Wot I Think: Tokyo 42

Tokyo 42 [official site] is a game of games. It comes across as having the pure and earnest intention to hybridise everything that has been most beloved in games from the last half-decade (and a couple from decades earlier), and then adds in cats and samurai swords for good measure. Inevitably, it doesn’t all work, but moments of half-madcap, half-measured brilliance glimmer through a patina of low-level frustration.

Tokyo 42 is: GTA’s violent sandbox and snarky talking heads; Hitman’s strategic kills; Hotline Miami’s precision kills at speed; Monument Valley’s stark lines and soft colours and mechanical camera; Mirror’s Edge’s urban parkour and mono-coloured buildings; Gunpoint’s mathematical physics and rapid restarts; ghosts of cyberpunk games past, and maybe even the tiniest bit of Fez in the camera rotation puzzles. And, of course, the original Syndicate, the original isometric future city strategic murder sim. A tombola of ideas and inspirations, clad in art that mixes the surreal with the mechanically logical.

It’s not this sugar-high megamix like Retro City Rampage, however, but more folding all of the above into a DIY assassination and parkour game set across an openish world in the form of bright-as-can-be cyberpunk Tokyo. There are motorbikes and swords and sniping yogis from half a city away, and wi-fi cats and rival assassins and a button expressly dedicated to putting on your trenchcoat just to look cool.

Throughout, there’s a choice between a pure stealth approach, open assault or a hybrid of the two, with rewards to be had for not being spotted or killing every enemy on a mission. In this, Tokyo 42 feels like a lo-fi abstracted Hitman. Figuring out a safe route through its crowded spaces is its chief delight. More than anything, though, this is a game about camera control.

Rather than having free camera movement, you’re forever rotating it in 90 degree increments, partly just to be able to see where you are and where you’re trying to get to in this isometric world, and partly to ‘create’ new paths – from one angle a jump is impossible, but from another a roof and a window left might line up just so. There’s no surrealistic environment-morphing here (still waiting for that Dark City game, please), it’s simply a matter of alignment – what looks adjacent or perpendicular from one angle turns out to be divided by a vast and lethal chasm if gazed at from another.

To play T42 on PC is to be constantly hammering Q and E to rotate the camera, and often doing so in the wrong direction because it’s not always apparent how the image will shift, thus obfuscating your view further. The key challenge in T42 is so often trying to work out where something entirely visible actually is. What looks like a sure jump to a platform or to grab a floating collectible winds up with you sailing off to one side of it even though it looks like you should hit it dead on.

I’ve died many times purely because the camera got in my way. I found this particularly, gruesomely true during parkour race missions and motorbike chase sequences. Flip-over-the-table stuff, sadly.

In the slower sequences – long, stealthy climbs up a mountain or staircases or through a twisting maze of external corridors – the problem is simply searching for and often failing to find the angle from which your route forwards is visible. I often found myself going nowhere, my character running endlessly into a low wall or planter I simply couldn’t see, and this can regularly ascend from annoyance to fatality, as precious seconds trickle away until a roaming guard wanders within sight range.

I’m not arguing that this is an inherently flawed system. It can work well, when a quick tap of the button effectively rewrites the logic of a scene and brand new paths become clear, or a deft sequence of moves has you navigate around a narrow cubist tower effortlessly. But perhaps four angles is simply too few, or some light-touch auto-rotation in some of the more hectic scenarios would tone down the frustration.

T42 works so much better when I don’t really have to worry about the camera, or when it’s just a matter of getting a better view rather than requiring camera manipulation to understand how this space works. I.e. when I sneak around a maze of stairs and rooftops silently killing everyone with a katana until I reach my well-guarded target, or when I’m spotted and find myself in a frantic, bunny-hopping gunfight. Projectiles move a little slowly in T42, so there’s almost a bullet hell element in there, these big pastel-coloured slugs creating a ring of death around you.

Death comes fast and often in Tokyo 42 – by shooting or by falling to the unseen streets far below its skyscraping buildings – but fortunately it’s entirely designed to cater for your fragile mortality. Coffee machines act as save points, and invariably there will be one proximate to your current mission. Rare’s the time that you’ll lose more than four or five minutes of progress, but, Hotline Miami-style, sometimes that progress can be deeply intense and require an exact plan of action.

You will throw yourself upon the same rocks time and again, balancing the knowledge that you need to wait here and precision-strike there with the impatience of having to do it all over again and again and again. Naturally, finally succeeding brings immense satisfaction, and each mission is generally so bite-sized that you will experience this rollercoaster of emotion several times per hour.

