Shibuya is a place that a lot of videogames have taken us to over the years—in fact, I think we might be close to running out of three-digit numbers for fictional versions of the Shibuya 109 building. Of all the interpretations of it, few leave the mark that Ghostwire: Tokyo does: authentic to a fault, meticulous in its attention to detail, realistic but draped in an eerie, surreal atmosphere. Aside from Yakuza, I can’t think of another game that captures the unique architecture and urban design of a modern Japanese city so flawlessly. And yet, it’s also one of the most bland, lifeless games I’ve played I’ve played in a while.
Like many a Shibuya-set tale, Ghostwire: Tokyo starts with the famous Scramble Crossing. A traffic incident leaves Akito Izumi on the brink of death, but the spirit of a detective saves his life by possessing him, in order to solve the bigger mysteries at play: why has the city’s entire population suddenly vanished, why are “visitors” from the spirit realm wandering the suddenly-desolate streets, and why has an enigmatic man in a hannya mask—who is clearly tied to all of the above—kidnapped Akito’s sister?
The Shibuya and surrounding areas that the unlikely partnership’s investigation sees you exploring are dense, rich, and full of the kind of ordinary yet extraordinary wonder that abounds in a city like Tokyo. Expected landmarks like Shibuya 109 and the Shibuya Sky building are there (in non-trademark-infringing form), alongside a few other noteworthy spots pulled in from further afield, like Tokyo Tower. But more than that, what sets this rendition apart is its attention to the little details: the juxtaposition of ultra-modern shopping complexes with old wooden buildings dating back to the Edo period; the tiny alleyways lined with vending machines and unexpected shopfronts; the shrines and small parks tucked away in the midst of concrete office blocks. Tokyo is a place where so many different influences, cultures, and eras clash in the most fascinating ways, and Ghostwire captures those little details remarkably well.
Realism and authenticity is the basis, but Ghostwire puts a decidedly eerie spin on that. Shibuya is a famously bustling place; here, it’s lifeless, a snapshot of frozen in time without another person in sight. Vehicles remain stranded and crashed, clothes left behind where people disappeared from hint at what they were doing before the incident, and visitors roam the streets. This normally crowded place is now a ghost town, and that emptiness—coupled with the endless night, a red moon hung in the sky, and the fog that shrouds parts of the city—creates an atmosphere that is, while not scary per se, rather unsettling. (And that’s before you get to the poltergeist-like behaviour and the way reality itself distorts around you when you happen upon a particularly haunted place.)
It’s the perfect backdrop for a yōkai story, and Ghostwire: Tokyo plumbs the depths of Japan’s ghost story traditions. Tango Gameworks’ background in horror games really shines here, with fresh, creepy interpretations of familiar yōkai, with a few original creations thrown in that feel like a natural, modern extension of folklore dating back at least as far as the Heian era. Even the most basic enemies you fight—the spirits of businessmen and students, driven to anguish by stress—stand out, and the likes of the kuchisake are downright terrifying. The creepy atmosphere that surrounds the yōkai themselves is made deeper with a heavy influence from Shinto and Japanese Buddhist imagery, seen in everything from the torii gates that serve as bases to the mudras that Akito (via KK) uses to channel elemental powers to fight the visitors.
But after putting so much effort into creating such a rich and atmospheric world, Ghostwire: Tokyo does nothing of note with it. Instead, you’ve got a generic open-world game, full of dull objectives that mostly involve either using detective vi—sorry, “spectral vision” to follow the trail of some spectre or another, or fighting arena battles. Side quests are plentiful, but only a few are particularly memorable, and the main story, for all its twists and surprises, is mildly interesting at best. There are a lot of collectibles and icon-overload on the map, but again, few of these have any real substance—it’s the checklist approach to open-world design, but of a particularly limited, bland sort that even Ubisoft has been trying (sort of) to move away from.
Worse still, the open world design waters down a lot of the unique atmosphere that other parts of the game work so hard to build. In an eerie, yōkai-filled city, what role would you expect tengu—among the most famous creatures of Japanese folklore—to fill? I certainly wouldn’t have picked “grapple points”, but here we are: these fierce, legendary spirits hang aimlessly at the top of tall buildings, waiting for you to throw a spectral rope at. Some of the luckier ones might get the opportunity to move back and forth between two points. Torii gates are Ubisoft towers that expand the explorable section of the map; nekomata are simple shopkeepers; tanuki are collectibles to find. It’s the most utilitarian approach to yōkai I think I’ve ever seen, and nothing saps the mood out of the world more than that.
This might be tolerable if, at least, Ghostwire was enjoyable in the moment to moment—even a series of uninspired arena fights can be fun if the combat itself makes it so. Sadly, that’s not so here: despite all the flashy presentation and mystical iconography, this is essentially a generic first-person shooter with a limited set of weapons and rudimentary enemies, their striking visual design aside. Weapons lack punch and even weak foes are bullet sponges, to the point that fighting feels more like a chore than anything else. There’s a basic framework for stealth, but enemy groups and movement patterns that mean it’s often not viable (or at least not worth the hassle), at least in the open world. A narrow set of upgrade trees do little to add depth to that, and outside of a handful of useful core skills, the upgrades are incremental and insubstantial.
The only time the game design in Ghostwire: Tokyo shows any sort of life is in a handful of scripted story beats where Akito loses his connection to KK. It’s here that Tango Gameworks’ survival horror background comes to the fore: without a spirit imbuing him with supernatural powers, Akito’s only means’ of defence are a deadly but ammo-scarce bow and stealth kills. Progress is slow, considered, and tense—still not exactly scary, but far closer to a horror game than action one. And while the thought of “forced stealth” is often its own sort of terror, it’s in these moments that Ghostwire’s otherwise basic stealth systems pull together, with constrained, carefully designed levels built specifically with that in mind. Unfortunately, they’re too few and too far between to balance out the lack of energy in the rest of the game.
I’d love to see what the initial vision for Ghostwire: Tokyo was, before former creative director Ikumi Nakamura’s sudden departure from Tango Gameworks, because what we ended up getting feels like the shell of a different, far more interesting game. A rendition of Shibuya that’s authentic, atmospheric, eerie, and brimming personality deserves better than the most banal version of a generic open-world formula that ran out of steam a decade ago. Despite all the potential in its concept, the Ghostwire we got is—despite its ghostly theme—soulless.