The stench of sulphur and a chill in the air are all that are required to detect the presence of a ghost. At least, that’s the premise of Toybox Inc’s new visual novel-cum-SPRG, Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters, a brave but largely unsuccessful attempt to meld a variety of different genres into something approaching a cohesive whole.
In true Japanese style, you play as a recent arrival at a high school who manages to meet their rival, potential love interest, potential employer, and potential BFF in the space of ten minutes. Whilst cast as a faceless avatar, your lack of physical presence on screen doesn’t mean you don’t have some level of input into role-playing your character, since you’re quizzed on a plethora of random information, including Japanese hometown, blood type, and visual acuity. It serves to give you the impression of depth, but makes minimal impact on the overall story.
The narrative itself is more of a series of episodic encounters, spanning an overarching theme around your group. Spooky goings-on are apparently rife in the capital, but are largely kept in check by a band of intrepid ghost hunters, which you somehow stumble into thanks to your innate ability to follow people around and watch them spot ghosts. It’s the world’s easiest job interview, and if it feels like Scooby Doo and Ghostbusters had a lovechild, you wouldn’t be too far off the mark. Once ingratiated into the ramshackle organisation masquerading as an occult magazine - “Gate Keepers”, naturally - the action starts to pick up and the gang are tasked with a number of different jobs over a set of chapters, usually involving someone reporting a ghost, you visiting the scene to find the ghost, you exorcising the ghost, and the chapter being wrapped up by some sort of closing scene tying all of the previous elements together.
The balance is skewed roughly eighty-twenty in favour of dialogue over actual play. Each chapter is a chunk of around thirty to sixty minutes including the battle, and the dialogue is mainly on-screen although some lines are voiced in Japanese. If you’re new to the visual novel genre, this is likely to be a good entry point although we wouldn’t necessarily agree that it conforms to standard VN tropes. This isn’t a bad thing, as some similar games can often leave you with up to an hour of dialogue to read through before you even pick up a weapon. Splitting the story into more manageable episodes means that it’s easier to dip in and out of, but this accessibility comes with a cost since each chapter is self-contained and is wrapped up within an hour, leaving little in the way of perpetual threads throughout the game’s duration.
Dialogue options are not particularly common, but when you do get the chance to pick them they are often variations of “Do you agree/like this/want to try this? Yes/No”, with your choice resulting in an obvious response depending on whether you’re talking to a friend or rival in the group. More confusing is the dialogue wheel, which offers you a series of five choices - hearts, confused head, clenched fist, tearful eye, and two clenched hands. Once you pick one of these options, another wheel appears asking you to pick from one of the five senses. This combination of twenty-five possible responses may sound impressive, but it isn’t explained in any way. If you combine hearts with touch, perhaps to show someone you care and want to comfort them, you’ll often get a response castigating you for groping them. Combining anything with sound or smell rarely makes a difference other than an observation about what you can hear or smell (apparently being angry when smelling something isn’t actually a thing), and if you combine the two hands with touch you’ll try to shake people’s hands most of the time. It’s the most obvious option, and the one we defaulted to more often than not, but only due to a complete lack of understanding or explanation about what the hell we were supposed to be doing with the wheels.
And then there’s the combat. Once the story relents and lets you get stuck in, you’re presented with a ghost scanner which acts as an SRPG grid. Each of your characters has a series of action points to allow them to move around the grid, use items and attack, although depending on how far you move the last two options may not be available if you don’t have enough action points. The purpose of each battle is to track down and defeat ghosts within an allotted number of moves, by listening to directions from your support who spot “vibrations” in various areas of the grid. Once you navigate there and locate a ghost, it will appear on the map. At that point, you have to work on the basis of trial and error to guess what the ghost’s next move will be, and make sure your character is pointing in the right cardinal direction to attack it. Once you’ve selected your moves, your characters will move simultaneously with the ghost, get to their respective squares, and carry out any actions given to them - usually attack. The problem is that if they are facing in the wrong direction, the attack will be wasted. The strategy, therefore, is to try and pin the ghost down by surrounding it with characters. This is trickier than it would seem as ghosts can obviously move through you as well as some areas of the environment.
Damage from ghosts can also leave unwelcome status effects, which can paralyse you, reduce your attack power, and so on. Fortunately, you have the ability to purchase items such as salt which can act as a barrier to ghosts, locators which make it easier to track them down, food items which improve your stats, and more. These are all purchased pre-battle, giving each fight an element of planning and strategy which is almost better than the fights themselves. When you do encounter a ghost, the perspective spins from a basic top-down view to a first-person animation of the ghost attacking or being attacked. It’s not breaking any new ground, but it does beef up what is ostensibly a random fight generator, reliant on a combination of luck and basic common sense...but mainly luck. You see, where the ghost appears is mostly random and where it moves to is mostly random - you simply point your characters in the rough area, hope you’re facing the right way and hit attack. It isn’t particularly satisfying combat, and you may also end up breaking items in the environment, the cost of which will be deducted from your pay at the end of each successful fight. In some cases, your eagerness to try and take out the ghosts may result in you smashing up the entire area, and losing more money than you make due to repairs. Cash bonuses are granted for not getting hit and finishing quickly amongst other things, but unless you’re focused on not attacking areas of the grid haphazardly, profits can often take a hit which reduces your spending power for the next fight. A feline friend of the group’s may also pop onto the grid at times to try and point you in the right direction, but only serves to add to the confusion, and again isn’t explained adequately.
The real shame is that the game is clearly trying to set itself apart from the mould, but each of its elements feels disjointed and badly signposted. It isn’t really a visual novel, and it’s barely an SRPG. In truth, it’s a hybrid of various different RPG elements fused around a series of bite-sized stories, none of which ever generate more than a passing interest. A ghostly former lover causes havoc for any ladies who make eyes at her former beau. A dead rockstar returns from the grave, because his final piece was never played. These sound like interesting vignettes but they never evolve past that, mostly due to staid writing and generic Japanese tropes. The music is great, as can be expected from a studio employing the legendary Nobuo Uematsu. A pounding rock intro gives way to some excellent melancholic acoustic riffs, and none of the tracks really outstay their welcome. The animation and art direction is equally excellent, especially for a game of this nature, but they only serve to highlight the dullness of the combat segments. Ultimately though, Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters remains something of a niche oddity, a nicely presented and slick release which doesn't really offer strategy fans and visual novel enthusiasts anything of substance - much like the spirits you’re sent to exorcise, it seems mostly confused and doesn’t really do enough to justify its existence in this world.