Tokyo Tattoo Girls ReviewJason Venter
Given the game's title and the industry's tendencies, you might expect Tokyo Tattoo Girls to be a lewd visual novel about a young loner named Suzaku, who against all odds winds up tending to a harem at the end of an unlikely adventure. What NIS America and Sushi Typhoon Games have instead delivered, though, is a somewhat dull but not completely uninteresting take on strategy gaming.
As the story goes, Tokyo has fallen into a state of ruin. Now divided into 23 wards, the sprawling city has been cut away from society at large. An impenetrable wall surrounds the vicinity, and girls with powerful tattoos--collectively known as The Syndicate--now rule the confined society. You, a tattoo artist, can recruit one of six girls to unite the wards under a greater cause, which will allow you to escape your prison and search for your family in the world beyond that loathsome wall.
Gameplay begins as you select from a map the first ward you would like to invade. As soon as you occupy that area, protection money (abbreviated as PM) begins flowing into your coffers. You can use this currency to issue commands to your heroine, or you can save up for tattoos that you ink onto her back to make her more effective at recruiting thugs and clanswomen from any districts your ragtag army occupies. At the end of each turn, icons depicting briefcases, alarm lights, and bowls with dice may appear around the map. You can tap them with your finger on the Vita screen, or move your cursor using the d-pad to interact.
Tokyo Tattoo Girls feels like it may have been developed with mobile platforms in mind. Everything you can do, you can do either with buttons or the touchscreen, so it's really a matter of which input method you prefer. Abilities have cooldown periods, as are common in free-to-play titles. Controls are often managed using large icons, and there's a lot of tapping or clicking that seems like it would suit a smartphone just fine. Visuals are attractive and often delightfully artistic despite being somewhat limited. They suit the interface just fine, but the game doesn't seem to be stressing the hardware much. It's annoying that load times (which to their credit, generally last only two or three seconds) are so common, given the barebones design that seems like it should have rendered them unnecessary. Sometimes, you might hesitate to open a useful menu because you don't want to wait for that delay. It's an unfortunate flaw, given that the entire game is well under a gigabyte in size. A little more optimization would have made for a much more pleasant experience.
As gameplay proceeds, the number of wards you occupy soon increases. On the one hand, this is a good thing. You need to occupy many wards in order to eventually persuade all of their available units to join your force, and to finally face off against their guardian. However, your recruitment efforts never go unnoticed, which causes the alert level to slowly rise. As alerts go off without suitable intervention on your part (intervention that becomes more costly and difficult the more areas you are working to subdue), you lose honor from your meter. If that meter drains completely, you lose the game. If you instead are successful in uniting all 23 wards, you win. It's as simple as that.
At first, the game can be rather intimidating. A lot seems to happen all at once, especially if you take advantage of the option to speed things up a bit. Sometimes, the connection between your actions and what is happening on-screen seems to break, but you'll likely grow used to such quirks if you play for a few hours. The tutorial tries to explain things in a satisfactory manner, and is available whenever you want to access it, but a trial-and-error approach is much more helpful.
Though the game mentions the fact at one point in the title implies it, tattoos are a critical component to keep in mind as you work to unite the wards. It's actually possible, even on the highest difficulty settings (which only unlock when you complete the to lower ones for each individual girl), to clear the campaign without touching the icons that purport to help you recruit faster, or that allow you to affect the honor gauge. Tattoos can only be placed in predetermined locations on your chosen girl's back, and you must upgrade individual components several times before a sprawling collage finally appears as if by magic. This is the easiest--and almost certain--way to win the game, whereas other strategies take more effort and yield poorer rewards.
There is one other major component to the game, which is your series of interactions with the leaders of each ward. Once you clear out a given ward, its leader meets you and you choose from among three dialogue options. These have secret ratings attached. Two of them award additional honor if you choose them, and the best of those two unlocks a character portrait you can access from the image gallery on the game's main screen. The third option is useless. Guessing which one is which isn't always easy, though you can spend PM ahead of time on some reconnaissance work. Or you can just memorize everything. Unfortunately, the campaign for each available girl unlocks one of the same 23 pieces of artwork, which feels a bit underwhelming even though the images in question are nicely drawn and colored.
Due to the game's rather limited design, it can become tedious in a hurry. There are various incentives to keep you going, including special abilities and trophies that only unlock after numerous play sessions, but the general sense is that the developers thought they had something better going than they really did. Battles with ward leaders are impossible to lose, even though they are presumably one of the game's biggest hooks. It's difficult not to wonder if the developers simply ran up against a deadline and had to ship something before it really matched the team's internal goals.
Those who might be drawn to the game--and forgive such flaws--for the anticipated fan service are likely to be disappointed, as well. The opening animation isn't particularly risqué, and the artwork that follows feels like it could have been ripped from any standard slice-of-life series from Funimation. There are some innuendo-filled comments the girls make as you ink their backs, but no animations. The game features a lot of voice work in the original Japanese, but it's devoted mostly to character development (and quite fitting for the T rating the ESRB awarded the game).
Tokyo Tattoo Girls is a fairly unique strategy title that starts out by filling in accessible and difficult, but which quickly morphs into a mundane and shallow affair that is sadly at odds with the striking art design. It's worth a look if you desperately want to experience one of the more unusual titles a major publisher has bothered to localize, but otherwise you're safe steering clear of it in favor of one of the many other superior titles available on the PlayStation Network and Vita.
Note: We were provided a download copy of the game from NIS America so that we could review this game.
Disclosure: We are provided copies of games from the game companies for some games that we review.