Unfortunately, when combined with the oft-irksome camera, this spiking difficulty sometimes saw me hit the wall and give up on a few missions. The structure of Tokyo 42 is such that there were several alternative missions I could do instead, at least for a time, but there were moments were everything available to me seemed too gruelling to countenance.

Sure, I could just free-form wander/slaughter my way around the city, but to its credit Tokyo 42 has no pay-off for random acts of urban violence and so that kind of spree held little thrall for me, though I should warn that there are story elements touching on urban terrorism that may make some players feel uncomfortable.

It’s billed as an open world game of sorts, but the reality is that you’re generally choosing which order you accept your missions in, whether you take an assault or stealth path through them, and whether or not to embark on side-quests or seek aesthetic-only upgrades hidden in hard-to-reach places. There’s a small element of getting into random trouble, with a few guard posts making certain areas of the city hostile or small packs of roaming, armed enemies, but again, mostly it’s about picking which mission when.

Good news is, during these missions the game regularly chucks new ideas and challenges into the mix, even though the essential concept of assassinating a tiny person who’s either heavily-guarded or in a hard-to-reach place (or both) remains.

Suddenly there are nemesis assassins hunting you, or you need to jump onto flying cars to reach your target (this is excruciatingly hard; thanks, camera!), or you have some kind of radar cat with you that can locate certain enemies hidden among the crowd, or you wear a sort of hologram suit that can temporarily disguise you as a member of a gang, or you’re performing courier missions on an Akira-ish motorbike. Or there are environmental twists – a towering mountain, a vast rooftop garden – and new factions to battle.

Tokyo 42 is an inventive and strikingly attractive game, with a very natural blend of stealth, combat and figuring out a path, unfortunately hamstrung somewhat by absolute fealty to its isometric perspective. I alternated between the beautiful tension of sneaking through busy places (personally, I incline towards the silent kills of a katana rather than the Syndicate-esque mass destruction of miniguns and rocket launchers) and the jaw-clenched annoyance of death-by-camera. An impressive accomplishment, but sometimes a grating one too.

Tokyo 42 is released today for Windows, via Steam.

37 Comments

  1. UncleLou says:

    Man, neither this nor The Long Journey Home come recommended. :-(

    Got to buy this on style alone though, I think.

    As an aside, I think 99% of all isometric games work better with a fixed camera.

    (Excellent work reviewing both in time though, thanks!)

    • syndrome says:

      “The Long Journey Home”
      We’re on the same page. I hoped it would be like Star Control. It’s not. Its controls are a mess, and seems like a rather shallow thing, that’s seemingly hard or broken, or whatever, just to excuse its existence. Naive game direction. Had to Alt+F4 :(

  2. rushakoff says:

    as cool as this game may be, that pretentious trash trailer made me less interested in ever getting this game.

    • spacedyemeerkat says:

      Agreed.

      I’m personally not a fan of Mode 7’s smugness, either, although I know they’re rather popular with many.

    • dontnormally says:

      I don’t understand the hate for the trailer. They have plenty of videos, just watch one of the many other ones available.

    • UncleLou says:

      That sounds like a bit of a fickle and arbitrary reason to lose interest to me, unless you were never interested in the first place (which is fair enough).

    • Sic says:

      It’s pretentious?

      How?

      • April March says:

        I don’t like when things are called pretentious, because it’s become a catch-all term for “well this thing seems to be smart but FUCK IT”, but I think you don’t need to stretch the meaning too much for a trailer that basically says “Our game is so get you’ll be convinced to buy it in less than five seconds” before melting my eyeballs.

      • robertlepervers says:

        “stick it on your steam wishlist ok thanks”

      • syndrome says:

        It _is_ pretentious. It doesn’t want to do what trailers do. it makes itself above the format. Pausing a trailer at every frame isn’t a good way of conveying information. It deliberately tells me something else, something that doesn’t apply to me.

        • UncleLou says:

          It does *exactly* what a launch trailer is supposed to do, it tells you the game launches. And since the game has an undeniably unique art style that is instantly recognizable, they play with that that. Everyone who has ever seen the game in the last couple of years will immediately recognize it even though they just show you these short snapshots, which wouldn’t work for the vast, vast majority of games.

          So, unique, and pretty damn effective as far as launch trailers go. Nothing pretentious about that, although that word has already lost all meaning, probably.

  3. Premium User Badge

    Drib says:

    Dang, I was looking forward to this one too. But control and camera issues are the fastest route to being straight garbage.

    I suppose I’ll give this one a miss as well.

