Tokyo Dark has been attracting tons of attention since its Kickstarter campaign back in 2015. It was winning Japanese videogame awards in 2016, long before its release in September 7, 2017. Now that it is here, we get to see exactly what the point-and-click/visual novel-style game is made of.
Tokyo Dark follows Detective Ito Ayami’s search for answers in what was once a familiar world that is starting to spiral out of control. When we first meet her, she is searching for her partner, Detective Tanaka Kazuki, who disappeared five days earlier. After she finds Tanaka being held hostage by Reina, a girl who was killed six months earlier, and the scene plays out, we flash back to six months earlier to witness the Reina’s death and Ito’s necessary backstory. The game then brings us back to the present day to try to unravel the mystery of this Reina’s resurrection and her motivations in a picture of Japan that is much seedier and eerier than it ever was before, all while trying to keep Ito sane.
The game itself looks and sounds good. Most of the music is on par with the most effective Silent Hill tracks, mixing pop music with industrial sounds in a way that just works for the game’s vibe.
The environments for the game look good and make the tones of each area clear immediately. The character design is mixed. Being in an anime style, the pretty girls look pretty good; they always do. It seems like a little less time was spent on the men, and some characters look incongruous with the quality and/or art style of the overall product. At times I found it distracting.
I did find the animated clips of Ito and other major characters to be impressive. You can tell that time was spent on the four or five second clips; the animation is clean and flows well.
Most characters are also very strong, even if their designs are not. I found myself getting attached to the NPCs I saw again and again, especially Daizo, one of the first characters you meet in the game. He runs a dive bar and as the game progresses his problems play out in real time. You even meet his brother, who adds another angle to Daizo’s story. Many of the NPCs you interact with over and over are fleshed out just as well. Even when things are going downhill for Ito, it is satisfying to see characters you interact with constantly moving through their lives and overcoming their own troubles. It can be equally devastating when they fail in their journeys as well.
I found the story itself interesting and the way players are introduced to it effective. Obviously, the player learns pretty early on that there is a dark underbelly to this virtual version of Japan beyond the seedy bars and Yakuza-run clubs that can be explored. The mystery is engaging and I thought the way the mystery is introduced was clever: we get the present-day scene to act as a tutorial of sorts that teaches the player how to move and interact, although the controls are exceptionally easy to get acclimated with anyways.
In this early portion of the game, there is an implied backstory, and at the climactic moment of the “tutorial” we flash back to legitimize the backstory and gain an explanation for the SPIN system, essentially Ito’s stats (even this feels natural—a nurse in a hospital explains how everything works in the guise of giving Ito advice for monitoring her health). Then we’re taken back to the present day to continue the story at hand. At first, you are just following clues and maybe doing some cutesy side quests, but slowly leads about an evil mask, a cult, a former pop idol, and an evil force called “the Dark” begin cropping up and replacing the more mundane, everyday cases.
You are also allowed some freedom in how you follow the story. You can do events “out of order,” choosing to deal with the Yakuza before meeting with a shrine maiden for leads about the Mask, an item that fills its owners with deadly impulses and is the impetus for much of the game’s events. As is the norm for games of this style, you also can decide how you interact with the world. Your interactions affect what you can do, and sometimes, in dire moments, you might have several choices that are all the same. In one climactic scene, you have 4-8 choices, but they all read “KILL HER.” Your choices also affect how the game progresses, and your SPIN stats.
The SPIN stats were an addition to the game that seemed promising, but ultimately affected my game play very little. The four stats are Sanity, Professionalism, Investigation, and Neurosis. Sanity tracks how insane you have become because of things you discover or how you behave, and can be controlled by taking medication, at the cost of investigation points. I was cripplingly insane (-94 out of -100) on my second playthrough, and although it made Ito’s animation waver in and out and floaters of light waft across the screen, it didn’t really affect anything else. One character said my eyes looked glazed, but it did not seem to affect anyone’s perceptions any further than that. If you hit -100, the game supposedly ends right then and there, though.
Losing Professionalism points gives you less professional options—solving your problems in less legal ways, so to speak. So, you get more options, but you lose others’ respect. Neurosis can make your Sanity drop faster and make it harder to gain back, and to be honest, I never really figured out how this one worked. The lower into the negatives my Neurosis points got, the calmer Ito seemed to get, which did not match the stats of the rest of the SPIN chart. Negatives for every other aspect of the SPIN chart were unmistakably bad.
Finally, there was Investigation, the only stat that ended up truly affecting me. You get points for noticing and interacting with items, and the more points you have, the more things you notice. It also means that very vigilant players can potentially sacrifice a few points here and there to take pills and gain some Sanity back without huge consequences. Though the whole SPIN system was good in theory, its execution made it easy to forget about in the grand scheme of the game.
Another aspect of the game that was cool in theory, but ended up not working out quite as planned, was the autosave/file system. I have lost data trusting an autosave system before and I lost it again in Tokyo Dark. There was one moment after an early, story redirecting scene where I shut off the game, thinking the event was big enough it had to save. Nope. Having to replay the scene allowed me to fix what I had messed up in the scene, but I was still annoyed I had lost progress at all. The game does have an autosave icon in the top right corner of the screen and I got into the habit of redirecting my attention there after just about any character interaction or location change.
As for the save system, you can only have one save file at a time, starting a new file erases your old progress (the game does warn you). It is cool in theory, because you cannot (normally) go back and tweak your mistakes. You cannot “cheat” for a good ending. You are consigned to your fate. I was feeling it… Until I hit a game-breaking glitch and lost three and a half hours’ worth of game data.
The glitch comes in Kazumi’s bar, the bar the Yakuza takes Ito to after she ousts herself as a detective in a Yakuza-run club. The game would load to the bar screen, and the scene would never start. Kazumi would stand there blinking at me until I restarted the game. There was also no way to leave the Yakuza-run club in any way other than to trigger the Kazumi scene. With no backup file, I was forced to start the whole game over again, and I admit that I was a little bitter about it. I ended up circumventing the glitch by choosing to go to Kabukicho first when I had to choose between going there and Kamakura. Kabukicho is where Kazumi’s bar is, and I thought that if it glitched out again, I at least would not lose as much game data as I had before. That time the scene played out normally. The game’s patch notes on Steam claim that this problem was fixed on the version of the game I have, which only makes the issue more frustrating. I had similar freezing problems in the Historian’s lair, but when I left the area and returned it fixed itself.
The game has a grand total of eleven endings, including an ending in the grand horror game tradition of a “joke” ending (collect all the cat toys scattered around the game to see this ending). This alone has made me interested in replaying the game in an attempt to reach a different conclusion, and I have also found that beating the game unlocks a new game+ style file, also known as the “Déjà vu” file. In this, Ito apparently suffers from an overwhelming sense of, you guessed it, déjà vu, because she is living out the story again. It means any player can create their own sequel to their first file, and replaying the game is not exactly like playing a totally new game. There is some extra spice thrown in. Just as Ito cannot resist her quest to unravel the mystery of the Mask and Reina’s apparent immortality, I cannot resist a chance to explore more of this world, though I hope I will be able to avoid major bugs this time and get a better ending.