Tokyo 42 puts you in the shoes of a person framed for assassination. Naturally, to clear your name, you must therefore become… a professional assassin. You’ll be sneaking, sniping, and stabbing your way across a miniature, toy-like future Tokyo, completing missions for shady brokers of questionable honesty and identity as you try to find out who framed you and how to clear your name. You’ll probably also be dazzled at just how relaxed everybody is about the constant public murder, but it’s quickly explained that in this world most people are able to recover from death fairly effectively.
The story is based on a mystery, and thus subject to spoilers, but it does a good job at bringing the player to the various parts of mini-Tokyo and introducing them to the world. It’s infused with a good deal of humor and gags, from an assassination mission aping the Where’s Waldo? books to your professional handler’s flailing attempts at a social life. But at its core, the world presented is an interestingly radical one, where death and identity have been nearly erased by technology. It’s a future that’s funny and charming even when it’s alien dangerous, and it has the visuals to match.
There’s an ethereal, fantastical quality to the art style. To my surprise, it reminded me a bit of 2006 anime film Paprika – giant cartoon heads looming off to the side, vibrant colors and environments, and a strange floatiness to everything that recalls the way the world feels during dreams. It feels like a fantasy of a place, a kind of bubblegum cyberpunk. That may sound absurd, but it fits; this world could easily be the kind of slick, sanitized future Tokyo some mega-corporation wants you to see, in the mode of the deceptively simple instructional cartoons Aperture Science displays in relation to the Portal series.
The sensation of unreality is only further reinforced by mechanics like an incredibly floaty jumping, slow bullets that pop enemies like balloons, and death that comes quickly and with no lasting consequences. Most saliently, your identity is ephemeral; it’s trivially easy to switch your wardrobe, race, and gender at the press of a button, though you generally can’t choose what comes next. Identity isn’t flexible so much as superfluous – a situational tool, at best.
The world feels like a toybox, delightful and simple, and that feeling helps make the tension and violence of the game’s core loop feel playful instead of stressful, even when you fail. Completing that toybox sensibility is the soundtrack, which blends chiptune-like sounds into a swirl of other 80s-style music that might recall Hotline Miami, though it stays on the subtler and more playful end of things, underwritten by gentle pops and piping sounds that feel breezy and light.
Gameplay is incredibly streamlined, and for the most part doesn’t suffer for it. Stealth in this game is all about line of sight, and your three assets for avoiding your enemies are level geometry, crouching, and the ability to change your appearance at will. Vision cones are only visible when they’re threatening you, and a few buttons suffice for most actions. The mechanics are clear and naturalistic, leaving plenty of room for your intuition to judge where you’ll be hidden and how you can evade pursuit.
There are a few situations where the gameplay systems do become frustrating, though, particularly with regards to the motorbike that becomes available not long into the game. The thing accelerates so quickly and turns so sensitively that it becomes very easy to catapult yourself off of ledges or zoom into areas hidden by level geometry, where you lose your sense of orientation far faster than you can rotate the camera. Luckily, most of the game doesn’t require the bike.
In a way, though, the bike fails because the level design is so tightly and properly designed for walking and running and jumping. Most of my interactions with the architecture of the world was exceedingly pleasant. Everything is blocky and flat, but also real and tangible. You can jump onto just about any surface you can see, leaping off overpasses or balconies and landing on outcroppings or stairwells on the other side of the void, sneaking around skyscrapers on thin ledges to line up the perfect shot. The game embraces its simple blocky shapes and lets you run wild over them, giving you a sense of almost complete freedom despite the simple systems. A few of the more complicated buildings hiding goodies and secrets make excellent use of the complexity that can emerge from these simple elements.
Most strikingly, the game’s future Tokyo is one huge, contiguous space. Despite the cartoonish look and the isometric perspective, Tokyo 42 feels like a proper open world game, traversable and active and open to the player’s explorations at just about every turn. There’s more verticality and geometric variety in this game than in most of its AAA competitors, and yet it still feels simple – a remarkable feat born at the intersection of great visual and architectural design.
The only issue I’ve had with the world is that the verticality and density occasionally force you to rapidly reorient the camera, which is a clunky process given that there are only eight possible camera perspectives and the Q and E buttons cycle through them in a way that looks smooth and confident, but is much too slow and constrained for rapid reaction.
This is a recurring theme – Tokyo 42‘s strengths lie in the joy and beauty it cultivates in its own simplicity, and its flaws tend to emerge where it strays from that simplicity. Aside from the aforementioned bike and the occasionally overly dense architecture, there are also a great deal of items to collect, but unless you enjoy hoarding items for the sake of it, the game does little to convince you these purchases are worth your time.
You can acquire dozens of different variations on the core weapon types – melee, pistol, assault, and sniper – and there are cosmetic skins and cats and coats you can unlock, but most missions don’t require very specific equipment and the cosmetics have little impact on your tiny avatar in an already minimal art style.
Still, most of these issues can be overlooked quite easily given the game’s charms. At its core, Tokyo 42 is a playful and pleasant experience, a kind of assassination toybox that lays an emphasis on exploration, trying new things, and delighting in the simple freedom of this colorful world. If you like, you can even stop to analyze the world these characters live in – a world where identity and mortality have been washed away and replaced by a commercial playground. A world that, in its own strange way, is a reflection of the very sort of cultural object the game that contains it is.
PUBLISHER – Mode 7 | DEVELOPER – SMAC Games | ESRB – T | PLATFORMS – PC, Xbox One, Playstation 4
RECOMMENDED – Tokyo 42 isn’t perfect, but its flaws are fairly easy to overlook in favor of the charming and playful action-stealth game at the game’s heart, as well as the surprising freedom of its mini-metropolis, which somehow manages to feel vaster and denser than many fully-realized 3D game worlds while remaining remarkable simple in its forms and rules.