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Mar 22, 2022

Ghostwire: Tokyo Review

Lights Off
4 Awesome
Retails for: $59.99
We Recommend: $49.99
  • Developer: Tango Gameworks
  • Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
  • Genre: Action, Adventure
  • Released: Mar 25, 2022
  • Platform: Windows, PlayStation 5
  • Reviewed: PlayStation 5

There is something infinitely tantalizing about stepping into the rain-soaked streets of a neon-lit city. The mere act of entry evokes adventure and mystery, with discoveries waiting for you around every turn. Add a strange fog that disappears humans in their tracks a la the rapture, and a host of wayward spirit visitors lurking in their stead, and you’ve got a setup for a uniquely eerie outing. This is how you find yourself at the outset of Ghostwire: Tokyo, thrust into events bigger than yourself as the only remaining living soul in all of Tokyo, under constant threat of death and imbued with ethereal powers of your own, and the only one who can put a stop to the total subsumption of humanity. It’s a great setup with some excellent visual style, but it doesn’t always meet its potential.

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From its fairly strong early moments, the promise of Ghostwire: Tokyo looms large, a presence hanging over your experience not unlike the Hannya mask-wearing man himself. Part of why the setup is so effective is because of the measured disorientation the beginning of the game creates for you, putting you into a place you don’t know well and sometimes literally shifting itself around you. As Akito, the game’s main character, you are the unlikely survivor of the ghostly fog thanks to a chance possession by the wayward soul of KK, the mysterious secondary protagonist who is responsible for Akito’s ability to survive in this new twisted version of Tokyo. Akito’s sister, Mari, who was hospitalized at the time of The Event, is also tangled up in the whole mess for reasons that are not remotely clear. All you know is that she’s been taken by the man who set everything off, that he seems hellbent on unleashing the spirit world on our own, and that he believes Mari is the key to creating a permanent bridge between them. Needless to say, he must be stopped.

There are some very strong set piece moments in the first two Chapters of the game, and they occur in smaller, linear environments that lend themselves well to visual trickery. These moments are great for world building, and they leave you with the impression that the game is going to be full of exciting, reality-bending experiences that will challenge you to question what’s in front of you. What you will quickly discover though, is that these are small accents peppered throughout the narrative, and the bits in between are much more familiar open world fare, up to and including a sprawling map replete with icons, side missions, fast travel points, and collectibles.

GWT Gamplay Deep Dive 5

What sets Ghostwire: Tokyo apart from your typical open world adventure are the specifics of its locale; Tokyo is a gigantic, dense city with a rich mix of architectural styles from different eras. At first you’re confined to ground level but it isn’t long before you’re granted the ability to spirit-grapple onto Tengus (flying spirits hanging out in the sky), launch yourself up onto the rooftops, and jump, mantle, and spirit glide your way around the city. Yes, spirit glide. You can fly within the first 90 or so minutes. It’s great. The movement system is almost parkour-like in nature but it’s nothing nearly so advanced. You do have just enough mobility though that it feels fun and rewarding to jump around the city’s high ground more often than not, and you get to see a lot of the city’s unique personality this way.

Of course, the city streets are often where the best eye candy lies. Ghostwire: Tokyo makes heavy use of ray-traced shadows and reflections to amp up the vibe, and on the PlayStation 5 it’s mostly fairly effective. The game’s version of Tokyo is drenched in bright lights and neon signs, and the frequent rainstorms (sometimes featuring rain falling upward, if you’re lucky) keep the streets full of shiny reflective puddles to add more color to scenes. The game often looks its best when there are multiple lighting effects happening in the same scene together, where signs, streetlights, ghostly auras, and ethereal abilities blend together to create a vibrant tapestry for your eyes to bask in.

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That said, the visuals come at a noticeable cost. On PS5, the game ships with multiple graphics modes: Quality mode, Performance mode, and a variety of High Frame Rate modes which you can balance more toward quality or performance, and allowing you to prefer V-Sync on or off, for folks with sets that support Variable Refresh Rate. It’s an admirable range of presets to offer for a console game and it represents a trend that allows console players to tailor their visual experience more to their own liking. In practice, I tended to settle on “Performance Mode,” which attempts to sacrifice the least amount of visual quality possible to get you up to 60 FPS more consistently. I found “Quality Mode” to give up way too much in terms of performance, but if you don’t mind a 30FPS cap this is probably the way to go if you want the game to look its best. Performance Mode mostly works well and keeps the game running near 60 FPS most of the time, but there are times in the open world when this dips a lot, or even in some of the more linear indoor environments where if there are a lot of objects on screen the frame rate can really tank. Also notable is the significant hit to visual fidelity in some of the ray-traced reflections, and an especially noticeable drop in visual quality when you step into a phone booth and see the artifacts and noise present on the booth’s glass. This isn’t totally surprising given the PS5’s hardware and the constraints the console has to work with, but it is something that will stand out to you if you’re sensitive to visual quirks.

Still, it’s a beautiful game and it offers a haunting atmosphere suitable for the subject matter. Ghostwire: Tokyo makes full use of the DualSense’s features, using haptics for raindrops and interaction with the environment, resistance on the triggers for charge attacks, and ample utilization of the speaker in a variety of situations. KK’s voice will always play over the speaker when he speaks to you; certain sound effects will echo out of the speaker to emphasize them and increase your sense of immersion; unsettling radio static will start to play out of it when you approach an area inhabited by Visitors( the game’s malevolent spirits based on popular Japanese lore), warning you ahead of time if you’re about to find yourself in a fight. One of my other favorite atmospheric tricks the game pulls is using the in-world lighting to warn you about the “alert state” of the Visitors around you; the street lights and lanterns will shift from their natural warm glow to something yellow-ish when they’ve become aware of you, orange when they’re searching for you, and bright red when they’re in full aggression mode. Seeing their influence on the natural world adds some great flavor to encounters, and watching the lighting shift back to its normal state when you defeat the last Visitor in a group is a really excellent touch of using environmental feedback to communicate to the player.

