Like a Yōkai playfully avoiding cleansing, trying to fully grasp Ghostwire: Tokyo’s triumphs and shortfalls is tricky business. The game occupies a unique space – a first-person experience from a developer whose claim to the horror genre is a critically lauded third-person homage to Resident Evil’s action-heavy era.
Only now, Tango Gameworks leave the guns and gore behind, fully embracing a more measured tale of Japanese folklore that unsettles just as often as it bemuses. No longer in the shadow of giants, Ghostwire: Tokyo emerges very much its own beast – teeth bared, tail swishing, urgent and clumsy.
Ghostwire: Tokyo indulges in the open-world follies that have afflicted many of its contemporaries while crafting a play-space as breathtaking to look at as it is to explore. It is often repetitive, threatening to tilt into full-blown tedium before its script, itself an uneven emotional journey, rights the ship and the player is allowed back into the flow of things.
For almost every revelation there is a limitation, but if you can stomach the ghosts of the genre, Ghostwire: Tokyo can give you a glimpse of the other side.
Ghostwire: Tokyo Review
Ghostwire: Tokyo wastes little time with its set-up. A car accident leaves 22-year-old Akito Izuki half-dead on the pavement just as a supernatural wave of fog engulfs Shibuya, seemingly rapturing its citizens. Before he can fully cross over into the afterlife, however, the spirit of a man named KK jumps into his body, resurrecting him in a fashion as the two souls struggle for control over the corporeal form.
When the two of them have their interests align after the game’s antagonist, Hannya kidnaps Akito’s sister for his own nefarious purposes, they use their synchronicity to wield powerful spells to repel the invading force of spirits and attempt to put things right in Tokyo.
Between the kidnapped family member and masked villain explaining that his plan to render Tokyo’s citizens formless is good, actually, Ghostwire: Tokyo‘s first impression is a bit of clunker. The trope laden writing and minimalist world-building make the initial hours an exercise in patience as you try to discern how to invest in Akito and KK’s struggles beyond the broad strokes and admittedly phenomenal vibes.
This problem persists across most of the campaign, each of the three men who lead the story suffering from interminable Male Video Game Character disease, but there is genuine pathos and character work to be found hiding in the backstreets of the game’s haunted Tokyo. You’ve just gotta go looking for it sometimes.
Ghostwire: Tokyo‘s opening missions see you moving through a limited path of its open-world, discovering the essential mechanics and combat abilities that form the foundation of your time with the game. Your spell arsenal is somewhat limited when contrasted with the scope of the world you’re about to spend hours in, however. Your basic wind spell can be charged up for a rapid shot, water flows in arcs for up-close crowd control and fire can pierce multiple enemies or explode for massive damage.
Your “ammo” is initially limited and can only be refilled by breaking environmental objects or performing a special finisher move on weakened spirits. These are by and large satisfying to fire off and form a tight rotation of engagement with enemies.
The issue is variety, given that Ghostwire: Tokyo will run you anywhere between ten to twenty hours, having such a limited range of combat options wears on the player over time. There is a simple block mechanic and the ability to supercharge your spell weaving once you’ve built up the required synchronicity with KK. There are also attempts to stave off this repetition by way of a strangely limited skill tree and Talismans that can be thrown to stun enemies, create diversions and so on, but the core tools stagnate harshly after the first act.
Worse still, the default control settings make aiming feel sluggish and unresponsive by way of first-person immersion. Fortunately, this can be fixed by tinkering with the camera settings. There’s also a bow.
The repetition of Ghostwire: Tokyo’s combat is exacerbated by the game’s open world which is both a stunning play space and a wasted opportunity. This recreation of Shibuya is densely compact, tapping into the claustrophobic nature of stacked city sprawls through the first-person perspective which gives the whole thing a sense of scale and scope. Taking a lesson from urban planning, the game builds up instead of out, giving you a wild degree of freedom in regards to verticality. You have a pretty generous jump and wall grab, which paired with the game’s spirit air gliding, means you can parkour your way through and over city streets with relative ease.
