Since the 1920s, likely even before, we’ve been writing tales of characters who investigate something that ruins the detective by the end. Maybe their lives are trashed by their loved ones getting hurt, maybe they themselves become physically or psychologically maimed or maybe the underpinning of everything they know is shattered by the true nature of things.
Usually, the damage is something we see coming from way off, with an out being presented, but the protagonist feels an intense sense of justice, curiosity or duty to find the truth and thus rejects the escape in favor of the truth. Tokyo Dark succeeds in depicting the desire to find the answers, the damage that comes from learning too much and the bleakness that comes with such tales. Although, as often as it is, the road to Hell is paved on flawed stonework.
Tokyo Dark is a point-n-click adventure game by Cherrymochi. Detective Ito’s partner goes missing when suddenly her partner’s phone gets turned on. After descending into the sewers, Ito finds her partner on his knees held to knifepoint by a familiar figure: A girl that Detective Ito shot dead six months prior. Why is she alive again? Why is she holding your partner hostage? What is this “Dark” she keeps mumbling about?
Investigating what has happened is a rather simple exercise. You (usually) linearly shuffle from scene to scene, with the option of checking out other sections/rooms of a scene. In a similar way, the broad overview is a roughly linear path from scene to scene, unlocking and relocking if something at a location is useful. You stumble about on a 2D plane, anything relevant revealing themselves as you get in close. In an investigatory sense, it is rather easy.
No, the difficulty comes in what choices you make. Do you drink some whiskey to coax the bartender to reveal information, or do you stay professional and refuse? Do you pull a gun on someone not giving you the information you desire or try to flatter them even if you despise the smug fuck? Do you fulfill a Yakuza request that may net you some valuable intel, or risk going back empty-handed?
On one hand, barely any of these are grey-scale morality questions that nudge on your personal preferences, instead usually Tokyo Dark prefers clear sanity/professionalism-vs-insanity/unprofessionalism choices. On the other hand, it is just satisfying to sometimes help someone out in need like a proper detective or to ram a gun into a patience-testing bastard’s face. It is genuinely fun to either play the good cop or the completely-off-the-rails cop. Often your choices do influence your SPIN stats (Sanity, Professionalism, Investigative, and Neuroticism). These, in turn, can influence some events mildly, although besides a particular ending (let’s say the truth can act like a hammer to the fragile egg that is the mind) they never quite felt like they jazzed things up as much as they could.
That isn’t to say your choices don’t matter. With 11 endings, you better believe your actions can lead to particular endings. That said, excluding a SPIN-specific ending and a collectible-focused ending (high five for the Silent Hill 2 reference!), the other 9 revolve around two choices prior to the final stretch and a few during it. You’ll also occasionally get callbacks to prior choices, which may lock off particular options (e.g. annoying someone may make them uncooperative later). The “consequence” quantity is relatively minor, so it may be an idea to temper expectations of just how free you are to be psychotic or an honest cop down on their luck, but it is still noticeably there. There is also still plenty of wiggle room for momentary choices without or holding very minor consequences (i.e. SPIN) if you want to make your own successes or failures.
However, this all leans on the writing. Without the nerve to deliver something solid, all the choice mechanics collapse with it. The bright side is Tokyo Dark is grim, bleak and morbid. There are no good endings in sight, just different forms of destruction with bitter and sweet sides. Even the most positive of endings or the most canonical of endings come with a weighty “but”. That isn’t to say it is downers all the way down, but rather bittersweet endings with a heavy dose of the bitter.
They are also fantastically written, remembering to humanize even the cruelest of people. All, except the joke ending, do carry an emotional weight, each one characterizing why Detective Ito did what she did under the circumstances and what became of her and the world. Not to mention this is all layered on top of fantastic music, especially the touching True Sadness and Otherside (Quiet) tracks.
The rest of Tokyo Dark is well-written as well, even the more light-hearted events feel fitting to the setting and have a clear reason why they happen. There really is the strong sensation that while the truth will harm Detective Ito, she feels compelled, addicted and allured by the truth to a degree that walking away isn’t even something to consider for a moment.
The only stone in my shoe is the more optional NPCs that litter the street. The NPCs feel so throwaway and tertiary to Tokyo Dark that they may have been exorcised, as they don’t even manage to lend a believability or lore to the setting. At worst, the one-shot NPCs feel like a comedy skit with no build up, as they launch into a winking-at-the-camera performance that more often made me cringe than smirk. Everything more central to the narrative works wonderfully enough though.
I also have to talk about the animation. The in-game animation works a treat, looking smooth and coherent as you wander about the setting with the occasional splash of an image when a significant event occurs (like munching on a delicious cat pancake, nom). On the other hand, the anime cutscenes look unfortunately rough, to the point where I question if it was a draft. Considering these are brief cutscenes and the rest of the game look so nice, I do wonder if a non-animated slideshow would have looked better as the artist on board is clearly able to do good art, as the rest of the game beautifully presents).
Finally, everyone’s favorite conversation: Glitches. Yes, it is true that, hopefully, the glitches will be ironed out soon enough. However Tokyo Dark is particularly glitchy. A friend I know is unable to play it due to a save glitch. For me avatars will, at least once during a 2-4 hour playthrough, block all the text for a conversation. I even had the avatar disappear on me. I’m really hoping they’ll fix it, but judging by the developers saying they have been unable to reproduce the game-breaking save glitch, I would assume not anytime soon.
Overall, Tokyo Dark gets a smooth 7.5 out of 10. It is an easy recommendation for those who are appealed by the concept of a detective game where you must investigate a truth so dark as to offer no positive conclusions. The four hour playthrough time (which can be as fast as 1:45 with dialogue skipping) allows for accessible replayability. That said, expectations should be tempered on how radically different playthroughs are bound to be (besides the 11 endings, which are all incredibly different). In addition, the glitches are pretty lousy, with no real fix in sight, which is a significant area of hampering.
By the end of the year, I do see Tokyo Dark making my personal top 10 of 2017. This is not as a technical prowess achievement, but rather on a personal level. Tokyo Dark scratched my “dark fiction” itch wonderfully in ways few games manage to do without coming off as grim-dark or forcefully hopeful. It presents the tragedy of being doomed even when the case first knocks on your door, without feeling fatalistic. Sure, I feel miserable, but Tokyo Dark gave me the type of misery a good bleak narrative provides. I just… I think I’m going to go curl up in a ball on my bed and… Uh… Think about stuff now.
A PC Review Copy of Tokyo Dark was provided by Square Enix for the Purpose of this Review.
- Consequences bite back often
- Bleak tale that isn't afraid to have only bad things happen
- Endings radically different
- Option to play things sanely or go off the rails
- SPIN affects some dialogue and some endings
- Animation scenes a little nasty
- SPIN doesn't quite affect things as much as you'd hope
- Does have some jarring comedy moments
- Some pretty horrid glitches