Visual novels are becoming increasingly popular here in the West thanks to the hard work of international publishers and their valiant localisation teams, bringing us text-heavy narrative experiences that hinge around characters, story and 'talking heads' presentation. Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters is one of the best I've read since the first Danganronpa, but it also attempts to inject more interactivity into the typically passive genre with tactical turn-based battles and frequent dialogue choices.
To be honest, I really wish it didn't. We'll get to that later.
The story is the crux of any great visual novel, and Tokyo Twilight tells an absolute corker. Arriving as a new transfer student to a Tokyo high school, you're free to create your own persona (note the small 'p' before you get too excited!) down to name, favourite pastime and even blood type before settling down to classes. However, it doesn't take long before you end up conscripted into a paranormal organisation with a few classmates, pursuing a career as a freelance ghostbuster. Who you gonna call?
It's a premise that wouldn't feel out of place in a top-tier anime series, and Tokyo Twilight doesn't disappoint thanks to an utterly fantastic localisation effort. Characters are all clearly defined, interesting and relateable, narration is concise and evocative, while sentence structure and syntax are... well, more natural and fluid than mine at this point. The plot also doesn't shy away from big themes surrounding the possibility of life after death that are offset by the high school shenanigans, Scooby-Doo style investigations and a touching little love story at its core. The pacing may be slow, but it's thoughtful and builds to satisfying crescendos. Sadly Japanese VA is sporadic and there's no English dub, which is ultimately a forgiveable omission in a niche title with a limited audience.
It's also no exaggeration to say that Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters sets a new graphical benchmark for visual novels. Static background art may be sharp and detailed, but the game is powered by a brand new engine that renders key characters in astonishing fludity, resembling painstakingly hand-painted 3D models despite not using even a single polygon. The effect is utterly gobsmacking, bringing a level of life and personality to the main cast that we almost never see from the genre. Frankly I don't know if I can go back to static portraits. I don't want to go back. Here's hoping that we see more from the GHOST Engine, because it's a genuine revolution.
Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters isn't just content with being just a visual novel, however, and instead attempts to increase player interaction in a number of ways that sound great on paper. It's the sort of thing I love to see from visual novels, but here it actively makes the game worse. Indeed, judging it as a videogame, it comes up short in two key areas.
The narrative frequently stops to allow you to decide how to deal with a situation, at which point you'll need to choose from two circular wheels. The first dictates an emotion (anger, friendship, anxiety and the like) while the second denotes one of the five senses (touch, sight, smell, hearing and taste). You'll pick an option from each and then your character reacts accordingly.
This odd system works brilliantly when you're interacting with an environmental clue during an investigation, such as deciding whether to smell or taste a mysterious substance to deduce what it is. Unfortunately, for reasons I cannot fathom, it's also your only option when taking part in dialogue and it just doesn't work.
For example, imagine that a character asks whether you like them. You can't just say "yes," rather you'll have to choose a completely nonsensical course of action. Do you angrily taste them? Do you lovingly listen to them? What does that even mean?! Half the time, whatever you do merits a generic response, whereas the rest of the time your character will do something worlds away from what you intended, acting like a total creep in the process. Wanted to tenderly explain your feelings? Well tough, because you just licked your lips while staying completely silent, you worrying perv. Friendly handshake? Nope, you've just lunged at them.
At least there's plenty of hilarious slapstick to look forward to, and to be honest, I'm loathe to judge it too harshly. Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters makes an effort and that is impressive in and of itself.
What I can't forgive, though, is the combat. Every once in a while, you'll actually have to do some ghost hunting, which turns Tokyo Twilight into a game of Battleship against moving invisible targets. Viewed from a top-down grid in turn-based style, you'll have to manoeuvre your characters, deploy detectors and attempt to locate a ghost before predicting where it might move to and hoping that your attacks might hit it at the end of a turn.
Oh, and there's a tight time limit, along with the possibility of ending the level with less money than you started after deducting cost and damages. This probably seemed like a good idea to someone. It isn't. It's incredibly tedious.
Though there's plenty of depth to discover, hopeless tutorials do little to explain even the basics, while an uncomfortably tiny UI was clearly designed for a PC monitor rather than the Vita screen. Sadly, Ghost Hunting is the weakest part of a game called Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters.
It's a shame, because its attempts to improve and push boundaries actively make it worse. There's still a great story to engage in here, and one that's worth engaging in. The battles do at least become serviceable after you've sunk a few character levels. I don't want to criticise a visual novel for trying to give us more agency and choice, but by the same token, I can't ignore that it strives to be judged as a strategy RPG and adventure game yet falls short by its own self-imposed standards.
- Great story, characters and translation
- Visually impeccable, astonishing new GHOST Engine
- Lengthy and well paced, attempts to give players more agency
- Turn-based combat is infuriating, frustrating and tedious
- Emotion/sense-based character interactions are vague, confusing and inappropriate
- Bitty UI on Vita, poor tutorials
The Short Version: Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters tells a great story well and sets a new graphical standard for visual novels. Sadly its attempts to provide more player choice and agency fall flat, both in terms of vague (often creepy!) character interactions and tedious turn-based combat.
It's great to see a visual novel pushing forward and striving to offer more, but Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters is at its best when you're reading, not playing.
6 – CAPABLE: The key thing to remember here is always try before you buy. There'll likely be some rather glaring flaws or perhaps a distinct lack of imagination, but games that earn a 6 will generally be very capable indeed and probably still provide a good deal of fun to genre fans.
Developer: Toybox Inc.