Without being any more misleading, this isn’t a piece on what beverage fits best for washing down a tequila or whisky, but is instead a review of the PS Vita and PS3 supernatural strategy RPG Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters. I just happened to play most of it in Edinburgh and can’t resist a bad pun.
Several years ago I would usually turn to Nintendo’s DS if I was after a left field Japanese game, but these days it seems that all the best examples of these games end up on Sony’s Vita. The Vita has become a hallowed ground for the weird and wonderful, as well as a format that the types of games I used to look out for on PS2 now crop up. Recent Vita releases such as Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters have also seen PS3 versions, but Sony’s handheld is by far the best place to experience them (and not just because I can easily grab screenshots from it).
Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters is a frustrating game, let’s make that clear from the start. The game does feature some rather odd design choices, and is never quite sure whether it wants to be a Visual Novel or a straight up SRPG. Though despite the schizophrenia, it is an endearing game, and what it eventually ends up being is more than capable of holding your attention for the twenty or so hours you’ll spend on your first playthrough.
Your character arrives at a Japanese high school for reasons unknown, and immediately bumps into several people who manage to enrol him into a magazine company named Gate Keepers before any sort of background checks are done – for their benefit or yours! It soon becomes apparent that there is much more than writing and interviewing involved in the Gate Keepers position: the magazine is actually a front for a ghost hunting company! Before the first hour is out, you are fully fledged ghost hunter with (hopefully) one exorcism under your belt, and a part of a group that feels a lot like a cross between Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Ghostbusters. The only problem is that you’ll barely have a clue on how the game itself works.
The story itself is largely episodic, and structure of each chapter is rigidly set throughout: talky bit, fighty bit. Each self contained episode moves along a fair clip, and while the immediate nature of the game will be welcomed by anyone burnt out by games with unnecessarily long exposition, the game also avoids tutorials and does barely anything to explain exactly how you’ll be playing along the way.
Even the relatively straightforward story sections of Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters throw in unexpected mechanics that you can only learn by trial and error, and if you do happen to make an error you’re unlikely to understand what or how that was until much later into the game. To begin with, the game resembles a visual novel. You’ll sit back and tap “R” through the text and conversations. The story is well written, if fairly generic in places, and resembles any number of occult anime or manga you might have watched or read. The cast are a delightfully diverse bunch, but again they all fill the roles you have seen countless times before; it certainly helps that they are a largely likable bunch that will keep you entertained when the game seems intent on leaving you baffled.
And what of those unexpected mechanics? Well, you’ll be happily reading and tapping along and then suddenly a circular graphic will pop up with a range of icons on it. This is how you get to interact with the story, and make slight changes to the ways in which the conversation that follows will play out, reaching as far as later parts of chapter. But how? Although never properly explained any further than “Sensory Input System” by the back of the game box, these sections allow you to interact with the game by picking an emotion and a sense. Yup, you can angrily taste someone in Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters. Or maybe you’d like to lovingly sniff your obvious love interest Sayuri Mifune? You’d be correct in assuming that interactions such as this rarely go down well, hell, most folk don’t even like it when you try a fairly safe option like a friendly handshake. So weird are the options, and so strange the reactions, that you’ll never feel entirely sure how to proceed in the moments, but if you do get your choice “right” then you might unlock a “Sixth Sense” section toward the end of a chapter, providing more story and a trophy. Needless to say, if you’re after the platinum trophy you’ll need a decent guide or several weeks off for the trial and error that is otherwise required.
The system isn’t fantastic by any stretch of the imagination, but it is oddly compelling if only to see what horrendous situation you’ll put yourself in by sadly groping your boss.
With all of the talking out of the way, you’ll then inevitably run into the ghost that brought about the chapter you find yourself in. Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters fancies itself as a strategy role-player, and if you’ve bought this game then the chances are high that you’ll have played a game of that ilk before. You’ll be fine, right?
