♫~Huntin’ makes me feel good~♫ Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters Daybreak: Special Gigs

For a 2017 PC game with a title as unwieldy as this you wouldn’t think it would be so easy to get it mixed up with a twenty-two year old game about Tokyo Twilight Busters, or stare confused at the ‘Daybreak: Special Gigs’ wording tacked on to the original 2015 PlayStation 3/Vita Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters and wonder what on earth’s going on with that title (consider Daybreak the ‘director’s cut’ release), but here I am.

You should also under no circumstances confuse this group of rag-tag unlicensed misfits using hi-tech equipment to defeat ghosts with any New York-based companies that you might feel the urge to telephone should you find an invisible man sleeping in your bed, or are bothered by feelings of dread in your basement or attic, because any such similarities are completely coincidental….

OK so that last one’s a huge a lie, as Ghost Hunters is stuffed with more nods to a certain set of popular eighties movies than any non-Ghostbusters game I’ve ever seen, to the point where I started driving myself mad second-guessing myself and thinking I was making connections that weren’t there.

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This is because it all starts off innocently enough and as such you try to be rational about it – Ghostbusters didn’t invent ectoplasm or using modern technology to (try to) detect ghosts; heck, it wasn’t even the first time a comedy featured a moving Statue of Liberty. So you look around the Gate Keepers office and see the almost ghost trap right in the middle of the floor, the ‘Ghost is money’ sign (in Japanese) on the back wall, and the jar of marshmallows on the side and assume you’ve spotted a few little cheeky flourishes snuck in by a background artist… Then you spot the Power Glove on ultra-nerd Sengen’s arm – surely just a cheeky wink to gamers and not an homage to Ghostbusters 2’s NES Advantage, right? Then you stock up on ghost-detecting goggles for your team (specifically referred to as P.K.E. meters) and ‘protoguns… and hear about the build up of negative emotions flowing under the city… and an outbreak of foul-smelling green ghosts with an insatiable appetite…

At this point you may be wondering why anyone would spend their time and money on a game that is so keen on pilfering bits of some films that just about everyone on the face of the planet’s already seen at some point over the past thirty years, and I’m happy to tell you that what makes Ghost Hunters setting shine is that it knows to use its ‘Ghostbusters in Japan’ core as a springboard for its own characters and ideas rather than mindlessly parroting movies the writers clearly adore for the sake of mimicking their heroes. You know they’ve got the balance right when you spot the definitely-not-but-definitely-is containment unit on one wall of the Gate Keepers office and think ‘Aww, bless ‘em for sneaking that in’ instead of screaming ‘KEEP YOUR PAWS OFF THE GHOSTBUSTERS FIREHOUSE YOU CREATIVELY VACANT LEECHES’ at the screen.

[cough] Not that anyone would

Besides, this is the point where Ghost Hunters strikes out on its own. The hauntings in each ‘episode’ may be played arrow-straight, but when hiring two psychically-sensitive twins to race a ghost car that hospitalised a member of Gate Keepers only goes ahead when lead schoolboy Ryusuke promises to snog them both at the same time as payment you know where the game’s priorities lie. The battles themselves have the same unique silly-serious flavour, allowing players to very carefully lay out lines of salt, holy water, and scanning equipment before diving into battle wearing bras on their heads and bondage rope around their waists while lobbing protractors at nearby spirits.

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Most of the game’s thirteen chapters introduce a new potential member of the Gate Keepers squad and focus on a spooky story related to them. In a game all about ghosts and the teenagers that choose to battle them it would have been all to easy to descend into a Buffy-like pit of misery and self-doubt: mercifully Ghost Hunters never forgets that it has put you in amongst a group of trained ghost-smashers who’ve seen and done it all before, and as such the solution to your new friend’s problems can be reduced down to either ‘Let me smash their face stupid ghost-face in for you’ or ‘Would you like me to help you smash their stupid ghost-face in for you?’, before concluding with a ‘Ghost Hunter’s Final Thought’ that sums up whatever deep and meaningful lesson the character in question learned from their mini ordeal.

