The true beauty of Ghost of Tsushima is in the details. It’s in the faint crunch of sand beneath your feet as you gaze out at the imposing shadow of the Mongol blockade, in the sigh of a blade being drawn from a scabbard, in the frozen moment of time laden with tension before sword meets sword and a lethal, lightning-quick counterattack leaves a dark spatter of blood on the pure white pampas grass flowers. It’s in the deep ochre of the setting sun, and the pallid grey skies that herald a storm, and in the tired weight of a warrior kneeling to compose a haiku before one more fight to the death.
Playing Ghost of Tsushima is an exercise in beauty, and in sorrow.
Ghost of Tsushima (PS4 [reviewed], PS5)
Released Jul 2020 | Developed: Sucker Punch | Published: Sony
Genre: Action-Adventure | HLTB: 25 hours
Ghost of Tsushima is the story of Jin Sakai. Jin is a samurai, the nephew and adoptive son of the jito of Tsushima, Lord Shimura. It’s 1274, and his island is under attack by the unstoppable, marauding force of the Mongols. They’re led by the ruthless Khotun Khan, who takes advantage of Shimura’s rigid adherence to the samurai honour code of bushido and massacres the great army of samurai who greet him on arrival in a single bloody battle. Jin barely survives, nursed back to health by a peasant woman and thief, Yuna, who convinces him that he can only fight back against the Mongols and liberate his island if he abandons his samurai code of honour and starts fighting a bit dirtier. This sets up a classic moral choice as Jin assumes the role of the titular Ghost of Tsushima, as he sets out to rescue his uncle from the clutches of the Khan and reclaim Tsushima by any means necessary, even if it means abandoning everything he swore to stand for.
You might think that this choice between Jin’s bushido honour code and the necessity of utilising whatever dirty trick he can against the Mongol horde is going to play into a standard video game moral choice set up. Given Sucker Punch’s work on the InFamous series, which features exactly that kind of binary choice, you’d be forgiven for giving Ghost of Tsushima a bit of side-eye before going in, but surprisingly Ghost eschews it. Instead, the moral dilemma Jin must deal with is written into its narrative and dialogue, and the player is left to play the game however they choose. I found myself surprised by this decision, mainly because it felt like a very brave one. Ghost is vastly different to Sucker Punch’s previous works, a far cry from the cartoonish fun of Sly Cooper and in avoiding the moral binary of InFamous, it opts for the more challenging option of needing extremely well-written characters and scenarios to bring out the emotional weight of Jin’s predicament.
There doesn’t seem to be a great consensus regarding the writing though. Ghost is definitely a more serious drama, taking cues directly from films and similarly-styled games, and one result of that is a lot of serious, solemn characters doing and reacting to really grim stuff. Ghost doesn’t give us much in the way of levity to balance out the forbidding reality it presents, and I don’t think I could blame anyone for finding it too much. I don’t mean to overplay it – it’s not a constant tidal wave of grief and misery in the way that something like, say, The Last of Us is, but it’s definitely a dour game about dour people.
The payoff though is so worth it. Ghost might not have the best writing across all its cast, but the two central characters of Jin and his uncle are, by a long way, some of the most engaging characters in gaming I’ve seen. Jin comes across a whole host of interesting folk in his journey, from the bitter thief Yuna who is constantly after a way off the island because she can’t sympathise with the samurai nobility who wiped villages off the map when quashing rebellions, to the grumpy old bastard archer Ishikawa who hides his acute sense of self-failure behind a mask of severity and hyper-criticism, but it’s his relationship with his uncle that captured my attention more than anything. Lord Shimura represents the ruling class of the island, and stands as the standard-bearer for bushido, and raised Jin after the death of his father to do the same. His influence runs deep in our hero; indeed, when the player pushes Jin to act dishonorably, we’re treated to quick flashbacks of Jin swearing his oaths to his uncle to really drive home the depths of Jin’s shame. The pair naturally butt heads as the game progresses, with Jin settling into his role as Batman – excuse me, the Ghost – with both coming to different conclusions on how to save the island. This central conflict is what kept me going when I was 30, 40, 50 hours deep into the game. In truth, the actual story is serviceably good, but not outstanding – you can probably predict many of the plot points as you go – and even the wider character writing between Jin and other members of the cast is merely decent-to-good, but I simply needed to see how Jin and his uncle’s journey would end.
Ghost of Tsushima is a samurai game, so it had better have some damn good swordplay. Combat is split between fighting as Jin, Lord Sakai the Samurai, prioritising honourable duels and head-on swordfighting, and fighting as the Ghost, which mainly means sneaking around, stabbing people in the back, and using weaponry like bombs and poison to defeat the enemy. This might sound like two utterly separate playstyles that the game expects you to pick between, but in practice it’s not quite like that. While you can choose which skills you want to upgrade first – for example, I loved playing a samurai so I poured all my points into the sword skills and unlockable combat styles – there are more than enough skill points to upgrade all of your skills and just like Jin walks a fine line between both his old life and his new one, the player is also expected to maintain a healthy respect for both styles of play. There are a bare handful of missions which force you to be stealthy and give you an instant game over; this always sucks, and especially because the vast majority of the game’s missions really don’t mind if you bugger up the sneaking and happily let you go hogwild with your sword if you get spotted.
