Monolingual fans of Japanese games are frequently stuck in the frustrating scenario of “do I wait for an English release that may never happen, or do I import?” Even then, region-locking sometimes stands as a barrier, but even less permeable is the barrier of the Japanese language itself. Visual novels in particular are all but impossible to comprehend without a thorough grasp of Japanese. These days, more publishers are taking risks to bring oft-requested titles Westward, but the top echelon of English VNs remains the uncontested territory of titles like Steins;Gate and Ever17. I’m always looking to experience fresh, exciting narratives, so it was with pleasure that I first heard of Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters. A supernatural mystery starring a ragtag band of for-profit exorcists, TTGH presents itself well with beautiful character art and the tantalizing prospect of a theme song by Nobuo Uematsu. In practice, however, TTGH plays out like thirteen episodes of anime filler, with shallow characters and a maddening battle system revolving around prediction and random chance.
The premise of TTGH is as follows: you’re a new student at Kurenai Academy, and on your first day, you and your classmate/resident tsundere ice queen Sayuri Mifune have an unexpected run-in with a ghost. Discovering that you have the power to both see and exorcise malevolent spirits, the two of you join local ghostbusting company Gate Keepers, Inc., which amusingly daylights as an occult tabloid publisher. The game plays out from there on like a TV show — complete with an opening and ending song bookending every chapter — with most chapters serving as self-contained stories starring guest characters who tend to leave as soon as their respective arcs are addressed. Unfortunately, the majority of the game’s characters — including the main cast — are flat archetypes who I simply couldn’t bring myself to care about. “Hey, you kids! I’m a bodyguard for the Yakuza! You’d better get out of here, but not before I conveniently and clearly answer your questions to move the plot forward.” Really? I’ve honestly had enough tropey anime characters to last a lifetime; if they aren’t showing significant depth or subverting their respective tropes in some interesting way, I mentally check out. Much of my time with the game was spent rolling my eyes at predictable interactions, quips, and relationships. It’s a shame, because the localization is as clear and polished as it could possibly be, considering the quality of the source material. Each character has a voice, to be sure, but those voices are ones I’ve experienced time and again in much better stories.
Easier to appreciate is the localization team’s attention to detail in translating all of the game’s graphic-heavy menus. I have a thing for slick interfaces, and TTGH’s modern menus burst with personality. The Gate Keepers, Inc., office serves as a home base, with characters and objects within the space serving functions like saving/loading, training, and even navigating a virtual website that doubles as a message board for exorcism requests. The game’s art direction is easily its strongest asset. During the visual novel segments, characters appear as dazzling, subtly-animated 2D portraits, and exhibit more dynamic animations during occasional cinematic cut-ins. Backgrounds tend to be muted and neither enhanced nor detracted from my experience. I found the game’s audio underwhelming, too; voice acting is infrequent and the soundtrack is full of wearisome instrumental rock. Even Nobuo Uematsu’s opening theme failed to impress me. The music isn’t hard on the ears, per se, but it is pretty repetitive and never captured my attention.
Why else am I so tepid on TTGH? My frustrations lie primarily with the battle system, a tooth-grindingly unenjoyable circus of vague direction and luck. Every chapter concludes with a strategic battle against a group of enemy ghosts, which are tracked using a minimalist display on something called a Oujia Pad. On its monochrome grid, the player places traps during a pre-battle phase to corner and damage ghosts during the fight proper. The twist here is that ghosts cannot be seen by the naked eye, and must be detected using limited-range EMF transmitters. Once the action commences, friendly units are represented as colored icons, and the player has to predict enemy movement patterns to preemptively attack spaces where they might move during a given turn. All movement happens simultaneously, making it impossible to reliably hit an enemy unless it is somehow immobilized first. An advisor character, Masamune Shiga, gives hints as to where ghosts might head next, but they are frequently useless and nonsensical. “I heard a sound coming from the window” means absolutely nothing to me when the entire map is made of black and white squares. Worse still, every battle has a limited number of turns, and accidental contact with a ghost results in damage and a lost turn. It’s possible to dance around, swinging at thin air, for the entirety of a battle. From there, it’s back to the beginning, and the cycle of frustration repeats.
Interactive mechanics outside of battle are similarly perplexing. The story segments offer the player opportunities to respond to other characters with a pair of wheels representing five emotions and five senses apiece. The problem here is that this system is never explained, and while different combinations may generate a line or two of unique dialogue, all it actually does is alter characters’ affinities for one another, leading to different endings. The illusion of player choice is just that — an illusion, one as transparent as the ghosts that drive the game forward.
Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters has some key failings that prevent it from standing shoulder-to-shoulder with its more polished contemporaries. Those starved for a visual novel would be better served checking out one of Aksys’ more compelling offerings, like XBLAZE Code: Embryo or its upcoming sequel, XBLAZE: Lost Memories. Capable localizers they may be, but one can only do so much with poor source material.