This episodic structure (the game even plays the title sequence and credits at the start of each new chapter, as if you’ve just turned in to the latest instalment of a TV show) means that feeling of a lengthy adventure building towards an important climax doesn’t kick in until roughly the final third of the game; but how many games honestly handle a twenty-or-more hour plot well? Here each chapter has a specific tale to tell rather than piling mystery on top of conspiracy just for the sake of drawing things out, and the game’s better for it. Good characters and creepy ghost mysteries are enough, and by peppering the script with frequent references to real-world occult history, paranormal phenomena and related science/religious beliefs (go look up the Hammer of Witches, tulpa,  or Brocken spectres, to name just three) these stories have the tang of something deeper without losing focus on the more immediate issues. Overall I found the story engaging and satisfying with a plot twist I genuinely didn’t see coming, and I’d be more than happy to play it through again and (try to) pursue another character’s ending via the game’s new game+ mode, an unexpected extra that lets you keep everything had last time but resets the plot (and your character relationships – although you’re still allowed to use them all from the start) and adds a few pleasant surprises too.

Unfortunately while the plot itself is an engaging yarn filled with revenge, regret, and romance the way you interact with it leaves a quite a lot to be desired.

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The good news is there’s no inventory, ‘bad ends’, or worry about where to go or who to speak to – keep clicking and you will get to the end. Some choices may be better than others, or lead you to the right conclusion sooner, but there’s never any danger of wandering off the beaten path or not knowing how to proceed… and that’s about it for the good news.

The bad news is the game’s insistence on using a bizarre ‘sensory input system’ gimmick during these visual novel sections: It’s an inscrutable mess that requires the player to choose first an emotional state (either anger, sorrow, love, friendship, anxiety (frequently treated as curiosity)) then one of the five senses to use in conjunction with it, or alternatively allow the invisible timer to run out and sit there in stunned silence, leading to a lame ‘Nothing to say, huh?’ style non-response. What this means for you, dear player, is that whenever this option comes up – and it comes up a lot - you’ve got twenty-six possible responses to choose from in a short space of time, and it’s a rare occasion that any of them are well-suited as a response to the question you’ve just been asked.

So in the beginning, desperate to answer the simplest of questions, you’ll find yourself licking, kissing, and even biting the people you were trying to reply to; each unintended response more ridiculous than the last. The trick here – and something that took me far too long to realise -  is that ‘tongue’ doesn’t ever, ever, mean ‘speak’, it means taste. You, humble gamer, thought ‘Friendship>tongue’ would result in a pleasant response to your Gate Keepers co-worker – ha! You just licked their face, you weirdo. Once that misunderstanding’s out the way… it’s actually not a whole lot more intuitive than before, as characters tend to ask questions that a vague wheel of emotional states and sensory perceptions aren’t equipped to answer. If you want a tip: When there’s no obvious course of action (for example ‘Can you hear anything?’ should be responded to with ‘Anxiety>Hear’) you’ll generally receive a good, or at least a ‘I’m not on day release from Arkham Asylum’, reaction from ‘Friendship>Look’ , ‘Friendship>Listen’, and ‘Friendship>Touch’; but even then the conversation implies that you’re standing there blankly smiling at the other person rather than engaging them in meaningful conversation – ‘Your eyes tell me you agree’ – and other such nonsense. However even if you try to game the system and play it safe there’s still little real consistency to lead character Ryusuke’s behaviour: sometimes listening to someone results in him lending a sympathetic ear, while at other times it means he’s tuned out of the conversation and is paying more attention to the sound of the passing breeze than whatever’s being said. Sure thing, you silent lunatic.

It’d feel like less of a problem if these daft interactions didn’t affect whether certain characters joined your team and had no bearing on accessing additional secret event scenes or who shows up with a few special lines during the ending, but they do. Bad choices may not result in inescapable TokiMemo style hate trains but they do feel particularly unfair when the underlying mechanics are explained so badly (and by ‘badly’ I really mean ‘at all’).