  4. UncleLou says:

    ” But perhaps four angles is simply too few”

    Alec, I just gave it a shot, and it has 8 angles? Not sure it matters much, just pointing it out.

  5. Unportant says:

    The camera ‘issues’ in this game seem like an inevitability of the developer’s strict adherence to a certain POV and style. That doesn’t strike me as an actual problem, in the same way as, say, a controllable camera in a Dark Souls game might slide against a wall and into your ass and make it impossible for you to see what’s happening. That’s them not fixing a hole in the system. But in Tokyo it seems like this IS the system.

    It might cause bits of annoyance, but there are bits of annoyance in Fez too when you misjudge a path and have to backtrack a lot, or bits of annoyance in the original GTA when the top-down camera doesn’t give you enough range to judge oncoming traffic properly. The game works in one way and it’s up to us to adjust to it.

    • April March says:

      It didn’t feel like the review claims it was a failure. I read it as saying that it’s a feature that’s more annoying than interesting, though still redeems itself when it works.

      • syndrome says:

        but that’s the inherent trouble of isometric geometry.
        when worlds get tall, there is no easy way to solve this.

  6. Laurentius says:

    When I finished reading this WOT and as I jumped right to it I didn’t who wrote it. In my mind I was certain it has to be Alec and as I scrolled quickly up it was proven to be true. I mean I perfectly understand that with family perspective shifts completely and that’s a good thing. On the other hand reading these reviews, written by someone for who video game writing is just an occupation and all passion that once was there has fizzled. It has it place for sure, a bit wierd though. I fel like you have better time tinkering both with hardware and software then playing games, just saying.

    • alh_p says:

      When I finished reading this [comment] and as I jumped right to it I didn’t who wrote it. In my mind I was certain it has to be [someone with an axe to grind]. I mean I perfectly understand that with [nothing better to do] perspective shifts completely and that’s a good thing. On the other hand reading [this comment], written by someone for who [engaging] in video game [criticism] is just [a cry for help] or [some way to further poison the internet]. It has it place for sure, a bit wierd though. I fel like you have better time tinkering [with yourself] then playing games, just saying.

  7. Premium User Badge

    Grizzly says:

    I’m a big fan of GTA-likes who aren’t actually GTA, so this seems straight up my ballpark. It’s on my wishlist.

  8. Prankmonkey says:

    ‘you’re forever rotating it in 90 degree increments’

    ‘But perhaps four angles is simply too few’

    I think you may have been doing something wrong. The camera rotates in 45 degree increments. There are eight angles.

    You also mention that you sometimes didn’t know which way the camera was going to rotate. Q moves the camera clockwise, and E moves it counter clockwise. What could possibly be simpler?

    • bonuswavepilot says:

      Erm, perhaps giving Alec just a soupcon too little credit here. If you read the next sentence, his trouble was not in knowing which rotational direction the keys would correspond to, but in whether rotating in that direction would actually be useful in terms of which features would be obscured in the new angle.

  9. Thirdrail says:

    I played about half an hour of Tokyo 42 and at no point did I want to uninstall the game and forget it ever existed, AND I plan to continue playing it. For me, in last few years of video games, that’s roughly an 8 out of 10 review. I thought it was neat how every time you die you return as a completely different little person.

  10. Sic says:

    Been on my wishlist for ages.

    The art alone is enough to make me buy it. I can’t remember the last time I saw a game that looked better.

  11. KibouSRX says:

    Toyko? :D

  12. ButteringSundays says:

    “Rather than having free camera movement, you’re forever rotating it in 90 degree increments, partly just to be able to see where you are and where you’re trying to get to in this isometric world, and partly to ‘create’ new paths – from one angle a jump is impossible, but from another a roof and a window left might line up just so. There’s no surrealistic environment-morphing here (still waiting for that Dark City game, please), it’s simply a matter of alignment – what looks adjacent or perpendicular from one angle turns out to be divided by a vast and lethal chasm if gazed at from another.”

    I’m struggling to understand how this could work in practice. If the character is moving around a modelled environment that you can ‘view’ from different angles, than the gaps between spaces would always be the same whatever angle you viewed them from. So there MUST be some morphing, or some very funky character movement for that to even make sense? Is the character moving ona plane, rather than ‘through’ the environment? I guess I’ll watch some videos.

    • alh_p says:

      I imagine it’s like monument valley, which exploits the isometric perspective to make bits of scenery shift under you as you rotate perspective. It’s hard to explain so yes, videos.

