I’ve had a cautious eye on Ghostwire: Tokyo ever since it was first revealed at E3 2019. I thoroughly enjoyed developer Tango Gameworks’ last release, The Evil Within 2, and an open world set in a modern day Tokyo with elements of Japanese horror seemed like too good a cocktail to pass up. The caution though, came from the fact that the studio seemed to be going more of an action-oriented route with the game’s paranormal encounters and for a long time weren’t really giving us much of an idea of how its world, gameplay and story all came together. While more recent showings have definitely cleared a lot up, it’s taken for me to get my hands around the actual game to really understand what it’s going for.
Well, at least begin to understand.
Thanks to Bethesda I’ve been able to play through the first two chapters of Ghostwire: Tokyo, right from the main menu and for about a total of eight hours. That’s been more than enough to be properly introduced to the game’s narrative and to get a good feel for how everything works in action, affording plenty of time to soak in a small slice of the setting of Shibuya and get stuck into a bunch of side quests and character progression alongside the main stuff
Ghostwire: Tokyo doesn’t waste time kicking off with a brief opening introducing me to KK, the spirit of a dead ghost-hunting detective, who in a desperate bid to find a host body to possess before completing passing on winds up entering the dead body of a man named Akito. Except, as it turns out, Akito isn’t quite dead yet and so KK finds himself stuck without full control and with Akito able to make use of his spectral powers. Impossibly, the pair manage to hit it off and decide on a truce to fulfill each of their goals – rescue Akito’s sister from a nearby hospital as well as find and defeat the Hannya mask-wearing villain responsible for wiping out Tokyo. Did I mention this all starts with everyone dying and Tokyo being taken over by evil spirits? There’s a lot to unpack here.
While I’ll avoid going into much more detail about the events of these first two chapters for the sake of preserving the experience, there are already a few key takeaways here. For one, this isn’t the blood-curdling, fright-filled type of horror game that executive producer Shinji Mikami and his studio are known for. Taking all of its inspiration from Japanese folklore and urban legends with things like yokai, demons, spiritual possession, transforming animals – stuff that isn’t so overtly scary as it is unusual, unsettling and haunting. It also seems to have a sense of humour, a weird and very Japanese sense of humour that reminds me of the kinds of ridiculous writing in some of my favourite B-grade PS3 action games.
Going in the one thing I was most keen to get a feel for is Ghostwire: Tokyo’s combat, which makes the fairly risky move of making first-person spell weaving its primary offering. After becoming possessed by KK, Akito slowly gains a collection of elemental spectral skills from rapid-fire wind attacks to sweep, close range water moves and devastating blasts of fire. The aim is to either pummel enemies with these until they disappear into the ether (usually turning into ethereal ammo that replenishes said magical attacks) or weaken them to the point their ‘core’ is exposed and ripping that out in a move that’s especially satisfying when you line up multiple downed spirits and pull a bunch of cores at once.
In practice the game’s combat is definitely unique enough to be engaging, especially watching the impressive animation work in Akito’s hands as he quickly flits between signs and fires off spells. I’m not yet certain if it’ll hold my attention for the long haul, it seems like it’ll just be the three spell types and while they’re different enough there’s not really any element of strategy between different enemy types and scenarios.
The enemies themselves are also very cool but seemingly very limited at least in the first two chapters. You’ve got your faceless, umbrella wielding salaryman spirits, your headless schoolchildren and shrieking hairdressers with giant scissors and a few different variations on each but I’m really hoping there are more to come as encounters started to feel a tad samey even this early on. I was hoping that digging into Akito’s skill trees would help break up some of the repetition but even these mostly amount to powering up his existing repertoire. There’s some light stealth involved that can shake things up a bit, and in particular one mission towards the end of my time switched things up a bit and introduced a new mechanic where Akito can occasionally lose KK making him more vulnerable and reducing his attack options to a bow and stealth kills.
One of the most crucial components to Ghostwire: Tokyo is its freely explorable Shibuya, a neon and rain-soaked city district that’s now completely devoid of life. In these initial chapters I was able to explore a restricted section of the overall map with progress gated (literally) by Torii gates which need to be cleansed in order to lift areas of deadly fog, thus allowing further exploration. Based on what I played it seems as though it’s not possible to just go cleansing all of the gates and open up the full map, instead there are crucial gates tied to story progression – at least that’s my understanding so far.
Similar to The Evil Within 2, a lot of the sidequests I engaged in during my early hands-on took me to places out of the open world proper, typically inside sites of hauntings like apartment buildings, hospitals and train stations. These were all a lot of fun, like little vignettes based on different types of folklore that play well into KK’s previous position as a paranormal detective and self-appointed exorcist. They also show off a lot of great, often tongue-in-cheek writing that highlights the mundanity of the lives that these newly untethered spirits were leading in Shibuya before they all simultaneously shed their mortal coils. At one point I cleansed a construction site that was haunted by the spirits of the residents who lived around it and hated the noise. Another time I rescued a spirit in a convenience store and he told me how much better his job is now that there are no customers.
I’m unsure yet as to how I’ll wind up feeling about the ‘open world’ aspect of Ghostwire, which feels very old-school in its approach with a plethora of icons to investigate on the map and a healthy heaping of those side quests that are simply shown to the player as each new area unlocks. It’s clear the focus isn’t on pushing any boundaries here and the Tokyo streets are there more to add tangibility and context to everything, but coming off the back of games like Elden Ring that may be a hard sell. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy roaming around, finding collectibles and enjoying the verticality afforded by the spectral grappling hook that Akito can use to grapple up to Tengu flying around the tops of buildings. There’s actually something compelling about it, and there are some neat surprises and fun emergent combat scenarios but time will tell if all that holds up over the rest of the game.
It looks fantastic at least, with the kind of density and detail on the streets that makes me love the Yakuza games (though there aren’t nearly as many buildings and sneaky back alleys to walk into). The quiet left in the wake of the spiritual apocalypse event is incredibly eerie with only the sounds of stray animals, restless spirits and shopfront music left running. Tango Gameworks makes a lot of great use of visual cues and imagery from all of the game’s various influences quite well and I definitely found myself double-taking constantly at weird and spooky goings-on in my peripheral vision. Combat looks great too with some impressive particle effects and hand sign animations plus all manner of creatively unhinged enemy designs.
I definitely plan on playing through the full game in the ‘HFR Quality’ visual mode, which combines ray-tracing effects with a high frame rate target. I’m yet to explore them all but there are at least half a dozen different visual options available on the PS5 from a high-res 30fps mode with ray-tracing to performance options with high pixel counts and frame rates but no RT. It looks like there’ll be something there for everyone, which is nice. There’s also a photo mode, naturally, which is fun to mess around with and allows you to take selfies to show off the outfits you can unlock during side content – in a cute detail Akito even makes a camera-like sign with his hands when transitioning into photo mode.
There’s a bunch more to talk about from my first eight or so hours with Ghostwire: Tokyo but I’d like to save at least some of it for my full review of the game, and especially once I know how all of it holds up over a longer period of time. For now, I’m having a blast despite some reservations about repetition and its open world structure, and I’m itching to get stuck back into it. Even from a distance it’s clear that this won’t sit among the Elden Rings and Horizon Forbidden Wests in this year’s GOTY discourse but there’s certainly something uniquely endearing and just subtly spooky here that I feel could be pretty special.