It should also be obvious from a glance that Ghostwire: Tokyo‘s art direction and technical chops are magnificent. The simple act of walking these streets is often astounding, the metropolitan equivalent of “see that mountain, you can climb it” as you clamber into spaces and buildings that would be set-dressing in almost all other open-world cities. Slick lighting effects, overwhelming ambient sounds and just the right number of stray dogs to befriend make Ghostwire: Tokyo‘s world one of the best to emerge from the genre.
But while Ghostwire: Tokyo’s world is fantastically crafted, it often fails to utilise the space in interesting ways. Everything you can do in this city you’ve seen by the time you’ve played your first hour of the game, and with the notable exception of side quests, the rest of the open-world activities aren’t all that engaging. There are blessed self-contained levels that the game will occasionally teleport you to that remind you why Tango Gameworks’ are masters of tension. One, in particular, sees Akito ripped from this reality to another composed entirely of contorted metal buildings and neon signs as far as the eye can see – it’s genuinely imposing stuff that is crying out for better ways to engage with it.
The biggest thorn in the games side is passivity. Almost every meaningful action is a passive one for the player, but especially combat and the more intriguing supernatural elements of the narrative. The game far too frequently lifts control from you and while the animations you’ll watch play out are gorgeous, the game fails to fundamentally involve you in its world.
This is, to me, a cardinal sin of modern game design, eschewing interactivity for no discernable reason does irreparable damage to the relationship between player and game.
What’s truly frustrating is how Ghostwire: Tokyo doesn’t even realise it has a winning hand – between the PS5’s adaptive triggers and the first-person camera, the game could be doing so much more to bring you into its world. There are fleeting instances where it tries; breaking certain curses will have you watch a symbol being drawn before you have to draw it yourself with the analogue stick. These moments are often clunky but at least attempt to actively engage the player in the text.
The passivity issue is at least soothed by Ghostwire: Tokyo’s script, though you’ll need to put in some extra work to see the best it has to offer. The main quest is ‘capital F’ fine by any game standards, the kind of story and character work that does just enough to nudge you toward the next objective marker but belies any deeper engagement. The majority of the story pulls its punches, content to offer up a clean version of events that only ever tease at a more nuanced villain or thesis statement. And yet, its ending is surprisingly confident, leaving you in a complex emotional place that doesn’t feel of a piece with the preceding story but is so, so welcome.
Ghostwire Tokyo’s core tenants of grief and the value of life are worthy of deeper inspection than the main story allows for – slack that the game’s many side missions thankfully picks up. Littered throughout the city are small vignettes ranging from silly to sinister that offer emotionally satisfying tales of unique Japanese folklore tidbits. These missions often involve contained exploration and some very light puzzle solving, nothing that breaks the mould but at least offers some reprieve from the core loop. Here is where you’ll find the game’s best writing that simultaneously builds the dynamic between Akito and KK while better fleshing out the thematic work that the game’s genuinely moving ending relies on.
Another perk of pursuing these smaller moments is the time it allows you to bask in Tango Gameworks’ lovingly crafted Tokyo. Art direction aside, there’s so much adoration and history poured into this world it’s hard to not marvel at the range of it. Streets are overflowing with touchstones of Japanese culture that go beyond iconic landmarks (though it is incredibly refreshing to play a game that doesn’t centre American iconography). From the food you buy at the local convenience store to the items you can gather, both mundane and sacred, Ghostwire: Tokyo is a bounty of considered and respected cultural reference points and minutia.
This collision of unforced errors and authentic effort makes for a confusing, but largely compelling time. Ghostwire: Tokyo doesn’t have enough tricks to fully realise its lofty ambitions but its shortcomings are never so all-encompassing as to derail the experience. Invest your time wisely in its dozens of delightful side quests and you’ll be rewarded with the game’s best narrative work and a few skill points to make combat, even a little, more thrilling.
There’s a great game just beneath the surface in Ghostwire: Tokyo obscured and pained by the pretty good one layered on top. Not too dissimilar to the men that lead it, the game is flawed and prone to mistakes that drive away affection it rightfully deserves. But it’s trying and in the end, that’s all that really matters.
Ghostwire: Tokyo was reviewed on PS5 using digital code provided by Bethesda.