Tokyo Dark Review
When the phone of Detective Itō’s missing partner Tanaka turns up some time after his disappearance, a rescue attempt pulls her into an encounter with the supernatural. A mysterious Door lies beneath the city, and a figure from Itō’s past — long thought dead — is set upon opening it.
Tokyo Dark’s back streets and seedier districts set the stage for Itō’s initial investigation, a 2D side-scrolling journey which sees you exploring and interacting with less savoury members of its society. At its core, the tone is a dark detective horror with some enjoyably gruesome moments, but it occasionally tries to offset that oppressive feeling with slices of cute nonsense, which wouldn’t feel too far removed from a Phoenix Wright title, resulting in an uneven tone.
As you start to unravel the mystery of what happened to Tanaka, you’re given numerous choices on how to proceed - whether that’s by playing a by-the-book cop, or a reckless vengeful spirit who will stop at nothing to get answers. The impact of your decisions will ultimately take you to one of eleven different endings, but Cherrymochi have implemented a New Game+ mode to allow you to save different slots and decision points to reach the rest of them when the game ends.
How you choose to play Itō is one of the game’s more satisfying elements. She’s a character with mental health issues, exacerbated by a scene early on in the game, and relies on medication to keep her mind focused. It’s a shame that this wasn’t touched on more, given how other titles such as Hellblade have approached the topic - here, drugs are the order of the day, and it reduces a complex condition to something far too simplistic.
For all intents and purposes Tokyo Dark is a visual novel, with just one puzzle and a series of choices wrapped in a considerable amount of written dialogue. The writing is mostly excellent, with only a few questionable motives of some NPCs leaving a bitter taste, such as a hard-ass Yakuza boss being won over by a cat. Still, the game touches on various philosophical and historical topics, all of which tie into the narrative in interesting ways. The supernatural theme may leave far more questions unanswered than the story deserves, but it nonetheless breathes intrigue into an otherwise routine procedural story.
Where the game misses the mark is with its SPIN system, which tracks Itō’s Sanity, Professionalism, Investigation and Neurosis. If you comb the area and exhaust every clickable option, your Investigation meter will increase. Doing something untoward - such as taking a drink in a bar when on duty - will drop your Professionalism, while your Sanity and Neurosis levels are altered by the things you see and the way you handle conversations with people. Rather than being a background metric, however, it’s treated as a known system within the game world which has the unfortunate effect of breaking any sense of atmosphere every time it’s brought up by one of your colleagues. Additionally, many choices you make affect the stats in ways you may not have considered, and not always fairly. For instance, returning to see a friend on the force after a traumatic conversation resulted in our Neurosis increasing — you’d think a pleasant conversation would have helped Itō, but not here. Similarly, if you try to tackle tasks in an order which the game deems to be incorrect, you’ll be punished with increases in Neurosis too.
The idea of SPIN is fine, but the system is implemented awkwardly, and the impact on the endings you get is not at all clear. When a game places player decision front and centre, some feedback on the path you’re taking is the least it can provide. Will being as professional as possible help if you forget to take your pills? If you are a loose cannon and threaten your police workmates, how will the ending be affected? It feels like a missed opportunity, and while it thankfully doesn’t distract too much from the core game, it did leave us wondering what could have been.
It’s clear that the developers have a love of Tokyo, and have woven numerous districts into the game map, each of which has a unique flavour. From the serenity of cherry blossoms in Kamakura to the neon high-tech hub of Akihabara, there are cat cafés, octopus vendors and sleazy old men in bars which all add to a vibrant and interesting world to explore. The paths you’ll take are almost all linear given the visual novel element, and the back-and-forth between districts can feel a little like padding on occasion. But the depiction of Tokyo as a vibrant hub with an often seedy underbelly cannot be faulted, and the horror elements combined with some exquisite sound mixing result in some truly unsettling scenes.
Music is varied between locations, though a number of locations repeated the same melody on a loop — another tip of the hat to Phoenix Wright — and began grating after a while, especially in the cat café. However, the sheer number of different tracks that have been crammed into a five-hour game is impressive, and another mark of a developer who has focused on building an atmospheric world.
Whether you want to trawl through New Game+ to reach the other endings is a tough decision. Even with the save points, you will need to play it multiple times to see them all, and most are short. They add up to a bigger picture of what the game’s story is trying to achieve, so it’s a shame that they’ve been locked behind a mechanic which forces you to play again — unlike action games, visual novels offer little other than words, and even with the ability to skip conversations you may consider the effort simply isn’t worth the investment.
However, Tokyo Dark remains a uniquely interesting game, and Cherrymochi is a studio with a bright future. The disappointing SPIN system aside, the hybrid of point-and-click and visual novel is an enjoyable one, and something we’d be interested in seeing more examples of — perhaps with a few more puzzles.