Tokyo Tattoo Girls review: Plague Ink

For whatever reason, I thought (or assumed?) that Tokyo Tattoo Girls was an RPG of some sort. I’ve spoken to a few other people who thought the same, so I know it’s not just me missing something glaringly obvious from the game’s trailers and marketing. “Choose your companion character to help you escape from Tokyo, and develop her abilities by giving her powerful tattoos. Battle against the Syndicate to conquer all of Tokyo’s 23 Wards in the hope of escaping the city!”, reads the official description. I don’t know about you, but that, to me, sounds like an RPG.

In actual fact, Tokyo Tattoo Girls is a light strategy game, in a similar vein to Plague Inc. That’s not a bad thing—the game can be a lot of fun for what it is, and I’ll get to that in a moment—but as someone who generally doesn’t enjoy strategy games, it took me a while to get over my initial disappointment. That’s partially on me; if I’d dug further, I would have found out what sort of game this was, but I also think there’s a lot to criticise in the (deliberately?) vague way NIS America marketed it. If you were also expecting an RPG, know that that isn’t what you’re getting—and with those expectations set aside, you might find that you quite enjoy what Tokyo Tattoo Girls offers.

In short, it’s a semi-idle strategy game in which you, a nameless master tattoo artist, help one of the six main characters take over all 23 wards of a post-apocalyptic Tokyo. After choosing a ward in which to begin your conquest, your partner’s clan begins to slowly fight and convert the enemy clanswomen and neutral “punks” within that ward to your side. When there are no punks or clanswomen left, the ward’s leader appears, and after beating her in an unloseable duel, that little slice of the map becomes yours. (Though the “boss fights” are automated and can’t be lost, you can get different bonuses by appealing to the boss’s sensibilities in a dialogue choice just before the fight.)

Tokyo Tattoo Girls review

The tricky part comes with the fact that you can’t control when and where your partner’s clan invades. With each in-game day that passes (lasting a couple of seconds), there’s a chance that they’ll begin an invasion of any ward neighbouring one that you’ve conquered or are in the process of attacking. The exact chance varies from partner to partner, and there are ways you can influence it slightly, but as a general rule, your clan always begins invasions at a faster rate than you can actually conquer the wards being invaded. By the time you’ve taken over the starting area, you can expect five or six adjacent wards to be under attack; by the time you’ve conquered all of those, you’ve most likely got people in every other ward on the map.

If you’re a fan of cult yakuza cinema, you might enjoy Tokyo Tattoo Girls more than I did. Matt Sainsbury at DigitallyDownloaded.net reviewed it from that perspective, and loved it.

What makes this tricky is that, left unchecked, invasions slowly chip away at your Honor (which is, in effect, your life bar). The more enemy units you convert in a ward, the more chance it has to go into an alert state; if left unchecked, an alerted ward will break out into a turf war, costing you Honor. The only way to end an alert before war breaks out is by spending “Protection Money” (PM). The more wards under invasion at any given time, the more alerts you’ll have to deal with, and the more stretched your resources become. You earn a set amount of PM each in-game day based on how many wards you’ve conquered, but it’s never enough to keep everything under control.

Thus, Tokyo Tattoo Girls essentially becomes a race against the clock, as you try to conquer all 23 wards before you run out of Honor. As well as shutting down alerts, you can use PM on other abilities to do things like temporarily boost the invasion rate or prevent turf wars from breaking out for a few days, or on tattooing your partner to confer permanent bonuses to her and her clan. Managing your time and limited resources and choosing how you prioritise different abilities and tattoo expenditure are the keys to victory.

Tokyo Tattoo Girls review

In its basic design, Tokyo Tattoo Girls is quite simple as far as strategy games go, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Even on Normal difficulty, the competing priorities require care and strategy to deal with if you want any hope of success, and I’ve found Hard is basically impossible (though, admittedly, strategy games aren’t my forte), to say nothing of Nightmare. At the other end of the scale, Easy difficulty is a bit more approachable, but it’s a lot less interesting because the game more or less plays itself.

Even on Normal difficulty, the competing priorities require care and strategy to deal with if you want any hope of success.

