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‘Ghostwire: Tokyo’ is one part social commentary, one part Tokyo walking sim

(The Washington Post illustration; Bethesda Softworks)

Ghostwire: Tokyo

Available on: PC, PlayStation 5

Developer: Tango Gameworks | Publisher: Bethesda Softworks

Release: March 25, 2022

In the first few hours of “Ghostwire: Tokyo,” it dawns on me that, given the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, this is probably the closest I’ll get to hanging out in Tokyo for the foreseeable future. The new action-adventure RPG from Tango Softworks is gorgeous, where every lovingly crafted environment — from a Shibuya side street to a surreal dreamlike forest — is the kind of stuff that walking sim dreams are made of. And while the game has been marketed as a horror-tinged mystery inspired by Japanese folklore, “Ghostwire’s” greatest strength isn’t its supernatural scares or storyline, but its slice-of-life satire and everyday depictions of a city devoid of the people whose activities and struggles help to define it.

The main plot is a dark buddy comedy that draws on familiar tropes: A young man, Akito, gets into a near-fatal motorcycle accident while going to see his sister in the hospital, and is only saved from death when an opportunistic wraith brute-forces its way into his body. What ensues is a case of two people reluctantly sharing one fleshly form. The wraith, KK, is an older, surly ex-cop with inexplicable elemental superpowers (that conveniently extend to Akito) and a ton of baggage. Together, they face an upsettingly empty Tokyo — everyone has been mysteriously raptured out of their clothes — hordes of demonic, undead spirits known as “Visitors” and a psychotic villain in a Hannya mask.

‘Ghostwire: Tokyo’ developers scoured the real-life city for ghost stories

While I’m sure Akito’s story will resonate with some players, he’s a textbook example of a generic, everyday protagonist who’s forced to come to terms with his own failures after a round of appropriate mea culpas. The early game was slow going. I found it difficult to invest myself in either Akito or KK, and it didn’t take long for me to hit a wall; even in the endgame, neither character had really taken root as someone I wanted to spend more time with beyond practical, mechanical reasons.

But as soon as I started to branch out and do side missions — most of which involve helping ordinary human spirits who died with unfinished earthly business — my perspective started to thaw. When I found the “Kappa” novel in KK’s safe house, everything fell into place.

“Kappa” is a real book by author Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, who drew on kappa — a type of yokai (spirits and entities from folklore and animist beliefs) — to create a sharp satire of Japanese society in 1927. Akutagawa also wrote the short story “In A Grove,” which Akira Kurosawa used as the basis for his iconic film “Rashōmon.” The in-game description of “Kappa” reads: “The story is told from the viewpoint of a psychiatric patient who recalls how he stumbled into the work of kappa after following one he spotted while mountain climbing. His description of the kappa world depicts a strange, otherworldly place whose values are purportedly the opposite of those held by human society.”

Using “Kappa” to provide an underlying context to the game’s worldbuilding approach, “Ghostwire’s” playful dig at corporate Japan — and capitalism as a whole — goes from surface-level funny to something bigger and more systemic. The enemy design is probably the most obvious tell, where each Visitor bears the mark of their previous social and economic function. The suit-clad Rain Walker is “born from the hearts of those pushed to the point of utter exhaustion by their work.” The cop Visitors have strayed from the path of justice. The Relentless Walker is a portly businessman born from “violent mindsets” who drops a huge wad of money. The headless schoolkids are a pointed commentary on the overbearing structural need for children to find “direction” early in life. I feel a wave of cynicism each time a skirt suit-wearing Visitor, hands neatly folded with immaculate posture before she notices me, blasts me with fireballs like she’s blowing a kiss.

“Ghostwire’s” side missions and environmental storytelling speak to this metaphor more directly. In one quest, I helped an old woman retrieve her zashiki-warashi (a childlike yokai) from her greedy landlord, who believed stealing it would help him out of financial problems. Moving through Tokyo, you learn about the land and its previous supernatural and animal inhabitants who have been displaced by modernization and construction. In the Tsukinami Restricted Area, the game offers a detailed snapshot of Tokyo’s cutthroat real estate market as well as related superstitions and urban legends about its land. For each side mission or neighborhood detour I make, I find myself enjoying my role as an everyday exorcist/vigilante more and more, to the point where I don’t even really care about pursuing the main mission.

