Tokyo 42 is a prime reason why I play indie games. It’s a brave and unusual title with solid core ideas and a lush cyberpunk style, but frustrating shooting mechanics and rough game modes keep it from achieving the standout status it comes so close to being.
Your adventure starts in 2042 Tokyo, with you being framed for murder and the police coming to take you in. With the help of an old friend, you escape and join up with an organization to clear your name by becoming an assassin and murdering people anyways. It’s okay though because you aren’t actually killing anyone. In the futuristic world of Tokyo 42, everyone takes “NanoMeds” which prevents them from dying. In typical sci-fi fashion, the company behind these meds has a darker idea in mind. While that sounds serious, Tokyo 42 takes its story pretty lightly. It’s more of a means to an end, with areas opening as you progress through it.
This is a bit shocking considering the issues the story touches on. You’ll uncover and stop an act of mass terrorism, and then tackle a side mission alluding to Where’s Waldo? This blend of different tones combined with the bright Blade Runner esque world keeps you from feeling too grim while playing, but if you read between the lines, some of the events in Tokyo 42 may leave you shocked by how political and simply real they can get. I would have liked to see how far the writers would go given more time. There are some fun characters. My favorite being a fellow assassin who talks a big game but requires your help whenever he’s on a mission. It’s a fun chain of side quests that ended up as one of my highlights of the game.
Gameplay is equally varied, with missions ranging from city-wide parkour to gunning down giant robots on a bike. These are attempts to challenge your mastery of Tokyo 42’s rotating isometric playstyle. Unfortunately, once these game modes attempt to speed up the game, that playstyle ends up getting in the way. The camera simply rotates too slow and too far for parkour to be any fun, and readjusting to the view wastes precious seconds. Jump on the bike and the camera is just broken. It’s not possible to bike at a normal speed without hitting something. By the time your camera catches up with one adjustment it’s time to make another. Only allowing four camera positions is the core problem. The offered views just get in the way, and there’s nothing you can do. Free rotation or more locked angles would benefit this game greatly.
Combat is also a mixed bag. Tokyo 42’s prime focus is stealth gameplay. Using the games rotating isometric view to plan out a path to victory is immensely satisfying. Guns are useless for going stealth, so golf-club head bashing it is. Enemies follow specific paths and avoiding detection is based on a line-of-sight system. Here in lies my first frustration. Most stealth games give you a split second grace period before the entire area goes on alert. Tokyo 42 gives you this when at a distance, and it’s easy to avoid sight from afar. However, when attacking with melee, it must be from behind or you will alert everyone. If I’m stalking an enemy and he turns around right when I swing my sword, everyone goes on high alert.
It’s quite frustrating, especially during longer missions, that you don’t get a chance to recover. Even worse, standard gunplay is a bit of a mess. Machine guns and pistols work alright from a short distance, mostly due to a higher rate of fire. Mid-range and further presents a problem. Bullets in Tokyo 42 move at ridiculously slow speeds. Both you and your foes have ample time to get out of the way and getting hit once means death. Sounds fair, right? Issue: it’s always you vs. five to fifteen people. Dodging one bullet is easy, but when you’re up against seven assault rifles firing six bullets each, you’ll have a harder time. Regardless of bullet speed. Also, height differences largely affect your shot. Simply shooting an enemy up the stairs becomes a challenge as you have to make sure your reticle is in a specific mode and you must maintain a certain lead on them. I could compare it to a real-time version V.A.T.S. from Bethesda’s take on Fallout. Your reticle being on point does not guarantee a hit. Expect to die a lot because of this. Fortunately, frequent save points exist, so you won’t lose too much progress upon death.
That’s not to say the game doesn’t have its shining moments. As mentioned previously, some of the missions are genuinely cool twists on the standard gameplay. The creative locales make sure of that. One moment you’re running and gunning over brightly colored rooftops, doing your best not to fall between them. Another you’re sneaking through a nudist colony up in the mountains, with only half walls and trees to hide behind. A big standout for me is in one of the final missions. Tasked with assassinating a great leader, you’re given the option to sneak through a winding hedge maze packed with guards. Even with the ability to see them all, it’s a tough time.
The game’s early missions are the most intriguing. There isn’t too much going on and you take your time getting through each task. The latter half starts falling apart. This is largely due to the higher number of enemies. As mentioned previously, Tokyo 42 thrives on stealth gameplay. Some later missions omit stealth completely and force you to get by with its weak gunplay. It becomes nigh impossible to hold off groups of adversaries coming from all sides, especially with the uncertain aiming mechanics. You’ll notice the camera getting in the way more than ever here. There’s just too much going on with no way to see it all.
The music is a bunch of 80’s synth-pop tracks which vibe perfectly with Tokyo 42’s aesthetic. Voice acting is non-existent, with characters communicating through screen filling face cams and text boxes. I found that my favorite character is really the city. Exploring the different districts, manipulating the camera to search for collectibles, and just enjoying the relaxing futuristic aura overlaying the tension-filled underworld that controls it all. It’s a feeling like no other, one that makes this game worthy of purchase even if the gameplay doesn’t.
My thoughts on Tokyo 42 can be summed up in one word: conflicted. On one hand, this game’s aesthetic is truly enthralling. Seeing this type of world through the eyes of an isometric camera is new and exciting. Even if some of the game modes are rough, I have to commend developer SMAC Games for putting effort into varying up the experience. The first half of the game is filled with new ideas and it brings out an internal drive to see where they’ll go. As the game continues, however, the flaws in this design show themselves, and a lot of that excitement turns to frustration and hitting the restart button for the tenth time over. It’s an experience that thrives on taking it slow and becomes hampered by complexity. Maybe a second go at the franchise will be enough to turn it into a classic.
This review was based on a digital review code for Xbox One provided by SMAC Games. It’s also available on Steam and is coming to PS4 later on.