The different characters also add their own unique twists on the game, and can dramatically affect the difficulty. Kayako seems to have a much lower invasion rate than anyone else, but her alert-reducing ability costs more PM than most others. Akira has an ability that prevents any new invasions for a period of time, which is very handy, but it’s also costly and is balanced out by a rather high natural invasion rate. The six characters all have their own unique tattoo effects, as well; all have some variation on things that increase invasion rates in certain wards, but they also have more unique (and expensive) options like Honor restoration, slower alerts, or greater PM earnings.

This all makes for a game that can be a lot of fun when the stars align, but that can also be incredibly frustrating or tedious when they don’t. If things go too well, Tokyo Tattoo Girls becomes a tiresome process of just going through the motions, mindlessly shutting down each alert as it pops up and repeatedly using whichever ability you’ve decided is most helpful whenever it’s available. When things are going poorly, it becomes a sisyphean endeavour of flailing to fend off a tide of turf wars until you inevitably run out of Honor and lose the game.

Tokyo Tattoo Girls review

In those moments where everything comes together perfectly—where you’re making quick decisions and efficiently managing your resources, and it’s actually having an impact on the state of the game—Tokyo Tattoo Girls is a game full of excitement. In my experience, though, those moments are rare.

There’s a simple story surrounding all this. Due to an undefined cataclysmic event, Tokyo was quarantined from the rest of Japan, and strange tattoos started appearing on girls who survived the destruction, granting them supernatural powers. The most powerful organised themselves into the “Union of the 23 Wards of Tokyo”, who rule the city with something resembling order. However, there’s a rumour that whoever can defeat the Union will be able to leave the city, prompting a mysterious tattoo artist (you) and a girl from one of the outer Tokyo districts (your chosen partner) on a journey of conquest.

That’s pretty much all there is to Tokyo Tattoo Girls’ story. Each of the six girls has her own reason for wanting to leave, but the tend to be rather straightforward and superficial. Chocho wants to be a movie star to make her grandmother proud; Mai wants to make lots of money (through gambling, mostly) to support her sisters from the orphanage where she grew up; Karin wants to collect cute things because… well, she likes cute things.

Tokyo Tattoo Girls review

The leaders of the 23 wards all have their own personalities and little stories, though they’re necessarily brief and cliched, because they each get only a few lines of dialogue with which to build a whole character. There’s an idol who moonlights as a masked wrestler, a studious scholar who gets annoyed when people interrupt her studying, a ditzy fashionista, and so on. None of the ward leaders are particularly interesting or memorable in their dialogue, but they make up for it with creative character designs.

If anything, the visual designs of the various women is where Tokyo Tattoo Girls is at its best. They’re all beautifully drawn, with creative, quirky designs that give them a sense of personality that couldn’t be conveyed in the snippets of dialogue. As you’d expect, they all sport big, bold tattoos, courtesy of Japanese tattoo artist Koji Tanaka. In addition to the standard character portraits seen within the game itself, each girl also has a gorgeous illustration that can be unlocked—for the main characters, it’s their ending image; for the ward leaders, you get a special illustration when you “win” the dialogue battle prior to a boss fight.

The tattoo designs themselves are equally stunning. They have the style of traditional woodblock-style irezumi, but with character-centric twists—like aspiring actress Chocho’s rolls of film. Between the tattoos and the general design of the UI, the whole game has the look of an Edo-period ukyo-e print, albeit in a post-apocalyptic setting. It’s stunning.

Tokyo Tattoo Girls review

That alone isn’t enough to carry the whole game, though, and how much you get out of Tokyo Tattoo Girls ultimately comes down to how much you can tolerate (or enjoy!) it’s simple but demanding strategy gameplay. If you enjoy things like Plague Inc., you’ll almost certainly like this, but anyone who’s expecting something more approachable—or, indeed, if anyone who thought it was an RPG—you might find Tokyo Tattoo Girls testing your patience more than it rewards it.

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Tokyo Tattoo Girls is developed by Sushi Typhoon Games and published by NIS America. It launches on November 14 for PS Vita (reviewed) and PC.

A press copy was supplied by the publisher for this review.

Matthew Codd

Matthew is a writer based in Wellington. He loves all things pop culture, and is fascinated by its place in history and the wider social context.