Blade Runner is one of my favorite movies. Ever since I was a kid, the idea of the cyberpunk future has fascinated me. Technology becomes so prevalent and complex that it cripples society. What’s cooler than that!? Likewise, any cyberpunk type videogame I can get my hands on instantly interests me. Tokyo 42 should have been a perfect fit.
Since the first teaser images of Tokyo 42 appeared on Twitter, I’ve followed the game with a watchful eye. Tokyo 42 SHOULD be a dream. A colorful, cyberpunk-inspired open world, unique mechanics and a super dope synth soundtrack. There is so much to enjoy in this game that I can’t help but love its aesthetic and tone. It’s so unfortunate that simple control design choices make the actual playing of the game such a drag.
What is it?
Tokyo 42 is touted by developer SMAC games as the ‘lovechild of Syndicate and GTA 1.’ You don’t have to look very hard to see what they mean. The game, taking place entirely atop the rooftops of a future neo-tokyo, puts you in the shoes of a gun for hire. At the beginning of the story, an attempt on your life forces you to team up with a seemingly friendly face named ‘Tycho’. Working together, you explore the open world, searching for clues to the origin of your attempted assassination.
The story, albeit open ended, is self aware and hardly takes itself seriously. The veil of severity surrounding a game about futuristic killers evaporates when you see how far the game is trying to go to just seem fun. Even death doesn’t matter, as the story points out that these rooftop dwellers are of a socioeconomic status that renders death meaningless. When they die, they just come right back to life because ‘future’. I admire that. It’s nice to have a game with adult tones but isn’t afraid to be silly.
As an open world game, you are the maestro to the story progression. Go where you want, when you want. The main storyline missions usually unlock in groups, giving you multiple things to do at any one time. Aside from the main mission tree, there are a variety of side missions that will unlock progressively as you play. Tokyo 42 touts the type of open world missions you might have seen in a game 10 years ago. There are hardly ever any sort of branching or extended objectives, with most of the depth existing as ‘go here… kill this… collect reward.’
The bland missions are remedied a bit by a colorful cast of characters. All of the dialogue game is done via video chat with characters. Because our protagonist is of the silent variety, don’t expect a Bioware level conversation. Rather, look forward to GTA 3 style, one sided dialogues that usually conclude with the request that you take someone’s life. There are a variety of characters with whom you will interact, and they all have unique personalities. Sometimes their dialogue feels dry and to the point, but I often think that’s intentional to try and get you back into the thick of the game as quickly as possible.
In living color
SMAC’s vision of future Tokyo is total eye candy. In some sort of bizarre hybrid of 80’s Miami and the Jetsons, the rooftop landscapes are bright and vibrant. Holographic billboards and an over abundance of pixelated advertisements really drive home the feeling that you’re in an ultra consumerist dystopia. The hints of traditional Japan stick out, with bonsai gardens full of crowds doing yoga, and peaceful streams that flow over the sides of buildings into the (what I can only assume are polluted) clouds below. The world is populated with NPCs that go about their business. More often than not, a crowd of civilians wander the landscape doing menial tasks. In the mix are a plethora of gangs and like minded assassins that make the world feel alive and breathing. Obviously we aren’t talking about an interactive world the likes of GTA 5, but for an indie developer, the world in which you’re placed feels alive and breathing. It’s an impressive feat.
When you’re not doing missions, you’ll find collectibles scattered throughout the world. Character skins, weapon ammo, coins, etc are placed all over. Even though they’re hidden in plain sight, you can’t exactly run up to everything and snag goodies as they come. These are usually trophies, awarded for figuring out whatever puzzle allows you to actually reach them.
You spin me right ‘round
Ever play Fez? Me too.
Tokyo 42’s map takes a play right out of the Fez book and allows you to rotate the entire map at will. This allows you to see your fully realized 3D overworld at every angle. It also allows you to approach missions in many different forms, encouraging multiple playthroughs and upping the replay value. Missions aside, this mechanic really allows the player to observe the world’s beauty in full. The environment has tons of small detail going on, so it’s nice to be able to admire everything in its fullest. Unfortunately, this is also one of the root causes of the game’s largest misstep.
Out of Control
No matter how good a game looks, how much atmosphere it has, or how good it sounds, there is ony question that trumps them all — “How does it play?”
…Unfortunately for Tokyo 42, that answer might be hard to swallow.
Let me start out by saying the movement in this game is ultra tight. There are very few moments where I don’t feel like I’m in control of where my character is going. The problems arise when you start trying to execute the rest of the mechanics in your arsenal. Tokyo 42’s combat is basically a twin stick shooter. You move with your left thumbstick and aim with your right thumbstick. This is fine in theory, but the game also encourages long distance combat. By clicking your right thumbstick, you unlock the aim, allowing you to zoom around the map to try and execute from a distance with precision. Still, we are in an area where you might think “Tristan, that doesn’t sound bad.” And it’s not!
Now that we are unlocked and aiming, we don’t have any centralized camera view. You now have two focal points. Your character, who most likely is going to be attempting to dodge gunfire, crouch behind barriers, and jump obstacles; AND your now independent aimer, wherever it seemingly wants to go.
Finally, we are often looking at flipping the map to change perspectives and get a better look at the enemy. Doing this, while simultaneously moving, while simultaneously aiming is straight up daunting. Very rarely do I feel like I’m pulling off any sort of action with the precision or skill of an assassin. More often than not, I feel like any sort of badassery that occurs is like winning the lottery. That’s not a good feeling in a game that’s entire mission statement is “You’re going to kill things.”
The icing on this messy cake is that hit detection often feels inconsistent. I noticed myself missing dead aimed shots for absolutely no reason. It just doesn’t feel very good most of the time.
I do think it’s worth noting that I’ve only been reviewing the Xbox One version of Tokyo 42. This control scheme seems like it would be much more manageable on PC where mouse and Keyboard are much better at encouraging many actions at once and at a rapid pace (See every RTS ever made). I wish I had played that version and remain convinced I would have had a MUCH better experience. Playing this version feels like SMAC put zero effort into adapting the control scheme to consoles in any enjoyable fashion.
In the end, despite all the game’s character or aesthetic, which is vast, the controls are just too large of a hurdle to ignore. If games are about escaping, Tokyo 42 fails miserably. In fact, I often found myself getting so frustrated at simple tasks like aiming my rifle that I would quit the game and play something else for a while. If you play the game strictly as a stealth game, giving yourself plenty of time to react, it’s fine. If you play the game as an explorer, hunting down the world’s many collectables, it’s also fine. Anything else, you’re looking at a combination of mechanics that are just asking too much of the player to enjoy.