Maintaining the general theme of incomprehensibility is the fighting system, where you’ll progress the story, level up, earn money, and squeeze your Vita until the OLED screen distorts and becomes unusable. Initial impressions make the battles look relatively simple. We have a top-down view of a computer image of the battleground, it looks somewhat like a simplified version of Rondo of Swords – it plays nothing like it. The simplification is there for a reason, as the battle is being watched from the sidelines by fellow Gate Keeper Masamune Shiga. Your wheelchair-bound comrade is the genius of the group, but is unable to take part in fights due to his disability (this is eventually spoken about, but I had great concerns the game would end before we understood how Shiga came to be in his wheelchair). So you don’t actually play as yourself in battle, though you do plot where your gang will be heading. The USB sticks in the sides of the device denote your team on the left, and the ghosts on the right.
It is never explained why the ghosts have their own USB sticks.
For your team though, it seems to form a video link: whenever a character in the fray attacks (or tries to attack) a ghost, the view shifts from overhead map to first person headcam. It’s a really cool touch that finally puts you face to face with the ghosts you are hunting, and feels a lot like one of the supernatural ghost hunting “documentaries” you’ll get on the less worthy TV channels. Then only problem is that this zoom down also happens when the ghosts attack you, so I can only assume that Shiga wheels around and fashions them all with their own headcam prior to the hostilities. He’s a solid guy.
Visually, the battles are interesting, but structurally they are a damn enigma! Typical turn-based battles allow each side to take turns, but that wouldn’t fit with Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters’ take on how games should work. Instead, both teams move simultaneously once you have set the parameters for your own team. This makes it nigh on impossible to guess where your target will be in any given round. The ghost’s USB sticks will glow blue or red to denote whether they are attacking or chasing, but this is of minimal help as your own characters can move a pathetic distance anyway: if they foolishly wish to look left, right, or (god forbid) behind them, then you can fully expect all of their action points (AP) to be drained on the spot and for that character to remain useless until the next round. Without wishing to offend, these guys seem to be less mobile than the guy in the wheelchair! And just in case movement itself wasn’t restrictive enough, your attacks also have very specific areas of effect. Each character has a weapon that will form a green and red zone on the map, you need to ensure that this attack zone is set in a location that a ghost will move onto, or is trapped in. Some attacks are a long line, some are wider attacks. Some don’t allow you to attack the immediate vicinity of your character. Combined with a crippling inability to move, you’ll find that fights end in disaster again and again simply because you cannot maneuver your attacks into a location where the ghosts will be.
So we’ve established that attacking and movement are difficult to get to grips with. Does Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters remedy this with relaxed winning conditions? No, it adds a timer. A timer that rarely tops 15 minutes. These aren’t real minutes either, they are turns. That’s right, you’ve got to battle the ghosts and the game together and win, usually within 15 turns. Again, none of this battle system is ever explained to the player.
The clock ticks down, two minutes left.
“Predict their movements!” Shiga helpfully chimes in as another ghost travels in the opposite direction to where all of your team are directing their fire.
“Tell me how you got them to hold still for their fucking headcam fitting!” the whole team shout back.
Hopefully you can sense the outrageous frustration I felt while genuinely battling through the fifty or so fights that the game throws at you before you see the end. With a little fairness to the game, the battle system does at least give you a chance to level the playing field with the use to traps and gadgets in pre-battle planning stage. As long as you have a general idea of the where the ghosts might be, you can lay down salt to block thoroughfares, wards to direct the spirits in one general direction, or traps that cause minimal damage to the enemy. You can buy such items from a shop manned by a ninja. Making any purchase goes towards earning raffle tickets that allow you to win some pretty good (and pretty suspect) equipment. Furthermore, if the shop isn’t doing it for you you can also enlist Gate Keepers’ mad scientist Moichi to build you items, but you’ll need to bring him the raw materials to do so. Whatever you do bring to the fight though, ghosts can break it all with seemingly minimal effort. Of course they can. To prevent this you’ll need to buy better gear, but better things cost more money, and the whole reason you are fighting these ghosts is to make money for your boss, Chizuru Fukurai, not spend it on yourself!
