A little look at… Tokyo Twilight Busters

Tokyo Twilight Busters is a 1995 PC-98 adventure game by Wolf Team, the Japanese developer responsible for El Viento, Tales Of…, and the Mega CD port of Time Gal. However Wolf Team’s take on ‘adventure’ is a little different from the usual as in this game’s case it means an intriguing fusion of the mundane with the occult in 1920’s Japan – absolutely my sort of thing – that moves back and forth between typical Snatcher/Psy-O-Blade/Bubblegum Crash J-adventuring and lengthy point ‘n’ click sections with a real-time twist.

The ever-present pocket watch on the right hand side of the game’s beautiful UI frame keeps track of the relentless passage of time in the game – an extremely important item in an adventure that has certain events only occur at particular times. From what I can gather from various Japanese FAQs and comments the game pushes on towards the ending even if you do spend a lot of time dawdling around, albeit with the better of the two conclusions reserved for players who don’t waste too much time on their adventure (a little like the much-maligned Castlevania 64 now I think about it).

Seeing as the game opens on a point ‘n’ click segment and they’re where you’ll be spending most of your time we’ll take a look at those first. During these parts of the game you are locked within a specific location and must furiously click away at the scenery until you either stumble across the correct doohickey or you waste enough time to inadvertently trigger the story scene that will move you on to the next chapter.

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Y’see, Tokyo Twilight Buster’s problems stem from having its fascinating setting hamstrung by some truly oddball design decisions.

Take item discovery, usage, and… well, items in general, really. The vast majority of the things you’ll find are generic goods that offer some sort of one-time use bonus (for example, combining a lantern with oil and then using a match grants the character in question a working light to illuminate darker areas) or can be used as breakable weaponry in battle (more on that later). Ordering one of your team of up to four party members to lunge wildly at an evil guard with a screwdriver you found in a battered container certainly adds a sense of personal improvisation to what is usually a very inflexible genre, but on the other hand it often leaves you with four inventories filled with items that are too useful to simply throw away, but not so useful that you’re relieved to discover yet more matches/nails/length of rope as you painstakingly sweep yet another room.

Filling up on these sundry items is impossible too, as unlike most of examples of this sort of gameplay almost all objects in Tokyo Twilight Busters are completely invisible and rely on the player performing a tedious Look->Examine->Search dance on every vaguely suspicious area of the screen to uncover them. To make matters worse searching, once you’ve finally clicked on an object enough times for that particular interactive option to appear, then requires squandering the game’s most precious resource – time – to actually uncover anything. Searching a hotspot means watching in-game time fly by as the party runs through an exaggerated ‘looking for things’ animation loop that may or may not result in them finding a key item (often literally a key) that’s fundamental to your progress, an assortment of wotsits that might possibly help in a scuffle, or nothing at all. There’s no way of knowing until you go looking and even the plainest corridor can have multiple searchable hotspots, leaving players forced to click their way around every room on the promise of a maybe, then do it one more time just in case.

It’s not as though you can methodically search your way through the locations on offer either, as the maps in these point ‘n’ click sections are extremely difficult to navigate. They’re certainly not miserable eighties labyrinths of corridors leading to corridors leading to dead ends, but a lot of the rooms are minor variations on a particular theme with very little to make one brick-walled corridor stand out from another. There’s also an unforgiveable ‘camera’ issue too - going ‘in’ or ‘out’ of the screen can result in the view silently switching around, so if forwards meant ‘walk to the left’ pre-transition it will mean ‘walk to the right’ the screen after, and there’s no map to guide you.

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The good news is puzzles never ask more of the you than ‘Have you found the hidden switch?’ or ‘Do you have the key to the locked door?’; the focus here is very much on experiencing the story and the surrounding game is really just a means to that end. There’s nothing especially unusual in that – Snatcher, Bubblegum Crash, and Psy-O-Blade are all designed with the same sort of priorities in mind – but as finding these items involves a lot of floundering around in the dark this part of the game may have benefitted from either making the important objects a lot easier to find or pushing towards the other end of the scale and integrating these game-extending wrinkles better by including actual puzzles over endless menu clicking.

It’s not all bad news though, and Tokyo Twilight Busters does have one very clever idea lurking in its side-on searchathons – guard patrols. You’ll sometimes earn a little unwanted attention while helping Sho unravel the mystery behind his father’s murder, and the game gives you several ways to deal with anyone pursuing your team.

The first is the the most obvious – don’t get caught! The game will let you know when people start looking for Sho and friends, so if you’ve got some idea of where you are in relation to them you can simply try to keep one step ahead – move fast and close doors behind you to give yourself a little more time. If that’s not an option then you can order your team to hide in appropriately-sized boxes, crates, or drums until the threat’s passed – these guys aren’t Metal Gear Solid-level soldiers so you don’t have to worry about getting caught out so long as you’re all tucked out of sight in time. The final option is to tackle them head-on, which shifts the action to an RPG-like battle screen. Battles operate on a typical turn-based system, with you issuing orders to each party member then sitting back and watching the action unfold. Unlike PC-98 adventure Makyouden the battles here require real thought and strategy from the player, especially as there’s no levelling or skill system in place (like Kurokishi no Kamen), so victory relies entirely on your ability to put whatever you’ve found to good use.

The rest of your time playing Tokyo Twilight Busters is spent bumbling around the adventure portion of the game, and this section mostly follows the typical Japanese formula for this sort of thing – there’s a large view window to show the current location (the monochrome digitised photographs used for the backgrounds here are incredibly stylish) and a selection of move/look/talk options that pop up on the right hand side as required. You’re given a lot of freedom to roam around an expansive list of Tokyo locations as you please, although you’re only ever really needed in two or three locations to continue the story. ‘Immersion’ comes in the form of having to literally wait in some locations for a particular event to start (for quite some time too, and repeatedly selecting the ‘let’s hang around here’ command over and over), meaning from the player’s perspective you can be in the right place and have done all the right things to get here… but still make no progress. This feels especially at odds with a game that relies on you reaching the end within a certain amount of time to receive the best ending – it may not be especially strict in that regard (nothing like Final Fantasy IX's Excalibur II), but it does feel as if the game’s trying to get you to hurry it up while also making you stand around and do nothing too.

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I’m pretty sure I’ve been a little too hard on Tokyo Twilight Busters in this blog post: It’s visually stunning, uses a sorely overlooked setting in an interesting way, and generally feels like a game with a lot of love and effort put into it. The problem is the flaws that it does have are utterly inescapable, and they drag down every part of the game. Am I not making progress here because I’ve missed something, or is it just the wrong time of day? Did I not find an item here because there’s nothing to find, or did I not let my characters search for long enough? You’re never quite sure if the fault lies with you or the game when things screech to a halt, leading to yet more clicking and backtracking in a game that already has you scouring the background for tiny objects of interest and ping-ponging between home/university/police station just to get things done.

If you have a clear schedule, the directional sense of a homing pigeon taped to a military-grade GPS and the steely determination to click on everything multiple times, and then click on everything two more times just to make sure, you’ll be rewarded with an intriguing tale and some of the finest pixel art I’ve ever seen on NEC’s wonderful hardware. Everyone else? Enjoy the screenshots here and elsewhere, then go pick up the 2010 DS remake of the game as it has a precious onscreen map for the point ‘n’ click segments.