Do you dream of electric cats? What do you mean, “no more Blade Runner references”? Fine. Here’s our Tokyo 42 review.
The extent to which references can be on display varies between different media pieces, and whilst the presence of remediation is certainly not a new concept – and post-modernism itself is ironically getting on a bit now – Tokyo 42 feels like it’s shouldering this philosophical weight.
The game’s own creators describe it as a “lovechild of Syndicate and GTA 1”, and as a starting point of understanding Tokyo 42, that is definitely accurate. That is not to say that its gameplay fails to advance beyond these two titles from the 90s, as the baggage of the last decade – most notably Ubisoft style capture zones, as well as parkour – is also present.
The parkour enlivens the game the most, and the environment is built around the fact that the player has more significant movement prowess than often found in games with an isometric visual style. The city is a sprawling metropolis that feels much larger than it actually is. The mobility comes into its own with the verticality of the environments on offer. Often a target will be hiding out at the top of a tower block or high up structure, with their underlings dotting the landscape beneath them.
It is these (what may as well be called assassination) missions that dominate much of the game. There is some freedom as to how these missions can be approached; nominally they can be achieved via stealth, but typically they turn into an exercise of shooting everything that moves. Due to the carefully constructed, albeit open, environments, there exists multiple strategies that can be utilised in order to survive and take down the target. In the process of reaching the target, it is likely you will die multiple times – maybe not in the earlier missions, but more frequently in the latter stages – making mistakes, working out the best approach through trial and error. Enemies, aside from bosses, are killed in one hit, but you can be as well.
With its somewhat overhead perspective (with a cute isometric slant) and one hit deaths and kills, Tokyo 42 can at times feel similar to indie shooter Hotline Miami. Although to its credit the save system, for the most part, is much more forgiving, only setting you back a couple of minutes of playtime compared to half a mission or more in Hotline Miami. The main difference, however, is that Tokyo 42 quickly turns into a ‘bullet hell’ game, making the one hit death aspect of the game a much more challenging prospect; especially towards the end of the game where it becomes an act of testing one’s patience.
Aside from the missions, it is Tokyo itself that makes you want to stick with the game. The 2042 depiction of the city shares very little with the Tokyo of today, instead appearing more as a pastiche of East Asian design; resulting in something that has more in common with Ghost in the Shell and Blade Runner, both of which are heavily inspired by Hong Kong of the 1980s. The main difference, though, is that instead of a drab dystopian future, Tokyo in 2042 awash with bright colours reminiscent of the clean-cut aesthetic of The City from Mirror’s Edge. But just like in Mirror’s Edge, something darker lurks underneath in Tokyo 42.
The comparisons with Ghost in the Shell and Blade Runner extend to the soundtrack as well, with choral chants occasionally featuring. At other times Vangelis’ music may as well have been used directly, given how similar it sounds. Despite its overt use of auditory references, they have been incorporated incredibly well into the game and help to keep you immersed in the world and the action taking place; suitably upbeat when guns are out, and more soothing when just exploring the city.
The story of Tokyo 42 is forgettable and reductive, playing out cyberpunk tropes whilst carrying an air of Philip K Dick to it. This is more akin to his novels rather than subsequent film and TV adaptations, which often lose the quirky charm that made his written work so memorable. Tokyo 42 doesn’t achieve the same levels of charm, but at least it realises that not everything has to be stern and serious when dealing with matters of corruption.
The basic premise of Tokyo 42 is that your character has been framed for the death of journalist and in turn sees you very quickly working with the all-seeing Nu-Baba as you set out to find the “truth”. Meanwhile you need to turn your attention towards the activities of the leading pharmaceutical company; one that, it appears, has turned death into only an inconvenience. This would create a narrative explanation as to why your death provides no punishment, but it makes death cheap (and is something the game exploits later, providing an alternative punishment).
Tokyo 42 as a whole is weirdly inconsistent; it has its own identity and style, yet simultaneously relies on the work of other media pieces. It uses references wholesale, such as a not-so-subtle nod to Twin Peaks as an aside, which turns the end of mission into a joke. Its gameplay mechanics, meanwhile, will introduce new elements like the ability to electronically change what you look like – which is very Dickian – but ultimately relies on old-school GTA style shooting for most of its gameplay. And the less said about the, thankfully optional, motorcycle missions the better.
As an experience, Tokyo 42 is worth your attention, but unfortunately, its gameplay and mission design become a hindrance as you progress, losing the spectacle that was notable from the start. It might at times feel reductive due to heavy reliance on other references, but it does manage to construct an identity of its own in spite of this. Tokyo of 2042 provides plenty of distractions, and it’s likely that it is this that will help it stand out amongst its contemporaries.