video games

‘Ghostwire: Tokyo’ review: come for the ghost fighting, stay for the setting

Tristan Zinampan
‘Ghostwire: Tokyo’ review: come for the ghost fighting, stay for the setting
(1st UPDATE) In Bethesda's possibly last PlayStation release, Shibuya lights and empty rain-slicked streets become the true highlight

Editor’s note: This article has been updated on March 26 to review ‘Ghostwire: Tokyo’ in full, as played on the PS5. This was initially published, covering only the first two chapters of the game. This review contains mild spoilers.

In movies, there’s a sub-genre where all the action takes place over the course of one night. Examples include the Robert Pattinson-starring Good Time, the Michael Mann-directed neo-noir Collateral, and cult classics The Warriors and After Hours.

Often utilized in the crime genre, these stories have a certain appeal to them. They are designed to be a mix of action and exhaustion. The “barrage of wild, unforeseen events” approach allows for distinct set pieces piled one after another. This makes for a simple but compelling source of tension as protagonist/s are put through a seemingly unending wringer.

Secondly, the quasi-real-time treatment creates an atmosphere of weariness. Beyond high-octane action sequences, these nocturnal marathons are more like endurance tests designed to break the character and drain them of their resolve.

Lastly, since these are stories supposedly occurring in just a couple of hours, location is often restricted to a particular area. Deft storytellers often use this as an opportunity to make the locale as much as a character as their cast. Think the grime of New York after dark, the gilded glitz of Los Angeles, or, in Ghostwire: Tokyo’s case, the rain-slicked, neon-infused streets of Tokyo. 

More action than horror

I cite these kinds of films as examples as, after 60 hours and a near 100% completion of Ghostwire: Tokyo (darn those collectibles!), this supernatural first-person game from developer Tango Gameworks (Evil Within) and published by Bethesda Softworks has more in common with the endurance tests of action cinema rather than straight-up survival horror. 
And, that’s not necessarily a bad thing; It’s a deliberate approach that lends to the distinct gameplay of the Ghostwire. Its action is continual and doled out in bursts. It doesn’t reach the relentlessness of Doom: Eternal, but it’s still a far cry from the somberness of the similar empty-citied Silent Hill. It’s just the right amount of breathing room that makes it possible for players to step back and take some time to heal and weave combo attacks from mid-range while the nth wave of enemies lumbers toward them – more on this later.

In Ghostwire: Tokyo, you inhabit the role of 22-year-old Akito. After a mysterious event coats Tokyo in poisonous fog, 99% of the city’s population goes missing. The streets are littered with the clothes they left behind, and now, in their place, are spirits and monsters of Japanese folklore (collectively called yokai). Among the missing is Akito’s sister Mari. 

For reasons yet unveiled, Akito survives “The Vanishing” and is almost immediately possessed by the spirit of the paranormal investigator KK. They form a symbiotic relationship – like those seen in Venom and Jujutsu Kaisen – and using KK’s powers, Akito goes through this one long night to pursue his sister and the mysterious man in the Hannya mask, behind it all. 

In crime film archetypes, Akito is the everyman who serves as an audience stand-in, KK is the grizzled private investigator who ropes the protagonist into a world previously unknown, and Mari is (disappointingly) the damsel-in-distress. 

It’s a straightforward narrative designed to prop up the game’s action while providing serviceable mystery. But, in a time where video games have gone way beyond the basics of storytelling, many even eclipsing Hollywood cinema, part of me wishes Ghostwire: Tokyo went the extra step in fleshing out their characters and adding more to its story. 

I know a robust plot isn’t always a requirement for a great game – many greats have a paper-thin story – but this thin narrative would be less evident if the gameplay was consistently outstanding.

Jujutsu combat

Supposedly, Ghostwire: Tokyo’s most notable feature is its use of Naruto/Doctor Strange-style hand signs as its main arsenal for combat.

These “ethereal weaves” function much like your array of different weapons in a first-person shooter. Wind magic being your default rapid-fire shooters, fireballs your long-range explosive strikes, and water scythes as short-ranged spread attacks handy when enemies get too close to you. You also have paper talismans that conjure distractions or render monsters immobile. There’s also a bow and arrow that can be cumbersome in full combat but perfect in stealth.

