Tokyo Dark is a neon-noir, crime thriller visual novel game with point-and-click attributes. It was developed by Indie developer, Cherrymochi, after being funded via Kickstarter. Licensing was done by Unties in Japan, and then Square Enix for worldwide audiences.
I had never heard of this game until about three weeks ago when I saw that it was super cheap for a couple of bucks thanks to a massive Square Enix catalogue sale that was happening over on Steam (PC gaming client). I essentially cleaned out the catalogue by acquiring most of the publisher’s games that I didn’t already have in my repertoire. When I sat down to outline ideas for my first gaming review, Tokyo Dark came to mind rather quickly. It’s a visual novel, which means it probably wouldn’t require a large time investment, and the premise looked so gritty and intriguing. After playing through it, I’m glad that I chose this one because it’s quite a great title that I feel could use more attention.
The game follows a detective named Ayami Itō, who is searching for her partner, Detective Kazuki Tanaka. She heads off to a dark alley in Shinjuku to investigate what seems like a straightforward missing person’s case, however it quickly spirals into something dark and sinister, taking Detective Itō to the very depths of insanity. Will she come out the survivor or succumb to the darkness?
The first thirty minutes of the game did an excellent job of enveloping me in a shell of fascination and excitement. The game is incredibly atmospheric, with its grainy, old-school noir artistry and eerie musical score; more so, if it’s played while wearing headphones (I was wearing a set of Astro gaming headphones). I also noticed that it didn’t have any voice acting, only musical score, and this actually worked to strengthen that sombrely environment the player gets encased in.
It starts off with Detective Itō riding a train to Shinjuku, where the cabin is unusually empty. I started walking around and found a couple of things that I could interact with. This hints at the point-and-click feature of the game. Later on, when I got the chance to explore one of the cities, it really came to life as it basically creates the groundwork for the investigative part of the gameplay. The players have to click on objects to interact with them in order to progress the cases (and thus the story) forward. There’s a large reliance on exploration and some basic puzzle solving.
There were no tutorials or helpful bubbles that popped up telling me what to do. I learned it all as I engaged with the environment around me, which is an element of gaming that I tend to love, particularly if it’s a mystery game (the lack of tutorials, I mean). For me, it creates an added layer of engagement and suspense rather than having an AI dictating the rules to me as I go along. It also helps to heighten a sense of tension because I couldn’t help wondering if I was doing something wrong or not, and whether it would impact the outcome. When there’s a game that is based entirely on choices made by the player, the anxiety can be intense. For thrillers, I relish that sense of discomfort and fear; it creates an amazing gaming experience, which is an aspect that definitely takes it up one notch after another as we gradually get deeper into the storyline of Tokyo Dark.
After getting off the train, we come to an alley that is littered with cheap, crappy bars and random bits of trash. In the foreground there’s a silhouette of telephone poles and electrical wires, while the background has grey-muted, rundown buildings with a sporadic sprinkle of neon-lights and grime. It’s all very stark as it accentuates the shadiness of the area; another subtle yet great contribution to building that full, atmospheric experience. Also, the use of silhouettes in the foreground is something that I noticed in all the areas that I visited, not just the beginning. It’s cool because it adds this dimension to the visuals that will truly bring out the mindfuckery that comes up later on in the game.
I could interact with some of the buildings by looking at them, or even going inside. Once inside, there are usually one to two people that Detective Itō can speak to. Depending on how the conversation goes, the character can rack up (or lose out) on points across four categories—Sanity, Professionalism, Investigation and Neurosis—that are referred to as SPIN. Each one will impact the other. For example, if the Sanity gets too far into the negative, it could lead to a game over. If the Professionalism or Investigation skills get too low, it can influence the choices that the player shall have later on. This part is explained in Tokyo Dark (about an hour into it after the first major event), so if my explanation sucks, don’t worry. There’s a proper one to look forward to. There was a certain part in the middle of the game where my Sanity kept falling into the negative, as did my Professionalism, and I won’t lie, I became paranoid that I would end up with the worst possible ending. I contemplated re-starting the whole thing, but since there are trophies for the shitty choices and poor endings, I decided to see it through to the end.
I do like the trophies or achievements that are unlocked as I played. Most of them had humorous titles, but it also adds to the replay value of the game. If you’re someone who’s into trophy-farming, like I am (to an extent), then it will give you incentive to go back and play the game again and again until you obtain them all. From what I gathered by briefly glancing through them, there are at least three endings in Tokyo Dark and numerous trophies for choosing different paths with a single character, which opens up a ton of options. These things also helped me feel less crappy about “messing up” in some areas.
Like the vast array of narrative pathways, another thing that I wasn’t expecting in Tokyo Dark included the number of locations that Detective Itō gets to visit for her investigation. I’m only sharing a screen-grab of the first time the map is unlocked to avoid spoilers, so there aren’t many cities shown here. Nevertheless, having so many locales to check out—and as such, many more folx to chat with—helps make the story feel much longer than its five to six-hour gameplay. As I met some people, I ended up having to assist a few of them with their own issues or problems before they’d be willing to help me. This was neat because it allows for the player to build up on the lost Investigation and Professionalism points. However, if a player is only in it for the main plot, then it can feel a bit tedious by the fourth or fifth person that needs help.
Another thing that I noticed while visiting the other cities was the art style, which really made the anime aesthetic stand-out even more with tons of vibrant colours combined with more traditional qualities such as torii (shrine gates) and cherry blossoms. This is an interesting contrast to the darker more questionable areas, like Shinjuku’s alley of bars, and works to underscore the neon aspect of the neon-noir subgenre.
As far as the story goes, I rather liked it quite a bit. Unravelling the mystery behind Detective Tanaka’s disappearance was a wild trip, to say the least. There were a couple of revelations that left me feeling stunned because of how very unexpected they were. Plus, when all of this is combined with Detective Itō literally losing her sanity on occasion, it creates a marvellous novel-type rendering. With respect to that, I would say it’s one of the best visual novels I have played in years. Even so, I definitely wouldn’t say that it’s a perfect narrative because when certain details and motives were revealed, it felt extremely contrived, which the atmospheric engagement balanced out excellently. I only wish that there was voice acting to go along with it because that really would have made everything even better.
All-in-all, Tokyo Dark is a great visual novel game that I highly recommend to fans of the genre, and also to people who may be searching for a short game that is heavily engaging and character-driven (specifically where the choices one makes are concerned) without too much work. It’s a wonderful experience for all kinds of gamers, even the casual ones. It’s beautiful, has a compelling story to tell, fantastic anime essence, and decent replay value. In fact, I’m going to be replaying it this weekend so I can check-out the other pathways. It’s also not terribly expensive, depending on the platform that you get it on (available on PC, Nintendo Switch and PS4 in Japan, not sure about the US, where it’s listed as only being on the PC). My only warning is that the subject matter is quite heavy, especially with regard to mental health. So, if engaging with things that explore sanity and insanity are difficult for you, then you may want to steer clear because those are huge facets to Tokyo Dark.
42 knives outta 50