One of the really great things about visual novels as a format is the utter lack of effort that you have to exert in order to make the most of them. While games packed full of stressful situations and an immersive, highly tactile experience are brilliant, sometimes that's just a little too much. You want to relax, absent-mindedly scroll through a lovely bit of prose and soak in a great story, giving input here and there whenever the game fancies asking for your opinion. Better than reading a book, right? Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters encapsulates a lot of what makes visual novels great: intriguing and languidly presented storyline, important choices, and great characters – but it's simultaneously a rather rewarding strategy role-playing game. Funny how that works.
Like practically every Japanese game created in the last ten years, you play as a high school transfer student entering into metropolitan Tokyo school, Kurenai Academy. The opening scenes quickly descend into guy meets girl, then guy meets other guy that'll certainly become best friend and sidekick, then guy meets older lady – y'know, the classic setup – before morphing unashamedly into what closely resembles Scooby Doo on a high school exchange program. Aforementioned older lady owns an occult magazine-cum-ghost hunting establishment which, in the biggest twist of the century, just happens to employ your new best friend and sidekick, and could certainly use an extra pair of talented eyes to find and capture ghosts. Your eyes, to be exact.
The player character acts as nothing more than a vessel for you to self-insert into. Heck, over the course of the first hour of play, the game even prompts you to enter your own full name, date of birth, height, weight, blood type, and so on; Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunter's own little form of stress by reminding you that it's almost time to fill in tax return forms. It works quite well in ramming home the feeling that the faceless, nameless dude is you, though. And you certainly are socially awkward at times. You see, there are two ways to directly interact with the characters around you and the story as it unfolds. Firstly, multiple choice options at key branching points. It's not exactly anything ground-breaking, but it's always worked in story-driven games and it certainly continues to do so here. Secondly, and more interestingly, is affectionately and unofficially referred to as the wheel of social doom.
The wheel of doom makes appearances here and there seemingly randomly in conversation, and offers you with five wonderfully descriptive options with which to engage with your chat partner: loving face, sad face, quizzical face, angry face, and, of course, handshake. It gets better. After picking one of the above, it follows through with choices between hand, eye, nose, ear, and mouth. No further information provided, and honestly none required.
It's possible to roughly work out what each option means through deduction and a little bit of trial and error, but the real crux here is that the options are fairly inconsistent. Angry mouth? Sounds like you'd disagree or argue with somebody, right? Well, sometimes, but in the other half of situations you're more likely to give them a good old bite as a sure sign of your distaste. It's somewhat frustrating at first, making choices and conversations feel like they're spiralling out of your control, NPCs reacting in ways that are completely unexpected due to an unwarranted hug. But after a while it clicks. These choices don't matter, they don't affect the overarching story in any tangible way. They add flavour, they add fun, they're a lovely little addition that make interactions feel a little less carbon copy than they often do in visual novels. Just try not to bite off the nose of the girl that you want to woo.
Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters looks absolutely beautiful visually, too. Everybody has been created in this wonderful style that makes them seem like they wouldn't be at all out of place in an old oil painting – every shadow and stroke showing off an impressive level of attention to detail. Each person gently sways back and forth constantly throughout discussions, akin to twigs in a light breeze, and it all comes together to build this genuinely great aesthetic that captures the overall tone so very well. It's important to make a point of just how much of an asset this look is to the game, especially when you take into account just how simplistic gameplay segments appear visually. Each eye-pleasing talk with a character feels like a colourful reward for the mind teasing puzzle that came before it.
So, the actual capturing of the ghosts – well, more slaughtering (again) – makes up the meat of the RPG side of affairs. In each chapter there'll be a monster of the week that everything is centred around in terms of story progression: a jilted guitar player unable to make his final composition a big hit, a fiancée jealous of her man's new lovers, the list goes on. After preparing by running through any side quests, equipping gear for battle, levelling up and assigning skill points, and preparing traps to impede movement or cause damage, it's time to jump into the mystery machine and do some exorcism. Yes, it's all very Ghostbusters. No, you can't buy Proton Packs.
Action takes place on a pseudo-chess board, with both sides taking turns to move and attack. The real twist here, though, is the fact that all avatars move at exactly the same time in a style that mimics Frozen Synapse to a tee. It's great, really, once everything falls into place. What results is a battle of prediction, using the enemy cones of vision to your advantage, dancing towards them in order to evoke a reaction, then using the rest of your party to cut off any form of escape with pre-emptive attacks.
A constantly ticking timer lessens the room for error, stopping the possibility of playing a clumsy game of follow the leader after messing up. Each turn must be carefully planned and masterfully executed, at risk of missing out on a chunk of juicy experience. It's difficult to pick up, with little in the way of tutorials to help new players build up their skill sets besides a basic rundown of the core mechanics, but becomes a rewarding and fun way to break up the pacing superbly. Both of the main sections of the game complement one another wonderfully.
Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters is a challenging title, to be sure. In places low-fi, in others outright obtuse, it does very little to ease in potential players that aren't well versed in either visual novels or strategy games. But once you break through, a charmingly well told tale with absolutely gorgeous visuals combined with fascinating, tactics-heavy gameplay reveals itself. It's really pretty great, and it deserves your attention if these types of games are at all your cup of green tea. Let's go beat up some ghosts.