Trying Something New
When jumping between different games within the same genre, most gamers have come to expect similar mechanics to be used between them. Most popular FPS titles use the same basic controller layouts, classic-style JRPGs have the same basic commands to drive menu-based combat, and so on. Most games will put their own unique spin on things, but will stick close to some kind of predetermined formula to offer a sense of familiarity.
It’s not too often that a creator will throw genre conventions to the wind and experiment with something new. Those that do tend not to get much further than niche popularity. Some creators don’t care, though, and will happily experiment with conventions.
Most visual novels tend to stick to their established formula: story broken up by multiple choice questions. Some eschew the questions, or add some extra gameplay (or both), but basic narrative choices remain a staple of the genre.
Some visual novel creators have attempted to throw familiarity out the window, though, and experiment with this narrative choice mechanic. One that we reviewed last year, Root Double, replaced textual choices with a graph that you had to manipulate. It was interesting, but unwieldy. The title we are looking at today does something similar, this time replacing the multiple choice questions with something a bit more obtuse…
Developed by Toybox Inc and published in the west by Pqube, Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters Daybreak: Special Gigs (TTGH hereafter) was released for PC via Steam on March 17th, 2017. The game is a port, having originally been released on PS3, PS4, and Vita.
In TTGH, you are the main character. Or, at least, the Japanese high school version of you. At the game’s outset, you customize the main character’s personality, from name and hometown to favorite class and blood type. Very little of what you select has any bearing on the story or gameplay, but for some it might be cool to be playing as a character with the same blood type as you.
You are a new transfer student to Kurenai Academy in Shinjuku, Japan. Not even a full day into your new school life, though, you run across some paranormal activity while being shown around the school. This is when one of your classmates reveals himself as a member of “Gate Keepers” – magazine publishing company by day, ghost hunting outfit by night.
As it turns out, you happen to have the ability to see ghosts. When the members of Gate Keepers notice this, they quickly get you to join their company. So begins your life as a ghost hunter, helping to exorcise spirits bothering people around Tokyo.
TTGH‘s premise is relatively simple, and the plot is very much the same throughout the first half of the game. The story is broken up into thirteen chapters (the spookiest number, of course), each presented like an episode of a television show. The game’s opening sequence plays before each chapter, credits roll when you finish, there’s occasional cliffhangers, etc.
Unfortunately, if this really were a TV show, I would have dropped it a few episodes in. The first set of chapters is slow and, even with the whole “expelling evil spirits” thing, frighteningly dull. After a decently interesting opening, the game just slows to a crawl until around the midpoint, when the plot finally kicks into gear.
Once the story actually gets going, TTGH winds up telling a relatively interesting tale with some surprisingly good prose. The problem is, you have to push your way through the opening hours. This isn’t something I normally mind, since a slow start can give you time to get to know the characters before things start getting real…
Surprise Makeout Session
…however, it’s the gameplay mechanics that bring this game down from just “slow burn” to “dull slog.”
First off, the aforementioned experimentation with narrative choices. Standard visual novel text box choices do still exist in TTGH, but when your character is asked a question they have to respond to, the game’s unique mechanic comes up.
Your character is a silent protagonist, never saying a word. In order to respond to characters, rather than making a narrative choice, you are presented with two back-to-back choice wheels. One has a selection of feelings, such as angry, sad, or inquisitive. The second has a choice of the five senses. The combination of a feeling and a sense determines your character’s response, and the subsequent actions of those around you.
It’s definitely a unique system, but there’s two fatal flaws. First, there is nowhere in the game that explains how this system works. Not what the symbols stand for, not what different combinations can mean, not even how to control your choices. Considering even the novel sections eschew normal mechanics, forcing you to advance text with the right bumper button on a controller, even simply making choices on a wheel is confusing at first.
Secondly, the reactions you get from characters can be almost unpredictable. Say, a character asks how you’re feeling today, and the wheel shows up. You’re feeling fine, so you go to choose “happy,” with the closest choice represented by hearts. You want to say it, so you choose the mouth symbol on the senses wheel. These combined, rather than having you say “I’m happy,” instead makes you try to make out with whoever is talking to you.
