Ghostwire: Tokyo review: A charming but frustrating supernatural shooter

Ghostwire: Tokyo is a game that’s not afraid to ask the big questions: what happens after we die? Is the body really just a bodily prison for our true essence? Can you find a second roll of toilet paper for this ghost so he can ascend to heaven and the next ghost can use the bathroom (and then also pass to the realms beyond)?

It’s a singular game, no doubt, but its most intriguing elements are often drowned out by uneven execution.

Akito is an ordinary young man, hovering between life and death after a motorcycle accident, until his body is unceremoniously hijacked by a spirit named KK. Since Akito isn’t quite done with his body, the two are forced into an uneasy alliance – body mates, if you will.

KK’s arrival comes at just the right time, as Tokyo has just been blanketed in a mysterious fog that separates human souls from their bodies, leaving their ghostly apparitions floating between skyscrapers and rooftop gardens.

Although his spectral partner is focused on the disastrous fog, Akito has his own motives: his sister Mari is lying helpless and unconscious in a hospital. He must join her, and cooperating with KK is the only way to make it happen, thanks to the malevolent demons now lurking the streets.

Akito, one of the protagonists of Ghostwire: Tokyo

Image: Tango Gameworks/Bethesda Softworks

In exchange for taking meat space, KK provides Akito with the ability to cast elemental magic at his fingertips. Powers correspond, loosely, to classic first-person shooter archetypes: wind can be fired quickly from your fingertips, water has a wider, shotgun-like arc, and the fire spell is an explosive blast with a wide area of ​​effect.

Corn Ghostwire: Tokyo may be metaphorically in line with a typical first-person shooter, it doesn’t look like much of one. The controls feel sluggish and fluttery so much that I swapped controllers because I thought something must be wrong. Increasing the camera’s acceleration and deceleration to maximum helps, but it’s not a silver bullet.

There’s also a much shallower pool of offensive abilities than you might expect in a modern shooter. How shallow? Well, you already know all the powers. The three I listed above. That’s it. You can load up each of these three for a stronger build, and you get a bow that’s useful for those rare (but boring) sequences where you’re separated from KK’s power. You can also rip an enemy’s core when they are near death. But after learning all of these skills in the early hours of the game, you’ve pretty much seen it all.

With little new stuff offered after the opening segment, Akito’s hunt for Mira soon feels like a slog. The enemies offer a bit of variety, but the techniques you’ll use to defeat them aren’t all that different. Block their attacks, then shoot them.

Even this basic combat loop feels somehow. Charged attacks don’t use extra ammo, so you’ll always want to charge, if possible. But you have to interrupt your charge very, very often to block an attack. A block, even perfectly timed, does not naturally lead to a counter-attack. This turns every enemy attack into an interruption rather than a real threat or opportunity, and prevents battles from settling into a satisfying flow.

Akito summons a water spell to fight an enemy in Ghostwire: Tokyo

Image: Tango Gameworks/Bethesda Softworks

Systems built around core combat feel similarly disjointed. The talismans that can help turn a fight in your favor are consumable, but so expensive that I wasn’t inclined to use them. There are so many healing items that I have never run out of them. (I never even got close.) And an incredibly useful and game-changing power that lets you create your own grapple points is just randomly dropped into the upgrade tree.

Despite all these fundamental flaws, I cannot deny that I have often been charmed by Ghostwire: Tokyo— most often when I left the critical path to help some wayward ghost wrap up their unfinished business.

These side quests aren’t that compelling from a mechanical standpoint, but many are intriguing little vignettes. The aforementioned toilet mission is the wackiest I’ve come across; however, there are plenty of others that oscillate between sad and silly, poignant and mundane.

These personal stories work well in part because many of these stories – as well as much of the rest of the game – are deeply rooted in Japanese culture and folklore. For example: you increase your spell ammunition by discovering “Jizo statues”. I was initially unfamiliar with the term, which led me to the beautiful and sad story behind these characters. They are believed to provide protection to travelers and help guide the spirits of deceased children.

Akito rips out an enemy's core in Ghostwire: Tokyo

Image: Tango Gameworks/Bethesda Softworks

The enemies, too, are all archetypes of Japanese society who, for one reason or another, have been driven demonically out of dissatisfaction with their earthly existence. Here is the description of the headless young guys in school uniforms called “Students of Pain”:

A type of Visitor born out of the restlessness of young male students facing unclear futures. They unleash their frustration head-on on anyone unlucky enough to cross paths with them. »

(That describes most of the interactions I’ve had with regular, lively high schoolers, but it’s neither here nor there.)

Heck, the default is Japanese dialogue with subtitles, though English voiceover is available, if that’s your thing. I left out the Japanese voices for the entirety, though, as they helped me sink into the world even more. Immersion is facilitated by the fact that the world of Ghostwire: Tokyo is beautifully rendered and lit, with an attention to detail that makes the streets and houses look lived in despite, you know, everyone being dead.

Ghostwire: Tokyo won’t convert you into an expert on Japanese culture, obviously, but I feel like I received tiny bits of information about this world and the Shinto religion as I played some side quests really high above the typical “help, my basement is full of rats” fare.

Akito pets one of Shibuya's many dogs

Image: Tango Gameworks/Bethesda Softworks

If there is a central theme that connects these different threads, it is that of living life for the present and the madness of clinging to anger and guilt. While affecting at times, the impact is undermined by a central story that never really finds traction.

First, there’s not enough oxygen in Akito and Mari’s relationship, so there’s very little narrative fuel to propel you through the story. There’s an overloaded sequence in the game’s final chapter that attempts to develop that relationship, but it’s…too, too late. Every time Mari was mentioned, I was embarrassed to have completely forgotten that my beloved sister was imprisoned somewhere between the world of the living and the world of the dead. I won’t spoil KK’s core motivations here, but suffice it to say: they also lack narrative propulsion.

Maybe the nicest thing I can say about Ghostwire: Tokyo is that it is an endearing experience. There’s a lot of on-screen care, from the cultural details in the sweet side stories to the rendering of the rain-swept world itself. But whatever its charm, it’s bogged down by frustrating design decisions and slow mechanics. It may be a captivating setting, but Ghostwire: Tokyo is difficult to recommend to all but the most devoted students of Japanese culture.

Ghostwire: Tokyo will be released on March 25 on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5 and Windows PC. The game was reviewed on PS5 using a pre-release download code provided by Bethesda Softworks. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, although Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased through affiliate links. You can find additional information on Polygon’s ethics policy here.