Set in 1274 on the Tsushima Island, the last samurai, Jin Sakai, must master a new fighting style, the way of the Ghost, to defeat the Mongol forces and fight for the freedom and independence of Japan.
Publisher: Sony Computer Interactive
Reviewed on: PS4 (Pro unit)
Also available for: N/A
Cast: Daisuke Tsuji, Eric Steinberg, Sumalee Montano, Patrick Gallagher, Francois Chau, James Hiroyuki Liao, Lauren Tom, Earl T. Kim, Eddie Shin, Karen Huie
Developer: Sucker Punch
Directors: Nate Fox, Jason Connell
Writers: Ian Ryan, Liz Albl, Patrick Downs, Jordan Lemos
Lead Artist: Jason Connell
No video game has re-created the look, feel and sound of classic samurai films quite like Ghost of Tsushima. One can only assume that the team at Sucker Punch are massive fans of Seven Samurai. Even further, massive fans of Akira Kurosawa and his library of samurai related and Edo-period adjacent films. Ghost of Tsushima even includes a “Kurosawa mode” that recreates the black & white look of the classic filmmaker’s work. Visually the game leans without fear into its inspirations. I just wish it had of explored a deeper well than the shallow pickings of formulaic triple-a open-world structures we’ve come to expect.
In 1274 the island of Tsushima was invaded by the Mongolian army. This is a fact. In Ghost of Tsushima that fact is used as the basis for the game. However, Sucker Punch chose not to try and recreate real historical figures and instead opted for a completely original cast of characters.
Leading the attack on Tsushima is Khotun Khan and defending the island is Jin Sakai alongside his Uncle, Lord Shinura and an army of samurai warriors.
The game begins with a bloodbath on the beach. Tsushima’s protectors lose horribly to the forces of the Mongolian army. Jin survives thanks to a thief named Yuna who pulls him to safety off the beach but Lord Shimura is taken captive by the Khan.
Jin joins forces with his saviour to help free her brother and then his uncle. As you venture across the island you’ll gather several new allies as well, old friends and new to aid you in your quest to save Lord Shimura.
During his journey, Jin will develop a close bond with Yuna as she introduces him to stealth tactics and her background in evading the enemy and striking from the darkness. A path Jin is at first totally against, but he soon realises he must adapt to beat the Mongolian army.
Jin’s adventure takes you across the stunning island of Tsushima, through lush fields backed against blue backdrops to the eventual dying crops and war-torn villages. Autumn leaves fall from the sky and the backdrop of any moment in Ghost of Tsushima is a scene set for a showdown. Bloody battles take place in open fields, villages and under the cover of the darkness of night.
The main quest line of Ghost of Tsushima can probably be completed in 10-15 hours, but you’ll be doing the game a horrible disservice. Not only will you not see the majority of the landscape, but you’ll also miss the best moments of the game. For as noble as Jin’s quest to save his island and people is, it’s by far the least interesting story in the game.
Developer Sucker Punch is known these days for their inFamous franchise which had a big focus on player choice. Good or bad decisions affect not only the story, but also your character’s powers. In Ghost of Tsushima, there is a narrative discourse around stealth being the ‘bad’ path, but in terms of gameplay, it isn’t a proper evil or good. You’re free to play the game using more noble samurai means for the most part, or stealth tactics, but the games’ narrative is about Jin becoming the ‘Ghost of Tsushima’ and you have no choice in that.
Ghost of Tshumia’s combat works with a sort of rock-paper-scissors mechanic. As you play the game you’ll eventually unlock four different stances. Each one is good at breaking the defence of a certain type of enemy with a heavy attack. This makes combat feel like a sort of dance at times you switch stances to break each enemy’s guard and then take them down quickly with a swift attack.
There is no lock on in the game, which may feel weird at first but once you play for an hour or so it starts to feel perfect for the type of combat at play. A lock-on would actually make the game harder in most combat scenarios, Although you do miss having it when using some of the game’s quickfire abilities which often miss their target.
The combat feels like a mix of the no lock-on, free-flowing format of something like the Batman Arkham series, with the swordplay feels Sekiro-lite. It’s a lot more forgiving when it comes to parry and block windows but performing a perfect counter and strike does feel fantastic.
As Jin’s journey continues and he’s pushed to adapt tactics that aren’t samurai approved you’ll begin to unlock “ghost” weapons. These include throwing knives (Kunai), smoke bombs and even the ability to initiate combo stealth takedowns of up to three enemies. Some of these weapons can be adapted to your normal combat routine and prove to be greatly effective. Throwing a kunai into a brute’s face is often the easiest way to break their defence, for example.
