Tokyo Dark Review

A female detective investigating a mysterious case with supernatural overtones in a modern-day Japan. How could I pass a game which such a premise? Tokyo Dark is a neon noir bastard child of a visual novel and graphic adventure that takes an obscure peek at the dark underbelly of Tokyo.

Detective Ito Ayami from Tokyo Metropolitan Police is out in the streets searching for her missing partner, Kazuki Tanaka. He was also Ito’s partner in a personal sense. Almost a week has passed since Tanaka vanished after leaving the police station. Prospects of finding him alive don’t look good. Investigations take Ito to the seedy side alleys in Shinjuku. And in the sewers, she confronts someone who shouldn’t quite possibly be there; a girl she unwillingly shot to death six months ago during a hostage situation. Tanaka is at the girl's mercy, a knife on his throat, head buried in a paper bag. Both the suspect and the victim wait for Ito’s response. The standoff marks the beginning of Ito’s journey to the darkness.

Tokyo Dark isn’t much of a graphic adventure but it has just enough interaction to differentiate it from a visual novel. There are only a handful of scenes with some hotspots to click on and people to interrogate. Ito jogs back and forth between the places as the story and clues dictate. There are no puzzles to speak of and most of the problems are criminally easy to solve. Instead of the usual adventure game tinkering with items and puzzles, Tokyo Dark plays on alternatives. There are lots of situations Ito can deal with in different ways, each carrying impact later on.

Everything Ito does is reflected on SPIN system, monitoring her sanity, professionalism, investigation skills and neurosis. This allows the player to role-play. You can decide whether to be a good cop, a bitch cop or at least as clear-headed as the game allows within its dark mysteries. SPIN and the ensuing role-playing are initially exciting, but it leads to eleven different endings. It feels like the developers had a hard time deciding on how to end Ito’s grim odyssey. A couple of alternative endings is always okay but Tokyo Dark pushes the envelope. I’m afraid many players will score an insanity ending first as it’s too easy and tempting to act reckless and not give a damn. That particular outcome was rather disappointing in its stretched stupidity – even though I found Ito’s psychotic stare strangely cute.

Among all the outcomes there’s a so-called true ending but it’s impossible to get it in the first outing. It requires finding a couple of items that are only available during a new game+ with Ito better understanding her predicament. Replaying is made easy though. My first playthrough took roughly five hours but during the following goes I managed to cut it into the half of it. Some corners in the story are cut and several scenes and dialogues are made skippable. New game+ also opens broken memories, a series of manual saves to make it easy to try out different paths form certain focal points. The best thing about replaying is that the narrative gets a new insight with self-conscious déjà vu. Not only is Ito aware of the events repeating, but also certain other characters remember having met her before.

Developer Cherrymochi is led by Jon Williams who has lived in Japan for several years. As director and lead writer of Tokyo Dark, he has been able to observe Japan from outside even though the game could otherwise pass for a genuine Japanese experience. In a sense, the impossible city of Tokyo is one of the main characters. At times Williams falls for educating the player about Japanese culture and customs. The writing is at best in Ito’s narrative, recording her thoughts. It’s easily a prose-quality stuff. The dialogue between the characters, though, is sometimes forced and prolonged. The dark tones of the story are juxtaposed by the game’s vivid imagery. Some character portraits and encounters come off almost frivolous, especially those involving cats.

The game’s biggest strength is how it observes life through its characters and narrative design. Too bad some promising opportunities are missed. I can’t go into details without spoiling the story but as a long-time fan of Asian horror, I was disappointed by how Tokyo Dark eventually goes to obsessive lengths to explain its mystery. The excessive pile-up of endings only manages to undermine the room for interpretations, which seemed so open in the beginning. Some things should be better left as mysteries. In the end, I was most content with the first ending I got; a non-nonsense and weary recollection. Nonetheless, I found myself returning to the seedy streets of Tokyo, replaying the same events time and again.

Video game nerd & artist. I've been playing computer and video games since the early 80's so I dare say I have some perspective to them. When I'm not playing, I'm usually at my art board.