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Ghostwire: Tokyo is creepy, thrilling, and a game that respects your time

An eerie mix of white knuckle action and quiet exploration

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They don’t make many games like Ghostwire: Tokyo anymore. The latest release from Tango Gameworks, the studio behind the terrifying Evil Within series, Ghostwire: Tokyo is a big-budget action game with a very specific focus. It isn’t stretched out with an unnecessarily large open world or superfluous online features. Instead, it offers something pure and straightforward: a mix of action, adventure, and scares in a tight package that can be wrapped up in less than 20 hours.

At the outset of the game, nearly every person in Tokyo has vanished, leaving the metropolis overrun with yokai, folklore creatures, urban legends, and vengeful spirits. You play as Akito, a human who was able to survive the cataclysm by merging with a spirit named KK, who infuses him with supernatural powers. The newly forged duo have a few goals in front of them: collecting the spirits of normal Tokyo residents that are still lingering around, rescuing Akito’s missing sister, clearing the city of a poisonous supernatural fog, and stopping an evil mastermind from creating a rift between the lands of the living and dead. Just a light to-do list.

Ghostwire actually feels like a mix of two very different kinds of games, which blend together rather seamlessly. At its core, it’s an action game that plays out kind of like a first-person shooter, only without guns. You’re able to wield a handful of different types of magic — wind, fire, and water — all of which have different attributes. Fire is great at long range, for instance, while you’ll want to use water once enemies get in close. There’s a Doom-like balletic feel to the combat, as you’re zipping around areas, ducking behind cover, and swapping between magic types that you blast from your hands. Much like in Doom, it pays to be aggressive; killing enemies can refill your health and magic, but you need to get up close to soak up the rewards. There’s also a very satisfying ability that lets you rip out the hearts of enemies for an extra magical bonus. The action has a wonderfully tactile sense to it, as you’re literally using your hands to wield spells and tear out hearts.

The game has a very video game-y structure to it. Navigating Tokyo means wandering the streets in search of both hordes of enemies to clear and shrines and temples that you can cleanse to get rid of that evil fog and open up more of the map. You also have to seek out lost souls, who are stranded all over the city, and use a paper doll called a katashiro to absorb them and then send them to safety using one of the many phone booths in Tokyo. (Don’t ask me how phone lines can transport spirits.) This serves as a kind of experience system; the more souls you save, the more you can upgrade your various abilities. It’s a fairly straightforward structure, but that’s also what I liked about it. I had enough freedom to be able to explore without ever feeling overwhelmed or lost. The only real issue I had was a few rather annoying sequences where the game temporarily robs you of your powers, forcing you to utilize stealth and an unwieldy bow and arrow to proceed.

Ghostwire is full of some truly creepy monsters: headless schoolgirls who will charge at you with reckless abandon, horrifying humans with hair that sprouts out like gigantic spider legs, and a seemingly innocuous woman who wields a devastating pair of scissors. (I really don’t like her.) The bosses, in particular, are massive and disturbingly mutated takes on familiar creatures. And the world will sometimes shift and change in uncomfortable ways; sometimes that’s a house that becomes submerged in a dark liquid, or smaller things like the white painted lines on the road suddenly floating in the breeze. At one point, I swore the ever-present rain was floating up.

But despite this — and despite the fact that the game comes from a studio founded by Resident Evil creator Shinji Mikami — Ghostwire isn’t a survival horror game. This is because I was so powerful in the game that I never found myself running for my life or looking for a place to hide like I do in Silent Hill and Resident Evil.

The action focus works well, and the story — despite leaving out a lot of detail and rendering most side characters very underdeveloped — has a good momentum to it, buoyed by the buddy cop-like relationship between Akito and KK. Their constant banter about life, death, and the state of KK’s apartment is a lot of fun. But the main story is overshadowed by the sidequests. 

Outside of the action, Ghostwire feels like a first-person indie exploration game. It reminded me a lot of 2015’s Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture. The streets of Tokyo may be empty of human life, but there’s still a lot going on; spirits in need of help or KK’s old case files from his previous life as a detective. These stories range from sorrowful to hilarious and feature my favorite moments from the game. One particularly dark quest has you investigating a building where everyone has mysteriously died by suicide, while another is about a hoarder who can’t let go of their stuff. It’s a collection of short stories about the city’s residents and their relationship with death. Think of it like Midnight Diner, but with ghosts.

I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention the city itself. Ghostwire renders Tokyo with an astounding level of love and detail. You’ll explore familiar places, of course, like the Shibuya crossing and the labyrinth subway stations. But Ghostwire also sends you through the back alleys and generic office buildings and the shrines and graveyards that are hidden amongst the urban sprawl. It’s particularly eerie devoid of people –—though you’ll see lots of piles of clothing from those who suddenly vanished — but full of signs of life, whether it’s shopping bags full of snacks left laying around or music pulsating from the now-empty bars and restaurants.

You can even still shop at those amazing convenience stores since they’re now run by talking, floating cats. In fact, animals play a big part in the atmosphere of Ghostwire; you can pet or feed the cats and dogs left in the city and even read their minds for hints. (It is, naturally, much easier to get the dogs to agree to some scratches than the more standoffish cats. And the elaborate petting animations feel designed for maximum Twitter virality.)

As games get bigger and longer, more bogged down by an increasing need to have all of your attention, experiences like Ghostwire are becoming increasingly rare. Already this year, we’ve seen the creators of Pokémon and Dark Souls release amazing new games that demand an incredible amount of your time and energy. Ghostwire, meanwhile, has elements of open-world and role-playing games, but they don’t overwhelm the core of the experience. Instead, it deftly balances all-out action with quiet exploration and wraps it all up in a world full of fascinating, sad, and hilarious stories to uncover.

It may freak you out, but it also respects your time.

Ghostwire: Tokyo launches March 25th on the PS5 and PC.