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Inside the stylish, cyberpunk future of Tokyo 42

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A cross between Ghost in the Shell and Monument Valley

Early on in Tokyo 42, I found myself being chased through a busy thoroughfare by gun-wielding thugs. Civilians rushed off in every direction as bullets whizzed past, and flickering electronic billboards only added to the visual madness. I managed to blend in for a brief period using a holographic projector to change my appearance, but I knew it wouldn’t last for long. I had to get away. I jumped over a large concrete staircase — and was surprised when I landed with a soft thud on some picturesque green grass. Amid the game’s futuristic urban sprawl, I found myself in a quaint zen garden.

“It’s definitely cyberpunk with its dystopic premise,” Maciek Strychalski, one half of developer Smac Games, says of the game, “but aesthetically it’s slightly off.”

Rather than wallow in seedy alleys and overcrowded streets, Tokyo 42 opts to lighten things up. The isometric game features a zoomed-out perspective, providing wide view of near-future Tokyo. The action is set on the city’s surprisingly bustling rooftops against its beautiful, cloudy sky. There are still plenty of flying cars and electronic billboards, and Tokyo 42 takes on plenty of gritty sci-fi subject matter. But it’s also bright, colorful, and charming, with a toy-like sense of style — a cross between Ghost in the Shell and Monument Valley.

Tokyo 42

Tokyo 42 follows a man framed for a crime he didn’t commit. He sets about clearing his name by taking on murder-for-hire jobs in order to delve deeper into the city’s criminal underbelly, and find the actual responsible party. It’s typical genre stuff, loaded with corporate intrigue and violent criminal organizations. The real standout is the city itself, and how it’s experienced through the top-down isometric perspective.

Tokyo 42’s version of the Japanese capital looks like an immaculately detailed model. Because the camera is so far from the action, everything looks tiny — from the minuscule citizens milling about, to the Lego-like stacks of modular apartment buildings. You explore the twee city as you take on different jobs, which mostly revolve around the not-so-twee act of killing people. Sometimes you’ll need to find an ideal spot to plant a sniper rifle and take out a mark from afar. Other times you’ll need to wield a blade and silently infiltrate a criminal stronghold.

The isometric perspective has its roots in much older games — it was originally used in games as a way to fake 3D graphics — but in Tokyo 42 it feels fresh and modern. You can rotate the camera around to view the urban landscape from multiple angles, and the city itself is almost like a diminutive take on the open-world genre. Though it’s not especially massive, it’s surprisingly open, offering the freedom to try different routes and tactics to complete missions.

The place is simply a joy to walk around. In addition to seedy hideouts and busy transportation hubs, the rooftop city is home to relaxing zen gardens and serene urban waterfalls. Tokyo 42 is primarily a game about murder, yet the experience is often peaceful and playful. The perspective makes it feel more detached than more visceral 3D shooters, so I never felt especially guilty when I’d accidentally lob a grenade into a busy crowd or take out an innocent bystander with an errant sword swing. And so the city feels more like a playground. There are plenty of areas to hide from pursuing enemies or sneak up on a target, and the game’s floaty, exaggerated jump adds a touch of urban parkour as you find new ways to get about.

Strychalski and his brother Sean Wright originally decided with Tokyo 42 to make a game together inspired by the titles they grew up playing, in particular the original Grand Theft Auto and Syndicate. One of the goals was to take the ideas in those games — namely the idea of a large isometric world — and expand on them. “There was the kind of promise of this open city, which [Rockstar] fulfilled with the later games in three dimensions, but they never did it from the god-view, top-down,” explains Strychalski. “I personally wanted to take that idea: ‘What if GTA III wasn’t a third-person thing, but it kept the same perspective as the original ones?’”

Tokyo 42

The world of Tokyo 42 is larger and offers more freedom than its inspirations. It’s also noticeably more vertical: instead of moving through city streets, you’re constantly shifting up and down the rooftops of buildings, navigating twisting staircases and perilous drops. This had a practical benefit, as it allowed the two-man team to create a plausibly small slice of a huge metropolis. “We didn’t want to have invisible walls,” says Wright. “Our solution to that was to put it all on rooftops — you can believe there’s a whole ground level as well.” But it also helped them create a very specific kind of moment, one inspired in part by Assassin’s Creed. “We wanted to get that feeling of being able to stand on top of a building and look out at the city,” Strychalski says.

For all of its new features and ideas, Tokyo 42’s influences are clear when you play. And that’s not something the developers were trying to avoid. “In the process of making our own thing, it’s so comforting to be able to look at games like that and draw on one of their mechanics and just be like ‘Well I know that works because I loved using it there,’” says Wright.

The end result is a game that blurs multiple lines, both in how it plays and the themes it explores. Playing Tokyo 42 is like experiencing a modern open-world shooter in the body of an old-school isometric game. Meanwhile, its take on cyberpunk calls to mind classics like Akira or Neuromancer, but with a distinct, much lighter tone and feel. That said, while Tokyo 42 plays with the themes of cyberpunk in a number of ways, there was one area where the team was sure it didn’t want to change things up.

“It has to be Tokyo,” says Strychalski. “There’s no other place for us — I can’t think of any other place that it could be.”

Tokyo 42 launches today on PC and Xbox One. A PS4 version is coming later on.