Ghost of Tsushima Review

July 28, 2020
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Set in a fictional 13th Century Japan, Ghost of Tsushima is beautiful and brutal from the very beginning. Riding into battle on horseback to defeat a seemingly immovable force is the kind of scene that will send chills down the back of everyone who plays it. This level of breathtaking spectacle and irrefutable quality that has defined PlayStation Studios for a generation or more. Ghost of Tsushima doesn’t falter in that department and is a more than fitting swan song for the PlayStation 4 era.

Tradition versus progression, honour versus dishonour, light versus dark. This struggle rages as Tsushima buckles at the hands of an aggressive, violent and inglorious Mongolian army. Relentless in its early moments, Ghost of Tsushima quickly made me understand just what Jin Sakai — the last remaining member of Clan Sakai — was up against. One wrong move and you’re done. Cooler heads prevail.

So, just how do you solve a problem like ruthless invaders? That’s the big question and the answer is up for interpretation — sort of. Should Jin continue to follow his father and uncle in the way of the Samurai, or do drastic times call for dishonourable measures? This internal struggle is the crux of Ghost of Tsushima.

Excuse me... Is this the samurai way?

It seemed natural to begin the game following the Samurai path as much as possible. After all, this is Jin’s way. Standing your ground and fighting off enemies feels good. Swordplay combines a mix of light and heavy attacks. Combos are simple, but it’s so gratifying when you pull off a spectacular sequence. There’s also a certain pride in announcing yourself before doing battle, a feeling is instilled from the beginning and carries through the entire game. The ‘Standoff’ mechanic to trigger a duel between warriors works very well. Time your blow right and you’ll tear your opponent down. Fail to do so, and you’re on the back foot immediately. Thankfully, combat is fairly forgiving. That doesn’t mean you’re carving through hordes of enemies like a knife through butter, mind. The parry and strike combat system rewards patience and the moment you do hit a perfect strike and better your opponent is satisfyingly violent. Taking on larger groups of enemies presents its own challenges, especially with no ability to ‘lock on’ to a specific target, but this is only a minor frustration and a cleverly hidden load in the death animation meant that when the worst did happen, I was back in the action in seconds.

Jin’s reluctance to become an assassin is what drove me to remain true to the Samurai as long as possible. Sucker Punch, the game’s developer, thankfully refrained from implementing any kind of ‘good versus bad’ meter in Ghost of Tsushima. Instead, cues from the environment, from other characters and from Jin helped guide my decisions. Intentional or not, this played into the overarching narrative very well and meant that I accepted the way of The Ghost at about the same time Jin did.

As a protagonist Jin is very much a blank slate when you start the game. His strict adherence to the Samurai code is rarely broken. However, in descending this slippery slope, Jin’s complexity and wavering moral compass means he ends the game a far more fleshed out character than he started and emerges as a protagonist that I really enjoyed playing. Progressing through the first act rewards you with some more tools for Jin to use. Namely, a bow and arrow and some distraction techniques. The groundwork for The Ghost is set early. You may want to play fair, but you’ll only be able resist the allure of striking from the shadows for so long. 

Embracing The Ghost does take time. It’s not like our guy is a master assassin from the beginning. Of course, it helped that the more dishonourable methods in my arsenal made large encounters easier. Facing down a group of hardened Mongolian warriors or roaming Ronin as a single Samurai is no mean feat, you know? However, once the ball was rolling I began to notice a shift in my playstyle.

Now, that’s not very honourable is it?

Whether that was dumb luck or strategically crafted by Sucker Punch, it worked a treat. The paths of Jin the Samurai and Jin as The Ghost began to naturally diverge around the game’s second act and, from that point it was hard to go back. Still, smaller groups would meet Jin the honourable Samurai, but bigger encampments of enemies always felt the wrath of The Ghost. It felt like a natural progression of my playstyle, and I always had the battle-tested warrior technique to back me up if and when I needed it. I fully expect players to switch between the two styles depending on the scenario, the location and maybe even the time of day. This naturally evolving gameplay style lends itself well to a world as expansive as Ghost of Tsushima, promoting experimentation and play. 

Over-reliance on one particular approach is likely to be a struggle. If you don’t sharpen your skills by facing enemies directly you’ll struggle in a duel. Outside of some mandatory stealth sections — which were rarely fun — these epic battles between two warriors can be the biggest tests of skill in the game. Essentially, they’re Ghost of Tsushima’s boss fights and none of that sneaky Ghost stuff flies here. Duels are one of the most direct homages Ghost of Tsushima plays to Japanese cinema. These fights play out exactly like a scene from Yojimbo. The cinematography, the music, the editing: everything gives off that feeling. This intensity is often complemented with often stunning environmental effects — maybe a crack of thunder or falling leaves — to give each one the perfect finishing touch. The fights themselves can prove to be a bit of a roadblock. However, like the majority of Ghost of Tsushima they can be overcome with a little perseverance. 

The way Ghost of Tsushima is directed is one of my favourite things about the game. The way battles are staged, how duels are shot in perfect symmetry with their movie counterparts, and how the camera often pulls back to reveal even more of Tsushima’s beauty — all of that is exceptional. It’s clear that, for better or worse, Sucker Punch set out not to make a historically accurate game but one that pays homage to classic Japanese cinema. The game even boasts a vintage black and white display mode, aptly titled ‘Kurosawa Mode’ — signed off by the director’s estate, no less — to lend even more credence to what the developers were trying to do with this game.