Chizuru loves money, so don’t expect to hear kind words if you earn anything less than an “S” rank in battle. An S rank requires ghosts to be dispatched quickly, damage to the environment to be minimal, and costs for set up to be low. Bearing in mind that a missed attack will likely destroy some costly form of item on the battlefield, and that most attacks miss, you’ll start to see how difficult it can be to earn serious money. You’ll groan when Moichi Sengen destroys the tenth object that battle, wince as you see the damage report rack up, punch the air in happiness when you see the “Victory” screen and walk away clutching your 15 Yen.
I am being too harsh, I had around one million Yen by the time the credits rolled (yep, a whole £5000).
Battles are by far the most frustrating aspect of the game, and you’ll have to fight at least once per chapter to continue. However, if you only do that you won’t be anywhere near the level required to tackle the later ghosts, or the later free-battles. Whether you like it or not, you will need to fight regularly, and these battles come about by taking jobs from the Gate Keepers’ website. Much like every other aspect of the game, the jobs are on a hidden page of your intranet (accessed with a simple button combination) which is helpfully hinted at but never outright mentioned. Job difficulty is measured in… tears? They’re probably spirits. Fortunately, the majority of these fights are more straightforward than the story-based battles. You can decide the difficulty of what you take on, and you can also give up ones that seem to much for you to handle. These asides are the best way to level up and make money. Money can rack up fairly quickly, but experience doesn’t come so easily. To level up faster you’ll need to fight harder battles, that much makes sense in any game. In Tokyo Twilight’s case though, harder battles simply mean battles where predicting enemy movement becomes an exercise in futility again. So, you’ll go with the easier fights, you’ll level slower, but you’ll face much less frustration and probably find that you’re really enjoying the game! At least I did, despite how the above reads.
Visually the game is a mixed bag. The 2D character artwork is excellent, and feels like a premium quality anime. The UI of the game is slick and well signposted, even if the game doesn’t tell you how it works itself. There is generally a pleasingly consistent style going on until you factor in the background art of the areas you travel to. As with other visual novels, the game is presented with a series of still images. Despite the effort that has gone into the bits you’ll see up close, the backgrounds look like poorly photoshopped photographs. I’m convinced that some of them are. Perhaps to aid in focusing on the important parts, the backgrounds are usually blurred images of buildings, streets, schools and so on. They just don’t look good, and really do detract from the general aesthetic that the rest of the game shows off. This is in no way a deal breaker, but it means that Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters looks just that bit worse than other similar anime-styled games that are also available.
On the other hand, the audio aspect of the game is stellar. The voice acting is great to listen to, and fit well with each character. The soundtrack is so good I went and bought a copy. Of course, you’d expect quality where Nobuo Uematsu is concerned, and Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters does nothing to tarnish this opinion. A fun aspect of the soundtrack is that you get to pick what you want to listen to in each battle by way of slipping the relevant cassette into the stereo of the Gate Keepers’ van before each fight. It’s a small detail, but it honestly does make some of those skirmishes a tad more palatable.
It can’t be denied that Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters is a teeth-gnashingly frustrating game at times. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to hear that 90% of players switch off after encountering their first ghost and never return again. The thing is though, despite all the annoyances and mental threats to hurl my Vita down the length of the train carriage, I did enjoy what I played, and I kept coming back to it. While the game does offer a New Game+ option and an extensive trophy list, I wouldn’t expect that to be a draw for many players. For those that have had a passing interest in this game though, I would certainly recommend a single playthrough of the game (and perhaps a download of the soundtrack). The game has stayed in my thoughts for some time after finishing it, and I may yet be back for more, but the heartiest endorsement for Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters is that despite its many foibles, you’ll likely not play another game quite like it again.