The second main gameplay mechanic comes in to play when fighting ghosts. Battles are done in a strategy RPG style, with your characters and the ghosts on a grid. You have to move your characters around to find the ghosts and take down the target one. Assisting you are various traps you can place on the grid before battle to attract ghosts, force their movement, and damage them.
Once again, there are two major flaws. First, unless you invested in certain traps or got lucky with your initial layout, your enemies are completely invisible at the start of battle. You get some minor hints via text of where they may be, but each battle becomes essentially a guessing game, swinging your weapons at empty areas and hoping they hit something. Each battle is on a strict turn limit too, so each turn you don’t manage to find a ghost is a stressful waste.
Making this even more frustrating is that these portions are not completely turn-based. Your characters and the ghosts move at the same time. This can make the text hints useless, as a ghost moves away from the hinted area before you get there. When you do manage to find one, and it shows up on the grid, you still have to predict where they’re going to move – position yourself wrong and the ghost will move out of your attack range, wasting a precious turn.
Both the narrative and battle mechanics combine to make TTGH an incredibly frustrating experience. Adding insult to injury, I hope you have a gamepad when playing this game, because it defaults to an absolutely unintuitive keyboard layout if you don’t, and I could not find any options to remap the keys.
A Lesson in Contrasts
The irritating gameplay mechanics hurt even more here, since they’re paired up with some beautiful artwork. The novel sections of TTGH look amazing, with detailed background and very expressive sprites. The sprites are fully animated as well, conveying their feelings through their motions, rather than just text. Even the CG art “stills” are animated and look excellent, although some are reused a bit too much for my liking.
Unfortunately, this all goes away when you’re fighting ghosts. As if the gameplay wasn’t boring and annoying enough, battles take place on a black and white grid, with colored dots representing your team and the ghosts. Being forced to stare at a monochrome grid while struggling with fights is just maddening, especially with how stunning the rest of the game can look.
You do get treated to a first-person view of whatever ghost you’re attacking when you manage to hit one, but these seconds-long moments do little to ease the pain of the game’s presentation in battle.
Rock and Roll High School
Much of TTGH is themed, somewhat unusually, around rock and roll. What its relationship to ghost hunting is, I have no idea, but the game really goes all in with the theme. The save screen represents each chapter of the game with a different concert poster, one of the characters is a guitarist obsessed with the POWER OF ROCK, and the whole soundtrack follows the theme as well.
The soundtrack is driven by electric guitars, with most tracks made up of a traditional rock ensemble. It sounds like it was recorded live, as you can distinctly pick out slides on the guitar fretboard, and it makes a rather interesting accompaniment to the plot and battles. Much of it is a standard rock/radio rock style, and my only real complaint is that much of the tracklist sounds a bit samey. The quality is good, but putting any two tracks side by side shows there isn’t much to distinguish each of them.
There is some limited voice acting here as well, in the original Japanese. Certain story moments get full acting, but the majority just gets random vocal snippets. For whats here, the actors and actresses match the personality of the characters quite well, and the performances are realistic and grounded. It isn’t much to get excited about, but it does fit well.
Ghosts in the Machine
Overall, Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters presents an interesting and well written story that starts much too slowly, and is greatly hindered by the various gameplay mechanics included. The senses system for narrative choices is unexplained and unintuitive, and the strategic gameplay portions rely too much on guesswork, often making them infuriating.
The game has developed a cult following since its original releases, and seems to have developed a “love it or hate it” reputation. After my experience with the title, I definitely fall into the latter category. The slow start combined with the mechanics presented created a painful experience, and by the time the plot revved up, I found it hard to care much about it anymore.
Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters shows that not every experiment in gaming can be a success. For what its worth, the game is playable and functional, although the actual functions leave a lot to be desired.
~ Final Score: 4/10 ~
Review copy provided by PQube for PC. Screenshots taken by reviewer.