‘Ghostwire: Tokyo’ review: an open-world adventure by numbers

Shibuya, scrambled

Ghostwire: Tokyo is a first-person survival horror game, but it is also, for better or worse, a Bethesda Game. Developer Tango Gameworks didn’t always make Bethesda Games, but the writing was on the wall when The Evil Within 2 adopted an open-world design – an unusual choice for a gory psychological horror, albeit one that worked out surprisingly well.

That game struck a delicate balance between tightly scripted horror and open exploration, but in Ghostwire: Tokyo the scales have tipped decisively towards the latter, and you can’t help but feel that the devs’ hearts aren’t in it.

You play as Akito, lone survivor of a lethal mist that has consumed the Shibuya district of Tokyo. You’re alive thanks to an attempted possession by the spirit of KK, a former supernatural investigator who begrudgingly agrees to share Akito’s body on the basis that they work together to fight through the fog and end the machinations of the masked madman behind it all.

GhostWire: Tokyo. Credit: Tango Gameworks.
GhostWire: Tokyo. Credit: Tango Gameworks.

Stepping into a first-person perspective, you get to explore the abandoned neighbourhood, now populated only by restless spirits, folkloric creatures, and the canine and feline survivors of a cataclysm that seems to have only targeted humans (Ghostwire does take a decisive line on whether or not dogs go to heaven).

Shibuya itself is the best thing about Ghostwire by far. In making the smart choice to limit the game to a single district, rather than Tokyo in its entirety, Tango has managed to recreate it in lavish detail, from historic shrines to towering shopping centres – and, of course, the iconic Shibuya Scramble crossing.

It’s not just the world itself. Every new item you collect, treasure you find, or location you wander into generates a menu entry diving into its history, meaning, and significance. Most tellingly, as much love is devoted to accounts of mythic creatures and ancient shrines as is to subway systems and cellophane-wrapped snacks – few games offer as loving an account of instant ramen.

GhostWire: Tokyo
GhostWire: Tokyo. Credit: Tango Gameworks.

By essentially killing every single resident in the game’s opening cutscene, Tango does paint itself into a bit of a corner though, as its take on Tokyo is inherently lifeless. To some extent that works – there’s an eerie beauty in exploring the abandoned streets, your only company the clothes left behind when the population vanished.

But before long that isn’t enough, and the blame mostly falls on the fact that there simply isn’t much to do – and what’s there is frankly uninspired. You’ll purify Torii gates of corrupt influence to lift the fog and open new areas of the map; find hidden treasures you can sell for the game’s currency, Meika; collect loose spirits to earn experience; track down secret Jizo statues and Tanuki to upgrade your arsenal and unlock emotes or costume changes. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

There are side missions too, but before long you’re likely to lose interest in them. Most come from spirits with unfinished business, and that business invariably involves sending you to a place to fight waves of monsters, then walking back to let them know that you’ve done it.

Combat is… fine. Since the game is played in first-person, the comparison to a shooter is inevitable. The bulk of your offence comes from three elemental attacks you can switch between: wind, water, and fire. Each has a regular version, and a charged attack that unleashes extra effects. It’s a bit like playing a first-person shooter with only three guns, but it holds together just about.

GhostWire: Tokyo. Credit: Tango Gameworks.
GhostWire: Tokyo. Credit: Tango Gameworks.

You also have the option of a single melee attack, a few Talismans that effectively function as grenades with various stunning and stealth effects, and a bow-and-arrow that’s clearly only included in your toolkit for the occasional moments when the game decides to strip Akito of both KK and his powers. These sections are exactly as much fun as they sound.

You’ll spend most of the game fighting Visitors – aggressive spirits formed from lingering misery. These are essentially ghostly versions of various Japanese stereotypes: the head-down office worker, the lonely woman, the studious school children.

At first these feel like compelling threats, but they quickly begin to blur together. There’s only so many faceless men with umbrellas you can fight before you stop really registering them altogether.

In fairness, the game’s most intense fights do trigger the sort of terror that Tango is best known for. Some of Ghostwire’s most relentless opponents are genuinely alarming, hissing and screeching as they hurl themselves across the battlefield or break down your rhythm with ranged energy attacks that interrupt your actions.

GhostWire: Tokyo. Credit: Tango Gameworks.
GhostWire: Tokyo. Credit: Tango Gameworks.

The game is most frightening outside of combat, though these moments are fleeting. As you’re pushed through a story that is at best mysterious, but more often simply opaque, Ghostwire occasionally pulls out the reality-warping tricks that made both Evil Within games so effective.

There’s something to be said for navigating the winding halls of an office building or hospital that’s warping around you, walls shifting as you walk and eyes forming to watch your progress. It is, to be blunt, unsettling.

Ghostwire: Tokyo is satisfyingly sparing in wheeling these moments out, careful not to dilute their effect, but the result is still a reminder of how lacking the rest of the game is.
There’s only so much time you can spend running around empty streets, picking up copy-and-pasted collectibles to watch meaningless numbers go up, before you start to question how you’re spending your time.

Which is a shame, because Ghostwire’s world deserves better. And its story, while told in fits and starts, has a compelling arc and strong enough themes of grief, isolation, and regret to carry you through the game’s weakest moments.

If you have the will to tune out the endless open world guff, what you’ll find here is a satisfying single-player experience that nods at the spiritual while offering a deep dive into Japanese culture, both modern and historic.

But what a game it would be if that guff weren’t there, stripped back to a tightly scripted horror adventure through a desolate Tokyo. A better game, a more interesting game, and – if we’re allowed to speculate – probably the game the developers would have preferred to make.

Ghostwire: Tokyo launches on March 25 for PS5 and PC. We reviewed it on PS5. 

The Verdict

Ghostwire: Tokyo is a good open-world adventure that wishes it was a great scripted horror story. The game is at its best when it straps you on rails and breaks down reality around you, but all too often you’re left to wander an empty Tokyo with little to say for it.

Pros

  • Sense of style
  • Excellent set pieces
  • Unsettling creature design

Cons

  • Lifeless world (literally)
  • Little variety to combat
  • Bloated, dull open-world activities
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