One major player task is to rescue human spirits that have been tangled together in confused, floating clumps all over the city; you do this by harvesting them in katashiros (paper or wood dolls often used in purification rituals) and using specially-rigged pay phones to transmit their souls to safety; the idea is that they’ll be remade in their bodies after you defeat Hannya, but this is never fully explained or resolved. And as you stand there channeling spirits, you hear their thoughts: dismay at botching a job interview, frustration about loan interests and rising rents, and banal regrets about missing a train or forgetting to buy eggs. “Tragedy makes for cheap real estate,” one spirit quipped as I wandered near a cursed building. Even in the face of death and the unknown, the people of “Ghostwire” — like many of us around the world beholden to capitalist institutions and systems — remain preoccupied with money, corporate success and the commodification of time.

Coming across KK’s old investigation notes around the city, you learn about the burgeoning issue of opportunistic fortunetellers who use their craft to draw people away from predatory loan sharks and into their patronage. Another is about the scourge of shady scalpers who promise tickets at a premium. An apartment flier denounces the aggressive property development in Kirigaoka that endangers local tanuki. It becomes clear that KK has been moonlighting as a supernatural investigator for a while, as he talks in passing about how he’s hunted kappa with his grandfather since childhood. There seems to be a generational thread here, where Akito, in his blessedly generic bubble of youth and ignorance, becomes convinced to help KK and in doing so turns his life around. “All property is theft,” KK grunts at one point.

Despite the cynicism, the game’s tone is still brightly optimistic, and the best part of “Ghostwire” is when you’re left to explore Tokyo on your own, parkouring across roofs and walls and taking in the sight of capitalism without consumers. Tango Softworks has done an incredible job at replicating the look and feel of commercial Tokyo with its thinly veiled stand-ins for instantly recognizable franchise retail stores and fast-food outlets. It is a landscape that isn’t just familiar to those who’ve visited Japan, but anyone who lives in a big city; we just don’t have the luxury of sucking out all the people to force one kid into a personal epiphany. I found myself indulging in a lot more wandering than necessary, though some of the vertical exploration — at least where flying tengu aren’t available as grapple points — veered into tedious “Paradise Killer” levels of public housing stairwell simulator.

Video games keep getting longer. It’s all about time and money.

The villain of the story, Hannya, is clearly a man whose care and intentions — like many of the Visitors’ manifestations as office workers and businesspeople — have been warped into something monstrous and psychotic. But on a smaller and more banal level, the people of Tokyo have been forced into an unwanted metamorphosis, too, thanks to the demands of their lives and jobs. This isn’t a problem unique to Japan, but the game does a tremendous job at making this point with the particularities of Japanese capitalism, often described as collective capitalism, which hinges on the overwhelming role of corporations in individual lives and behavior. All to say, “Ghostwire’s” story would play out a little differently in different cultures, but the basic beats are the same: There’s something inherently deadening about modern life which nudges us toward ritual, routine and tradition to make sense of a capitalistic world.

“Ghostwire” is not a subtle game, but its heavy-handedness with the subject matter is also softened by genuinely fun, goofy moments and unwitting slapstick (I personally wish they’d leaned more into the unfailing humor of KK using Akito’s hands to strangle him). It does best when it marries the overly theatrical with the terribly mundane — my favorite side mission, by far, was being tasked to help a spirit stuck in the bathroom to find toilet paper.

It is also not a perfect game — though some of its narrative flaws are smoothed over with sharp and stylish creative direction. Unfortunately, the unexpected pleasantness of exploring Tokyo at my own pace ends after chapter four, when the game abruptly kicks into a poorly paced, awkwardly staggered final act that feels rushed. There’s also room for improvement on the currency and item vending system, which seems underutilized — you max out your stock of katashiros very quickly, and there‘s little incentive to buy much else in the game besides dog food, which only really works out if you just want to wander around and feed dogs.

Still, there are some truly gorgeous dynamic action sequences that were welcome surprises, and a pleasantly playful sense of art direction that kept the more tedious times spent with Akito and KK from sagging. Even if the idea of a modern satire disguised as a horror-style mystery isn’t quite your bag, “Ghostwire” is a creative delight as a sort of alt-universe Tokyo sim, especially if you crave the feeling of hanging out in a FamilyMart (“FujiyaMart”) again.

Alexis Ong is a freelance culture journalist, a neo-luddite and a cat simp. She mostly writes about video games, Internet things, and technological oddities. You can find her at alexis.work.

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