Ghostwire: Tokyo Feels Like Two Separate Games Forced to Coexist

Games Reviews ghostwire: tokyo
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About five to six hours into Ghostwire: Tokyo a new mechanic is introduced where an enemy gets a hold of the protagonist, Akito, and rips the presiding spirit, KK, out of his body. Where once Akito had magical powers to fight spirits and ghostlike abilities to glide over the rooftops of Tokyo he is now returned to mundanity. Akito is now powerless, without any of the magic that has allowed him to traverse the combat throughout the game. In these moments, I wonder what it would be like to rip the passionate spirit of Ghostwire: Tokyo out of its cliched vessel.

Ghostwire: Tokyo follows Akito who is possessed by a ghost after a car crash and left as the last person alive after a fog wipes out the population of Tokyo, Japan. The spirit which has inhabited Akito, KK, struggles to come to terms with the new roommate situation inside of the same body. For a while he has been chasing after the Hannya group that are attempting to use the spirits of the world to cross realities.

Akito… well Akito doesn’t really have much going on beyond his sister being taken by the Hannya group. He actually is one of the weakest parts of the games’ narrative, as many times he feels like a vessel for KK’s pursuit of the Hannya group without much more than crying out his sister’s name.

However, Akito’s vessel holding KK feels representative of Ghostwire: Tokyo as a game itself. It is a game that is split in its desires. On the outside, it’s a conservative big budget videogame release. However, just like Akito is the shallow vessel for KK, so too are these systems for a genuine, creative heart inside of Ghostwire.

The main loop of Ghostwire: Tokyo’s gameplay involves story missions where the protagonist tries to figure out how to save his sister. Enemies will appear which will lead to a fairly flat combat sequence. Then some torii gates need clearing in order to open up the map fog and then get into the next story beat. All the while pop ups cover the screen telling you how many skill tree points you have gained, or continuously interrupting the gameplay to tutorialize you, even 10 hours in, about the same topics.

I could go into any of these aspects more deeply, but to be honest there just isn’t that much nuance to the explicit structures of Ghostwire beyond open world design norms we have seen driven into the ground over the past five years. And to focus on these would be doing a disservice to my experience of the game because what is beautiful about Ghostwire isn’t the explicit structures, but all of the creative passion underlying them.

In between the missions and action, Ghostwire is a game about running through streets and jumping across rooftops. As Akito inspects alleyways, the radio from the local laundromat is still playing crackly folk music. A cat is wandering around looking for attention. You wander through the stairwells, sidewalks, and hallways of the city’s old residents, but you also stumble into the awkward ways that the city’s buildings push up against each other. This isn’t a romanticized idea of Tokyo, but a passionate image of the awkwardness and beauty of Tokyo.

The world is thoughtfully constructed, not by iconography, but clearly put together by a team who has lived in the spaces that have been designed. It’s as Alan Wen notes in his recent essay on the game, that unlike other titles developed by Western developers, Ghostwire: Tokyo is developed by a team who has roots in Japanese society and its beliefs. It was also the first game directed by Ikumi Nakamura, who was the creative director at Tango Ghostworks until having to leave the studio due to workplace health issues, who has noted her passion for urban exploration.

Not only is the world rich, but the imagery and the themes are also rich as well. This is a game about bodies. It’s a game about the way people handle loss and memory. It isn’t the cliched, unsubtle expression of these topics that we typically get in videogames, either. There are so many games that try to engage with the topics of memory, throw the player into someone’s dreams and then call it a success. Ghostwire: Tokyo doesn’t necessarily nail all of the narrative and thematic beats it is aiming for, but it still experiments with them. By taking clear inspiration from artistic cinema and rethinking how to contextualize space, Ghostwire is impressive even when it doesn’t quite succeed.

Ghostwire: Tokyo isn’t afraid to place the player amid abstract imagery. During a chase scene I was running down the alleyways to catch one of the Hannya group and midway the environment started transforming into white hallways hung with the images of a character trapped within a body of the chase, similar to the sterile halls of a museum. In another area about an hour later, we see the fallen umbrellas of the citizens of Tokyo bursting upward in a fountain. Elsewhere Akito stands on a raft of water, looking up at the floating box of his sister in a hospital room as it all burns down.

These are only the most striking examples in my head, but Ghostwire’s commitment to unexpected and powerful imagery shines throughout the game. You see it when walking through skyscrapers with only glass underneath and the neon lights of the streets below, or when a one bedroom apartment transforms into a labyrinth to crouch, fall, and jump through.

While writing this review, I read interviews with previous creative director Ikumi Nakamura, who spent years working on this project, calling it her own child but also facing stress nightmares of the publishers telling her how her game needs to change. I don’t want to argue on points that speculate the choices behind the creator’s struggle. That’s not something we can know unless that developer comes out and speaks about her experiences. I also don’t want to pin the entirety of a games’ creation on a single person.

However, as I researched more into Nakamura’s history of game development I increasingly stumbled into videos of her taking part in urban exploration trips and felt a heartfelt connection to Ghostwire: Tokyo. As noted in the interview with Game Informer, Ghostwire came out of a passion Nakamura had for exploring Asian urban cities. Knowing that Nakamura, an urban explorer who finally got to direct her own project implementing the urban exploration of Tokyo, left during the project due to creative struggles and workplace stress has left this two sided game colored.

Not only does Ghostwire: Tokyo feel like two separate games, but it was notably desired to be two separate games by the developer and the publisher. In the game there are the clearly passionate, caring touches given to the architecture, the ways Akito interacts with the city, the spiritual inhabitants, and its culture. Then there are the cliched game structures piercing into it like an iron maiden into flesh.

When KK returns to Akito’s body, the two are conflicted in their agency and goals but eventually learn to work better together. Yet Ghostwire: Tokyo never really learns to do the same as combat is forced into moments where it isn’t necessary and the player is constantly encouraged to focus on the game’s UI rather than the world around them.

In this conflicted vessel lie many frustrating parts. However, it’s the first big budget game in recent memory whose heart rages in spite of that frustration, and I can’t give it enough credit for that.

Ghostwire: Tokyo was developed by Tango Gameworks and published by Bethesda Softworks. Our review is based on the PlayStation 5 version. It is also available for PC.

Rosy Hearts is a trans game artist and freelance writer. You can find her latest projects or rants about the Muppets on Twitter @rosy_hearts.