Ghostwire: Tokyo Retrospective

Why can’t AAA developers and publishers understand less is more?

After sinking 20 hours into Ghostwire: Tokyo and with no end in sight, I’m glad I waited for the Xbox Game Pass release. It’s a confusing mix of compelling and mundane that leaves me briefly entertained for short bursts and coming back in the hope it’ll improve. The problem is every time I stop and think of the overall experience, I’m disappointed by the squandered potential and annoyed by the lack of respect for my time.

Digital tourists rejoice

Now I’m not someone with enough free time to sink dozens of hours into truly bad games, so I’ll start by highlighting a few things Ghostwire: Tokyo does well to better explain why I’m so disappointed.

The first and perhaps most significant positive is Tango Gameworks’ version of Tokyo after a supernatural disaster. It’s an eerie audiovisual treat and feels authentically Japanese to the point I’d strongly suggest you go with the default setting of Japanese voice work and subtitles (the English voice acting was bland and unexpressive in comparison).

The Shibuya city ward – a literal ghost town with most of its denizens spirited right out of their clothes – is a dense juxtaposition of old and new. Modern shopping districts, transport hubs, and apartment buildings jostle for space alongside old temples, parks, and low-income tenements. Modern grid-like roads and elevated highways crisscross a much older layout of claustrophobic alleyways and footpaths.

Ghostwire: Tokyo Xbox Series S Visuals

I can’t comment on the accuracy but it’s a dense and detailed environment that incorporates many iconic landmarks. It takes a few hours to get a feel for the scope and you’ll soon spot reused assets and layouts, but it’s still damn impressive how variable it feels despite being set in a single city ward. If you can look past the supernatural action-adventure trappings, it’s an unexpectedly immersive experience thanks more to the believably-proportioned architecture than the stunning visuals, thick atmosphere, and haunting soundscape.

The second element I love is the striking character designs and personalities of the protagonists, villains, lingering spirits, and the diverse roster of “Visitors”. They’re not the awkward hybrids of Eastern and Western stereotypes that developers like Capcom and Konami are so fond of. The main story and side-quests also draw on a mix of ancient Japanese folklore and modern urban legends to creep you out, while the innumerable collectibles slowly expand a massive database full of interesting information about that country’s history and its ongoing influence on modern cultural practices.

As someone whose first gaming experience was an NES and playing arcade cabinets manufactured in Japan, it remains a country and culture I’ve always been curious about. If you share that interest, Ghostwire: Tokyo is at least easy to recommend to those that enjoy digital tourism and concise bullet-point tourist guides.

Ghostwire: Tokyo March of the Damned

Why design a game that forces you to not have fun before you can have fun?

Featuring a map that expands with story progress, the problem is you can’t see all of Ghostwire: Tokyo’s environment without engaging with the slow-to-evolve gameplay loop that relies on repetitive busywork to get the most out of it.

As an action game, combat is a core part of the experience. Despite a supernatural twist that incorporates Kuji-kiri hand gesture attacks, purification rituals, and enchanted talismans, Ghostwire: Tokyo plays like a frenetic, modern FPS that rewards mobility, prioritising targets, and the tactical use of powers and finishers.

You deal with a reasonably varied roster of “visitors” by stripping away their physical shells with elemental attacks – think wind, fire, and water, each emulating a common weapon archetype – before shattering their “cores” to banish them. An enchanted bow can pull off distant headshots, talismans are used like grenades or traps, and aggressive stealth can thin the ranks. To keep you on your toes, faster and tougher variants are progressively introduced, projectile-flinging enemies fill the screen with deadly spheres, flying enemies can come at you from any angle, some can cloak, and bosses typically possess multiple abilities rolled into one challenging form.

In theory and in the trailers, it looks great, and new abilities and upgrades have been added with the Spider’s Thread update; however, combat is only ever as fun as the tools you have at hand. Without grinding for upgrades, basic elemental attacks and abilities you unlock from story missions feel pitifully weak and result in sluggish, tedious battles with limited tactical depth.

It highlights one of my common counterpoints to those that argue this sort of busywork design is purely “optional” when it’s clearly tied to increasing gameplay depth and the enjoyment factor. If your combat is at its best when players can grapple and glide between rooftops, pick off distant stragglers, smash down into mobs at street level, tear out the cores of stunned foes, and then dispatch the rest with flashy elemental attacks, you need to demonstrate that flexibility and intensity early on – not have the player grind levels and skill points for a dozen hours first.

