Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters
Publisher: Aksys/NIS America
Release Date: 10 March 2015
The PS3 is in its twilight years, so it seems fitting that I’ve spent the past couple of weeks getting my head around Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters (no relation to Tokyo Twilight Busters), the latest release from Toybox. Picked up for localization by Aksys last year and released in the EU by Nippon Ichi America, Ghost Hunters is most notable for being the first game by strategy/visual novel auteur Shuuhou Imai (Tokyo Majin Gakuen) to reach Western shores in an official capacity. Like Imai’s other games, it’s kind of a visual novel and it’s also kind of a strategy game. So how is it?
Ghost Hunters puts the player in the position of a (male) student who has just transferred to Tokyo’s prestigious Kurenai Academy high school, where everything is kind of reddish. After being given a tour of the school by a fellow student, the unwilling ice queen Mifune, our protagonist finds himself embroiled in an attack on the school by a ghost. He volunteers his help to find that he’s actually quite proficient at performing exorcisms.
After dispatching the phantom threat, the protagonist and Mifune are invited by their classmate Shiga to join the Gate Keepers, a group of extra-curricular exorcists masquerading as an occult magazine ala The Fortean Times. What follows is a series of 13 chapters laid out like episodes in an anime series, complete with opening and ending credits and theme songs, in which the Gate Keepers investigate and defeat the ghost-of-the-week.
Ghost Hunters' gameplay is split into two phases: The first part of each chapter plays out in visual novel format, with the player reading dialogue and occasionally making choices. However, how these choices are made are rather unique. Though there is the occasional multiple choice option where one will decide where to go or what to say, most of the interactivity here comes from a returning mechanic from Imai’s earlier titles, the Sensory Input Wheels. The wheels are two mandalas with five choices each that are used back-to-back. The first wheel allows one to select an emotion: friendliness, love, fear, anger or inquisitiveness. The second wheel allows one to select a sense: sight, hearing, taste, smell or touch. The player may use any combination of these, or opt out entirely, making a grand total of 26 different choices each time these wheels are presented. Shiga invited you to join the team? Give him a friendly touch to shake his hand. Is Mifune being nasty to you? Give her an aggressive sniff and see how she reacts.
The sensory input wheels can lead to a great deal of amusement for the player, but don’t have too much bearing on the game itself, outside of gaining/losing relationship points with your comrades. However, once per chapter, the player is given the opportunity to use the “correct” combination in a certain spot to unlock their sixth sense, which sheds more light on the story. If the player successfully does this in every chapter from the second onwards, he or she will be treated to the game’s true ending. The problem is, the correct triggers are almost always obtuse. You’ll hardly ever know where in the chapter the sixth sense trigger will appear, let alone which of the 26 different combinations you need to use to activate it.
The sixth sense system is further marred by the game’s slightly archaic save system, which only allows you to save at the beginning, middle, or end of a chapter, while sixth sense triggers will always occur between the beginning and the middle. Worse still, despite the game’s episodic format it does not feature a chapter select system, something that would seem to be a perfect fit. If you missed a trigger during an early chapter, you won’t be getting the true ending unless you start over from scratch or beat the game and play it in New Game+ mode.
The second phase of the game is the turn-based strategy battle system. The player views a laptop program that displays the location’s blueprint and the positions of the player’s party of up-to-four comrades and the position of any identified ghost. Ghosts usually can’t be seen unless they’re in close proximity to the player’s characters or special illumination devices placed on the battlefield. The player is able to move his or her characters around and take actions at will as long as they have enough action points left to do so.
The twist is that all characters, both players and ghosts, move at the same time. Often you’ll find that a targeted ghost will slip away from you, causing your characters to either strike out at thin air or destroy expensive items located on the map, which docks your end-of-battle pay. Due to their ethereal nature, ghosts can move through walls or through the player’s characters, making it very hard to pin them down in one spot. The player is given access to a variety of traps and special items to help them achieve this task, but they never seemed all that useful to me personally.
The main challenge of the battles comes down to predicting the ghosts’ movements and responding in kind, but it always felt more frustrating than satisfying to me. Even when I was able to successfully pin down and dispatch a particularly flighty spirit, all I could muster was an exasperated sense of relief as opposed to a feeling of accomplishment. Battles just weren’t all that fun to me, but your mileage may vary.
Plot battles occur once per chapter, but the player is able to take on side-missions from the office to grind levels and money. They come in varying degrees of difficulty, depending on what you’re after, and they’re always available. There’s also a board game called Hypernatural that you can play with your Gate Keeper colleagues; it plays similarly to the main battles but with a few twists, and only offers a tiny bit of experience points for playing. I guess it’s nice that it’s there, but outside of bringing flavour to the world, it comes across as slightly redundant. It would’ve been nice if it was more different than the main battles, but it’s still a neat little diversion.
