Initial Release: September 7 2017
There’s a unique flavour of murder-mystery horror present here, a contrast of cute, cherubic characters with deeply sinister plot threads. Rotting corpses in filthy sewers juxtapose fluffy adorable cats, the emotional whiplash can be intense.
Ah the streets of Tokyo, alive and bursting with colour and people, mascots and Host Bars, a place of great wonder and greater intrigue. But somewhere so bright, isn’t always so beautiful. Beneath the vibrant anime stylings of Tokyo Dark lies a twisted “Neon Noir” tale; Detective Ito’s partner is missing and to find him she’ll have to scour the very depths of Tokyo’s ugly underbelly, dealing with the Yakuza, her own psychosis and the pursuit of a homicidal girl…who died months ago.
A Point & Click Visual Novel, the game has many branching paths that depend on the choices you make, that may or may not come back to haunt you later. What locks you in is a strict auto-save feature you’re warned about from the outset, all your decisions are final, you are bound, every choice is critical. It means you have to really pay attention to your actions, ramping up the intensity of the more severe situations Ito finds herself in. With the eruption of a sudden timer, there are situations where you don’t have time to think, thrust into Do or Die scenarios where lives are often on the line and morals fly out the window. It’s a great, albeit rare, mechanic that captures Ito’s unhinged panic perfectly.
Talking of unhinged, detective work is tough, really tough. Ito has lived through some harsh cases, a recent one leaving a scar on her psyche leading to her suspension from the force and a prescription of pills. Ito’s progress on the case and condition are measured through the SPIN chart, standing for Sanity, Professionalism, Investigation and Neurosis. Your actions and in-game events affect these stats, adhering to the law will net you Professionalism points, but doing so isn’t always the best way forward. Investigation is boosted by finding key facts and leads, but is lessened by taking your pills to boost sanity, as it numbs your senses. Neurosis is interesting as it’s affected by how you play, if you keep talking to a character it may increase, wandering around or going back and forth too much can also raise it, when the goal is to keep it low.
Leveraging how you want to progress in the case whilst looking after Ito’s wellbeing is an engrossing juggling act; do you head straight to the next target, or visit a Maid Café and gleefully wolf down kitty shaped pancakes? Saying there are some obscure asides in the narrative is an understatement, but for a game so steeped in dark, creeping paranoia, they make for amusing and light pick-me-ups that improve Ito’s mood and general wellbeing. What Tokyo Dark does so well is upkeep this creeping sense of despair, due to the incredible soundtrack that captures a broad palette of worry, horror, panic and paranoia. There are dark forces at work, blackened mysteries with bloody truths, tied to a mask given to Ito early on. Low drum beats, electronic crackles, warped and garbled moaning, all capture that gut feeling when you know something isn’t right.
A deliciously twisted touch are the sudden, unexplained flashes of a gruesome scene from Ito’s past or the ominous mask that inexplicably occur throughout, some go as far as breaking the fourth wall, influencing choice options, breaking the timer or intense distortions of the soundtrack during a conversation, only to then return to normal. It keeps you on your toes, rooting you to the creeping horror throughout.
What lets the game down at times is the script, some characters and dialogue feel flavourless at best, the narrative itself slow to begin with, but soon opens out into something unexpected, unique and really quite special. The joy of the narrative, despite a single campaign only lasting a few hours, is the multitude of choices, endings and paths to eventually take. The game really opens up after a single play through, unlocking New Game+ that offers up to six save slots, allowing you to explore Tokyo Dark’s winding paths more efficiently. Choices that seem small can make drastic differences to how that path pans out later down the line and how you react in time based sections also peels away new layers of the story.
There’s a unique flavour of murder-mystery horror present here, a contrast of cute, cherubic characters with deeply sinister plot threads. Rotting corpses in filthy sewers juxtapose fluffy adorable cats, the emotional whiplash can be intense. The dissonance at times aids the horror, at others, it feels awkward. As Ito wades through the sombre streets and back alleys however, the blend of cute character design in gritty reality seems to fit beautifully, characters under-serving of their horrific situations.
Overall, Tokyo Dark does a handful of things very well, but a lack of polish undermines the full experience. It’s a shame as when the story does eventually build momentum and take flight, it feels fresh due to its blend of visual styles, gameplay and particular style of horror. The experience might not feel entirely whole, the visuals may deter some players, but what beats at its core is definitely dark.
Verdict: 7 Out of 10
We were provided a review copy of the game by Square Enix