Review – Ghostpia

There are titles that come across my desk that really give me pause about my scope of gaming. These games aren’t necessarily my favorites of all time: those experiences come about from solid loop gameplay, utterly engrossing storylines, unbelievable versatility or gratuitous amounts of fan service. But these games, the ones that stop my brain for a moment, are always ones that I think about later on. I’ll see something that reminds me or hear a note that brings me back there, and I contemplate my time with said game. And, should someone ask me about it, I’ll have to really ponder what to say before recommending it.

Ghostpia is one of those titles. Chosuido, who employs hako life (creator of Unreal Life) has crafted a denshi graphic novel, which is very much not a visual novel as you know it. There are no multiple choices, no branching paths. There is one ending and that ending isn’t even clear as of now, as Ghostpia has a theoretical second season to come. In the devs own words, you should enjoy Ghostpia as you would a movie or a manga, and that, unto itself, is already a weird ask. The thoughts abound: why isn’t this a book? A novella? An anime series? If I’m playing a game that doesn’t let me do anything, is it truly a game? And why on Earth would I want it on my Nintendo Switch when Tears of the Kingdom is already occupying every waking moment?

Ghostpia Sayoko

Alright, you have my attention, please continue.

Like so many visual novels, RPGS and other experiments born out of storytellers working in different mediums, Ghostpia continues to drag players along because of the core content. You’re thrust into the story of Sayoko, a woman trapped in some kind of Purgatory that takes the form of a sleepy town. Each night, everyone in town awakens, and, each rising morning, the advent of the sun compels them to sleep. To be caught out in the sunlight means to disintegrate and die, but that’s not really a problem: death is a minor inconvenience that causes you to reawaken in the garbage dump some time later. Inversely, possession of items is also difficult: anything that the inhabitants stop thinking about for an extended period of time vanishes, only to reappear in the aforementioned landfill. The residents think of themselves as ghosts: never aging, never dying, feeling everything but unaffected by anything.

 As we begin our tale, we know only three things. First, Sayoko attempted to leave the village some time ago, was unable to, and is now viewed as a pariah, a dangerous person, and is rather racially dubbed “The Ninja.” Second, the Church controls the town to some extent, with many believing the Priest that God is judging them all and they will eventually be freed once an unknown act or sin is performed/cleansed. Lastly, there have always been exactly 1024 specters living in this town, a number that has remained steady since time immemorial…until today, when someone new has arrived.


And we occasionally have a bathroom scene, but they’re not what you think.

Analyzing and critiquing Ghostpia is a bizarre feat because of what it is, what it becomes and what it wants to be. It’s clear that Chosuido feels the best way to experience this is as a “game,” and that makes sense in presentation. The very creation of Ghostpia is a celebration of eclectic stylings and storytelling, which so many elements mixed in it feels like far, far more people worked on this project than listed.

Each of the five chapters in season one has a massive mixture of approaches in terms of art, audio, and animation. There are moments where you get static images with words appearing at the bottom. Other times you have fully animated scenes that feel high budget, others that almost scream arthouse, and still more that are digital nightmares that were rendered by a seriously disturbed machine. It’s so stark and clashing that it can be visibly upsetting when moments occur.

Ghostpia Yoru

Actual quote from several big name publishers.

These visuals are only further enhanced by the decision to have Ghostpia filtered through a CRT-emulated screen with purposeful (but seemingly random) graphical glitches. The spots of “error” that pepper each and every moment make this feel both ancient and timeless, like finding a lost VHS tape of a show you saw when you were a child. This application of deliberate deterioration further heightens the sensation that something is inherently wrong in both the story, the world and even Sayoko herself, like you’re bearing witness to some kind of secret that was stumbled upon and should be dealt with, immediately. Whether we need to re-bury it or let the whole world know is unclear, and deeply uncomfortable with each passing moment.


Well, I guess I’ll be having nightmares for dinner.

In fact, Ghostpia often feels like it wants to trap you in the uncertainty of it all. Each chapter has an opening and a closing, complete with credits, mid-chapter bumpers a lá an anime series, and post-credit scenes to further tantalize you as to what might be coming or what’s happening behind the scenes. Yet, unlike a traditional TV series, you can stop, rewind and fast forward at any point to reiterate something you might have missed or to try and skip past a part that you’ve seen before. It’s a facsimile of analog media imposed on a digital façade, and the entire thing is pulling you in so many directions at once that it’s hard to tell which way is up or down.

Yet that’s exactly what makes it work with the roller coaster of the narrative. I hesitate to be so derivative, but there’s a sense of rapid tone changes and apropos speech patterns that seems to exclusively exist in Japanese media, or at least in those heavily inspired by Japan. You’ll have deep, heartfelt moments of characters trying to convey their emotions and their theories that suddenly are replaced by non sequitur exclamations that almost seem to mock the audience. Screams of pain and surprise that are names of sea life, for example, or constantly circling back to the same joke about something being done 9,999 times, even though the joke appears to be only funny to the characters.

Ghostpia Lump of Clay on a Rope

In this scene, the clay is actively spinning around like a 90’s website GIF, so do with that what you will.

The juxtaposition between humor, sincerity, and violence can be a bit extreme at times, and players who are uncomfortable with gore, even written or described, should be very aware. Yes, people cannot die in this damned town, but they can be shot, stabbed, poisoned, blown up, have their necks snapped, fingers broken, tortured to some extent and it all happens to some degree. The art style, which is a very unique cross between 90s anime inspiration and modern indie watercolors, convey a lot in terms of pain and sadness, and that can be really hard to see, even if only in small moments. It can also be exceptionally exciting, particularly when Sayoko lives up to her nickname and executes some John Woo level shootouts.


