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The antagonist of Ghostwire: Tokyo stands in front of an arch, and is backlit by neon lights Image: Tango Gameworks/Bethesda Softworks

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Ghostwire: Tokyo’s charm can’t make up for its frustrations

Despite the care on display, Tango’s newest is too often a slog

Ghostwire: Tokyo is a game that isn’t afraid to ask the big questions: What happens after we die? Is the body really just a corporeal prison for our true essence? Can you find a second roll of toilet paper for this ghost so they can ascend to heaven and the next ghost can use the bathroom (and then also pass to the realms beyond)?

This is a singular game, no doubt, but its most intriguing elements are often drowned out by uneven execution.

Akito is a regular young man, hovering between life and death after a motorcycle accident, until his body is unceremoniously hijacked by a spirit named KK. Since Akito isn’t quite done with his body, the two are forced into an uneasy alliance — bodymates, if you will.

KK’s arrival is well timed, as Tokyo has just been blanketed by a mysterious fog that separates human souls from their bodies, leaving their ghostly apparitions to float between skyscrapers and through rooftop gardens.

Though his spectral partner is focused on the disastrous fog, Akito has his own motives: His sister Mari is lying defenseless and unconscious in a hospital. He has to get to her, and cooperating with KK is the only way to make it happen, thanks to the malicious demons now prowling the streets.

Akito, one of the protagonists of Ghostwire: Tokyo Image: Tango Gameworks/Bethesda Softworks

In exchange for taking up meat space, KK provides Akito with the ability to cast elemental magic from his fingertips. The powers equate, vaguely, to classic first-person shooter archetypes: Wind can be fired quickly from your fingertips, water has a broader, shotgunlike arc, and the fire spell is an explosive blast with a wide area of effect.

Though Ghostwire: Tokyo may be metaphorically in line with a typical first-person shooter, it doesn’t feel much like one. Controls feel sluggish and swimmy to an extent that I swapped controllers because I thought something must have been malfunctioning. Jacking camera acceleration and deceleration to the max helps, but it’s no silver bullet.

There’s also a much shallower pool of offensive abilities than you might expect in a modern shooter. How shallow? Well, you already know all the powers: those three I listed above. That’s it. You can charge each of those three for a stronger version, and you get a bow that’s useful for the rare (yet annoying) sequences where you’re separated from KK’s power. You can also rip out an enemy’s core when it’s near the brink of death. But after you’ve gotten all these skills in the opening couple hours of the game, you’ve pretty much seen it all.

With few new tricks on offer after the opening segment, Akito’s hunt for Mira soon feels like a slog. The enemies provide a little variety, but the techniques you’ll use to defeat them aren’t all that different. Block their attacks, then shoot them.

Even this core combat loop feels off somehow. Charged attacks don’t use additional ammo, so you’ll always want to charge, if possible. But you very, very often need to interrupt your charge to block an attack. A block, even a perfectly timed one, doesn’t flow naturally into a counterattack. This turns every enemy attack into an interruption rather than a real threat or opportunity, and prevents battles from settling into a satisfying flow.

Akito summons a water spell to battle an enemy in Ghostwire: Tokyo Image: Tango Gameworks/Bethesda Softworks

The systems built around the core combat feel similarly disjointed. Talismans that can help turn a fight in your favor are consumable, but so expensive that I wasn’t inclined to use them. Healing items are so plentiful that I never ran out. (I never even came close.) And one incredibly useful, borderline game-breaking power that lets you create your own grapple points is just kind of randomly dropped into the upgrade tree.

Despite all of these substantive flaws, though, I can’t deny that I often found myself charmed by Ghostwire: Tokyo — most frequently when I left the critical path to help some wayward ghosts wrap up their unfinished business.

These side quests aren’t that compelling from a mechanical perspective, but many are intriguing little vignettes. The aforementioned toilet mission is the most far-fetched one I encountered; however, there are plenty of others that vacillate between sad and silly, poignant and banal.

These personal stories function well in part because many of them — as well as much of the rest of the game — are deeply rooted in Japanese culture and folklore. For example: You increase your spell ammo by uncovering “Jizo statues.” I wasn’t initially familiar with the term, which led me to the lovely and sad history behind these figures. They purportedly provide protection to travelers and help shepherd the spirits of deceased children.

Akito rips out an enemy’s core in Ghostwire: Tokyo Image: Tango Gameworks/Bethesda Softworks

The enemies, too, are all archetypes of Japanese society that were, for one reason or another, driven to demonhood through dissatisfaction with their earthly existence. Here’s the description of the headless young guys in school uniforms called “Students of Pain”:

A type of Visitor born from the restlessness of young male students faced with hazy futures. They unleash the full brunt of their frustration upon anyone unlucky enough to cross paths with them.”

(This describes most of the interactions I’ve had with regular, living high school boys, but that’s neither here nor there.)

Heck, the default is subtitled Japanese dialogue, though English voice-over is available, if that’s your thing. I left Japanese voices on for the entirety, though, because they helped draw me even deeper into the world. The immersion is aided by the fact that the world of Ghostwire: Tokyo is beautifully rendered and lit, with an attention to detail that makes the streets and homes feel lived in despite, you know, everybody being dead.

Ghostwire: Tokyo won’t convert you into an expert in Japanese culture, obviously, but feeling like I had received tiny chunks of insight into that world and Shinto religion as I played really elevated side quests above the typical “help, my basement is full of rats” fare.

Akito pets one of Shibuya’s many dogs Image: Tango Gameworks/Bethesda Softworks

If there’s a central theme that connects these various threads, it’s one of living life for the present, and the folly of holding onto anger and guilt. Though occasionally affecting, the impact is undermined by a central story that never quite finds traction.

Firstly, there isn’t enough oxygen given to the relationship between Akito and Mari, so there’s very little narrative fuel propelling you through the story. There is an overstuffed sequence in the game’s final chapter that makes a go of developing this relationship, but it’s ... too much, too late. Whenever Mari was mentioned, I was embarrassed to have utterly forgotten that my beloved sister was imprisoned somewhere between the worlds of the living and the dead. I won’t spoil KK’s core motivations here, but suffice it to say: They are equally lacking in narrative propulsion.

Perhaps the kindest thing I can say about Ghostwire: Tokyo is that it’s an endearing experience. There’s a lot of care on display, from the cultural detail in the sweet side stories to the rendering of the rain-swept world itself. But whatever charm there is gets bogged down by frustrating design decisions and sluggish mechanics. It may be a captivating setting, but Ghostwire: Tokyo is difficult to recommend to all but the most devoted students of Japanese culture.

Ghostwire: Tokyo will be released on March 25 on PlayStation 5 and Windows PC. The game was reviewed on PS5 using a pre-release download code provided by Bethesda Softworks. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.