Alternatively, you can also use a variety of talismans and stealthy movements to creep up on your enemies before plunging your hands deep into their chests to yank out those juicy, sparkly cores. In that sense, Ghostwire: Tokyo evokes a lot of fellow Bethesda brethren Arkane Studios’ DNA with players given full choice and flexibility on how they choose to handle combat situations.
In my experience, both stealth and fingers-blazing affairs had their fair share of exhilarating moments, which I feel is one of the brightest spots of the game.
Hunting The Evil Within
A huge part of what makes the combat loop so satisfying is the thoughtfully designed enemy Visitors. Aesthetically, they range from slightly eerie to outright horrifying. Some of my favourites include the quick-footed and dynamic Students of Misery and Students of Pain, born of the anxieties and restlessness of Japanese public school kids (yes, it’s as brilliant as it sounds), as well as the terrifying, tanky and vengeful spirit-level aggressive giant monster ladies armed with “I’m going to stab the sh*t out of you” scissors (Kuchisake and Crimson Kuchisake).
While most enemy types possess manageable threats alone, hordes of them will test your wits and require you to get good at identifying and taking out the largest threats with scalpel-like precision.
Now, throw in Akito’s spirit shield blocking ability – which prevents damage and staggers enemies when perfectly timed – and a core-grabbing finisher mechanic that makes the very best use of the PS5’s DualSense. And you now have one of the most immersive moment-to-moment combat loops ever experienced on the platform.
Heighten Your Senses
Although the combat loop is mechanically sound and relatively well designed, Tango’s DualSense implementation is truly what takes Ghostwire to mightily immersive heights. They deserve plenty of credit for their shrewd attention to detail. Not only are the animations for core-swiping varied depending on the context of the combat (i.e. distance from enemy and camera angle), but DualSense’s haptics and adaptive triggers also respond accordingly to the beautiful combat animations.
For example, when yanking cores out using ethereal weaves from a distance, the adaptive triggers feature a light “pulling” tension as if you’re pulling a tensioned fishing line out of the water. But, when up close and personal, grabbing cores out of Visitors’ chests allows the adaptive triggers to simulate the sensation of grabbing something hefty and throbbing (cough, like a heart) followed by a clear “pop” sensation as the core crumbles to smithereens within your grasp.
Beyond combat, other little things like the pitter-patter of raindrops scattered across the DualSense’s haptics and the weighty shocks from falls or other strenuous movements epitomise Tango’s excellent use of DualSense’s signature features.
Even older DualShock 4-era features like the on-controller speaker and touchpad are cleverly utilised. In the first case, KK’s (Akito’s spirit partner – the source of his mystic powers and permanent, vocal resident of his right hand) speech reverberates to the player through an echoing effect created by a combination of both the TV and DualSense’s onboard speakers. On the other, swiping in different directions on the touchpad allows the player to intuitively switch between Akito’s various mystic art forms, which when in action, feels a lot like fluidly taichi-ing between stances and postures.
As a timed PlayStation 5-exclusive, Tango’s dedication to taking advantage of the hardware was very impressive and left wanting much more of the same. I genuinely believe that human-computer technological innovations lie at the heart of the next-gen gaming experience. I just didn’t expect to find that in a third-party game of all places. That’s saying a lot coming from a guy whose most recent PS5 experience prior was Guerilla Games’ Horizon: Forbidden West.
In The Backseat
Of course, no game review is complete without pointing out its shortcomings, and this game is no exception. The first, which could be a dealbreaker for many, is Ghostwire’s lacklustre main narrative. After starting out strong and building some semblance of suspense and intrigue, the story arc never appears to evolve much or go anywhere. And before I knew it, it was kind of just… over.
Sure, we do get glimpses into the lives and backstories of the main characters like Akito and KK, as well as a few members of the supporting cast. But I’ve rarely left a 20+ hour game feeling like I’ve learnt so little about the characters and their motivations. I’m not sure if that was the intent behind the design or a byproduct of the combat and virtual tourism dimensions riding shotgun, but it’s clear the story was what got kicked to the backseat here, and that’s a real shame.
Yet Another Map Game
The second thing worth flagging up is the game’s open-world map design. In many ways, much of the core gameplay loop in Ghostwire: Tokyo falls under the “map game” category. There’s a decent range of story-based side quests to complete. Many are well written and provide further deep dives into Japanese folklore.
This includes, but is not limited to, fighting off a long-dormant vengeful spirit in the garden of a feudal lord whose family was gruesomely massacred on the eve of his daughter’s wedding and uncovering a spirit dimension inside Tokyo’s sewer system then capturing the Kappa yokai responsible for the anomaly.
But the bulk of the side activities can get repetitive depending on how much you enjoy these kinds of things. Short excursions like tailing and hunting yokai, cleansing cursed objects, clearing torii gates to unlock new map portions, and running around Tokyo to collect lost souls then looking for telephone booths to transmit them out of the city can vary in mileage depending on the type of gamer you are.
The aptest comparison I can think of here is Marvel’s Spider-man (2018). Either you’re a completionist who enjoys collectathons and map clearing, or a lot of this will feel laborious and chore-like after the first handful or two. Personally, while I enjoyed doing these to some degree (you kind of have to because most of the upgrade points for skill trees are locked behind them), in the end collecting all 240,000-plus lost souls for the platinum trophy just isn’t quite vibing with me (right now).
Ultimately, Ghostwire: Tokyo is an excellent virtual tourism experience with hefty infusions of Japanese folklore and cultural heritage, making the little history nerd inside me scream with glee. While its flaws feel blatant and hard to dismiss, the game’s exquisite blend of mystic arts combat, occult-inspired themes, and near best-in-class utilisation of DualSense makes for one of the most immersive and engaging PS5 experiences to date.
In closing, I can’t help but leave feeling Sony saw plenty more potential with this game – which feels perfectly positioned for the upcoming PlayStation VR 2 and its DualSense-like VR Sense controllers – when they signed it to an exclusivity deal way back when. Alas, with Tango and Bethesda now Microsoft-owned, perhaps that will remain nothing more than a pipe dream. But if it does indeed happen, I just want to say ‘I called it’ (or I’ll just watch this endnote age like milk).
Screenshots taken on a PlayStation 5. Additional visuals courtesy of Bethesda Softworks.