Tokyo Xanadu is available on Playstation 4 and Playstation Vita.
Sometimes games playing follow-the-leader actually turns out pretty well for us as consumers. We get to see ideas examined from different perspectives and built on through a series of new interpretations, which can end up being something of an indirect form of collaboration across different teams of creators, sometimes on different continents.
Sometimes this flounders and fails, like the many failed attempts to replicate the secret sauce that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or (for some) the market saturation of “isekai” anime that we’ve seen since Sword Art Online jump-started the concept’s modern popularity.
Sometimes it really pays off, like Breath of the Wild delivering a refined, cohesive interpretation of the Western AAA open-world structure, or with Fire Emblem: The Three Houses taking the calendar-management and social aspects of recent Persona games and re-contextualizing them for a tactical game.
But most of the time, we get mixed-bag results, often pushing a concept in an interesting direction while stumbling in other areas.
Which makes some amount of sense. Smaller studios putting out lower-budget works can afford to take weirder, more interesting risks with a concept, but they just won’t have the necessary resources on-hand to deliver the same level of polish as a studio that can afford to keep a game in development for over half a decade. (We’re not naming names here.)
That’s how you end up with something like Tokyo Xanadu, which is nothing if not borrowed ideas.
Action-RPG gameplay? A descendant of Nihon Falcom’s own Ys series.
School-life setting, event-driven calendar, and even the menu interface? Pulled straight from their Trails of Cold Steel series.
Its light stab at social mechanics, the “mind-palace” dungeons, and fantasy-within-Tokyo flavor? All clearly derivative of popular-kid-on-the-block Persona.
It’s a little of this, a little of that. All individually-successful elements pulled out of the Idea Fridge and thrown together in a JRPG stew that sounds like it should be fine on paper. But the problem with stews is that they don’t have much structure, and likewise there’s very little that ties the various elements together in a satisfying way.
Which means that the one thing that it chooses to emphasize differently really stands out.
See, the main characters – those in your party, or otherwise significant enough to warrant voice acting in a handheld game – get some nice little scenes with the protagonist that you can choose to enact on certain days, and these feel properly-curated. The rub is that they have to exist within the structure of the core narrative, so they can’t really have much significance lest their behavior in the next story cutscene should feel out-of-step with any character development they had over coffee last Tuesday.
So where the game really gets to shine is with its smaller, more incidental NPCs.
The key here is that the player’s only direct interaction with them is through passing conversations. You know, the kind of dialogue that in other games you might tune right out, because any given character is more likely to just comment on how gosh-darn useful the item shop or provide some empty flavor text rather than contribute to the magic-is-real plot that passersby aren’t supposed to know about in the first place.
But you’re not moving from town-to-town in Tokyo Xanadu. The setting is smaller-scale and more fixed, so you’re going to be walking through the same areas in a daily routine, seeing largely same cast of characters in the final chapter as you did in the first. There are three main ways that the game might have handled bystander dialogue in response:
- They say the same thing, every single day, and eventually you start ignoring them entirely.
- They find a different banal topic to comment on every week or so to keep things interesting but not distracting.
- They’re given something of their own to do with little-to-no relevance to the player.
Thank goodness that the game went with the last option.
See, while you’re off having your own adventure with otherworldly horrors and underground secret societies and all those other Urban Fantasy standards, the rest of the world is continuing to spin on with or without you. Y’know, like normal human people would tend to do.
Character dialogue will change over time, generally progressing slowly through a micro-story. For example, you can meet a traveling musician fairly early on who is initially intimidated by the big-city Tokyo atmosphere. Gradually, he’ll become more comfortable with the area as the weeks progress, and you eventually see him get to the point where his common-area panhandling performances garner the attention of a talent scout. Good for him!
Not all of them are as self-contained, though. A few you can nudge along in their personal dramas by greasing the wheels with a sidequest. That’s nothing new to role-playing games. Others will instead cross over with each other in interesting ways, killing the impression that any of them might live in a vacuum. They even cross over with you, as your character already has an established rapport with most of the students in school by the time the events of the game start, giving you the feeling that you’ve stepped into a social ecosystem that’s been going on for some time.
Take freshman student Minoru, who starts out with about as much flavor to him as cheap white bread. A chapter or so in, he’ll be convinced by a senior student to be the last member of the filmmaking club that he’s been looking for, which will then constitute both of their character arcs over the next four in-game months. This will eventually lead Minoru to step into yet other students’ paths, from the bookish Shizune (who declines to write him a script) to the holier-than-thou Erika (desired lead of his student film, if a bit caught up in her own unrelated one-sided rivalry).
And these are just a handful of the characters on offer – the final character list has well over 50 of these listed in the school and milling about across every district of town, each one with their own unique character design to set them apart and a little narrative to follow. Many of these incidental characters aren’t even found in the exact same spot every day, providing the impression that they would continue to move forward with their pet problems with or without the player’s input in most cases. I wouldn’t know, since I found myself unable to leave them alone; in fact, by the time the game was finally in its third act, I was absolutely still playing mostly to see the results from Shizune’s fiction-writing competition, if the dogged Ayato ever found his backbone, or if gourmand Nobuo and sweetheart Ayumi ever finally got to talking with each other.
And as much as people including myself just fawned over Persona 5’s envisioning of Tokyo – which was certainly presented far more dynamically, tightly, densely, and with a higher fidelity than a handheld game with fewer resources could hope for – I found myself bought into this version of the same setting even more.
The key thing is that it felt like it existed outside of me and my actions. When I decided to put the game down, there was a definite sense that the shopkeepers would continue to juggle the needs of their businesses, the girls would continue to fail to win the attention of the Designated Hot Teacher, and that the scruffy man in the park would continue his environmentalist crusade. Everyone had something occupying their lives, and true to life, it’s all meandering in ways that run both parallel to and across one another and independently of the one kid who happens to be controlled by the player.
And for its other misses, Tokyo Xanadu did that one seemingly-insignificant thing so overwhelmingly right that the whole game has kind of stuck with me. It turns out you don’t even have to match the sum of your parts to accomplish that so long as one of those parts can leave the right impression.