Ghost of Tsushima is the latest open-world, single-player, story driven experience coming at the heels of another (and far more controversial) PlayStation 4 exclusive. The game lets you play as a samurai in feudal Japan, fighting against the Mongol invaders in the island of Tsushima.
On the surface, it has all the elements to succeed: a potentially epic storyline that blends fictional characters with historical events, a beautiful open-world with lots of exploration, samurai, mongols, and lots and lots of sword-fights that range from huge battles to tense duels. But does the game actually reach its potential? Let’s find out.
Ghost of Tsushima follows a long line of jidaigeki (Japanese period drama) games. However, unlike its immediate predecessors Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, and both Nioh games, Ghost of Tsushima eschews the demons and monsters for a more human and grounded experience. It is the nearest to a samurai sim we will ever get, where history and fiction are blended to make an exciting experience.
Despite my initial impressions via gameplay trailers, I couldn’t stress enough that it would be very unfair to call this game a Japanese Assassin’s Creed. Unlike Ubisoft’s franchise, developers Sucker Punch used tried and true game mechanics (most of which appeared in Assassin’s Creed in one form or another), harmonizes them to make it feel as if it belongs to this game. No mechanic was shoe-horned, and if Sucker Punch included something in this game, there’s usually a good reason why.
In Ghost of Tsushima you are Jin Sakai, a samurai fighting the Mongol invaders with his fellow warriors under the command of his uncle, Lord Shimura. However, the attack fails, the samurai are slaughtered on the beach, and Lord Shimura is captured. A wounded Jin is nursed back to health by Yuna, a thief who rescued him so that he can help her save her brother. Jin agrees to do so only if she will help him rescue Lord Shimura. Jin makes his first attempt by calling out Khotun Khan, the commander of the Mongol forces, for a one-on-one battle which Jin loses. Realizing that the ways of samurai warfare he was trained in was inadequate to defeat the invaders and save Tsushima, Jin goes down a path into becoming the Ghost: a legendary hero who strikes from the shadows and put fear into the hearts of the enemy.
Ghost of Tsushima is an homage to the samurai films of Akira Kurosawa and the period dramas of Japan. It deals with the usual jidaigeki topics such as honor, loyalty, and duty to your lord and land, all if which are pretty standard jidaigeki fare. This high degree of respect coming from Sucker Punch means that the game looks and feels like authentic samurai cinema. It even has a mode with a black and white filter named “Kurosawa Mode” after the legendary director Akira Kurosawa, making the game look as if it was made by him.
This and the research the developers made on Japanese and Mongol history, including armor types, the geography of the Tsushima island, and even period accurate kanji they used, all help in making this game feel authentic. Some elements were understandably ahistorical (the katana, for example, wouldn’t be developed until centuries later) due to creative considerations, but this game looks and feels right. It is the first truly grounded samurai gaming I am fortunate enough to enjoy since I played Kengo: Masters of Bushido on the PlayStation 2.
There is however, one big drawback to this push for authenticity. While the game does a good job of looking and feeling like authentic samurai drama, it follows the convention so much that some plot elements felt clichè. For example, take Lord Shimura’s opposition to Jin’s newfound ways and techniques as the Ghost thinking them “beneath” a samurai. With the whole fate of Tsushima depending on Jin’s embracing his destiny as the Ghost, it is at this point that you will realize that you’ve figured out how this is going to end, with all the pontificating, posturing, and death along the way. A true jidaigeki experience. Truly and predictably, jidaigeki.
…if you are willing to simply enjoy the story for what it is, then you will be very happy with it.
That is not to say that the overall story isn’t good. It is quite solid and in fact, I enjoyed it. I loved it. But I am also a huge, huge fan of jidaigeki which colors my perception of the story. It is the age of profound storytelling in video games, and for some people, the story might be a disappointment.
Consider this: replace “Ghost” with “Ninja” and change the setting from the Mongol Invasion to the Sengoku era, with rival samurai clans as enemies instead of Mongols. The plot would still have worked and there wouldn’t be much of a difference.
Having said that, if you are willing to simply enjoy the story for what it is, then you will be very happy with it. The narrative doesn’t over-reach, and the whole story structure benefits from it.
The story missions are divided into three types: Jin’s Journey, which are the main story missions; the Tales of Tsushima, which are the side-missions; and the Mythic Tales, which are special missions regarding myths surrounding legendary figures and their equipment or techniques.
Jin’s Journey is itself divided into three Acts and each story mission works toward that Act’s finale. These are the missions that advance the plot and their completion is sometimes referenced in Tales missions that you haven’t finished yet at that point. Jin’s Journey is also where you’ll have truly epic battles complete with a riveting musical score.
