'Ghostwire: Tokyo’ is an unsettling, action-packed dive into Japanese folklore

'Ghostwire: Tokyo’ is an unsettling, action-packed dive into Japanese folklore

A screenshot from the video game

Ghostwire: Tokyo unexpectedly reminded me of the old and somewhat deep-cut Xbox 360 game Crackdown.

That 2007 release finds an incredibly sticky basic gameplay loop in giving players free run of a futuristic city that's dotted with collectible upgrade orbs. The more orbs you pick up, the higher you can jump. And higher jumps, in turn, make it easier to snatch even more orbs. It creates a compelling "just one more" kind of vibe, and it's the same sort of thing Ghostwire also nails in its own particular way.

Developer Tango Gameworks and its founder, Resident Evil co-creator Shinji Mikami, built a game here that speaks in the language of horror while carrying itself as a thrilling open-world action game. You run around and explore. You unravel a mystery that's gripped the city of Tokyo. You fight an assortment of freaky supernatural baddies that look like they stepped right out of movies like The Ring and The Grudge.

It's an unsettling atmosphere for sure, but the journey is more power trip than creeping race to survive. Our hero Akito is one of the last humans standing after a deadly fog envelops a section of the city and a population of 250,000 disappears, Rapture-style. We don't know at first why Akito was spared, but it probably has something to do with KK, the gruff yet benevolent spirit hitching a ride in the human's consciousness.

Solving the mystery of what the heck happened to Tokyo — which is also now overrun by spirits called Visitors that resemble creatures of Japanese myth and folklore — is priority number one. And while Akito is a puny human, KK's presence bestows him with the power to save the lost souls of the local population and violently rip out each marauding Visitor's brightly glowing core, effectively killing it.

It's the spirit rescue piece of this puzzle that summons up my memories of Crackdown. Ghostwire's version of Tokyo is filled with floating clusters of soul energy that Akito, with KK's help, can collect using talismanic paper dolls called katashiro. As you fill up katashiro and empty them out in specialized phone booths that whisk the souls off to safety, you earn money and experience points (XP) that charge up Akito's growing stable of powers.

A screenshot from the video game
NOPE. Credit: Tango Gameworks

Being able to "level up" is nothing new for this kind of video game, but Ghostwire and Crackdown are alike in tethering Akito's ability to become more powerful directly to movement and exploration. The supernaturally corrupted Tokyo is the real star of this game, and in filling its rooftops, alleyways, and Visitor-guarded streets with glowing spirit clusters to rescue, Tango Gameworks created a compelling "just one more" power chase of its own.

I also appreciate Ghostwire's commitment to authentic representations of Japanese culture. I've never visited the country myself, but I came away from the game with a much deeper understanding of the mythic history that has shaped certain contours of its local culture. A lot of credit goes to the writing here, with text-based descriptions for any given item, threat, or story point accompanied by a brief rundown of the historical context. But it's also just the way certain basic ideas are packaged.

Take grappling hooks. This incredibly common movement tool in video games assumes an otherworldly form in Ghostwire. The skies above its version of Tokyo are filled with legendary winged beings called tengu. They're harmless spirits, simply flying around along set paths, usually near a building's rooftop. Early on, Akito picks up the ability to shoot out a thin string of spirit energy that tethers a nearby tengu and yanks him up to its level.

Functionally, Akito's spirit string is a grappling hook, and those flying tengu are his anchor points. But the supernatural dressing built around these basic mechanical concepts is a big part of what makes Ghostwire stand out and feel special. This extends even further to a dizzying lineup of optional side quests that often boil down to Akito helping individual spirits find peace.

Here again, it's the wrapping that stands out. Most of the optional activities are simple and straightforward — go to a map marker, fight whatever threats are there, win and collect your rewards — but they all take the form of bite-sized short stories that are steeped in the folklore permeating every inch of Ghostwire.

The supernatural dressing built around basic concepts is a big part of what makes 'Ghostwire' stand out and feel special.

One early optional quest puts players to work for the spirit of an old woman who, as a human, shared her home with a zashiki-warashi, a lovably mischievous spirit that is said to bring good fortune. Sadly, the woman's asshole landlord claimed the spirit for himself. So Akito is asked to go track down the landlord's spirit self and purge it, freeing the zashiki-warashi from his clutches in the process.

If you follow the steps of the quest, the whole thing can be finished easily, in less than 10 minutes, and for a more-than-modest reward. But the real riches in this optional pursuit are the narrative payoffs. Learning about the zashiki-warashi, helping this particular spirit's story play out, and getting a sweet, touching reunion to cap things off is a simple kind of satisfying.

It's the same vibe with the assortment of collectible items that can be found scattered across the city. Relics like discarded kites or "cursed" videotapes, for example, are accompanied by text descriptions (found in the "Database" menu) that fill out the history and context for players who may not be deeply familiar with Japanese folklore. It's about authenticity more than anything else; the attention to these kinds of small, educational details make Ghostwire's optional content more engaging than I'd expect.

I just wish the story and action came close to matching the energy that defines and fuels the game's rendering of Tokyo as a whole. The plot is just plain convoluted. Following the narrative beats is easy enough, but the ties that bind Akito, KK, and a fearsome Hannya mask-wearing antagonist are hazy at best, and this makes for a less-than-satisfying resolution in the end.

The main quests themselves are a little uneven, with too many that boil down to "go here, kill that." But they're not without some swings. More than once, Akito's connection to KK is severed, leaving him relatively powerless against Visitor threats.

That kind of mechanical twist is often anathema to games that are built around amassing power, like this one is, but it works surprisingly well here. Instead of forcing players to be stealthy under punishing failure conditions, most of the solo Akito moments are all about running like hell and not looking back. Flavor moments like these that break up the pace are still more the exception, though.

A screenshot from the video game

It didn't matter in my case. I was having so much fun exploring and carving out my own little ghost tour that any struggles to invest in Akito's journey quickly fell by the wayside. I did finish the game, but seeing the story through to its end was far less satisfying than the individual discoveries I made along the way.

Ghostwire also falters when it comes to delivering tense action. The basics seem to get it right at first: You fight by wearing down Visitor defenses using Akito's elemental-based powers to expose their core, which can then be ripped free using the same spirit tether that doubles as a grappling hook. It just never goes any deeper than that.

The foes you face are creepy as hell, but they all get purged out of existence in the same way. Slow-moving, hard-hitting slendermen-esque foes who use their umbrellas as shields and speedy headless kids dressed in school uniforms are the earliest threats you face, and they go down easily enough. But later, beefier threats like the fearsome kuchisake and its nasty giant scissors don't require much more tactical complexity. They take more damage before a core is exposed, but it's not any more complicated than that.

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I ultimately came away from the whole adventure feeling like its spooky tour of Tokyo is the point. Mikami has often woven elements of Japanese culture into his work, but it's purposefully at the forefront here. Ghostwire makes local culture and folklore an integral piece of the experience in a way that took me by surprise.

There haven't been too many blockbuster games in my life where I walked away feeling more knowledgeable about the world. But Ghostwire: Tokyo delivers exactly that. For any shortfalls in the main plot and promising-yet-shallow action, the mix of mechanical pleasures and cerebral thrills kept me avidly on the hook for more unsettling action from beginning to end.

Ghostwire: Tokyo comes to PC and PlayStation 5 on March 25.

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