    • poliovaccine says:

      It’s not that the paths are nonexistent til you rotate the view, it’s more that you cant really see them from certain angles. Your view is set a good bit back from your teeny little character, remember, so stuff can intrude in the foreground, or buildings can have wraparound balcony-type pathways you need to rotate to see, and even if you’re standing on a building that’s not intruding into yr foreground at all, it can still be totally obscuring other, lower platforms or buildings on its far side.

      I guess it’s possible there’s some subtle morphing/warping/Dark-Citying of buildings, but if there is, it’s escaped my notice. Granted, it’s often too fast-paced for me to be focused on making a mental map.

      I remember the triumphant moment when I first realized Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor had a morphing map like that, and it was only after playing for hours, so it’s not impossible that’s going on in T42, and you shouldnt quote me on any of this. But like I say, having played it now (loving it btw), I can envision the obstacles described in this review without the map ever needing to switch up on you for them to occur. I know there are other examples than the few I listed – itd just be easier to think of em if I had the game right in front of me.

      Incidentally, I dont find the camera issues nearly such an annoyance as this reviewer did – and when it comes to platformers, I tend to suuuuck. Then, when it comes to bullet hell shooters, I continue to suuuuck. I got this game sort of in spite of myself, drawn by the art and the advertised ability to roam freely in its gorgeous little city, but I didnt expect to get on very well with the gameplay. In that regard, I’ve been surprised at myself, but indeed it’s been possible to get pretty damned fluent at negotiating its odd mix of character/camera controls. Once I started thinking of the Q and E view-rotation controls as being *part of my character’s moveset,* suddenly it started clicking. Donno why that should make such a difference, since it doesnt change how I actually play, but my point is, I could relate to the reviewer’s frustrations about the camera at first, but pretty quickly I transcended that and was able to subsume the weird mechanic into my overall sense of my character. Felt a bit like that breakthrough moment when you finally “get” the combat in Dark Souls.

    • gwathdring says:

      The simplest way to illustrate this is to take a relatively flat object like a piece of paper. Hold it in front of you at various angles. Turn it 90 degrees vertically. Horizontally. Away from you. Toward you. Now 45 degrees. Etc.

      The 2D representation of this piece of paper varies depending on it’s orientation. The angular distance relative to the camera’s focal point changes when the angle of orientation changes, and a 2D representation then projects this angular distance onto a flat image like your computer monitor or, well, that piece of paper. This projection results in different on-screen distances at different camera angles even if the real distance (or at least in-game distance in terms of units used by the mechanical systems like the physics engine) doesn’t change.

      It isn’t that the gaps are changing within the game’s physics logic. It’s that what you *see* is changing depending on the angle from which you see it. Certain techniques can be used to limit this effect in game engines that try for a more “fully” 3D perspective, but these sorts of fixed, pulled back isometric (or ‘isometric’ depending on exactly how the projection works mathematically) views don’t benefit from those tricks.

      Proportions that “look” or “feel” right in a typical 3D game generally aren’t realistic proportions in terms of modeling real world spaces either! But in first or third person games, the player moving around the world allows them to adjust to the 2D view and map the space in a way similar, but not identical, to how we do so in the real world which hides some of the problems that crop up in more traditional 2D representations like this or engineering diagrams.

  13. castle says:

    Can anyone comment on the gamepad controls for this game? Does it play well with a pad?

    I see it’s coming to Xbone and PS4 as well, so it must at least be workable, but does it feel good to play with a gamepad? Seems like aiming would be difficult.

  14. haldolium says:

    /supposed to be a reply to castle

    Neither is bad, and its actually nice to have a game that seems to treat both input methods equally, but the camera issue overshadows everything.

    With the controller you can either twin-stick it, or you can press down the right stick which toggles it into mouse-like behaviour (aiming line/crosshair stays on screen an can be freely moved around).

    Feels more fluid with the controller due to better character movement, but kb/mouse controls work tight as well with proper default bindings and no annoyances in acceleration or what else you usually get from indie game devs.

  15. haldolium says:

    I really want to like this game more as I do.

    Its pretty great in many ways except the camera vertical angle and camera rotation snapping. I would imagine a flawless rotation without angle snapping would make it quite a bit better, but a steeper vertical angle would be even better.

    I work with (real) orthographic scenes in 3D every day and am used to having no actual vanishing point, but with a shooter topdown game, constantly having to guess actual depth of the scene, this is tremendously annoying more as it is interesting.

    • gwathdring says:

      Yeah, dodging fire is a pain without being able to tell what angle bullets are actually traveling at. I can’t tell if it’s coming across cover or coming from high up to the side over cover without view swapping … but the pace of shooting, the lethality of being shot and the precise aim of opponents makes this non-viable.

      Enemy reaction times are quite imposing, as well.