She is none too subtle when she’s getting ready for these moments.

The characters themselves are painfully polarizing, and that leaves players a bit uncertain who to align with inside Ghostpia. Sayoko is somewhere between a misanthrope and a deeply lonely, confused girl, and her state of mind doesn’t seem to be what she wants, but she doesn’t know how to change it. Her friendship with Pacifica and Anya, the two she talks to the most, is clearly strained at the beginning and we soon find out why in an incredibly graphic flashback. Pacifica seems to be friendly but aloof, as though everything is merely an act to get to what she wants or needs the most. Anya has clear difficulty expressing her emotions, but they are raw and real and can explode at the most inopportune times. As a trio, they’re a sight to behold and complement each other successfully.

Sayoko is a difficult person to get behind due to her very nature and narration. She appears to be a foreigner in this town, and every hint says she’s Japanese, which probably helps readers to better connect with her saga. She struggles to make her honest thoughts known, and waffles between reveling in the distrust and space the town gives her and longing to feel like she belongs, though she explicitly states she is an outsider multiple times. She’s constantly trying to eat her cake and have it too, and this can be exhausting for the reader to simply want to root for her without needing to insert caveats as to why her actions at times are okay.

Internal Thoughts

Careful, the game will sometimes read your thoughts and project them onto the screen.

Yet it’s the inclusion of this mysterious 1025th denizen, Yoru, that makes the story sing. From a literary standpoint, having something change in a land where nothing ever changes denotes a much bigger shift coming, and Ghostpia is certainly no exception. This newcomer is complex, masking deeper secrets and understanding through a facade of ignorance and purposefully obstinate, and she seems to awaken something in everyone she meets. Her connection to Sayoko is invaluable and, more than likely, will be the driving lynchpin behind the second season, which I genuinely hope is coming sooner rather than later. I’m doing my best not to spoil anything, but there are moments of clarity that craft so many complicated theories in my mind that I may go back and replay it just to look for clues if I’m correct or not.

Ghostpia Power of Friendship

See, Your Honor? Not arson, friendship!

There’s no mistake that the folks of Chosuido knew what they were doing in crafting a world where some people matter and others don’t. If a character gets a speaking role, even for a moment, they become an invaluable piece of the tapestry, revealing so much about their existence as much as themselves. Characters who might be perceived as jokes or static foils actually speak volumes on the topics of what it means to exist, to find purpose, what death is and what living isn’t. Even characters who seem evil, like the Priest, serve a purpose other than to be a bad guy. After all, if people didn’t have something to believe in, who knows what they might 

Lastly, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the music of Ghostpia. Hiromu Takano is a brilliant composer, and his music, both the original versions and some remixed/altered tracks make up the important soundtrack of this world. Every melody flows in and out, capturing some different emotion and element that are important to help speak for the characters who have no voices themselves. The track Friends in particular gets used quite a bit, and seems to evoke either a playful element (Sayoko, Pacifica, and Anya are arguing at home) or serious tragedy (the otaku Aleksy expounds on his thoughts of death and afterlife). The versatility allows it to be either sincere or mocking, and the constant music further underlines times when all the sound drops out. I would highly recommend finding the album on your local streaming service and giving it a listen for some melancholy, low-fi background ambience.


The horror surrounding this moment is further amplified by how sweet it is out of context.

The most difficult part of reviewing Ghostpia is both making sure I didn’t miss anything and also didn’t spoil anything. The unveiling of each artifact of discovery – the history, the antagonists, the post-credit scenes that are truly BAFFLING – is something unto itself and hooks players in heavily. With no gameplay element to speak of, it’s of utmost importance to stress the connection I had with this title and why it works better as a game than, say, a YouTube series or a short film. It works because the way you interact with it elevates it beyond some kind of stream or passive media. You need to be holding the controls. You need to feel the vibrations that accompany revelations and quiet threats. You need to have your face up close to the screen when something suddenly changes.

This story isn’t finished, but the first season of Ghostpia has enthralled and entranced me. I want to know more, to figure it all out, and to see if I’m correct in my theories. I want to hear more music, explore more boundaries, see Clara and Mr. Patel and the highly upsetting Renja continue their story. As off kilter of a “game” as this might be, it’s nonetheless a heady dose of high strangeness, a cafe blend of Twin Peaks meets Watamote with a fair dash of When Our Journey Ends and just a touch of existential crisis. Like a great book, it leaves you filled, curious, and eager for more. The yearning for explanation, for connection, and the very real taste of loneliness cloaked in dry humor is what will keep me waiting at the station. The next train will surely bring me home.


Graphics: 8.5

The mottled blend of digital and hand crafted artwork brings the surreal nature of Ghostpia to life in a breathtaking fashion, though the shifts to off-kilter styles, like manga panels, can shock you out of the moment.

Gameplay: 7.0

With no choices and no decisions, the simple act of reading and moving through the story is well executed, but there’s nothing to celebrate in particular: it works, and that’s about it.

Sound: 10

Evocative, playful, mournful, foreboding…players will run the gamut of emotions and reactions through this incredible mix of piano, vocals and electronic enhancement to craft Sayoko’s world.

Fun Factor: 9.0

This is one of those titles that’s either going to completely land or not. There’s no nuance or singular moment that will appeal to niche players: the enjoyment will be all or none. And, for me, it’s definitely all.

Final Verdict: 8.5

Ghostpia is available now on Nintendo Switch.

Reviewed on Nintendo Switch.

A copy of Ghostpia was provided by the publisher.