Here’s a quick thought experiment: how do you write a compelling, agency-driven character without turning them into a blank slate? Most visual novels do the heavy lifting themselves, offering only a few branching options to their audience, but that makes them more of an observer than a participant. As we gradually hand more control to a player, their actions may run against the character’s core, transforming otherwise-reluctant criminals like Niko Bellic into joyriding, cantankerous assholes with no sense of responsibility. This challenge has dogged gaming for a long time, and there aren’t any one-size-fits-all solutions (not for a lack of trying, of course). The only way we advance from concept to execution is settling on a consistent methodology from beginning to end, then hope others don’t carelessly trundle through your story or feel confined by its limitations.
Tokyo Dark leans on its well-worn adventure game roots, tasking us with following leads, interrogating witnesses and solving puzzles as we get to know Detective Ayami, but it shakes things up by removing a few safety nets. Before reaching the end, every choice is automatically saved to your one and only slot. Unless you’re willing to start from scratch, you can’t hop back and adjust a single decision in the hopes of getting the “right” ending. It also pressures you into action by adding a price to inaction: during an early standoff, avoiding the prompts will force you down a certain path, regardless of whether you wanted a moment to think. With 11 endings, multiple gauges that track your actions, and the determination to keep you moving at all times, things will go sideways before you even have time to react.
This urgency fits Ayami’s desperate situation like a blood-soaked glove. After a particularly nasty breakdown on the job, her fellow detective and boyfriend is kidnapped by a teenage girl who was previously presumed dead. With Ayami as the only witness, her boss puts her on unpaid leave while handing her now-vacant office to a fresh transfer. Her connections and suspended job put her in a position to continue searching for answers, but as things grow desperate and the situation takes a decidedly supernatural turn, Ayami’s forced to decide how far she’ll go to rescue her partner.
It’s through this desperation that Tokyo Dark both succeeds and fails: the situation at hand encourages aggressive action, pushing you out of your comfort zone to chase any lead, but there are moments when it speeds past tense and rams into ridiculous territory. When tasked with fishing some photo out of a river, I came across a small bamboo forest on the other side. Surely it wanted me to grab some bamboo and use it as a makeshift stick, right? I placed my mouse over the forest, and only one option was present: “Shoot Bamboo.” Surely it wasn’t suggesting that? As soon as I clicked it, Ayami whipped out her service revolver and shot off a remarkably clean-cut piece of bamboo from a nearby reed. As I sat there with my mouth agape, “-5 Professionalism” notification stated the obvious in one of the corners.
Whenever Ayami’s tempted with blackmail, threats, aggressiveness or outright assault, it usually makes sense. She’s stuck between a rock and a hard place, asked to play it cool during her internal investigation while her partner’s time is running out. The rub comes in when a simple dialogue choice (or decision not to switch something off) irreversibly puts you on the aggressive path, even when correcting course would be dead-simple. My casual chat with the evidence room clerk locked out all other questions after I made a simple greeting, and only gave me two violent options to get into the evidence room. I wanted to switch the cameras off one floor above, but since I left them on earlier, the game refused to honor my change of heart, even though I was the only one in the damn room. Because I wasn’t in lock-step with its bizarre logic, it railroaded me into hurting a friendly officer, cameras recording every second, when it didn’t have to be this way. When you can only stare at an easy solution to your problems, it’s hard not to feel frustrated.
These moments are fortunately few and far between, as most of your time is spent diving ever deeper into a colorful, grotesque city. When you’re not trading barbs with a short-tempered Yakuza boss, you might stop by a maid café for a plate stacked with cat-shaped pancakes! Tokyo Dark loves taking advantage of Ayami’s precarious mental state for jump scares (I reflexively hid my face in my hands during particularly tense moments), but it also has an escape hatch. By introducing a talkative, clumsy janitor, or a subway station manager who knows far less than he lets on, the team at Cherrymochi avoids overloading players with misery.
Unfortunately, the cost piles up if you’re interested in the other 10 endings. While New Game+ gives you multiple saves, don’t count on jumping from branch to branch: it lacks modern conveniences like Zero Time Dilemma’s event tree, forcing you to replay everything just to get the restore points you’ll need for subsequent playthroughs. They throw in a skip button for conversations, but with no objective markers or summaries, you’d better have a crystal-clear memory of where you need to go next! Despite its post-credits hint at a larger story, I only made it 15 minutes through my second file before calling it quits.
Tokyo Dark’s insistence on challenging your resolve is admirable: it goes out of its way to make you fall in love with its grimy namesake, then questions whether you’re willing to rough up its residents for the slim chance of saving your partner’s hide. Ayami’s mental health doesn’t begin to explain some of the more bizarre choices she’s given, and if you move too carelessly, the game will lock you out of clearly visible actions without a reasonable excuse. Still, the open-ended puzzles mesh with Ayami’s own limitations, almost placing the player and detective on equal footing. It’s far from perfect, but Cherrymochi gets closer to having you inhabit a fleshed-out character than most of its big-budget contemporaries.
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