Thematically, Ghost Hunters is a little bit all over the place. It’s definitely got some commitment issues: the story opens with the serious theme of teenage suicide, but quickly shies away from it, eschewing it in favor of dozens of hours of comedic slice-of-life anime tropes. The suicide theme is eventually returned to, but its never really treated with any lasting gravitas.
The game boasts an unusual band/music culture kind of aesthetic, but it feels a little bit dated. The music poster visuals look like they’re straight out of the early 90s, while several of the chapter names and musical leitmotifs reference classic rock of the 70s and 80s. It isn’t the type of music scene I’d imagine the teenagers of 2015 to be in to. Ghost Hunters might have actually been quite effective and interesting as a period piece, set 20-25 years ago and drawing on the author’s own adolescent experiences for inspiration, but as a game set in the present era it just feels a tad out-of-touch. Still, it’s nothing if not unique.
Otherwise, there’s some quite nice touches in terms of world-building. Upon starting the game, you’re prompted to select not only your name, but your birthday, blood type and school club. What do they affect? Nothing, as far as I can see, but it adds to the immersion in the game’s charming atmosphere. Further adding to the immersion is how every action is located within the game’s world. Want to change the background music? Use the tape deck in the car. Equip items? Use the storage locker. Use skill points to level up? Practice with a colleague using the whiteboard. Even the battlefields are fleshed out; When given a floor blueprint, it also details the location’s age, structure specs, what utilities service it and its occupation status. It’s all really very cute, and it’s obvious that a lot of thought and love was put into the game's production.
One of the interesting things about the game, and something I liked very much, was how the character Shiga was handled. Shiga is a main character who is handsome, intelligent, charismatic, and in a wheelchair. It never feels like he’s been included for the sake of diversity, and it’s never exploitative: he’s an occult-loving high school student who just happens to be in a wheelchair. It’s not his defining characteristic, and though he appears on the game’s box art, his wheelchair is not featured. This makes his inclusion feel very natural, not forced or naive.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for all of the characters. Just as I thought the game was progressive in its portrayal of minorities, I hit chapter 8 and was promptly faced with the squealing Twin Angels, a pair of camp-gay/hard-gay brothers who play up every pop culture homosexual stereotype you can think of. They’re first introduced in the buff, martini glasses tactfully hiding their genitalia. Their nude entry is initially an amusing event, but the Twin Angels quickly start shrieking about fingernail polish before fully devolving into constant allusions to sexually assaulting every male they see, whether they be ghost or human. No, seriously, they talk about jumping guys in the parking lot to double team them.
Fuck me. Why is every gay man in Japanese pop culture a screaming queen, a predator, or both? It’s 2015, and this is archaic bullshit. Smarten up, Toybox.
Graphically, Ghost Hunters is quite the looker for a title that was obviously made on a budget. The game’s backgrounds aren't much to write home about, utilizing Photoshop-filtered photographs, but the characters are absolutely gorgeous. You’ll see from the screenshots that the character sprites are very well detailed, almost having a hand-painted quality about them. What you won’t see, however, is how they move. Toybox has animated each character sprite in a way that is both subtle but intricate, and it brings a lot of life to them. It’s nothing groundbreaking in terms of animation in today’s video games, but it’s quite breathtaking in terms of animation within the visual novel medium.
The nice animation extends to the game’s enemy ghosts as well. They come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, and they’re almost always amusing. There’s haunted game cartridges, haunted cell phones, phantom bikers, and stylized depictions of more traditional yokai. They’re a lot of fun to track down and look at, even if the act of defeating them may not be.
It’s worth noting that Nippon Ichi got a bit sloppy in their EU release: the PS3 version does contain trophies, but there is no way to access the trophy list. You’ll see them unlock, but you’ll never be able to see them again after this. I’ve spoken to some users of the EU Vita version, who are able to view their trophy list without any problems. I contacted Nippon Ichi asking if they were aware of this issue but as of yet they have not gotten back to me.
Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters is tough to recommend. As a visual novel, the writing’s not very interesting. As a strategy game, it’s not very satisfying to play. You could do better with any number of other titles, but I’m still glad that it exists. It has a certain degree of charm and originality that many other contemporary titles lack, and I’m thrilled to see it produced and subsequently localized. Collectors, pick this one up, because there’s probably not going to be another print run. It’s a nice weird talking point for your archives.