Your base weapon of wind gusts quickly gets repetitive and stiff at the start. Attacks in Ghostwire: Tokyo are meant to whittle down enemies until they’re exposed enough to rip out their “cores,” aka hearts. Do this under-leveled, and it becomes a chore. Luckily, the other skills mentioned above get unlocked early on, adding much variety to the gameplay.

Quick cycling at a touch of a button allows you to switch attack style in the middle of firefights. This has the added benefit of nifty animations, showing your character conjuring different elements with a wave of their hand or a flashy flick of the wrist.

The lack of a dodge maneuver, however, can be jarring at the start, especially since fights are often close- to mid-range, but you get used to it once you get the hang of the parry/spirit shield move. This parry/spirit shield, coupled with close-range “core grabs” you unlock along the way, lends a physicality to the game that is enhanced when played with the PS5’s DualSense controller. 

Don’t get me wrong, overall, this gameplay is inventive, if not unprecedented. It is an absolute blast conjuring the elements as you defeat “Slender-people” and headless teens wandering the streets of Tokyo. However, this enjoyment plateaus, as midway through the game, there are rarely new types of foes or instances where you need to vary your gameplay. By the last act, some boss fights switch things up a bit, but these kinds of challenges could have been better distributed throughout.

Beautiful, broken Tokyo

Ghostwire: Tokyo’s true highlight is its art direction. As mentioned earlier, Ghostwire: Tokyo is slower-paced than what you’d expect in first-person shooters. This ideology of letting players hang back is also carried over to city exploration.

Though not exactly an open world, you have the leeway to search the nooks and crannies of this newly-desolate Tokyo. There’s also a surprising level of verticality to the exploration, with grappling and gliding skills you unlock in the starting hours. And, even in stillness, it’s still pretty enjoyable to bask in the ray-traced beauty of smoke, rain, and Shibuya billboards.

Ghostwire: Tokyo’s vision of the Japanese capital is an amplified version of the city’s blending of technology and tradition in real life. It populates the recreated city with equal amounts of cyberpunk-esque neon lights and creatures and reality-bending structures rooted in folklore. 

You will also encounter magical cat spirits (nekomata) running convenience stores, gift-giving Shiba Inus, and shapeshifting raccoon dogs (tanuki) as you trek across the city. There are also torii gates that you can cleanse to rid areas of fog and lost spirits to collect with your katashiro (sacred paper dolls).

I played most of the Ghostwire: Tokyo shifting between Quality Mode, which runs the game with ray-traced reflections at a capped 30fps at 4k resolution, and HFR Quality Mode (VSync), which uncaps your frame rate while allowing ray-tracing. Ghostwire’s relatively relaxed gameplay allowed me to spare the additional frames Performance Mode would provide. Playing in both Quality Modes enhanced how I took in the highly-textured world Tango Gameworks has built for the game.

And though I said the game leans more on the action, this doesn’t mean Ghostwire is bereft of horror. Side missions often reference famous Japanese urban legends and movies that lead to set pieces that can be genuinely creepy. 

The best side missions are those that take you into interior locations where the level designers were able to play around a bit. Some houses and hospitals transform into endless labyrinths, while sewers and elevators lead you to forests resembling The Aokigahara or Japan’s so-called suicide forest.

Roaming the streets may also lead you to chance encounters with the Kuchisake-onna (Japan’s version of the White Lady, which sports a slit mouth beneath a surgical mask) and surprise spirit processions. The ever-shifting road markings and shadows of prancing invisible children on walls are also a nice but subtle touch.

Final thoughts

In my initial review of Ghostwire: Tokyo, I felt like there was still much left to discover. And while true enough, there were great locations that I uncovered in exploration and good boss fights here and there, these were between repetitive side missions where I had to chase different yokai and rote battles with the same kinds of foes over and over again. (To be honest, these kinds of side missions felt like they only existed to pad the game’s open world.)

Combat felt good and inventive early on, but it also came to a point where – if new enemy types were out of the question – I hoped there was more animation to vary how I blasted my finger air guns and summoned giant fireballs. I spent a long exhausting night in Ghostwire’s beautiful, broken Tokyo. But, part of me wishes that night had given me more to do. –

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Tristan Zinampan

Tristan is Rappler’s resident pop culture vulture. He leads Rappler’s youth culture section, Hustle.