Earlier this year, I was lucky enough to watch a gameplay preview of Tango Gameworks’ Ghostwire: Tokyo. When someone asked me what I thought about the game, I said something along the lines of “I really liked it. It’s kind of like one of those PS2 games that didn’t go over well at launch but everyone ends up loving years later.” I’m fairly sure they didn’t quite know what to make of that reaction.
Yet, after playing through the final version of Ghostwire: Tokyo, I still find myself sticking pretty close to that initial impression. Ghostwire: Tokyo is the kind of game that just feels destined to become a cult classic.
There is a degree to which Ghostwire‘s presumed cult status is the result of its flaws. The game’s pacing is unusual and uneven, its story really falters in the home stretch, and the game’s combat is…bad. That last point is the biggest mood killer. We don’t always expect horror games to have great combat, but Ghostwire never seems sure if it wants you to be able to become a magical warrior or if it would prefer you only fought when absolutely necessary. As a result, combat sequences often boil down to the same repetitive actions. You’re offered a variety of skills, but it soon becomes too easy to rely on a few of them to slowly whittle away at enemies. It’s not especially rewarding, and it’s not particularly tense. Those are two things you don’t want to be able to say about combat in a horror game.
For a time, I also found Ghostwire: Tokyo‘s (mostly) open-world design to be one of its biggest flaws. Some of the game’s most memorable early sequences occurred during tighter, more “restrained” sequences that felt a bit closer to developer Tango Gameworks’ previous titles. At the very least, I sometimes wished its structure was closer to The Evil Within 2‘s blend of linear levels and hub areas. Ghostwire sometimes softly pushes you to go out and explore via sidequests and activities, but much like the game’s combat, there were many other times when the game felt so noncommital to the idea of true open-world design that I started to wonder if the developers would have been better off ignoring that approach entirely.
However, Ghostwire‘s open-world design ultimately proves to be one of the game’s biggest contradictions. Sure, the game doesn’t make the most out of it from a gameplay standpoint, but that slightly larger environment does allow for more opportunities to lose yourself in the game’s stunning atmosphere and mythology.
There’s nothing quite like Ghostwire‘s blend of folklore and metropolis environments. Watching various legendary spirits and mutilated figures wandering the once-bustling streets of Shibuya plays on a vareity of fears. Anyone who feels uncomfortable when usually busy places are suddenly empty will certainly maintain a sense of discomfort throughout this game, while those who grew up fearing creatures like the Slender Man and Ringu‘s Sadako Yamamura will almost certainly be shocked by the game’s best scares. In fact, as we previously discussed elsewhere, Ghostwire: Tokyo was clearly partially inspired by the very best J-horror movies. Like those films, Ghostwire maintains this inescapable feeling of loneliness that is occasionally punctuated by classic jump scares starring fundamentally terrifying creatures that are designed to disturb.
Yet, the thing I find so remarkable about Ghostwire: Tokyo‘s world design and mythology is the fact they exist to do so much more than simply scare you.
You can really feel the love that went into this game when you’re playing it. The Evil Within series made it pretty clear that Tango Gameworks knows horror, but Ghostwire: Tokyo‘s use of real-life folklore really lets you appreciate how much they love horror. There’s a romanticism and beauty to the horror in this game that shines through the scares and tragedy that are most often associated with that genre.
While it’s easiest to appreciate the pleasure that went into crafting this game when you’re reading a loving description of a piece of local food or bartering with a spectral cat merchant in a convenience store, horror fans will feel that love during even the game’s most disturbing moments. It’s truly remarkable that this game can make something as unnerving as a deep dive into a hoarder’s home feel like it was crafted with such joy.
Along those same lines, it’s obvious that the Tango Gameworks team harbors a deep love for Tokyo itself. It’s truly remarkable that such an otherworldly game can also represent a real place so well, but, as this piece from VG24/7’s Alan Wen notes, there’s an authenticity and genuineness to Ghostwire‘s cultural references that even other great games set in Tokyo and Japan can’t quite match.
All of that is to say that Ghostwire: Tokyo is a game brimming with personality and unique visual/lore design elements that were clearly crafted with love and respect. It’s also a game that is obviously hindered by mechanical shortcomings that often make it a chore to play. We’ve seen that combination of abundant personality, iffy gameplay, and unrealized potential in a lot of other cult classics, which certainly makes it that much easier to predict that the game will eventually become just that.
Of course, realizing that Ghostwire is on the patch towards cult classic status doesn’t exactly help explain why being called a future cult classic could possibly be considered a compliment. After all, what’s keeping Ghostwire from finding more success in its own time?
Technically, the answer to that question is “nothing.” In fact, Ghostwire could easily still prove to be a massive hit or at least a game that is considered to be a success. I worry that its limited initial release (PS5 and PC), proximity to Elden Ring‘s game-changing debut, and notable shortcomings will keep it from finding a wider audience, but it could certainly still happen.
However, the reason I consider “cult classic” to be a compliment in the case of Ghostwire: Tokyo is because it represents the spirit of previously overlooked games like Godhand, Psi-Ops: The Mindgate Conspiracy, and The Suffering. It’s a passion-driven love letter to its genre, folk tales, and Tokyo itself. Even its shortcomings were acquired in the noble pursuit of trying to just about everything just a little bit differently. It won’t appeal to everyone, but those who play it and find themselves on the same level its developers were working on will likely also soon find themselves thinking back on this game for quite some time to come. They may even unfairly compare other, more acclaimed games to it and wonder why those titles just don’t offer that same spark.
It will be easy enough for many to appreciate Ghostwire: Tokyo as a stunning love letter to specific concepts developed with the help of the kind of production values such projects rarely get to enjoy nowadays. Those kinds of games have become increasingly rare in recent years, and I have a feeling that Ghostwire: Tokyo may prove to be a rare example of such a concept even a few years from now.
I don’t know what’s next for Tango Gameworks or Ghostwire: Tokyo, but I do know that this is that kind of special game that will become even easier to appreciate as time goes on and our memories of it slowly boil down to its best attributes.