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This is in direct contrast with the rest of the user interface, which has been designed so beautifully it’s like having your eyeballs massaged by incredibly stylish angels. The design team went to great lengths to make everything – EVERYTHING – fits seamlessly into the game, removing almost all of the usual invisible walls between the player and the other characters the game insists they’d take a bullet for. Mission maps are printed floor plans delivered by a particular courier – a courier with their own in-game website that you can visit and even redeem loyalty points on. The hands that remove/add traps to the layout sheet belong to specific team members, and you can identify all sixteen of them by the back of their hands (and the Gate Keepers’ cat too!).  Battles are viewed via a digital ‘oujia pad’, with team members health and status shown on plug-in USB sticks stuck down one side that can be decorated with stat-effecting charms, and the in-fight views are cameras with a picture-in-picture view showing what the other team-members are currently looking at. Previous events can be seen again via a photo album stored on the shelves at the back, and character equipment lists come on ringbound cards and live in a particular locker in the office.

Could the game function without this level of detail? Of course it could – but why would you want it to? It’s all too easy for games starring a voiceless, faceless, user-mouldable protagonist of keeping the player at arm’s length; a silent and opinion-free observer of the events playing out before their eyes. The experience is so much richer when the Gate Keepers’ driver writes he’s out gambling on the staff whiteboard, the tech guy’s busy soldering something in a corner of the room, and there’s a pile of unsolved cases sitting in envelopes at the front of the office. At the end of the day it’s just a menu screen, but this one really feels like the secret hideout of your ghost huntin’ troop, and most games would be better off for trying something like this.

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So we’ve had a little look at Ghostbusters’ not inconsiderable influence, the annoying bits of the visual novel sections, and the way Ghost Hunters beautiful UI not only ties it all together in one big immersive bow… what’s next? Oh yes – ghostbus ghost hunting. Definitely hunting.

The battle system reminded me of nothing less than Squaresoft classic Vagrant Story, in that everything’s atrociously explained and it’s very easy to get overwhelmed by lots of little things that look far more complicated than they really are. So we’re going to break from my usual ramble here so I can explain the basics to you properly, because the game sure as hell doesn’t.

The first task is to check over the floor plans – these  show the general layout of the area, your team’s starting positions, potential ghost locations, gas/electricity/water access, and a selection of pre-laid traps and scanners. The default trap/tool layout will serve you just fine most of the time for story battles, but if you want to tweak anything you can add items of your own, shuffle around the ones already there, or remove them completely.

So you’d think there’s nothing to stop you carpeting the whole place with immobilising seals and finishing the fight before it even starts, right? Wrong~!

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You can’t spend more than your predicted earnings for each case (Gate Keepers is a business; they aren’t going to make a loss on an exorcism), and no matter how much or how little that is you also have to consider there’s also a restriction on the amount of items you’re allowed in total. This total and the amount currently used is shown on the left side, towards the bottom of your receipt. So <9/18> in the screenshot above means I’ve used up nine of eighteen available item slots – it’s worth mentioning at this point that this total counts the number of spaces covered on the floor, not the number of individual items – so a single line of salt that covers five spaces would use up five slots, not one. If you’d like to increase the number of traps and items you can place in the planning stage you need to raise the staff ‘Layout’ stat via the office whiteboard.

The next thing to worry about is to consider whether the traps will be effective against the ghosts in question – you can check both the main target’s ghost level and type in the top left corner of the planning screen and also on their USB stick in battle. Thankfully this bit’s pretty straightforward once you know what you’re looking for – animal-specific traps are only effective against animal ghosts and so on, although most of your gear will work on anything so long as it’s above the ghost’s level. You’ll still need to be careful though, even with the most perfect trap setup - ghosts can destroy barriers and decoys if you give them enough time!

So no matter how much you spend or you how well you plan you’ll at some point need to keep track of wandering spooks, and to do that you’ll need a few scanners dotted around on your floor plan – you don’t need to cover every last inch of the map, but placing them near (not on) likely ghost spawn points will make your life easier, as does sacrificing one of each characters three accessory slots to a portable EMF detector.

The final thing you need to keep in mind is that while you’ll never know for sure where the ghosts will be on your first go all enemy starting points in all story missions are predetermined - so if you fail a mission on first time aruond you can retry and go charging straight over or quit back to the Gate Keepers’ office, lay traps down around the ghost’s start area, and then bask in your inevitable victory.

There is one exception to this rule: If you try to force an ‘illegal’ move – for example placing a restrictive barrier on top of a ghost’s start point – the game will move that ghost to an alternative spawn location which helps, in a way, to give the illusion of controlled-but-random battles (even if it’s all a lie).

