Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters gathers a little bit from a lot of places: it’s part tile- based strategy RPG, part visual novel; it’s a Saturday morning ghost hunting cartoon where Jack Black and a cast of anime high school kids rush to solve mysteries in a Volkswagen bus. It has some beautifully illustrated and animated character portraits on top of blurry photos and walls of text, some enemy designs that are the coolest you’ll see outside of Shin Megami Tensei along with enemy designs that are the goofiest outside of, well, Shin Megami Tensei. It has a lot of elements that are overwhelming at first but turn out to be underused, underdeveloped, and a little disappointing. It’s all a bit of a mess, but it’s an admirably unique mess that manages to be way more interesting than the sum of its occasionally half-baked parts.

Ghost Hunters makes a great first impression from its slick menus and stunningly animated character portraits. An introduction lays out that the “Ghost” part of the title is important and you’re quickly thrown into the deep end without much explanation. Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunter’s primary method of interaction is through a plate that gives you five choices, then another five choices with nothing as to what they mean besides some simple pictures and the reaction you get afterward. The game never explains what these are and you’ll likely be struggling with it for a while, but finally figuring out what does what and the random factor involved with the situational actions adds a sense of discovery that makes up for early confusion.

ttgh_screenshot_3It came together for me when I played a chapter of New Game Plus and ended up discovering a significant extra bit of storytelling in the second chapter that I completely missed the first time around. It made the chapter much more meaningful, transforming the episode from forgettable to poignant, and I assume that I’ll discover many more twists like it if I continue to play through a second time.

The second major gameplay element is also initially confusing, but once it comes together, it really shines, and that’s the “Hunters” part of the title. Basically, it’s a strategy RPG where both you and ghosts are on a board. There are a couple of twists; the first being that your player characters and the ghosts move simultaneously. This can and likely will be a huge headache the first time you try it, even with the brief explanation provided. I died a couple times before I finally guessed my way through the battle. After a few more battles and a few more characters joined, I was zapping, shooting, and bludgeoning ghosts like a pro. There’s still a bit of guesswork involved, but as you learn how ghosts will react, you develop strategies instead of making blind guesses and you should be able to get at least one good hit on a ghost. It’s pretty fulfilling when a ghost stumbles right into your line of fire. In addition to direct attacks, you can lay ghost traps before most battles such as salt or sake that’ll prevent a ghost from crossing a square or even items like rice cookers that damage or inflict status ailments.

The second big twist is that often you won’t know where the ghost is on the board. You’ll have to set scanners or correctly lead the playable characters equipped with scanners into the ghost’s territory before they’ll show up on your map. Like the movement and the emotion board, this is initially a frustration but eventually becomes just another quirk that makes Ghost Hunters more interesting. Most of the battle map is shown in a plain, barely detailed overhead grid, but when the ghost attacks or your character attacks a ghost, the view will spin to a 1st-person view to show ghosts that range from crazy and imaginatively designed to ghosts that are just plain stupid-looking. The idea that your characters have to locate enemy ghosts is a nice touch; as weird as it is to say about a game about bashing ghosts, it makes it more believable within the rules of the world within the game. You get the sense you as the player and the characters within the game are using a mix of gadgets, educated guesswork, and intuition to complete each battle. I enjoyed the battles so much that I made it a point to play side missions as much for fun as for extra money and items. By the middle of the game I was mowing over everything, but after a few more battles and especially by the end, the challenge was just right. I felt a couple wrong moves would get me a game over but it wasn’t so difficult as it was frustrating.

ttgh_psv_screenshot05Each chapter plays out like an episode, usually starting with a visual novel portion that leads into a battle followed by another visual novel portion. There’s even a nice opening and closing theme, complete with credits, as if it was an episode of an anime. New characters will join if you say the right thing or perform the right action, or they might not. There are side missions that you can take on for money and items and you get some brief interaction with the cast of characters. There’s a geeky otaku who’s crazy about his favorite idol singer, a smart cool guy who makes sure that everything is under control, a tsundere girl who DEFINITELY DOESN’T LIKE YOU SO DON’T GET THE WRONG IDEA OR ANYTHING, and a guy who I’m sure was modeled after Jack Black. He plays a guitar, he’s that lame type of cool, and he looks so close to Jack Black it can’t be unintentional. There’s also a cute cat named Seecloar that you can talk to and will occasionally help reveal ghosts during missions. None of the characters have any amazing development and most are pretty flat. I’m not sure if it was familiarity with the tropes or the extra animation and little voiced bits, but I ended up liking all of them even if they stuck to their character traits.

The episodic structure isn’t a bad idea in itself, but after a few episodes the formula becomes just a little stale. Someone requests your help, you fight a ghost, you save the day, roll credits. It would’ve been nice if Ghost Hunters shook things up a bit, maybe with some Ace Attorney-like investigation or even some exploration of each environment instead of being led from scene to scene. That said, only one episode seemed completely throwaway, and even when the story is predictable it’s a fun ride.

ttgh_psv_screenshot02Besides battles and story progression, there are a handful of extras that flesh out the experience: a completely optional board game that would’ve been a killer real-life table top game but isn’t very fun in-game, item creation that isn’t or at least doesn’t seem to be deep enough to be useful for most of the game, and a really odd side activity where you level up your abilities for your magazine publishing business that’s the front for the whole ghost hunting business.

It seems like a lot, but once you learn what everything does, it’s not very deep. That’s the problem with Ghost Hunters: there’s so much in the game that seems under-developed. The creators were ambitious and you see elements of them really trying to push the boundaries, but it doesn’t quite reach the excellence it tries to achieve.

The leveling system to publish your magazine seems to only have use in getting mostly useless items. The store that sells weapons became almost useless less than halfway through the game when a ghost dropped armor that was stronger than anything ever in the shop and a weapon that was never outclassed. There’s an interesting lottery system that gives you special items if you buy enough, but I was buying stuff just to get the lottery chances, not because I needed additional items at all. There are so many traps that seem like they’d be useful, but I ended up only using the ones that detected, blocked, or redirected ghosts, and only rarely did I feel the need to drop damage traps. Once you get used to its oddities, Ghost Hunters doesn’t do anything terribly wrong, but there are so many unused pieces that indicate that it should’ve been an even greater experience.

It’s worth mentioning that the soundtrack is really nice. It’s entirely rock performed by the band THE KEY PROJECT with a bass, guitar, and drums. Each track fits the scene that it plays with, from wistful to tense. You can even select the tracks that play during ghost battles.

Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters came out of nowhere. I was looking forward to it based solely on it as a visual novel, but I was surprised at how engrossed I was with the whole experience. It doesn’t do everything well, but it does things interestingly. I’m a little disappointed that it has so many parts that don’t seem to gel, but I’m impressed that like in later Persona games and Nier, elements that are completely different form a satisfying and more interesting whole because of how different they are. If you can get over the bewilderment at some of the game’s barely explained elements, you’re in for a more unique experience than you’d get from a straightforward visual novel or strategy RPG. I’m looking forward to playing through a second time through to see what I missed the first time around. The biggest letdown of Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters it is the realization that there won’t likely be a sequel, but I’m more convinced that it’ll be one of those typical late releases that finds a small but happy and dedicated audience, and I’m grateful that Aksys brought it over for that at least.