Most games about ghosts are of the horror variety. Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters is as far from horror as you can get. This is one of the most chilled out, relaxed games I’ve played recently. There’s a gentle pace to it and the music of the game feels somewhat melancholy, but not depressingly so. This is a game you take your time with, enjoy, and soak up the atmosphere.
You play as a new student at Kurenai Academy and up spending your evenings working at Gate Keepers, a magazine specialising in the occult. However, this is just a front for their true purpose, providing exorcism services to those who post on their website. Every member of Gate Keepers have one thing in common, the ability to see ghosts. The game is broken up into thirteen episodes, quite literally. Each episode begins with the opening song and ends with another song like an anime series. The general flow of gameplay starts with a visual novel segment. This sets up the episode and is also where you’ll do most of your interactions with the other members of Gate Keepers. Once the enemy ghost has been revealed you return to the Gate Keeper’s office to prepare for battle. At the office, you can train to learn new skills with your other team members, buy/create new items and equipment and play with the office cat, Seecloar. You can also take on side missions to earn some extra money to buy items and equipment with.
Choices in Ghost Hunters are handled in a pretty unique way. While you do choose from a select set of responses time to time, the majority of choices use the game’s emotion wheel. A wheel pops up on screen with five icons representing different emotions: anger, sadness, curiosity, love and friendship. After selecting your emotion, you then choose from five different senses: sight, touch, listening, smell and taste. A quick example – when introducing myself to a new character, I would select friendship and touch which would lead to a handshake. The game itself never really explains how the system works, but generally you have to look at every situation within its own context. I found if in doubt, a friendly glaze solves most situations but I’ve found that can unintentionally turn into a pervy stare. Later in the game, I dealt with some ghosts by lovingly fondling them and well, I’m still not sure what I make of that. I do wish there was more opportunities to save however. The only way to save the game is in the Gate Keeper’s office which is only accessible during the battle half of an episode. If I could have saved mid-game I would have to liked to have gone back through certain conversations and seen different responses to my actions.
The battle system has an interesting take on the SRPG formula. Bustin’ ghosts is a tricky business that requires planning before even going into battle. You’ll be given a grid based map of the area with marked areas where the ghost has been spotted. Using the information given, you use traps to give yourself an advantage in battle. These traps can be used to block a ghost’s path, damage or use status effects on them. Once you’re happy with your setup you then proceed into battle.
When fighting ghosts, battles take place in the dark and while the Gate Keepers can see ghosts, they can only see them up close. To get around this, you use the Ouija Pad which is essentially your battle screen for the game. The Ouija Pad is basically the map you used earlier, but marked with all your traps and the status of your party plus the ghosts down the sides. It’s a simple set up but it does the job. There’s two phases in battle, forecast and execute. Everyone moves at once in a turn and you never know where a ghost will move to in battle. If a ghost falls in the range of one of your characters sensors (or one you’ve placed on the map in the planning stage), you’ll be able to see that ghost’s range of movement. Characters only have set attack range so you have to carefully plan out where you want them to attack. You can attack blindly in the dark, but this can have consequences. On the map are small black squares representing items in the area. If you’re performing an exorcism in someone’s house, they would represent a table or a television. If your attack range falls in with one of these areas and you miss the ghost, you risk damaging an item which you become responsible for paying for.
Despite not being the boss, you’re pretty much responsible for Gate Keeper’s finances. While you’re not paying anyone’s wages or anything, your cash flow is an important asset. When you take on a mission, both side and story ones, you’re shown the fee the client is willing to pay. Everything costs money, so all the traps you use in-game come out of this fee. If you play well, through bonuses you can double or triple the money you earn (ie. If a character isn’t harmed in battle, you’ll get a cash bonus). But as mentioned, destroying items and furniture will cost you as will any fainted or status influenced party members and those cures don’t come cheap. I was tempted to restart a side mission because I had destroyed a TV just before dealing the final blow to a ghost and doing so put the whole mission 30,000 yen in the red. In the end, I decided to suck it up since I had gained a lot of exp and knew I could make it back.
After the first battle, I felt a bit overwhelmed by the large amount of traps I could set and how tricky it seemed to attack the ghosts. Thankfully, the side mission battles are short and sweet and provide a good way of learning more about the flow of battle while providing valuable extra experience and cash. As soon as I got more comfortable with battle, I found I had to start grinding a few missions to gain some levels to find the story missions beatable. Typically I only had to complete two to three battles to be at a suitable level for the mission. Some ghosts are aggressive and will come after you, while others will run at the sight of you, making them a harder target to attack. There’s also a time limit on each mission, usually around 15 minutes. Relax, each turn in-game counts as a minute in battle. I fell foul of the time limit a couple of times in battle and this was always frustrating since the ghost I was after would usually only be one or two attacks away from defeat.
One standout aspect of the game is the character animations. It’s a really impressive look the game has. Instead of standard blinking character portraits, the game uses soft looking animated portraits that breath and react to what is going on. It’s certainly the most natural looking technique I’ve seen used before. It’s a mix between the styles used in the Neptunia and Vanillaware’s games. The style extends to the ghosts as well which really shows off the interesting enemy designs. It seems apt that Aksys also worked on the Vita version of Muramasa when we see those iconic Japanese demons given a modern look in this game.
The game has quite an expansive cast as well, though only a small handful of the characters are really given any story focus. During a story mission, you’ll be introduced to a new character but once the mission is over, few reappear in story missions again. Once you’ve completed a story mission, you have the opportunity to talk to the other members of Gate Keepers and get closer to them and learn more about themselves.
I love that everything happens within the game world. When you need to change your equipment, you go to the office lockers. When you’re shopping, you’re given a receipt with current date and time on it. When taking on a side mission, you use the Office PC to browse an in-game forum where the exorcism requests are posted. After you confirm your battle plan, you get into the office van to finalise your inputs and select your battle music for the upcoming engagement. There’s a lot of little details and thought put into every area of the game. If you’ve had enough of exorcising ghosts, you can play the in-game board game “Hypernatural” with the other members of Gate Keepers. It’s the little details that really keeps you immersed in the game world.
I really enjoyed my time playing Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters. It kept me interested and it has a handful of unique aspects. If you’re looking for a straight up visual novel, then this probably won’t quite scratch that itch and neither will it if you’re looking for a meaty SRPG to dive into. However, if you want a game that does both aspects reasonably well, you might want to check it out.
Food for thought:
1. You use the shoulder buttons to go through the text instead of the X button. This has been a revelation. It is so much more comfortable using the shoulder buttons that I hope other text-heavy games start to adopt this method.
2. Unless you have to, I would avoid exorcisms in graveyards. There’s a high risk of destroying tombstones which are very expensive to replace…