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Near the start of Ghostwire: Tokyo is one of the most stirring things I’ve seen in a horror game in years. We are in Shibuya, at the famous Scramble Crossing, which, according to one report in 2016, hosts three thousand pedestrians per green light, roughly every two minutes. On this particular occasion, however, the lights are down, and there isn’t another soul in sight. But we are not alone. A serene procession of figures ghost into view, warbling out of a white-blue fog, as if they had bled into our world from a videotape. This is Hyakki Yakō, or, as one character describes it, “the demon parade.” I stumbled across it a handful of times, and the spectacle barely lasts the length of a green light, but I could only stop and stare.
The reason for this visitation is the spectral dealings of a man in a hannya mask—a traditional prop of the Japanese Noh theatre. He is referred to, by the subtitles, first as “Man in Hannya Mask,” then, with a hint of tired familiarity, as simply “Hannya.” And no wonder: his party trick—repeated a little too often—is to hack the vast digital screens looming above, the better to deliver a series of sermons. “O Vagrant souls, gather unto me,” he begins. Then, later: “I do not seek power, nor the right of rule. I seek nothing but salvation.” Unfortunately for us, this salvation entails the merging of our earthly plane with the underworld, knocking through the separating wall without planning permission, and paying absolutely no heed to the rubric of building control. In order to do it, he must harvest the spirits of the living; hence the clothes that litter the streets, as people were yanked clean out of them and yoked to a drifting purgatory.
One line of inquiry that haunts Ghostwire: Tokyo, from beginning to end, is whether or not it is a horror. Let us inspect the evidence. We get a deluge of monsters, many of them culled from the crevices of Japanese horror movies; one such ghoul takes the form of a girl in a yellow raincoat, in a nod to the spectre that leaked through Hideo Nakata’s Dark Water. At one point, we patrol the corridors of a hospital, as we did, on several occasions, in the Silent Hill games—plus, to drive home the homage the speaker in the PlayStation 5 controller peals with radio static at the approach of your foes. And the end credits inform us that the Piano Sonata No.14, by Ludwig van Beethoven, otherwise known as the Moonlight Sonata, was performed by one Shinji Mikami, who serves as executive producer.
This is not a bad association to have. Mikami, who directed Resident Evil and its remake, along with Resident Evil 4, is more responsible than most game developers for the quickening and cooling of our blood. And he has long had a lunar obsession. That same piece played through the halls of the Spencer mansion, in the first Resident Evil, and the last game he directed, The Evil Within, featured repeat listenings of Clair de Lune, by Debussy. The new game includes not just Beethoven but an angered moon, hanging over the city like a lone, bloodshot eye. But what does it survey? Ghostwire: Tokyo is a playground, an open world of collectibles, friction-free traversal, and superpowered combat. There aren’t so much scares here as moments shot through with mild jitters.
Our hero, a young fellow named Akito Izuki, is a man possessed. Not only because he is searching desperately for his sister, Mari, but because the ghost of a paranormal investigator, called KK, has taken up lodging in his body. (In fairness, Akito was unconscious when this happened, so it may be that his restive tenant can claim squatters’ rights.) Courtesy of KK, Akito is endowed with the abilites of a sorcerer; with a series of hand gestures, he is able to direct focussed bolts of bad weather at his enemies. The game is in first person, and the functions of these elemental powers fill in for the tools of a shooter; wind, for example, is akin to a pistol, with Akito cocking his fingers as though in a pretend shootout, and water, with its wide and frothing spread, recalls a shotgun. Best of all is fire, an orb of which is summoned between his palms, like a pinless and hotting grenade, before being hurled at your target and blooming into a conflagration.
The combat has crunch, helped enormously by the haptics of the PS5 controller, and your enemies are strangely frangible; you chip away at them like a bartender, hacking off chunks of ice from a block, and the colours that spew out are cocktail-bright. There are faint pangs of tension, too, in the way that space is managed. (Mikami is a master of this: think of Leon Kennedy in that rural, rust-brown hell, his periphery ploughed by slow-moving farmers while other fiends rushed him from the front.) But the skirmishes aren’t quite enough to carry Ghostwire: Tokyo to the finish. Neither, I have to say, is the story.
Hannya, as befits his namesake, is powered by a clash of emotions. The trick of the hannya mask, onstage, is that, when viewed head-on, its wood appears carved into a malevolent grimace, but, when tilted downward, it is grained with sorrow. Sure enough, we learn that his motivation wells up from the death of his family, and his wish to see them again. The trouble is, we don’t really care. Much of the plot is delivered in hasty fashion, and fractured in its telling by the game’s structure, with its slew of optional quests. When, toward the conclusion, KK says to Akito, “So you finally learned how to open up to your family, huh?” I was happy for him, I guess, but I could only honestly concur with the “huh?”
So, why is Ghostwire: Tokyo a game you ought to play? Well, I would direct you back up to that moon. The developer, Tango Gameworks, is transfixed by its setting, and by the idea of the city as a sublunary realm, inhabited by as many people as phantoms, and figments of what might have been. Not only is it fed by the visions of other games—as in Tokyo Jungle, the place is inherited by animals, whose fur is wryly unruffled by the absence of humanity—but it depicts a city on whose sights games have feasted for decades. Check out the torii gates, which you use to expel each district’s resident evils, but which also inspired Shigeru Miyamoto, who imagined flying through them in a ship, and thus swayed the action of Star Fox. If you are a sucker for the night-coloured fantasies of Yakuza, then this is a place of necessary pilgrimage.
Most potent of all, there is a strain of urban fear running through its design—not of monsters but of the city itself as an isolating entity, rendering you unreachable. Note, in your inventory, the Gara-Kei: a flip phone, popular in Tokyo, made, we are told, “long before smartphones,” and whose functions and services “unique to Japan were surpassing global standards at the time.” What if teeming progress means getting cut off? (No wonder you rescue stranded spirits using public phone booths, ferrying them away by dialling an outside line—the act that gives the game its title). This same fear was probed by Tetsuya Nomura, whose game The World Ends with You, also set in the hyper-fashionable Shibuya, centred on the city’s restless youth, filled its streets with wraiths, and dared us to tell the difference, in the eyes of its wider society. It’s no surprise that my favourite thing to do in Ghostwire: Tokyo is to grapple up to its rooftops and glide over its woes. That, the game seems to suggest, is what everyone here is in danger of doing. You begin to sympathise with Hannya. All he wants is to break through.
Developer: Tango Gameworks
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Available on: PlayStation 5 [reviewed on], PC
Release Date: March 25, 2022
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