Ghostwire: Tokyo’s Worst Enemy is Formulaic Open World Design

A beautifully realized Tokyo doesn’t make up for Ghostwire’s underwhelming open world.

The opening moments of Ghostwire: Tokyo don’t mess around. A deadly fog takes over the city, violent ghosts run the streets, and our main protagonist Akito gets partially possessed by the superpowered spirit of a man named KK — all of which happen in a matter of minutes. With the bright lights beaming down on Shibuya Crossing, a man in a Hannya mask hijacks the billboard screens to profess evil deeds. As you rush to the hospital to check on your sister, zombified apparitions lurk in the path ahead. It’s a strong opening that instills genuine tension and intrigue. But once I was released into the streets of Tokyo, my enthusiasm dissipated. I quickly saw just how much Ghostwire relies on bog standard open world design we’ve seen time and again.

I look back at my time with Ghostwire and think it’s a decent game, but one that doesn’t do any particular thing exceptionally well. I can derive almost every shortcoming to the way it utilizes its open world — mission design, quest objectives, collectathon-style side activities, combat encounters, and exploration in Ghostwire are often at the mercy of predictable open world principles.

Don’t get me wrong, though: Ghostwire’s recreation of Tokyo is stunning and detailed. The neon signs that light up Shinjuku and the music that spills into the streets from inside clubs give some life to a city devoid of it. Looking up at the Shibuya 109 building or soaking in the vastness from atop a skyscraper are sights to behold. The quiet residential areas and parks show signs of a place that could’ve been nice to live in. And the Nekomata, the Yokai felines who run every konbini in Tokyo, put a whole new spin on the concept of bodega cats.

The rain-soaked streets of Tokyo leave a striking impression.

You can easily see how much potential exists within the spaces created for Ghostwire, but the game rarely takes advantage of it, mostly plopping cliched, shallow goals within. It feels as if the world was built first and everything else was bolted on to fill it up without giving enough consideration for how those pieces fit.

The better main story quests funnel you through more linear, specific scenarios. Some of these lead you through interiors or otherworldly environments that are manipulated in striking, surrealistic fashion, reminiscent of 2019’s Control. And you’ll get a smattering of intense combat encounters before you return to a safe world-state. There are also a few short sequences where you’re stripped of your powers, leaving you vulnerable and requiring you to approach enemies very differently, which heightens the tension.

But you soon realize the game can’t mess with you too much because these things are made to fit within the formulaic confines of the genre. These are brief moments, just barely explored before reverting back to its rudimentary open world ways — glimpses of good ideas I wish were fully actualized. You won’t see a distinct commitment to horror, creative spaces for players to work in, or tightly designed sequences to serve the narrative. As is, they’re certainly not enough for Ghostwire to hang its hat on. Especially when you realize early on that this game abides by certain design conventions, it takes some of the excitement or tension out of the experience.

As a result, the open world has to do some heavy lifting to carry you through its relatively brief 15- to 20-hour runtime. The problem isn’t that Ghostwire is short — the problem is that Ghostwire doesn’t use its time effectively.

Some of the surreal moments are a genuine visual showcase.

One stretch of the main quest simply focused on clearing consecutive torii gates, which act as your proverbial towers that reveal more of the map and mark new side activities. Another quest enclosed me in a circle within the open world where I had to hunt down three haphazardly placed entities that were holding up the deadly barrier — it’s also a timed mission, for some reason. One of the better quests tasked me with finding a way up to the roof of a skyscraper, a long trek that sold the idea of Tokyo’s visual flourishes and impressive scale. But when I looked back, the path ahead was clearly defined with some hostile ghosts scattered along the way. Once I made it to the top, it was only to scout the villain’s movements before moving on to another quest.

For a game and world as large as Ghostwire, it feels surprisingly on the rails, often leaving only one way for the player to achieve their goals, even outside its linear sequences. It’s as if quests are diversions loosely linked to the stakes of the story and characters. They end up just feeling like things you have to do because that’s what you do in video games.

That’s another one of Ghostwire’s problems — even in the vastness of its world, discovery is limited. It’s so afraid of the player missing something that it feels the need to constantly remind you, nudge you, and sometimes directly insist you do a specific thing in a certain way.

An egregious example that comes to mind is when I was approaching a torii gate and two huge demons spawned to defend it. Cool, a tough battle! As I was backpedaling and parrying their attacks, I unknowingly backed into a side activity — and the game took full control of the camera to force me to look directly at the side activity itself…while I was still actively in the middle of a heated battle…in a first-person action game. Why would you do this to me?

