Even though the Western market is accepting of some of the oddities of Japan’s video game industry nowadays, Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters is still a rare sighting on these shores. It’s a title that manages to offer two separately unique experiences most non-Japanese gamers have never encountered. On one side it’s a visual novel, a niche genre that is slowly beginning to gain traction in America and Europe thanks to the exposure provided by YouTube and other gaming-saturated video platforms. On the other, it’s a turn-based RPG whose function is entirely based around a seek-and-destroy game of detection and deduction. Either way, it’s a fairly enjoyable ghostbusting romp that stands out for its genuinely alternative style of play. Not only is it its distinct Japanese-ness that makes that so, but it’s also what threatens to completely break it too.
Perhaps the only thing that is straightforward about its setup is its adherence to the anime-tastically convoluted name that it bears. Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters is, unsurprisingly, set in modern-day Tokyo about an organisation of exorcists-for-hire called the Gate Keepers, who spend their free time after the daily grinds of school or work embarking on evening shifts of ghost-hunting and adventure. It’s a tricky business that your character, a silent protagonist named Ryusuke Touma (the name is changeable), winds up in as you try to get your bearings as a recently-transferred student to Kurenai Academy high school. You waste little time getting acquainted with your fellow classmates - some of them even take the initiative of running right into you to introduce themselves. And whether by accident or intention, you soon wind up in a group of your own - wheelchair-bound class overachiever Shiga soon takes a liking to you, as does the cheery Saya, even if her friend, the coldly aloof Sayuri, isn’t so keen on exchanging initial pleasantries.
Despite her frostiness however, it’s Sayuri who ends up dragging you into the crazy world of spectral shenanigans as she seeks to shed light on the mystery of a former pupil’s suicide. As you accompany her after-hours to the closed-off fourth floor of the school for some answers, the pair of you make some discoveries of supernatural proportions. First of all, ghosts do exist in the real world - you find this out as you are suddenly ambushed by a red-coated apparition wielding a meat cleaver. Second of all, the Gate Keepers - whom Shiga reveals himself to be a member of - were already on-scene to track the ghost by request of the school itself. Turns out your unassuming school friends have more to them than meets the eye (because, you know, anime).
After successfully helping them eject the troublesome phantom from the human world, you’re promptly rewarded for your cooperation by Chizuru - Gate Keepers’ resident CEO. She proceeds to offer you the chance to join the team as a full-time ghost hunter (well, part-time - school doesn’t end just because you now have duties). Naturally you accept, and your career as a pursuer of all things paranormal begins.
Much of Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters’ flow is divided into individual story chapters. Each one begins with your team being sent off to investigate possible ghost sightings on behalf of a client, with a new client and ghost appearing in each episode. From a gameplay perspective, they’re further broken down into two separate phases - a story phase, where you’ll get to interact with the various characters while the plot develops, and a combat phase, where upon inevitably exposing the chapter’s phantom-of-interest, you’ll go into battle to defeat it.
The story phase is typical visual novel fare - you’ll move through dialogue and story events that unravel each chapter’s scenario, while also being given opportunities to interact with your fellow ghost hunters as investigations proceed. These moments come through conversational choices you can make when prompted by characters to give your own opinions on matters related to the chapter’s developments. Aside from offering something to do apart from pressing ‘X’ to go through all the lengthy text, your chosen reactions will also increase or decrease the rapport you have with your team-mates. Such accord has a genuine bearing on the ending you’ll receive when you complete the game, so it’s an important game factor. Placate and flirt with the ones you like, or just be a jerk to everyone - it’s all completely up to you.
There’s also an additional, initially unintelligible interface that pops up during key parts of the story phase that consists of various symbols defining physical gestures. Although not explained helpfully by the game, these gestures can also help in your ghostly inquiries by allowing you to touch, look, sniff or even punch the objects and people around you. These options and more are available to you any time the dialog pops up, and yes, making the wrong or especially the weird choice in the given situation will always get a reaction. If making a good impression with your fellow Gate Keepers is important to you, it’s probably a bad idea to start licking that mysterious white powder you just found on the floor in front of everyone. Often times though, you’ll end up doing these things simply because of how confusing the system is - not because you’ll want to.
Narrative will eventually make way for the climactic battle at the end of each chapter, and the turn-based bouts of combat they involve are a jarring contrast to the steady storytelling that set them up. At each battle’s start, you and your team will take up positions on one side of a board-game-styled grid of squares, which depicts the plan of the room that it’s taking place in. Your eerie adversaries will set up on the other side, and you’ll have a limited set of actions per turn (movement, attack and item use all included) to inflict damage on them and win the fight. But play comes with a devious twist: ghosts being ghosts, they’re initially invisible to you. Your team is therefore required to use great caution and their own limited vision to find and target the ghouls as they move around in the darkness. Any false move will lead you to be surprised by them, which in turn will allow them to attack you instead. With these spirits becoming outright one-shot killers towards the end of the game, this can swiftly become a strenuous, punishing task.
