The vast history of manga and anime is a peculiar one. How a minor series of Japanese comics about a small android with jets for limbs – conceived by Osamu Tezuka in the wake of WWII – evolved into a worldwide dominating phenomenon, becoming it’s own genre within the realm of illustration and animation – and a bona fide sexual fetish to boot – is a story too rich to be condensed here. But those of us born early enough and with one eye (or two) perpetually on the ever-moving current of pop culture remember when and how it all came to the fore.
Tokyo Babel: PC
Release Date: 31 March 2016
Price: £26:99 [Disclosure: Game Copy Provided by Publisher]
The decade between 1986 and 1996 saw an almost mind-boggling influx of anime titles being introduced to western television; a barrage of weird but gizmo-cute creatures, neon coloured hair-dos, stylized martial arts, oversized mecha suits and thigh-high socks, all saturated in a healthy dose of candid teen angst and distinctly Japanese melodrama. Over the course of just a few years, an entirely new brand of youth entertainment had cemented itself into the cultural zeitgeist, and with it a very specific set of archetypes that seem to have taken hold and become inherent to nearly all contemporary Japanese animation.
Tokyo Babel – the debut effort from Mangagamer’s new partnership with Propeller studios – plays like a compilation of those very archetypes; a surreptitious blend of sci-fi and fantasy, lofty but ambiguous philosophies, balletic action, religious subtext, coming-of-age narratives, kitsch humour and, of course, a blatant sexualization of the female gender – these are, for better or worse, the very staples of modern anime as we know it. How you respond to and how in-tune you are with these tropes of the genre will determine just how much you enjoy Tokyo Babel. But I digress…
Schoolgirl Sorami awakens to an empty classroom and a ringing telephone. Upon answering, she’s met with the assuring cadence of the mysterious Setsuna who warns her to flee the area as there is someone, or something, coming to kill her. What ensues is a restrained but incredibly tense cat-and-mouse chase through the corridors of a decayed high-school, which culminates in a scene that is truly, genuinely disturbing. The words “Found you..” have rarely been put to better or more unnerving use. It’s a superb opening. Soon enough, Setsuna arrives on the scene with a young woman, Lilith, in tow. And this is when the heavy exposition begins… and never really stops.
It is slowly revealed that this is a universe of parallel worlds. But every action that takes place in one world has a knock-on effect, a reaction, in another; as a result, the worlds have gradually turned to ruin and decay. In addition, hell has been flooded and the doors to heaven have been locked. The humans, angels, and demons that remain are forced to take refuge in Tokyo Babel – a purgatorial city comprised of seven levels – representing the seven sins – which one must ascend in a pilgrimage to reach the top and meet god himself. Every level is dominated by ‘Rulers’ – fallen angels and demons who claim each level of Babel as their own, and who combat anyone trying to ascend. Only once you defeat the rulers and reach the top will the gates of heaven be opened.
Setsuna, an artificially enhanced entity, has been summoned by the demon Lilith, otherwise known as ‘The Witch of the Night’, and the angel Radiel, ‘The Secrecy of God’. He saves the human Sorami from a sadistic fallen angel who inadvertently transplants her eyes to Sorami’s, imbuing her with the power to “see the truth”. The four form a team and begin ascending the ladder of Tokyo Babel. Along the way they’re confronted with an array of characters, many being steeped, like the story itself, in Christian mythology. I’m not familiar with most of it, but it’s a safe bet that those who are will likely pick up on some of the more astute references and analogies that, admittedly, flew completely over my head. It’s pretty heady stuff and if I’m to be honest a little too convoluted for it’s own good.
But there’s a lot to like about Tokyo Babel. Despite the incredibly languid pacing (more on that below), the narrative structure is quite interesting. A particular secret resides at the heart of the story and only by playing through each of the arcs of the three main heroines is the secret revealed; a portion revealed with every completed route. It isn’t a radical idea, but it works enough to keep you invested and pushing forward. The dialogue and action choices you’re given as a player that result in any kind of significant consequence to the story are scarce, but between the four main characters, there are some impressively branching narratives with multiple endings to be had. The characters themselves are rote to the genre and fairly uninspired, but it’s balanced out nicely by the comedy. The women, in particular, are hilarious.
The illustrations are all beautifully composed and infused with genuine dynamism. The fights are as exciting as anything I’ve seen in an action-driven VN. It experiments more than it’s recent counterparts, utilising techniques like silhouettes and manga panels to tremendous effect. It’s not perfect; some imagery is overused but that’s an easily forgiven blemish in the face of a 30 – 40 hour run time.
The soundtrack is an odd hybrid of electronic and ambient rock . It’s works well with the material and the sound design as a whole has been cleverly conceived; pockmarked by subtle whistles, echoes and vibrations, which all serve to bolster the atmosphere immensely.
The game’s biggest problem lies in its pace. For all the exposition on display, very little can happen over extended periods of time. Some scenes run on for twice as long as they need to be. They just drag, and drag, and drag. While it’s certainly not out of the norm for anime to extend conversations and certain scenarios beyond their welcome, such exploits are better suited to a more episodic medium, as opposed to the VN. Being fed the same piece of information 10 times over – just phrased differently each time – can become quite tiresome. But the third-person text is as much of a problem as the dialogue; unnecessarily complex and drawn-out prose often slows proceedings to a halt, and while there are some wonderful gems of description and word picture, it more often than not feels like the writers were trying to hit a word quota as opposed to service the story.
Tokyo Babel is a work that belongs unequivocally to it’s genre of entertainment. It contains all the hallmarks that constitute modern pop anime, but very little else. Which is to say that the more passionate VN and anime fans will find plenty to love here but newcomers will be left decidedly cold. It’s just too textually dense and narratively tangled to be called accessible. It’s a game made for the fans and certainly not to convert the uninitiated. But there’s nothing wrong with that. Protracted dialogue and familiar tropes aside, there’s a striking world to be experienced here. A vast, multi-layered plot encapsulated by some truly beautiful imagery; an indulgent but delicious treat for those who can get on board it’s very specific wavelengths.