You’ll spend a lot of time cleansing torii gates like it’s routine.

Games sometimes use an inner monologue to hint the player at something worth seeking. But in Ghostwire, it’s not enough for you to have spectral vision, which is an all-seeing power that highlights important objects and enemies within a wide radius. Your supernatural companion KK is also constantly telling you what you need to do, like someone who’s backseat gaming. It’s as if the game doesn’t trust you to figure things out for yourself.

One short sidequest had me go into a house to relieve a tortured spirit trapped inside, and KK kept giving me directions I did not need. Another had me go into a small hotel to uncover a message for a spirit — I took the elevator to the only floor available, walked down the only hall inside, and KK still told me exactly what to do. Then there are these little stealth side activities where you need to bait a Yokai and sneak up on it, and in every one of these, KK is in your ear — “hide behind something now,” “use your spectral vision now,” “don’t lose track of its movements,” “by the way, use your spectral vision again,” “okay, now is your opening.”

Even the few moments in the main quest where I can try to figure out how to progress myself, he never lets up on his unsolicited advice. Like damn man, thanks, I guess? It’s not a friendly guide offering assistance, it’s someone over-explaining every little thing that didn’t need any explanation to begin with. I know KK is sort of this spirit of a former detective who knows more than Akito, but relax, my guy.

Without KK, however, there wouldn’t be much to combat. He’s your ticket for supernatural elemental powers, the centerpiece for the satisfying moments of combat. The bow-and-arrow is woefully incompetent and the melee attack is straight-up useless. And since Ghostwire isn’t really built with stealth or a variety of abilities in mind, you rely on elemental weaving where you shoot gusts of wind, blades of water, or fireballs out of your hands using nicely animated Kuji-kiri hand signs.

Breaking down a monster to sever its ghostwires is quite satisfying.

There’s a sluggish edge to them with long wind-ups and input responses, but landing these chunky hits feels right. In the absence of a dodge mechanic, Ghostwire insists you take things head-on by only giving you a block and parry to avoid taking damage from terrifying demons. Zombified salarymen and schoolgirls can hit hard, and big ladies with massive scissors in hand even more so. Incorporating talismans to stun or distract enemies can also make tough battles go much smoother. And bringing demons down to a weakened state to finish them off by severing their ghostwires stays satisfying throughout. Although you face some brief and straightforward boss fights, they at least give you an opportunity to flex your effective, albeit slim, arsenal.

When the big battles against uniquely deranged Yokai are settled, though, I reflect on what purpose they serve and what exactly it is I’m fighting for. Tokyo’s been overtaken by ghosts and demons, products of the villain’s vision for the world. Spirits that linger in the streets for short sidequests have some interesting stories of their own. But at the core, Akito is chasing the man in the Hannya mask who took his sister, and KK fuses with Akito to seek his own revenge on that same villain. Ghostwire lets its narrative meander for much of its runtime, introducing a few critical pieces and speaking to their importance but rarely taking the time to meaningfully explore them within the context of the game world.

The philosophical questions of life, death, the afterlife, and what it means to have a soul or spirit are meant to be the cornerstone of the story, yet they only come into focus late. Perhaps it’s a matter of not being invested in the characters themselves — despite having relatable, human motivations, the story lacks the strong characterization necessary to make those elements work. Still, I believe it does come around by the very end with its broad strokes and a bolder confrontation of loss, grief, and the limited time we have in life. I truly wish Ghostwire dove into these themes with more nuance in the time it had.

Fresh outfit, bro.

On paper, Ghostwire should be in my wheelhouse, so I’ve thought a lot about why I didn’t connect with it. I think back to games I love that take place in Tokyo, like Yakuza, Judgment, The World Ends With You, Shin Megami Tensei, Persona 5, or Tokyo Mirage Sessions. Those games made their versions of Tokyo integral to their personality and the way you interact with their worlds — stories, characters, and goals were woven into those streets, or at least made a distinct atmosphere. They made the setting itself matter and as much of a character as their casts.

As beautiful and photorealistic as Tokyo is in Ghostwire, it often feels like set dressing — a place where people once lived that is now occupied by quest markers and collectibles. Despite having all those spirits parading the streets of Tokyo, Ghostwire itself is missing a spirit of its own.

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