Ghost of Tsushima Review – A love letter to samurai cinema

Reviewed on July 15, 2020

Platform:

PS4

Released:

July 17, 2020

Publisher:

Sony Interactive Entertainment

Developer:

Sucker Punch Productions

When Ghost of Tsushima was first revealed and shown off back in 2017, it quickly shot up to the top of my most anticipated list of games. Promising a feudal Japan setting, open world exploration featuring a wandering samurai, intense combat and stunning visuals, it seemed like the perfect combination. Not to mention developer Sucker Punch have a history of crafting enjoyable adventures with likable characters. Now, Ghost of Tsushima is finally here as what is likely the swansong for the PlayStation 4, and it achieves everything that it promised, making for an overall remarkable experience and one of the most enticing and captivating open worlds in recent memory.

Set in the year 1274, samurai warriors are the legendary defenders of Japan—until the fearsome Mongol Empire invades the island of Tsushima, wreaking havoc and conquering the local population. As one of the last surviving samurai, you play as Jin, rising from the ashes to fight back. Jin Sakai is a strong, no-nonsense sort who has to balance his samurai traditions with the way of the Ghost, where his abilities and strength allow him to fight back in an unconventional war for the freedom of Japan. It hits the beats of samurai cinema as a genre pretty strongly, with Jin proving to be a serious protagonist, who has his own internal struggles about what it means to have honour in a world that is full of dishonourable people. It took me a little bit of time to become fully invested in Jin’s story, but by the final scenes I was completely engrossed and eager to see all of the narrative pieces come together.

There’s a reverence and love of the samurai genre that’s present throughout the entire experience. Some moments are subtle nods to the genre while others will hit like a brick to the head, but they’re all delightful in their own way. When you’re a skilled swordsman slicing down foes on a moonlit mountain peak, blood staining the grass below, and the twangs and rhythm of samurai soundtrack echoing around… you can’t help but smile. You can even experience the whole game in Kurosawa Mode, so that your view is like that of a black and white, grainy samurai picture of old. I like this style, but found the game far too beautiful in full colour to commit to it fully.

Ghost of Tsushima does a superb job of balancing the violence of the war in a feudal Japan setting with the beauty of the environment surrounding you. The jaw-dropping scenery bursts with deep, gorgeous colour that feels ripped from a painting. Yellow and red leaves in giant trees fill the skyline, purple and blue flowers are smattered delicately across the landscape, even the white shimmer of the Pampas grass you have to hide in is so pretty, as the grass blows in the wind with leaves soaring past your gaze. It’s all directly contrasted with the violence of the battlefield. Tortured bodies remain strung up, dried blood splattered across the sand of the beachside and fallen soldiers lay on the ground overlooking a vast ocean. It’s the mix of sadness, honour and beauty permeating the world of Tsushima, underscored by the sharp samurai soundtrack that makes the game’s love of the genre unmistakable.

“It’s the mix of sadness and beauty permeating the world, underscored by the sharp samurai soundtrack that makes the game’s love of the genre unmistakable.”

While there is an open world to explore and enjoy, the core quests are broken down into three types of tales; Jin’s Journey, the main story missions that will further the narrative and open up more of the map, Tales of Tsushima which serve as side-missions and the intriguing Mythic Tales that tap heavily into Japanese folklore and, as the name implies, lend themselves to a little bit of the supernatural. These Mythic Tales – which I won’t spoil – were easily some of my favourite parts of Ghost of Tsushima, unraveling the mysteries of each one and being rewarded with a new badass ability.

Some Tales of Tsushima are with strangers you’ll encounter during your exploration, and each of these mini-stories are captivating in their own regard, but the stand-outs are the character specific Tales of the supporting band of characters that accompany you on your quest to save Tsushima from the Mongols.

Early on you’ll meet Ishikawa, a battle-hardened veteran who teaches you how to be an archer while searching for answers from a mysterious rival. Then there’s Masako, on a mission to seek revenge on those who hurt her family. Norio, one of my favourites, is torn between his monk lifestyle and the war that is forcing him to decide what’s truly important. Another character close to Jin’s family provides insight to his back-story and gives some much-needed levity in the violent world surrounding you. These character-driven Tales were easily among the most memorable, the banter between the very likable cast propelling them along with Jin, the ever-loyal samurai trying to do right by his friends, knowing they would support his plight in return.

Exploring the map is often rewarded, not only with a piece of cool world-building but with collectibles that can be worn or an upgrade to your abilities. Encampments give you information about rumours and potential areas to check out as well so you’re not just riding blind, but even so, I enjoyed stumbling upon these diversions for myself, easily distracted by the beautiful scenery or taking a moment to breathe and reflect.

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These diversions include finding a fox den and following said foxes to Inari shrines to unlock more slots for buffs. You may also find yourself sitting and composing haiku’s in a calming moment of tranquility. This might not sound “cool”, so your mileage may vary, but I very much enjoyed taking the time to craft my own poetry with the options available and catching my breath. Bathing in a hot spring and reflecting on your journey provides a health increase, while Shinto shrines are reachable via climbing and platforming environmental puzzles that wouldn’t be out of place in a modern-day Tomb Raider. The only component that lacks a little imagination is the classic open world trope of clearing out a camp of enemies to reclaim it, complete with bonus objectives. It’s still fun, just a little “by-the-numbers”.

While it is incredibly cathartic to explore the world at your own pace and find secrets wherever possible, I appreciate how Ghost of Tsushima respects your time as well. Fast travelling is super easy between any point on the map you’ve visited previously – even if it’s mid-mission to save you time schlepping it on horseback. Some may call this “immersion-breaking” but it makes exploration feel welcoming and not obstructive, unlike some other open world games. As somebody who is time-poor and usually daunted by open worlds like this, it’s a breath of fresh air.