Thankfully, some help is offered to alleviate the challenge. Your support team are able to report turn-by-turn on supernatural energy readings that give hints to where the ghosts are hiding and moving. Items such as traps and additional motion detectors can also be bought and laid down in a pre-combat preparation phase, offering clearer map visibility. But it will take full consideration of your environment as well as your characters’ abilities to effectively beat the ghastly souls you’re being paid to vanquish. Not to mention you have the business side to worry about too - sloppy operations that cause damage to your surroundings will lead you to foot the bill for extra costs, making every battle a cautious series of of strategic balances, where shrewd planning and accurate offense are paramount.
Together, the dramatic build-up of story events and the closing acts of combat combine to make each chapter of Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters surprisingly cohesive. Their flow is remarkably akin to a TV show - an imitation that is assuredly intentional. This is a game that is incredibly keen to flaunt its anime stylings to the point where the start of every chapter even comes with its own TV-styled opening sequence. It might be a quirky presentational facet, but it’s one that still blends in with the game’s often contradictory structure. When you’re already an RPG masquerading as an interactive novel, going all out and pretending you’re an anime series on top of that is a delightfully meta way to shun any further conventions expected of you.
It’s also just one merit among the many that this game’s stunning presentation puts on show. Practically all of the game’s art is lavishly illustrated with a tremendously detailed, vibrant style that rejects the cute, garish stereotypes that regular JRPGs continue to churn out. Replacing it is a subtly mature, streetwise visual attitude that succeeds in giving the game an artistic sophistication to go with its light-hearted personality. It’s an appearance that is also well backed by a cocksure 90s-styled rock soundtrack that not only does a great job of complimenting the game’s grungey look, but also comes as a welcome refrain from the overdone orchestral music and electronica that so many other RPG games offer up.
There’s also the matter of the extensive list of characters who drive the game’s story-based leanings. On this end, the cast of Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters are immensely likeable. Granted, the standard anime tropes are all on show: the emotionally distant schoolgirl, the stoic team leader, the surly yakuza hitman and the demure shrine maiden are just some of the already tried-and-tested character types that you’ll come to work with on the Gate Keepers team. But it’s their subtle mannerisms, animations and the excellent localization job that Aksys Games have done with the game script that helps them break their cliched molds. This is particularly evident in how well the characters play off of each other during the in-game conversations, which always strike a perfect balance between droll humour and engaging investigative drama. It’s one of the reasons why the game remains so compelling in spite of its trundling pace and lengthiness. Even if they’re about as motley a crew that’s ever been assembled to tackle creepy spooks, there’s a genuine believability to just how willingly this ragtag bunch look out for each other as a team. And you’ll likely do the same as a result.
Without this vital ingredient, Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters would absolutely struggle as a concept. The cat-and-mouse process of tracking your ghosts during combat phases is both monotonous and frustrating, particularly on later chapters as the spirits you face become exponentially stronger. This drudgery is primarily caused by the fact that your spirit opponents are every bit as cheap as they are apparitional. You may be able to predict a ghost’s movement to the point that a seemingly 99% chance of hitting with your attacks is on the cards, but still have them dodged with alarming frequency. On top of this, players also have to contend with the disadvantage of battles having limited turns to achieve victory in. Certain ghosts will take pleasure in exploiting this caveat by teleporting around the map via on-map plug sockets and pipes, making a mockery of any basic strategies you use and forcing defeat by time limit. While mobbing ghosts on sight and tedious ‘grinding’ to level your characters up can overcome these annoyances, unfairness still persists. Even the most comprehensive victories can feel like a fortuitous sequence of lucky hits rather than the results of considered planning, exposing a critical flaw that undermines the gameplay considerably.
It’s also a weakness that leaves the game unable to establish a comprehensive identity for even the demographics that it’s trying to target. JRPG fans could flock to it for the unique battle system, but get turned off by the colossal amount of dialogue they have to trudge through to get to some actual gameplay. Visual novel enthusiasts meanwhile will love the characters and the intriguing exposition, but balk at the constant injustices of the enemy encounters that threaten to stop them experiencing the rest of the story. Nonetheless, anyone who is willing to persevere with these issues will find Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters to be rewarding despite its glaring imperfections. It is undoubtedly a game that struggles with its own design to deliver a solid RPG experience. But with its excellent art, fun characters and compelling episodic plot, there’s still a good deal of soul here for curiosity gamers to enjoy.