Ghostwire: Tokyo Abilities

Your gameplay mechanics shouldn’t highlight your limitations

That brings me to my next criticism of Ghostwire: Tokyo but this applies to most open-world games. If you have limitations on the complexity of your storytelling, the depth of your gameplay, or the quality of your presentation, surely you would design the experience to mitigate the impact?

You see, as big, beautiful, and diverse as Ghostwire: Tokyo’s environments may be, it didn’t take long to realise every activity – outside of some early and late-game story missions – are repetitive and disconnected tasks, many of which demonstrate open-world designs I thought we’d moved on from a generation ago.

Far too many times I descended into a subway station, discovered a secreted-away temple, or climbed to the roof of a massive, intricately-designed building only to find nothing there to justify the effort of designing such intricate locations. What little environmental storytelling exists is just piles of discarded clothes and short, often repeated notes.

A few times I thought I found such a spot, only to return later when it was suddenly populated for a mission. Side missions tend to use discrete locations but, as intriguing as the premise might be, they’re underdeveloped and utterly unconnected with one another. These are both dated and immersion-breaking designs that make a game world feel incredibly artificial.

What you will find everywhere are clusters of – and I shit you not – 240,000 lost souls that you can absorb and set free for experience towards levelling and skills points for the granular skill-tree. You’ll also earn abundant Meika currency, which you’ll want to spend on Katashiro charms at Nekomata cat yokai stalls to increase the number of spirits you can hold – if only to make the grind moderately more efficient.

The map becomes a barely navigable mess of icons and when you’re not collecting souls – some of which require a match-the-pattern cleansing ritual first, presumably to annoy you further – you’ll be collecting relics, praying to statues, giving dogs treats, reading the thoughts of cats, absorbing yokai for Magatama to unlock higher skill tiers, lining up and purging cursed photos, and collecting capsule toys (the Spider’s Thread update actually added more busywork). Hell, just stocking up on elemental ammunition requires constantly punching spectral junk littered all over the environment.

Ghostwire: Tokyo Shibuya Map

Now it’s not that I don’t understand that checklist-style, one-more-short-task compulsion but playing Ghostwire: Tokyo is often a combination of distracting and tiring. It’s difficult to go more than a block without a dozen distractions and many of the mid-game story missions fall prey to bland design. Most of them revolve around cleansing Torii gates to clear a path through the deadly fog, with story-heavy unique locations and scripted sequences left for the final two chapters.

As a result, the wonderful environments and creative visitor designs soon become background noise as you “engage” – just barely – with innumerable trivial tasks that litter your path. Whenever you stop and consider the overarching narrative, you’ll realise just how thinly stretched and how inconsequential many story beats are. Even as your combat options inevitably slowly expand, battles grow repetitive as so few encounter feel hand-crafted or thoughtfully placed.

The longer you play, the more the average gameplay experience shifts towards monotony and it should come as no surprise the achievement/trophy list is dominated by “collect X percent of this” or “collect all of that” tasks.

Ghostwire: Tokyo Torii Gates

Less is more

Now I’m not a developer and might not appreciate how long it takes to craft content, but I struggle to understand why Tango Gameworks – and indeed many large developers pushing for open-world games – would bloat their game to the point it’s tiresome, less engaging, and features poor gameplay- and narrative-pacing?

Is it truly preferable to develop a long and boring game that forces gamers to play for hours, rather than a brisk and exciting one people would complete and potentially replay? A quick look at achievement and trophy completion percentages for the PC and PlayStation 5 version reveal less than 25% have seen the story to completion a year after release, while completion rates for the tedious “collect 100%” tasks range between 3-5%.

I guess there’s an upgradeable “spectral vision” you can spam incessantly to highlight nearby items of interest to speed things up but, given modern release schedules, who has that much time to sink into one game’s tedious collectathon?

What confuses me most is Tango Gameworks’ woefully under-appreciated The Evil Within 2 demonstrates they can craft open-world-style environments that provide both a balance between hand-crafted and emergent encounters, and interconnected mini story-arcs. They could have stuck to the same approach and used the deadly fog mechanic to channel you to smaller but diverse environments, with more hand-crafted encounters and substantial side missions for padding. A shorter, tighter game with quicker progression would have felt far less mundane while still highlighting the quality of their world-building, characterisation, and narrative.

It leaves me wondering where the game director was late in production, asking questions like: “Why is 80% of our content busywork?”; or, “If our main story and side quests already offer 20-30 hours of gameplay, is this filler necessary?”; and, “Are the time and money spent on creating filler content adding or detracting from the overall experience?”.

Ultimately, Ghostwire: Tokyo had the potential to look, sound, play, and feel unique – but a solid foundation is buried under a mountain of monotonous busywork using a template we’ve seen a thousand times before.

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