Certain abilities are also unlocked by completing Jin’s Journey missions as Jin clearly transitions from upstanding Samurai to the legendary Ghost. While the game features several dialogue choices, you have no control over Jin becoming the Ghost. That’s a huge plus for me, because it shows that Jin Sakai isn’t merely an avatar for my samurai fantasies, but a character with his own story and ideals shaped by his experiences. Every legend increase and skill point invested in making Jin more powerful and efficient contributes to the Ghost’s legend, just as every story mission completed makes it clear how much the circumstances has changed Jin.
A huge part of content comes from both Tales of Tsushima, and Mythic Tales. Tales lets you complete missions for your allies, given by captives you rescue, or by people you talk to in camps. The very minor of these involve clearing an outpost, or saving someone, but the ones involving your allies can stretch as far as the whole game. These side missions open up the world in a unique way, offering you insights to customs as well as giving secondary characters some character development.
The Tales also functions as its own narrative, like an episode in a long-running series. They have their own story and their own resolution, very much like the side quests in The Witcher 3 though usually without its length and depth. Some of these even reference current events, with different dialogue for when you completed them before or after a story mission.
My only gripe with these Tales is that there are missions that felt like it dragged on far too long. I don’t mind clearing an outpost of enemies, but I certainly felt irritated at tracking footsteps again and again. Some missions can be comical or interesting at least, as the game tries to narrate the story of a people breaking apart at the stress and upheaval of an ongoing war. While some, particularly the Tales of the Lady Mariko featuring one of your allies, was personal and heart-breakingly tragic.
The Mythic Tales on the other hand, are far more rewarding and are my personal favorites even though some require you to go from one point to the other. They can be accessed by talking to the travelling storyteller, Yamato, who begins the mission by narrating the legendary deeds of past heroes and tasks you with either learning their techniques or obtaining their equipment. Two of these missions rewarded me with powerful techniques that saved my life later on in the game. Mostly, I enjoyed the Mythic Tales because it narrates the deeds of legendary heroes, with Jin “learning” from them while he himself is becoming a legend in his own right.
While Ghost of Tsushima inherits the problems of the drama genre it tries to emulate, the writing can sometimes be exceptional. Even with a clichè plot, the writing can be powerful at certain points in the game. Figuring out an ally via their side missions can reveal truths about their actions, and secrets that helped bring about their current situation. Accompanying Lady Mariko on her vendetta against those responsible for the death of her clan also reveals stories within the story, leading to a bloody and tragic climax.
Moving on to more technical things, the graphics are amazing on the base PS4. Character models, the environment, and the animations all work well. For the most part at least. The biggest problem for me is that some animations, like climbing up the stairs, look awkward. Sometimes they look like they’re just walking forward instead of taking a step up, which can be jarring.
The facial animations too, are inconsistent. There are times when the lips are moving to english words, even though I selected the Japanese audio dubbed “Samurai Cinema” mode. And there are also times when the lips seem to move randomly during dialogue. I noticed that things seemed to be better after Patch 1.03, but the opening cut-scene still feels like a mish-mash of English and Japanese lip animations.
Finally, some character models seem to be reused a lot for various NPCs. The women of Tsushima, all look the same. Even Tomoe, Sensei Ishikawa’s wayward student who you’ll be hunting throughout the game, looks just like Kaede, the last descendant of the legendary Nagao Tadayori, who also looks like that peasant girl I just rescued from a Mongol patrol.
Other than that, everything else is good. Combat animations are superb, and each cut or technique felt solid as it should. When I call my horse, I can actually ride it while running, and even order the horse to move while I’m still climbing on to it. Death animations are satisfying, and an enemy will slump into a corner, or fall dead depending on how or when he was killed. Rag-doll physics are not in this game, but I do not think it matters a lot.
Combat is one of this game’s strengths. There is a standard attack and a heavy attack button, both of which can be modified by stances. Standard attacks are for normal attacking while heavy attacks are used to shatter enemy guard meters. Both types of attacks can be blocked or parried, requiring you to switch to a different stance that will be effective against that particular enemy type.
This isn’t your typical button-mashing action game. You will need to adjust your tactics depending on who you are fighting, or that life bar will be gone in no time. Fighting multiple enemies requires focus, to avoid being swarmed. That’s on top of using the stance and tactics to get around enemy types.
These stances can be learned by killing or observing the required amount of commanders. On top of them being used for specific types of enemies, you can also hone your skills in them, increasing your overall effectiveness during battle. Fighting against spearmen requires a different stance from a brute or swordsman. You will also fight ronin, who can be a lot better than your average bandit or Mongol. Parries are great against these types, but their unblockable attacks which can be devastating and must be avoided.
