Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters Vita Review
Visual Novels have steadily grown in popularity in the West over the last couple of years with a variety of titles that have slowly-but-surely helped the genre shed away its stereotypical image of pornographic dating sims (although there are still plenty of titles in that regard). The Playstation Vita has served as one of the more active platforms to support the localization of games that primarily feature a Visual Novel format, including Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc and Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward, and will continue to do so with the upcoming release of Steins;Gate, which was originally localized on PC and will also be making its way to the PS3.
Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters is another in a steady stream of VNs hitting the West courtesy of Arc System Works and NIS America. The premise can be simply categorized as “Ghostbusters in Japan”, as it follows a ragtag group of characters who differ in social status (and for some, sanity) but have formed the group known as Gate Keepers, who by day run a tabloid magazine dealing with the occult and paranormal but also drive out and exorcise the various specters spooking the common folk in their city.
Players assume the role of a faceless protagonist who transfers to Kurenai Academy and quickly makes enemies with fellow classmate Sayuri Mifune over the pettiest of inconveniences, even by Anime standards. Eventually the transfer student catches the eye of Masamune Shiga, a paraplegic student who works with female journalist Chizuru Fukurai, the head honcho of Gate Keepers. Immediately taking notice of the protagonist’s ability to sense ghosts, a trait that they all share (including the unwitting Sayuri), the group invites him to join Gate Keepers while being thrown right into the thick of battle with a violent ghost haunting the halls of Kurenai Academy.
Most Visual Novels follow a basic presentation that features players interacting with character portraits over flat backgrounds, with the occasional illustration and/or simplistic graphical effect to help convey the importance of certain scenes. Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters takes the Visual portion of Visual Novels to a whole new level by applying numerous animations for each character portrait, an effect reminiscent in Dragon’s Crown; flowing hair, contorting faces and various other expressions are conveyed seamlessly in conversations, while this effect is also applied to backgrounds and illustrations to give off a moving comic book effect. Naturally, this is also used effectively to show off some of the spooky and often cleverly-designed ghosts that the group will encounter throughout their adventure. Combined with an appropriately 80’s-inspired rock soundtrack (complete with cassette tapes on the BGM selection screen), Tokyo Twilight is easily one of the most visually stunning Visual Novels ever released, setting a new standard for the typically low-budget presentation of the genre.
It’s unfortunate, then, that the game could not simply stay content as a Visual Novel; a common criticism found with these games are VNs that try to apply actual gameplay mechanics to its text-heavy narrative in an attempt to hook more traditional players in. Sometimes this works out, such as the investigation portions of the Phoenix Wright series or the puzzle solving aspects of Zero Escape, but oftentimes this creates a criticism for both VN fans who don’t want to be taken out of the narrative and hardcore players who find no fun with the clunky gameplay mechanics. Tokyo Twilight falls under the latter, though it at least tries to do something unique with its strategy-based ghost encounters. The primary gameplay mechanic involves missions that are displayed on a simplistic map grid, with players and the targeted ghost represented as triangular icons. Players have a set amount of turns to find and dispatch the ghost, with each party member moving and performing an action per turn. What separates this from traditional Strategy RPGs is that the enemy is not immediately detectable on the map, forcing players to search around the various corners while also receiving hints on where the ghost might be. Even when the ghost has been found, players can not directly engage it, and must instead predict where the ghost is going to move during the next turn. Essentially, the goal is to set the party members to attack a certain space in the grid in the hopes that the ghost will move toward that spot, receiving a set amount of damage if the player guessed incorrectly.
The notion of indirectly fighting enemies will no doubt prove divisive among players, but the one thing that is certain is how Tokyo Twilight does a very poor job of easing in players with its complex mechanics. The very first battle literally throws you to the wolves with only the barest minimum of instructions, and the game only continues to pile on more mechanics with little explanation or prep time. Various items can be purchased to help force the ghost to move to the ideal location, such as salt that blocks a ghost from passing through it, or various charms that force it to move in a certain direction. All the tools are available to form a winning strategy in each encounter, but it requires a significant amount of patience and initiative to learn all of these puzzle/strategy-based mechanics in a short amount of time.
As for players who would much rather sit back and enjoy the narrative, they’re out of luck. Similarly, the unique dialog-selection wheel is also presented without proper explanation; rather than typically selecting from a list of dialogue responses (though those still exist as well), players are presented with an icon wheel that denotes various emotional responses, such as love, anger, curiosity and so forth. Selecting one of these icons opens up an additional wheel that denotes physical actions depending on the first choice. For example, choosing the curiosity icon followed by the hand icon would mean feeling something with your hand, while choosing the love icon and the hand icon would typically result in a friendly handshake with the character you are speaking to. This variety of actions can also result in some humorous situations where the protagonist can randomly punch his allies (or kiss them, even), though this has little bearing on the actual story beyond a funny response. As far as choices go, players must merely nod along with whatever characters are saying in order to keep their affinity up. Anyone hoping for alternate story paths will undoubtedly be disappointed.
Ultimately, Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters disappoints with its obtuse mechanics as much as it dazzles with its gorgeous Visual Novel presentation. If more time was spent to slowly explain its gameplay, or better yet simplify it so that it doesn’t conflict with players who want to experience the story, it would have proved a much stronger recommendation. Instead, players will have to gauge their tolerance levels to see if the dull and confusing strategy elements are worth putting up with to enjoy the otherwise excellent aesthetic and paranormal-inspired story premise.