Oh wait! There’s one final final thing to remember – there are three spots all game, and only in ‘Daybreak’ scenarios, where you can accidentally save yourself into an unwinnable situation – so please do always keep a non-Daybreak save!

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Now with all that sorted, it’s time to battle!

In Ghost Hunters case the number of ‘minutes’ you have to complete a fight is really just a more panic-inducing way of saying ‘turns’. When you first start out six minutes (you usually get something around that length) doesn’t sound like an awful lot, but considering how most ghosts will rush a player (or a decoy trap) once they’re within range you’ll usually come away from a fight with turns to spare.

There’s only ever one ‘main’ ghost your party needs to kill to clear the mission anyway – and this is always the ghost shown on the top-right USB stick, and always has a red marker on the map. Obviously the more ghosts you do away with while out on a case the more XP you earn, not to mention that fewer enemies on the battlefield is always a good thing, but when in doubt go charging straight for the main target and treat the others as minor wrinkles in your ghost-bashing master plan.

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Reading those USB sticks plugged into the left (your team) and right (ghosts) is incredibly important, so we’ll take a moment here to explain all the lights, numbers, and icons. At the top-left we’ve got the ghost’s name, level, and their HP represented by both the yellow bar and the numbers directly underneath. Under that we’ve got text that shows in these three screenshots ‘cutting’ or ‘tail’ – this is the ghost’s attack style. The larger yellow numbers (090 and 088 in the screenshot on the left) are the ghost’s current attack/defense values. The green icons represent the ghost type – object, animal, and human in our images – and the sort of environmental points they can travel through: In these examples that means electrical sockets, water points, and in the final image both gas and water points. Finally to the right we’ve got an outer ring showing both the resistances (blue) and weaknesses or current afflictions (red), with their current AP represented by the number in the middle (just like your own, this value resets to maximum every turn). The ‘Scream’ light explanation is just a little further down the page, so keep scrolling!

Player USB sticks show the same information, but with the name of their equipped item replacing the attack type, ‘scanner’ replacing ‘scream’ (this’ll light up if you’ve got a portable EMF detector equipped), and the green icons show whether you’ve got an item equipped in each possible slot – mostly decorative stuff to keep both sides looking the same, really.

In Ghost Hunters status effects are either incredibly powerful or deeply irritating depending whether you’re dishing them out or on the receiving end, so it’s important to not only make good use of skills and items that inflict them but also take the time to properly defend yourself against them too – an older piece of +2 DEF armour with a relevant resistance is always better than a +3 piece that protects against ‘blind’ when the boss is busy making your characters deaf.

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Now let’s talk about the part of the game that baffled me the most – the ‘scream’ system. In this game ghosts move when you move, which sounds like (and is) a monumental pain in the bottom until you understand how it all works, and the main reason I still consider playing Vandal Hearts 2 about as much fun as jamming my fingers into a bucket of rusty knives.

Remember that small LED light with the word ‘scream’ next to it on the USB sticks I showed earlier? If this light’s off then the ghost hasn’t noticed anyone/thing worth attacking and it’ll probably amble around a bit, observing any restrictive barriers you’re placed down or perhaps stumbling into a harmful trap. However, if a ghost’s close to a team member or a dummy trap (of an appropriate type) your support staff (usually Shiga) will say that a ghost has ‘screamed’ and detected a particular someone or something – at this point the light will show white if the ghost’s targeting a decoy, or a colour matching one of your party’s USB sticks if it’s after a member of your team. So if one ghost’s showing a green ‘scream’ light, it means that they’re going to make a beeline for your green character (usually their position at the time of the scream, but some will move to where that character’s ~going~ to be if you decide to move that person next turn) – this is your chance to do some real damage, because now you know where the ghost’s going to be!

You still can’t be sure if the ghost’s going to strike from the front/back/sides but that’s OK – you’ve got four characters at your disposal and all attacks cover a minimum of three squares, so it’s not hard to set up your team in a way that’ll land at least a few hits. Don’t forget you can – AP willing – attack/turn to one side/attack/turn, etc; so even if you’re unlucky enough to have a lone Ghost Hunter way out on their own you can still carpet-whack multiple spaces and sneak in a few blows.