Learning when to block, parry, and dodge is crucial if you want to truly dominate your enemies in the battlefield. Think Dark Souls or Sekiro, but a lot more accessible and forgiving. As soon as you overcome the temptation to button mash, you’ll do just fine even on harder levels where you still need to git gud, but with lots of mercy and compassion.
As his legend grows, Jin can spend skill-points to learn techniques and improve them, becoming deadlier and more efficient. A fully-leveled Jin is much, much different than base Jin, and that in itself is a reward for putting in the time to level him up. There are no shortcuts to success. No microtransactions to speed things up. Jin’s skill development is as much a part of his journey as the story, with certain skills being unlocked via story progression.
Stealth is a huge part of Ghost of Tsushima. Enemies have vision cones and whose pattern of movements must be read in order to either move past them or eliminate them quietly. The “Focused Hearing” skill allows you to locate where the enemies are so you can plan ahead. Assassinating and fighting as the Ghost feels very satisfying because the game isn’t shy about showing you his power. This is most apparent once Jin unlocks every skill.
On top of this character building, you would also need to upgrade your weapons and armor. Jin’s main weapon is the Sakai katana and tanto. Upgrading either makes them more lethal. Jin uses the tanto for assassinations (except for air assassinations where he uses the katana), and when fully upgraded, makes his stealth kills quicker and more silent. Jin uses his katana for direct combat and upgrading it improves its cutting ability, meaning the speed in which you can dispatch your opponents.
Armor can also be upgraded, increasing their bonuses, and changing their appearance. Personally I use specific armor during specific parts of the story. For example, while traveling around, I use the traveler’s outfit or the ronin outfit. Outfits on main missions depend on what that mission is. It greatly adds to immersion, especially since the samurai would probably not climb mountain shrines wearing their O-yoroi.
As an open-world game, Ghost of Tsushima inherits a lot of the genre’s conventions like multiple points of interest on the map that lead to temples, shrines, and baths which bestow charms or increase Jin’s health. There are also various outposts that Jin can clear enemies of, and once he does, the enemies do not spawn back. Several side missions also follow the open-world norm, making you go from one place to another with certain modifiers such as total stealth, or killing specific targets.
While some of these can be tedious and the amount of things to explore can be overwhelming, the payoff more than makes up for the time spent. A slight increase in health bar or a new resolve meter can make the difference in a long drawn-out battle. Exploration is also given a breath of fresh air, as Jin can literally let the wind guide him to his next destination, whether the next story mission, or selecting a destination on the map. I found that this makes me travel on paved roads because I always knew where to go, thus adding a certain level of immersion to the game. It is a nice touch as it encourages the player to go and explore. But if you are pressed for time, Fast Travel can be unlocked in certain areas for convenience.
Traveling lets you see the beautiful but devastated land of Tsushima. Going to the high ground lets you marvel at how graphically beautiful this game is. The game welcomes you to stop for a moment to look at the view.
The music greatly reinforces the “samurai cinema” push of this game. From the music to the sound effects, to Jin’s playing of the flute. The pivotal battles in particular will have your heart pumping in excitement as the cinematic orchestra and the sound effect of steel clashing against steel and flesh combine to put you in the battle. The sound effects that you will normally hear in jidaigeki movies and drama are all recreated here, from the sound of a sword being returned to the saya, to the sounds of nature.
…the game doesn’t offer a real post-campaign content
Through all these glowing observations, I must stress that Ghost of Tsushima is not a perfect game. Besides the already mentioned predictable plot and some animation nitpicks, the game doesn’t offer a real post-campaign content. The game still runs after every story and side mission is completed and the whole of Tsushima is liberated, but outside of random encounters with a stray Mongol patrol, there isn’t anything.
To be fair, narratively speaking after the story mode is finished, and the whole island has been liberated, the game is done, but the world didn’t need to be empty. I do take comfort in the fact that Sucker Punch delivered a narratively complete game without crucial story chapters locked as paid DLCs as well as their decision to not use a live-service business model as open-world games tend to do. But this beautiful world that Sucker Punch created has a lot of potential for more stories to be told. One that doesn’t have to be in a sequel.
Sucker Punch delivers a strong title that is made with such passion that it instantly becomes the best samurai game in three console generations. Notwithstanding the predictability of the plot, some animation glitches, reused character assets, and a pretty empty post-game, Ghost of Tsushima is not just a good game, but a fun and engaging title with a narrative potential for future sequels and spin-offs.
Jidaigeki games and cinema introduced us to Rikimaru and Ayame, Haohmaru, Sekiro, Sanjuro, Zatoichi, and Battòsai. We learned of the 47 Ronin, the Shinsengumi, and Sat-Cho Alliance. This time it’s the turn of Jin Sakai, the Ghost of Tsushima.