When it comes to combat, Sucker Punch have taken some cues from recent Assassin’s Creed adventures, utilising a basic attack, strong attack, parry and dodge system to fight opponents. There’s no lock-on to be found here, so you’ll just have to rely on the direction of your opponents, which means you’ll need to handle the camera as well which can make the multi-tasking a little tricky at first. As you encounter different enemy types, you’ll also unlock different stances – Stone for swords, Water for shields, Wind for spears and Moon for larger brutes, and flipping between them gives you a lot more flexibility in how you counter each one, which becomes vital later on.

You also have Resolve, which builds up during combat and allows you to heal mid-battle while also achieving some special attacks if you can pay the cost. You also have access to a range of ghost weapons such as Kunai (thrown sharp projectiles), black powder bombs and sticky bombs, helping you to switch up combat and take out larger groups. In contrast, distracting elements like smoke bombs, wind chimes and other evolving tactics allow you to capitalise on a more stealthy approach. The stealthy player and the “run in swords slashing” style of player are both catered for here, with some missions requiring a sneakier style due to hostage situations, while others favouring a more aggressive approach.

Then, there are Standoffs, which may be one of my favourite gameplay mechanics in recent memory, perfect for the samurai universe Tsushima is built around. If you’re looking to attack enemies head-on and not take the stealth option, a simple button press allows you to challenge them in face-to-face combat, where you have to wait for your opponent to attack in order to swiftly parry and kill them, instantly. This ability can be upgraded to kill multiple foes this way, which is satisfying every single time. I truly never tired of it and found the risk versus reward nature of standoffs to grow in intensity as the campaign rolled on.

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There are special one-on-one Duels during important moments, usually to cap off long quest-lines, that feel as though they’re pulled straight from a samurai movie. They don’t occur regularly, so they do tend to feel quite special when they happen, limiting you to just your sword and stripping you of your other abilities that you may normally use on regular enemies. These duels put your samurai skills to the test, relying on you reading and predicting your opponents moves, parrying and attacking at just the right moment, but ensuring to always keep your guard up, serving as Ghost of Tsushima’s version of boss battles.

“…clearing areas of the map of Mongols by destroying their camps – either as a stealthy ghost or a brutally confident fighter – remained fun throughout the entire adventure.”

Sometimes, combat can be a bit of a breeze though. Enemy AI can be a little bit dumb, especially during the first Act. It’s still enjoyable decimating them one after the other and stealthily taking out a large encampment like a deadly assassin, but sometimes they do things like stare at walls, waiting to be slaughtered. Other times they’ll run into a room where you just killed three of their friends and blindly let you assassinate them. They don’t feel threatening unless they attack you in large numbers, which does make things more interesting, but I still never felt truly concerned considering my giant list of fun abilities. This combat design makes Tsushima a fairly entertaining world to murder through, but may leave combat-veterans keen on a Sekiro-like challenge wanting more. It’s worth noting that as you encounter more enemies and larger numbers, combat does become more interesting, but that’s largely in the latter portions of the game.

Despite Tsushima’s many triumphs, the game still has a few detractors. Some of the back and forth dialogue cut-scenes in quests or just chatting with folk about rumours is shown using distant panning shots with the audio of the discussion, as opposed to all of the cut-scenes and characters being fully animated, causing a bit of a disconnect. In bamboo forests, you sometimes move through bamboo as if it’s a hologram, as opposed to having to go around it or squeeze through it. When enemies die near the edge of a cliff, they don’t fall off… they just kind of float. All of this sometimes makes Ghost of Tsushima feel unpolished, as the extremely high level of quality and care seen elsewhere just doesn’t feel as present in these smaller moments.

Still, niggles aside, I kept thinking about playing more of Ghost of Tsushima every time I put down the controller. There was always new mountains to scale, new foxes to follow and new discoveries to make, and I spent hours upon hours just exploring the map and stopping in my tracks to admire the gorgeous weather effects, the leaves and flowers blowing through the wind and the sunset off in the distance. I’ve never enjoyed using a photo mode as much as I have in this game, and clearing areas of the map of Mongols by destroying their camps – either as a stealthy ghost or a brutally confident fighter – remained fun throughout the entire adventure. While not always challenging, the game was absolutely always enjoyable and addictive, and even though I was thorough, I still have more to accomplish after the credits have rolled.

9

Amazing

Positive:

  • Incredibly gorgeous visuals throughout that will take your breath away
  • Beautiful open world that is genuinely worth exploring
  • Fun mix of abilities and consistently entertaining combat
  • Cast of likable characters and a story well-told
  • Standoffs, Duels, Fox Dens and Haiku's; Samurai fans have a lot to love here

Negative:

  • Every now and then, lacks a little polish
  • Combat can be easy, with questionable enemy AI

Ghost of Tsushima provides a captivating, engaging and lovingly crafted open world to explore that makes it difficult to put the controller down, even after the end credits have rolled. The development team have done an incredible job of taking the much adored samurai genre and creating an adventure featuring a wandering samurai that is both beautiful to look at and gratifying to slice through its many, many opponents. Some may question the combat and wish for a more challenging style, but the real enjoyment of Ghost of Tsushima for me was never about testing myself with difficult battles; instead, it was about taking in the environment, getting distracted by the many small moments, smiling at the little subtleties and defending my honour when I needed to. Ghost of Tsushima solidifies Sucker Punch as a developer with strong vision and true love of their craft, and is a perfect way to soak in the final days of the PS4, with blood staining your sword and cherry blossoms blowing in the breeze.