The majority of the other ghost skills are for stealth and include items like firecrackers which you can use to attract enemies to a certain location.
The mission structure is typical open-world stuff to a dot. Go to point A, probably kill a few people, maybe go to a point B. Sometimes they ask you to do it in stealth and there are a handful of insta-fail stealth missions during Ghost of Tsushima that aren’t hard, but definitely feel like they’re inspired by the old Assassin’s Creed formula.
Overall the stealth-slash-ghost side of Ghost of Tsushima is the least satisfying way to play the game. Especially when the stealth is so bare bones. There’s no way to hide bodies and the majority of your time will just be spent waiting for an enemy to walk near the bush you’re hiding in and performing a stealth takedown.
It’s weird how much the game tries to make you feel like you have a choice in Jin’s journey to becoming the Ghost to the point it can become immersion breaking.
In one mission I was told to take down some Mongolians carefully as they’d captured hostages. It was pushing ghost tactics on me. Go slow and stealthy. However, I simply walked up to the three enemies and killed them honourably without them getting the time to kill the hostages. The character I was with at the time commented about the tactics I’d used being so different and out there — but I hadn’t used stealth as the mission designed. This isn’t the only example of this happening in the game I have either.
There’s also a random choice at the end of the game that feels like an odd inclusion. Especially since we know from past Sucker Punch experience, they’ll pick one as the “canon” ending for the inevitable sequel. In the inFamous games, the two different endings made sense as you’d spent those entire games picking different choices but in Ghost of Tsushima, you have no real choices until the final moment. It is unnecessary and I wish Sucker Punch had of just stuck a landing however they wished.
Jin isn’t a particularly interesting character for most of the game. He’s a stoic individual that had been trained to keep his emotions in check. Luckily those around Jin are much more interesting.
You meet two surviving samurai warriors early in the game. Lady Masako is on a path of vengeance for her family’s killers and Sensei Ishikawa hunts a former student who turned rogue during the invasion. Both are well-written characters with arcs that leave you guessing and surprised by where they go. I have a huge soft spot for Lady Masako’s story, but there’s a surprise character quest about halfway through the game that’s easily the best one in the game. I won’t spoil it, but it’s sad and impactful in ways you wouldn’t expect from this game, given the genre, period and setting.
The thief Yuna features a lot in the main quest as Jin grows closer to her but a lot of her backstory and more interesting material is told inside side quests. If you’re only going to play one character’s extra material it has to be Yuna’s, who is the best character in Ghost of Tsushima. She’s a strong and powerful woman who looks after her family and didn’t think twice about saving Jin on the beach even if it put her at risk. She goes through a lot by the end of the game and turns from a thief to fighter and then a hero. She may not be who you play as in the game’s final showdown, but she is certainly who I was thinking about most in my post-game mediation.
Talking about mediation — one of the collectables of the game are haikus. You find these peaceful little spots and you get to pick from several words to craft your poem around a specific theme. Although the haiku’s quality is going to vary by player choice, they’re a unique part of this game. Especially when the rest of Ghost of Tsushima collectables start to feel too Ubisoft-esque and bloated.
Discovery is a big part of Ghost of Tsushima. The game is very smart about how it draws the player’s attention while also not being abrasive and interrupting you if you’re on your way to a mission. You’ll often see and hear a little yellow bird fly past you and if you choose to follow it they’ll take you to a collectable of some sort.
Using a HUD-less approach and with no proper waypoints, the game does something unique in regards to how you get to where you need to go, and how you discover secrets. The game does let you use a map and you can pinpoint an objective or location and the wind then literally guides you. If you’re in a forest or a field it’s easy to see which direction the wind is flowing and you simply follow it to find your objective. If you’re in a location with no big wind-givers, swipe up on the DualShock touchpad and a gust shall head in the direction you need to go. It’s rather ingenious and one of the more unique open-world aspects of a game that can feel very paint-by-open-world-2012-design at times.
Although you will spot roaming patrols and wildlife around the island, you won’t see traders travelling between camps or anything that helps make the island feel like an island fighting to survive. The first time you come across Mongolians fighting a bear it feels very exciting and you’ll most likely watch to see the outcome of the fight like I did. But there’s no other random events like that to help make the open-world feel like anything more than a sandbox for Jin. The majority of more recent open-world games I’ve played have featured more alive-feeling worlds with unique and random events.
It’s undoubtedly a beautiful sandbox thanks to some of the best art direction in any recent game. Ghost of Tsushima makes up for what it lacks in realistic character models compared to something like The Last of Us Part II with its commitment to landing its stylised choices. The game has style in spades. Which does help when there are some weird bugs happening from a clipping of characters and weapons through the world to seeing Foxes floating above the ground.