Many games attempt to leave a lasting impression on the public, but few manage to. Undertale won people’s hearts with its charming storytelling and quirky mechanics while Super Meat Boy before it inspired players by keeping the platform genre fresh. More recently, Stardew Valley introduced PC gamers to the farm simulation style Harvest Moon is famous for while NieR: Automata put the curious Yoko Taro in the public eye. On May 31st, Hover: Revolt of Gamers presented the uniqueness of Jet Set Radio to younger gamers and Tokyo 42 managed to deliver an interesting and fun sandbox open world.
Developed by SMAC Games and published by Mode 7 (Frozen Synapse), Tokyo 42 is a unique isometric sandbox open world shooter described by the developers as “the lovechild of Syndicate and GTA 1.” To anyone remotely familiar with those two titles, SMAC Games’ debut is a clever, bright, and colorful modern take on sandbox open worlds and the isometric perspective. Its sleek art style makes for beautiful skyscrapers, monuments, and plazas seamlessly interconnected. Binding it all together are the ability to rotate the camera, which is an imperative gameplay aspect, and a catchy soundtrack.
On the surface, Tokyo 42 seems like a strong indie darling but in reality, its shortcomings turn it into a frustrating novelty. While its design choices are certainly beautiful and the open world puzzles are brilliant, the isometric perspective limits gameplay with simplified mechanics and tricky angles.
Set in a distant future, Tokyo 42‘s story is told across the rooftops and suspended parks of an idealized version of the eponymous city. The protagonist, which has a random appearance every time the game is loaded (and can also be manually randomized by the player), is framed for a murder they didn’t commit. As they run from the authorities, players come into contact with shady individuals who have clues on who actually committed the murder and why. The group investigates a company responsible for a drug everyone consumes in order to be practically immortal while the protagonist attempts to clean their name by committing more crimes.
This dystopic setting, home to intrigue and corporate schemes, is the perfect backdrop for stylish shooter mechanics, which Tokyo 42 unfortunately lacks. The gameplay is overly simplistic, with the shooting aspect easily becoming a frustrating bullet hell in which looking at the arena from the wrong angle or not paying attention to the many projectiles flying left and right means failure. Pulling the trigger and surviving a gunfire has more to do with angles and quick reflexes rather than skill, turning most missions into a series of trials governed by perception. For example, sniping from the wrong angle results in a lost bullet even if the target seems to be well in range. With the loudest sniper rifle, that lost shot is one more alerted enemy throwing grenades and bullets your way.
How simple and frustrating combat is put its necessity into question. The open world is Tokyo 42‘s most appealing aspect. Its sights, puzzles, secrets, and even the Nemesis (a regular random NPC bent on killing the player) make the colorful city fun to explore. It’s clear that the developers put a lot of care into the world building and how everything works with the isometric perspective as well as the camera mechanics. Taking on the sights, the crowds, and identifying the Nemesis are far more compelling than engaging the frustrating combat or side missions that involve riding a motorcycle (also a clunky system). The fresh take on the isometric style is Tokyo 42‘s innovation, which may remind some players of the charming FEZ (Polytron, 2012) and how successful it was. Why is it that killing people is so important for a game that would be better off solely as an open world puzzle?
Tokyo 42 is visually impactful and fun to explore, but anyone looking for a polished retro-inspired shooter might be frustrated by the game’s gimmick and how it impacts relevant gameplay aspects. Developed by SMAC Games and published by Mode 7, the game is available now on Steam and XBox One, with the PlayStaton 4 version due to July.