Much of the criticism of visual novels is that they’re simply books piggybacking the video game label. If you wanted to be really juvenille you might even call them picture books. And indeed, if I was going to read a story with line after line of text, I’d probably just grab something from the bookshelf. There is little denying however that a visual component lets games like Tokyo Twilight: Ghost Hunters communicate more than words allow. Instead of imagining a character’s reaction, I can not only see what they say but their expression too. There is merit in making your story a visual novel, and Ghost Hunters is anything if not that - as well as a few other things.
If you’ve already thought of Ghostbusters then you’d be right. As a high school student just beginning his first day at a new school, you’re confronted with situations and anomalies that eventually result in your joining of an exorcist business. Clients contact you to deal with unwanted spirits. You investigate for any motives/pattern, find the ghost and hit it over the head with a lead pipe. A magnetising premise to be sure.
Ghost Hunters certainly holds its haunting enigma for the starting chapters. You’ll meet some genuinely interesting characters and have some genuinely interesting conversations, sometimes. Even so, the knowledge of doing the same thing each time erodes what mysterious intrigue the game initially has. Giving the ghosts a semi-scientific explanation doesn’t particularly help, nor does giving them a pattern of psyche. Interest comes from mystery and mystery comes from what is unknown. Science seeks to reason a physical explanation - and there can be no trepidation in reason. Something simply ceases to be interesting once the intrigue is gone.
Most of said investigating is of course simply following where the dialogue box takes you, save for the odd conversational choice. It’s not like a Mass Effect or Telltale dialogue tree where you essentially get to choose what to say. Ghost Hunters rather lets you decide how to react. You’ll pick your mood, then the following verb. Will you shake their hand in agreement? Use your ears to aggressively listen? Or perhaps use your mouth to kiss them warmly? It’s highly contextual, and doesn’t explain itself much. Often times I was trying to kiss the person talking to me and I’d end up asking for food instead, which made for some inappropriate moments.
This is where the differentiator comes in. Instead of talking the ghosts to death like any other visual novel might, Ghost Hunters becomes a turn-based strategy. For those that don’t want to be reading beginning to end, it’s quite a good idea. Emphasis on the word ‘idea’.
There’s no way around it - it’s a poor man’s Fire Emblem. It’s less intuitive, less balanced, and less strategic. The critical difference is you and your opponent make your moves within the same time, in the same turn then watch your choices play out. As the supporting characters will never cease to remind you; the premise is to predict your enemy’s movements.
Unless you have impeccable powers of clairvoyance, it’s not a realistic expectation on the player. The ghosts have free reign to go wherever their movement allows, and you naturally won’t know what they’ve decided until you have too. More of a guessing game than a strategy one.
The broader battling concepts are briefly explained, but many of the finer details are either glossed over or not disclosed at all. There’s a bevy of items you can buy, but as to their individual purposes I am still unsure. I still, to this day, do not know what a ball of rice is for.
[Tokyo Twilight: Ghost Hunters is] more of a guessing game than a strategy one.
What Ghost Hunters does do well is take the routine parts of games we pay little mind to (menus, options, mission grades) and assimilate them with in-game items and surroundings. The HUB is the Gate Keepers office, with each desk or part of the room representing a different option. If you want to change settings you go to the front-seat of the car and adjust the front console. If you want to continue to the next mission you turn off the lights and call it a day. Menus have always been ‘that’ thing in games that are difficult to avoid - forever reminding us that we’re playing a game. Small a thing as it may seem, it’s appreciated when one tries to camouflage its menus within the game world to make the illusion more coherent.
I said at the beginning that Ghost Hunters was a visual novel, but ultimately it doesn’t matter how I categorise it. Regardless of game mechanics and how many genres you could lump on top of it, Ghost Hunters is trying to deliver on story. But how well does it do that? With relative competence you could say. I would judge it solely on narrative if the situation allowed, but the developers have chosen to include something else - something that certainly makes sense in its context, but the strategy component is easily the weaker link. Sadly that’s not something I can ignore.