The game’s cinematography is stunning

The way the story plays out makes each act feel like its own movie with Jin’s character evolving in each subsequent sequel. In fact, each individual story in the game is treated with incredible reverence. A title card appears between each of Ghost of Tsushima’s ‘Tales’ — or quests — once again playing into the cinematic feel of the game, but also giving a sense of importance to every little story, whether it’s a fifteen-minute fetch quest or a huge, story-defining, moment. Something as simple as this made me want to explore every possible questline, speak to every person I could, and continue to rid Tsushima of the Mongolian army.

The game’s critical path (Jin’s Journey) guides the player through a very familiar and somewhat predictable story. It’s not without its moments and is very well executed, but it’s easy to see how this is going to play out from the beginning. The game’s true narrative is discovered through a huge amount of side quests. Here we get to know our allies, hear stories from the people of Tsushima, and uncover myths and legends. These little distractions do get repetitive, especially if you're grinding to find them. However, I often felt like their layout was naturally guiding me from point to point — providing a linear path in an otherwise non-linear game. This allowed me, particularly in the latter stages, to get a good glimpse at side content whilst progressing through the story.

I often found myself setting out to continue the story, before stumbling into a side quest (or two, or three) simply by getting lost in the world. It helps that every quest felt like it played into the overarching narrative in some way. Whether it was part of the core story, helped to build the game’s world and it’s characters, had you following a historical legend, or helped to establish Jin himself. Making all these things important is no mean feat, but Ghost of Tsushima pulls it off. In doing so, it also allowed me to paint my own picture of Jin Sakai. My actions and the quests I undertook naturally shaped the way I played and who my version of Jin was by the game’s end. That in itself is very special.

One quest involving Yukio stands out as one of the best side stories I’ve played through in a game. The subtlety and emotion packed into these three short quests was quite incredible. Similarly, sitting to hear the bard tell a story of an ancient Tsushima legend fleshes out the history of the island and also leads to some imaginative quest lines.

“Ok, let’s just put a happy little mountain right over there”

Nature also plays a big part in navigating the world of Ghost of Tsushima. The Guiding Wind mechanic acts as a compass, guiding you to your next objective. Whilst not ideal in small spaces, it worked incredibly well on the whole, minimising the HUD and letting the beautiful environments take over the screen and draw me in. Outside of this, Golden Birds will lead the player to secret Hot Springs to increase health, challenges to increase your Resolve meter, or side quests off the beaten track, whilst Foxes will appear to guide you to worship an Inari Shrine to earn additional charm slots. Following Shrine gates shows the path to Shinto Shrines. These were my favourite extracurricular activities in the game. Not only did they provide plentiful resources — and you’ll need those for upgrades — they presented new charms to the player and showed off some of the best views in the entire game. Seriously, looking out on the vastness of Tsushima island was genuinely breathtaking at times.

Seeing the light peek through the cracks in a dense woodland, or a field of flowers in full bloom was breathtaking. Each new prefecture felt distinct and I relished exploring them as much as possible. I’d stop in every town I crossed, often hunting for vital supplies or picking up a new quest, and it often felt like a real place. The dichotomy between these thriving fields and rolling hills versus the harsh and congruous Mongolian army camps made me want to rid Tsushima of them even more.

My hay fever has been particularly bad this year

Unfortunately, exploring Tsushima also exposes some of the game’s biggest flaws. Whilst I can forgive the cut and paste nature of the Mongolian war camps, overuse of the same character models for civilians, some flat textures, and copious amounts of fabric clipping were real eyesores. Thankfully, they’re gone as quickly as they appear but it’s apparent which areas of the game Sucker Punch spent the most time on. The cracks begin to show in the game’s animation during exploration too. Some simple things like the need to jump onto a practically level platform or the way Jin will often hover out of a window instead of vaulting just takes the shine off a little. However, if these are the sacrifices made for super-quick loading and an astonishing world, I’ll happily take them.

I wanted to get lost in Tsushima by the end of this game. The amount of time I spent messing around in photo mode is testament to that (note: Hey devs! Map photo mode to the D-pad, it’s genius). The world Sucker Punch has created is stunning, combining striking realism with creative license to build a place that feels real and lived in, and I feel there’s ample room to explore an almost endless amount of stories in this space. 

After a slow start, I grew to really understand and enjoy playing as Jin Sakai. His is a story of conflicting binaries and divergent paths; a battle of black and white that ultimately finds itself within the greys. Ghost of Tsushima is an incredibly satisfying game to play and has a world that’s begging the player to explore. There are few games out there that have had that effect on me this entire generation.

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Ghost of Tsushima is a wonderful homage to classic Samurai movies. It’s not a historically accurate epic, but it’s not claiming to be. What the game lacks in a fresh core story and an occasional lack of polish, it more than makes up for with engaging gameplay, a gorgeous world to explore, an exciting setting and characters you’ll grow to love.
Ant Barlow

Started with the PlayStation, now I'm here... with a PlayStation. Once skipped school to play the Metal Gear Solid demo repeatedly. I love stories big and small. Trophy hunter. Recent VR convert. Probably a hipster.