I should probably explain AP before I go any further, right? Let’s do that then. Everything you do in battle nibbles away at your character’s AP pool, whether that’s turning on the spot, chugging a bottle of mineral water, or swinging an electric guitar. Repeating the same action in the same turn increases its AP cost by one, so a basic attack/attack order would consume 3AP for the first attack, then 4AP for the second – items and other skills also follow this rule. AP is completely replenished at the start of each new ‘minute’, and all AP cost increases are reset at the same time too. You also can’t horde unused AP – anything not spent that turn is discarded.

The really interesting thing about all this is that there are no restrictions on the number or type of actions you can take per turn so long as you’ve got the AP to spend on it. This means you could move/attack/attack, attack/move/attack/move/item, skill/move/attack/item/attack/move, item/item/item/attack – any combination you like. So if you’re chasing a ghost that’s not noticed you yet don’t be afraid to send a character to thwack both their current location and one a few steps ahead too – even if you don’t land a hit you’re still more likely to make them scream (er…), which’ll make your next turn more of a sure thing.

Being accurate with your attacks is definitely something to keep in mind as swinging at empty space will more than likely result in you smashing up your surroundings – and all of these expenses come off your final bill! It’s not a huge worry as breaking some incense or a pair of panties (!!) isn’t going to do too much harm, but if an unlucky miss takes out a TV or a gravestone you’re definitely going to feel the weight of those reimbursement costs. With a game that’s filled with nothing but AoE attacks this might sound like a major headache, but as hitting any adversary in any of your AoE squares counts as a hit more often than not you’ll be OK. And besides, writing up a huge invoice for an exorcism after you’ve completely trashed the room is about as Ghostbusters as it can get, don't you think?

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After battle you’ll be granted the usual XP and other rewards, with a small bonus going to whoever landed the killing blow on the dead people/logs/cars – and the opportunity to tweak Ryusuke’s (and only Ryusuke’s) stats to your liking. If you’re not sure what to go for here I’d recommend throwing most of your points into INT as this raises his AP pool – most problems can be solved with a few more actions per turn. After that I’d prioritise the stat that boosts the power of your favourite weapon type (you’ll come out stronger, faster, if you pick one of the three and stick with it), then a bit in DEF and EVD. This is just to start you off of course – once you’re feeling confident (or on NG+) feel free to experiment to your heart’s content.

Above all else – don’t panic! When you first see the dizzying array of items laid out you’ll probably feel overwhelmed and hope for the best – I know I did. This is not going to put you at a disadvantage for a fair old while as the game does lay out a decent selection of default tricks and traps that will help you out, so don’t feel you have to understand everything right away.

I think that about covers the basics, or at least the basics I struggled with, but do give me a nudge on Twitter if you feel there’s anything super-important that I’ve left out.

Overall Tokyo Twilight Ghost Hunters is a damned strange game, and one that you might not think too highly of if you’ve seen the scathing-to-mild reviews elsewhere. And the important thing is those reviews are right and fair in their criticism. The battle system takes some very (good) simple ideas and then makes such a ham-fisted job of explaining them it almost feels like a developer in-joke, the emotion/sense conversation input wheel isn’t fit for purpose, and on the whole the game is awkward and obtuse. You shouldn’t have to try this hard to understand a game, and I wouldn’t blame anyone for demanding a refund before they’ve hit chapter 2.

But… I still really, really, like it. Even ignoring how it plays (so very much) to my own nerdy Spengler-lovin’ heart, I just can’t be too mean to a game that’s so unapologetically its own thing - which makes Ghost Hunters a bit like a Yoko Taro game I suppose, or From Software’s Souls series, or most of Kawazu's output – weird and wonderful, and nuts to anyone that’s not on board. It’s the sort of thing that you’ll either come away from hugging your hardware or trying to force it through a blender, and even if it turns out that you can’t stand the game, I’d still take a dozen love-or-hate titles like this than another round of focus group tested games so polished all their personality’s been rubbed away.

(As an aside: If you’d like more of the same you should probably take a look at the related-but-different Tokyo Majin Gakuen series, as well as Kuuron Youma Gakuenki.)