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Regarding combat, this is one of the parts of Ghostwire: Tokyo that I have struggled the most to form a consistent opinion on. Instead of guns or traditional weapons, Akito has access to a variety of elemental magic attacks through KK, which are collectively referred to as Ethereal Weaving. Each element leans on a traditional weapon archetype. Wind weaving is your stand-in for a pistol; it shoots rapid, lower powered projectiles with decent accuracy and can be upgraded to fire faster; fire weaving gives you large burst damage at a specific point; water weaving cuts an arc for damaging multiple enemies at close range. Each ethereal weaving type consumes its own pool of energy, called “ether,” which you regenerate by destroying spiritual copies of objects that have bled into our world, melee attacking visitors, blocking attacks with precise timing, and banishing visitors, depending on the upgrades you’ve chosen. All of your attacks can be “charged” to produced enhanced effects that generally equate to “more damage,” at the cost of taking time to perform the charge. You also have a bow and arrow for dealing precise damage at a distance, which can come in very handy and would be arguably overpowered if not for the fairly limited pool of arrows you have available (at first, anyway). Probably the most fun and rewarding part of combat with Visitors is exposing their spirit cores and capturing them, either directly at close range or with a really beautiful golden wire effect at a distance that never gets tiresome to look at. Capturing cores is optional, and you can choose to blast a Visitor away entirely, but the cores can grant you extra health, ether, and charge on your special meter.

Most of the time, and for most encounters, combat is engaging and fun enough, and the way the ethereal weaving works is just different enough from firearms in other games that it doesn’t feel like a straight up swap, which is good. The powers justify their existence. For most in-world encounters, things feel balanced enough and even though taking hits feels bad (and you will take hits), most situations are recoverable. In many cases, Ghostwire: Tokyo encourages a stealthy approach, allowing you to “Quick Purge” a Visitor if you can sneak up behind it and hit the button prompt without alerting it. It’s possible to take out entire groups of Visitors this way, which is in itself really rewarding, but not always necessary. Where things get less fun is in certain side quests or scenarios where the number of Visitors you face increases dramatically, and you find yourself up against tricky odds that require you to more carefully balance your ether reserves, be more intentional in your attacks, and use the skills that allow you to regenerate ether more deliberately.

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That’s all well and good except that in many cases you’ll find yourself swarmed by Visitors who get up in your face (like the headless high-schoolers that like to dive kick and slap you), and your only recourse isn’t even to block, but to smash the sprint button and try to get to a different position instead, which leaves you on the backfoot more often than not. The lack of a dodge action/ability is something that I felt very keenly and very consistently in fights, especially when I went up against the game’s first boss and nearly got obliterated by attacks that I was apparently expected to somehow evade but couldn’t reasonably get away from. It’s not a dealbreaker, but it’s one of those things where the combat either works or it really doesn’t, and it all depends on the specifics of a given encounter design.

The other place that Ghostwire: Tokyo stumbles a bit is in its narrative and pacing. It starts off strong, and does a great job setting things up, but by the middle of Chapter 3 the momentum starts to dwindle and the game feels much more like many other open world games you may have played before. It’s a strange thing, because the game is at its strongest when you’re in one of the curated, interior environments with linear level design, or pushing toward clear objectives in bespoke outdoor environments that have been given a great deal of attention to still feel fun to navigate, and the story beats work best in those situations, but the carrot-on-the-stick starts getting too far out in front of the player too early on, and it has an impact on your desire to keep the pressure on. I know this is somewhat intentional; after all, an open world game wants you to feel that you can take time to explore and check out side quests and not feel so totally urgently pressed forward. Still, Ghostwire: Tokyo often feels like it wants to be a linear first person experience and that it is being forced to work within the confines of an open world adventure. The world itself is still fun to explore, but the number of steps required to advance the narrative, if that’s something you’re invested in doing, starts to balloon a little too early for my liking. Again, these issues aren’t dealbreakers by any stretch, as the game is still largely fun to play and the world is still fun to explore, but it has a habit of undermining itself.

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Ghostwire: Tokyo is a game full of great ideas that does an admirable job of capitalizing on most of them. The setting begs you to explore every nook and cranny, and the atmosphere is just the right amount of spooky and threatening without needing (or wanting) to dip into full horror. It is punctuated throughout with some great set pieces and memorable moments that make you feel like you’re living through a genuine paranormal incident. The combat feels great when it hits, and only minorly frustrates when it misses. Ghostwire: Tokyo wants to show you all of itself, and is clearly proud of what it has to offer, as it should be. While the game fails to achieve its full potential in a few areas, it’s still a fun world to traverse that emphasizes exploration over combat and rewards you for leaning into its systems and suspending your disbelief. I’d love to see a version of this game with more mobility in combat, and maybe fewer distractions in the open world, but it’s also much more viable to critical path than most other open world games, and is at its best when you’re barrelling over rooftops toward your next objective. It’s not quite the epic paranormal mystery I was hoping for, but it’s damn close and still good enough to be a fun time.

PlayStation 5 code was provided in advance by the publisher for review purposes