The Almost Great Unknown
The visual novel is a genre that has been coming into its own for sometime now. While much more prevalent in Japan, games like Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward, and the recently popular Danganronpa have started to gather a growing fanbase for visual novel games in the US. With Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters, Toybox Games enters the visual novel genre with an offering that begins with a lot of promise, but falls just short of creating an engaging experience.
The success of a game like TTGH hinges on two aspects: 1) Does it tell an interesting story and 2) does it balance that story with enjoyable gaming segments? To be fair, the game does many things well in both categories, but also suffers from several shortcomings that will likely keep the game from reaching broad audiences.
The overall story in Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters is an interesting one that feels right at home with the Persona series, or any number of supernatural themed anime. In TTGH you play as a High School Student who discovers they have the ability to see ghosts, and soon joins up with a group called Gate Keepers, an occult magazine that also hires out to exorcise ghosts on the side. The whole style of game evokes feelings of Persona 4 Golden with it’s snazzy intro title credits, and rock/blues theme song. Where it sets itself apart is the way the game frames itself. TTGH plays itself out like an anime series.
Each chapter of TTGH is set as an individual episode, each with a recurring title and credits sequence, giving the game a serial feel to it. I really enjoyed this approach as I feel too few games use the framework of television as a way to tell their story. Each episode plays out similarly; you’re called into investigate a paranormal event, you go through linear investigation into the incident, and then inevitably it’s time to exorcise the ghost. While these investigations are entertaining enough in their own right by providing interesting characters and locations, the lack of impact they have on the actual exorcism portions of the game is a big missed opportunity.
In one of the early investigations it’s stated that it’s important to understand why a ghost is haunting a location, in order to best combat it. It is an interesting notion that is never capitalized on in TTGH. The investigations are way too straightforward, you simply follow a set of scripted events, with only a few multiple choice responses. To further the interaction, TTGH utilizes a bizarre response wheel that at certain times lets you respond to other characters and environments using a range of emotions combined with senses. Someone offers to help you fight the ghost? Angrily taste (that’s right, I said taste as in lick) them to let them know how much you appreciate the assistance, sadly look at them when they offer you coffee, lovingly touch them when they tell you your fly is down, you get the picture.
What would have helped to buoy the investigations would to have been to borrow liberally from the investigation portions of the Phoenix Wright and Danganronpa franchises. Letting you explore the environment, search for clues, and interview witnesses so that you felt that you were building the investigation would go a long way in making you feel more involved in the story. In conjunction with that, having these investigations have a dynamic impact on how you go about exorcising the ghosts would have really taken this game to the next level. You discovered the ghost died by drowning, perhaps it would have some kind of weakness to water. You find out the ghost is tied to some kind of object? Destroying that object becomes an integral part of exorcising the ghost. These kind of gameplay touches would have really helped elevate the story portion of the game, making your findings critical to what’s to come.
The exorcism portion of these episodes play out like a turn-based role-playing game. When it’s time to start an exorcism you get a leg up by getting to prepare the location ahead of time; you’re given a floorplan of where you’ll be encountering the spirit. Next you have an opportunity to use money you’ve earned on outfitting the area with various ghost detectors and traps. Once the action beings, you are represented by arrows as you navigate around the area map trying to track down and exorcise your target. You are given a set number of rounds in which to defeat your opponent; should the ghost manage to defeat your entire team, or avoid being defeated itself within the round limit, the missions fails and you have to retry. Any fan of the original Fallout or the more recent XCOM: Enemy Unknown will feel right at home during these segments. These portions play well, but there is a bit of a learning curve; this game on a whole would have benefited from a more in depth tutorial system. What TTGH does benefit from is a deep leveling system. As you gain experience you level up, getting points to spend on increasing a variety of attributes. This gives you the ability to craft your character the way you want to play the game. Many play styles are possible, whether it be being able to move around the map easily and strike from afar, or that you want to get up close and personal and be able to take a punch.
Where the exorcism segments fall short, once again, are on the promise of what could have been. We are given great creepy locations, and well designed ghosts, it is a real shame that when it comes time for combat we are more or less regulated to being symbols on a map. There are particular moments when encounters occur between your characters and the enemies that the action zooms in to show what’s happening, but they are only brief moments. Having the entire exorcisms consistently take place in the actual locations the entire time would have made these segments a lot more exciting, and once again would have brought this game to another level. The character design in this game is sharp, each of your party members feels distinct but at the same time welcomingly familiar. It would be nice if these personalities were showcased more during these battles.
The Verdict: 7.0 out of 10
Now don’t mistake me, Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters is a good game. It has a catchy story that is broken up into fun television segments. It has a thorough leveling system for your character that lets you pick how you want to play the game. The character design is great. And while the visuals on the actual gameplay portions are on threadbare side, the mechanics themselves are fun, and there is plenty to enjoy with its strategy RPG format. Fans of turn-based Role-Playing Games or Visual Novel games will find something new and unique to enjoy here. But I can’t help but reflect on the few steps further that could have been taken to break TTGH to the other side of being a niche game.
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