It’s been a long time since I searched the streets for a phone booth — and it turns out to be an even more desperate experience when you’re being tailed by vicious spirits. But it’s something I found myself doing constantly while playing the first few hours of Ghostwire: Tokyo, the latest release from Tango Gameworks, the studio behind the unsettling horror series The Evil Within. While Ghostwire covers some similar ground, with lots of creepy folklore monsters lurking around, it’s also a clear shift from survival horror to action-adventure. And early on, I’m having a blast with the mix of tense firefights and horror-like exploration.
As the title implies, the game takes place in modern-day Tokyo, albeit a disturbingly empty one. Thanks to some kind of supernatural phenomenon, all humans have disappeared, except for one — your character, a seemingly average dude named Akito — who is now possessed by an entity known as KK. There are a few different mysteries at play. There’s the whole evil fog that has engulfed the city, ushering in a host of evil creatures; there’s KK’s backstory as a paranormal investigator; and then there’s Akito himself, who is searching for his missing sister. In order to figure out all of that, Akito and KK form an uneasy truce. KK serves as both a guide — his voice is always in your head — and the source of some nifty mystical powers.
The thing that has struck me most so far (I’m about seven hours in) is how action-focused Ghostwire is. Navigating the streets, subways, and other parts of Tokyo means using magic called “ethereal weaving” to blast a whole lot of bad guys. It can feel almost like a first-person shooter at times; battles often involve using multiple kinds of magic to knock out foes as they charge towards you in groups or hang back and toss glowing red orbs. So far, I’ve unlocked three magic types — wind, water, and fire — which you can switch between rapidly depending on the situation. Water is like a magical shotgun, for instance, for up-close enemies, while fire is devastating even at long range. You also have a shield for blocking incoming attacks.
I’ve found myself locked in rooms with headless schoolgirls and faceless businessmen, dancing around, lobbing magic as if I was playing a slower-paced Doom. You even refill your ammo by gathering crystals from downed enemies. There’s also a nice physicality to it. When an enemy is nearly defeated, you can use magic to essentially rip out their heart, granting an extra health and ammo bonus. This is risky because it leaves you vulnerable. But it also feels real good, no matter how many times I do it. It’s part of the reason the game hasn’t felt so scary in the initial chapters: yeah, you’re up against creepy-ass creatures wielding giant pairs of scissors, but you’re extremely powerful. You also unlock new skills pretty regularly by rescuing souls trapped in this nightmare version of the city.
The other half of the experience is exploring the eerie-yet-intricately-detailed version of Tokyo. It’s not exactly an open world, especially early on when much of it is covered in a poisonous fog. But it’s surprisingly fun to just stroll around, looking at the empty streets in first person, kind of like a mix of Gone Home and Yakuza — but with yokai lurking about. Enemies are generally concentrated in specific areas, and so there’s lots of time to just quietly wander and listen to Akito banter with the voice in his head, search for ghosts in need of help, cleanse shrines to open up new areas of the city, or look for a phone booth where (for some reason) you can drop off souls to be collected and, presumably, saved.
And while human life is gone from the city, animals still live; you can pet and feed dogs wandering the streets, and there are convenience stores run by floating, talking cats. The lengthy dog-petting animation feels designed specifically to be featured by a certain Twitter account. There are also some nice authentic Tokyo touches beyond the iconic rain-slicked streets and glowing Shibuya billboards, like the way you find plastic bags full of health-refilling convenience store snacks or how you constantly hear jazz filtering out of now-empty cafes.
So far, at least, that combination of tense action and more laid-back exploration has balanced out almost perfectly. And it’s enhanced by a beautifully rendered world and some truly WTF moments that will make Evil Within fans feel right at home. The true test, of course, will be whether Ghostwire can keep that up for its full runtime. The game launches on March 25th on the PS5 and PC, though you can get a brief taste for it via a free visual novel prequel; it’s only around 30 minutes long, but it gives some great context for KK and even includes some makeshift combat. Stay tuned for more in our full review of the game.