Tokyo Dark is my second review for a Square Enix Collective project (publishing platform for indie devs), after Black The Fall and I’m pleased to notice that the program hasn’t failed so far. Square has an eye for promising titles and their efforts in the publishing and promotion of such games, are commendable. Today, I’m writing about the Steam debut of Cherrymochi, a developer which also ran a successful Kickstarter campaign for Tokyo Dark in 2015, but obviously preferred to release their project after two more years of development. Time well spent, since out of my entire collection of visual novels, none has captivated me as much as this one. By opting for a (supernatural or not) detective tale, Tokyo Dark falls within my very specific criteria for the noir subgenre.
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Things couldn’t get much worse for Detective Ayami Ito. Over the course of a week, she torpedoed her promising career, witnessed the murder of her beloved partner and became a laughing stock or cause for concern, depending on who you ask about her sanity. Once a rising star of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police, she was suspended while pending enquiry into the tragic events which claimed the life of Detective Kazuki Tanaka. Right from the start, Tokyo Dark informs its players that any choice and action you take in-game is final and autosaved on the spot. There is no going back, for now. On active duty or not, Ayami sets on her own journey through Japan’s capital in search of a mysterious female killer.
I won’t spoil the plot to you, but suffice to say that appearances can be even more deceiving in Tokyo Dark than in your run-of-the-mill visual novel. Love triangles concerning scantily clad and childish characters have nothing in common with this game. Supernatural elements are quite subtle, making players question what they see or the actions based on their perception, much like Ayami herself begins to doubt her efforts in getting to the bottom of the looming enigma connecting a murderer to a certain Kabuki Mask. That object makes a persistent appearance throughout the game, from the loading screen animations and down to its implied force which drives several characters to the point of obsession.
A surpringly light-hearted element to this murder mystery, is the prevalence of felines within Tokyo Dark. Stray cats, Cat-themed Cafés, Collectible maneki-neko figurines and even Ayami’s own house cat, all represent a beacon of calmness and hope. The protagonist’s few moments of relaxation come mostly from the interaction with her pet and several friendly faces that still believe in her crusade. The brass and powers that be, certainly won’t help make the investigation any easier, so Ito is mostly on her own while searching for her suspect, incognito and with no back-up. It’s not like the badge helped her much in the past. Perhaps it was only a hindrance.
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Construct 2, a “HTML5-based 2D game editor” is powering Tokyo Dark but I admit that I am not acquainted to this particular graphics engine. The game looks great for its genre and no background or character is drawn in haste or showing any sign of asset reuse. It scaled perfectly on my monitor’s native resolution, featured no frame rate drops (stable 60fps at all times) and I encountered no glitches, bugs or crashes to desktop. A textbook example of a visual novel that takes full advantage of OS and hardware variations on the PC platform. Both Ayami and the NPCs she interacts with are well animated, from simple motions to the classic anime-style emotional expressiveness. The text speed can be sped up or skipped via mouse click.
Tokyo Dark’s soundtrack was composed by Mark Steed and I consider it beyond reproach. Most songs fit the current mood instilled by the on-screen action but I really miss voice acting when having to read so much dialogue which makes the story so gripping yet lifeless in the end. Apart from several Japanese words for “hello”, “yes”, “no” and character names, there are no spoken lines of dialogue. It’s even more baffling since complete voice acting in Japanese, was one of the first Kickstarter goals mentioned and achieved.
I can understand not having the budget for English dubs and despite possessing a Japanese vocabulary of less than 25 words, I would have appreciated hearing the actors and actresses regardless of my personal skill in that particular language. For the record, games, movies, TV series made in Japan or with their action in Japan, are far more authentic to me if they feature Japanese dubs and English subtitles. Same applies to any country of origin as far as authenticity is concerned.
Apart from interacting with various NPCs and furthering the investigation through careful exploration of the surroundings, Detective Ito must keep a close eye on her mental well-being and her professional conduct. Something rarely seen in visual novels, we have a strong RPG element in Tokyo Dark through the implementation of the SPIN system. It stands for Sanity, Professionalism, Investigation and Neurosis. As you’d expect since we’re dealing with cases of the supernatural and Ito’s own emotional scars, some concessions shall be made in regards to her sanity, in pursuit of finding both the culprit and answers to her torment. Players will have to “juggle” with choices that can both affect and assist the protagonist at the same time.
The pills she has to ingest in order to contain her “demons”, reminded me of Detective Norman Jayden’s addiction towards Triptocaine and ironically, the Heavy Rain (PlayStation exclusive, perhaps one day on PCs & Steam) similarities with Tokyo Dark, don’t end there. Both the origami figures and Kabuki masks are inherently Japanese objects and they are integral to the plotlines from the aforementioned games. Noire themes are easy to spot, such as flawed detectives and passive law enforcement agencies which compel protagonists to take matters into their own hands, or a murder case that is far more elaborate than it appears at first glance. Sanity keeps Ayami on the right track and alive, Professionalism acts as a gauge which indicates how well she’s being perceived by most NPCs while Investigation furthers the plot and offers puzzle section hints.
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Neurosis is harder to explain but far easier to maintain within bearable limits, since interacting with Ito’s pet cat and…indulging in certain activities such as pancake eating, seem to relax our heroine quite efficiently. No inventory is implemented, but a map system with locations to (re)visit and puzzle sections, do remind us that not only RPG elements are to be found in Tokyo Dark but also features of the adventure genre. The backtracking didn’t bother me and I really appreciated the fact that you can’t attain all the game’s achievements in a single playthrough since most actions and choices lock you out of some circumstances. Having eleven endings, speaks volumes about the story’s complexity and how players can shape its outcome.
If you want a visual novel that can skillfully mix cute and creepy in a single formula, then Tokyo Dark is your next favorite within this genre. What truly prevents a great game from becoming perfect in this case, is the severe lack of voice acting that would have fitted like a glove on this captivating adventure. I hope Cherrymochi learned a lot from their debut and I eagerly await more projects from them.
All the screenshots you see above, have been taken by me in-game through the Steam Overlay.