The melee combat is some of the best I’ve ever experienced in a game. We’re told Jin is an accomplished swordsman and even at the start of the game it feels like that is true. Fighting with your katana is a marvelous dance of using heavy attacks to break an opponent’s guard, alternating into swift, light strikes to whittle health down, blocking attacks and, at best, dodging and parrying at the last second in order to throw your foes off balance before you unleash deadly counter attacks. Parrying in particular feels incredible; the clank of the swords clashing rings from the PS4 controller speakers, and the animations are so quick and fluid that it almost seems like a blur as Jin whirls around his unfortunate foe. Jin can learn a range of different combat stances that allow him to deal with the multitude of enemy types that the Mongol army deploy against him, giving a level of depth to the combat as you frantically switch between stances as a crowd bears down upon you. In many longer games I freely admit that I often get quite tired of battling, but that never happened even once in Ghost; the combat was such a joy that I actively got myself into way more scrapes than I probably needed to.
Ghost also features what is without a doubt one of the most fun mechanics in an open world game: Standoffs. Jin is told by his uncle that a samurai should always challenge enemies to a duel, ordering their foes to send their strongest fighter first for some classic one-on-one fighting. To that end, Ghost of Tsushima features a button purely dedicated to haranguing hordes of bandits and Mongols to fight. No, really; as you approach a group of enemies, whether that’s on the road or ensconced in a camp, a prompt appears to make Jin challenge them to a duel. The camera swings in as Jin gets into a ready stance. The tension is palpable as your unlucky opponent makes feints, daring you to release the attack button early and suffer a heavy blow in response. Eventually he’ll make his move and in that instant you release the button and Jin cuts through him, fast as lightning, for an instant kill. Nothing makes you feel more like a badass.
You can also find yourself embroiled in more traditional duels. There are, of course, plenty of ronin – that’s a masterless samurai, consigned to a mercenary life – who Jin can fight, and these, along with a number of boss fights in the story, take place in the form of a duel. These limit you to only using your sword techniques, making them an exercise in how well you’ve learned how to parry and respond to attacks. The game uses them relatively sparingly, which was probably a wise move, as the pacing of the duels is quite a bit slower than the rest of the game, and it means when one does occur, it brings with it a sense of ceremony.
Of course, as the Ghost Jin can also employ stealth tactics in his fight against the Mongol army. It’s kept pretty simple; in long grass Jin is pretty much invisible, and enemies also tend not to look up so breaking line-of-sight is usually as simple as either scrambling into some cover or clambering up out of the way. As you level up you can unlock new “Ghost” weapons, such as smoke bombs, firecrackers, and poison darts, all in aid of helping you distract an enemy long enough to either disappear, kill them, or both. If you’ve played pretty much any modern open-world action game, you’ve probably seen this brand of stealth – in many ways it all but feels like the feudal Japan-set Assassin’s Creed fans of that franchise have been clamouring for for years.
In fact, if one were to try and step back for a more objective overview, you’d probably point at most of Ghost of Tsushima’s overworld as having pretty much the usual package of general open world guff. A cynic could, quite fairly, point at the array of collectibles, bandit camps, and side missions as being a standard offering, but what matters here is the execution. One thing I noticed was how refreshing it was to not have a HUD. Instead, Jin is guided by divine winds, literally; by flicking up on the touchpad, you can summon a gust of wind to point you towards whatever objective or location you have highlighted on your map. It’s a beautifully evocative and immersive decision on the part of the game designers, and I found it also helped stop the game turn into a checking off exercise as you float listlessly from one objective to the next. That’s also helped by the decision to eschew any kind of Ubisoft viewpoint system that unlocks the next wodge of the map, so you’re encouraged to explore. Foxes and birds wait for you to approach them and if you follow them they lead you to secrets and locations, which feels wonderfully imprecise but crucially it feels like a natural part of the world, which stands in contrast to the way other games of this type simply pepper collectibles and question marks on a map and let you make a beeline between markers. I also found myself enjoying the fact that locations in Tsushima were locations, not just blobs on the gameworld designed with a singular purpose in mind. Jin’s journey is largely driven by his quest to defeat the Mongol horde, so most often you’ll need to fight and defeat the enemy to drive them out of an area, but that’s it. anything else is typically dictated by exploration for its own sake, rather than fulfilling a quota of checking off collectibles.
I adore the option given at the start of the game to play with Japanese voiceover instead of English, but I do find it a shame that the game was only lip synced to English. This is up there as one of my pettiest complaints but it ripped my immersion right out of the game and I had to switch it over to the English actors. That’s not a bad thing, the voiceover in both languages is brilliant, but I do wish it had scanned a bit better; there’s something about this game that begs to be played in Japanese.
I have a less petty grumble though. Despite the game giving you the choice between honourable open combat and sneaky stealthy murdering, and then making the distinctly intelligent move of not punishing you for it, the story is another beast entirely. The implied consequence of Jin discarding his samurai code in favour of doing what needs to be done is, in gameplay terms, just that: implied. However, even if you take the most headstrong approach possible and eschew sneaking as much as the game lets you, the story still sees you upset your stone-faced uncle, who chews you out for the smallest deviation. It seems a baffling oversight that the game offers players choice but the story is set on not acknowledging it. What this leads to is an unavoidable sense of disengagement and a sense of loss of player agency. Obviously Sucker Punch had a story they wanted to be told, and in fairness to them the morality system in Ghsot is not as heavy-handed or overt as morality often is in games, but in some respects making it subtle and more hands-off works against them here as well.
Still, I refuse to complain too much. Ghost of Tsushima was one of the most absorbing games I’ve played in a very long time. I have a tendency to judge games by what they drew from me emotionally, and if that was the case Ghost would immediately be among the best games I’ve ever played. A game hasn’t elicited the same level of emotional response from me since I played Final Fantasy XV, and that was back when I started this blog, and on that alone I wholeheartedly recommend Ghost of Tsushima; far too many games make me feel nothing beyond perhaps a sense of satisfaction at the end, and I refuse to not give praise to a game that brought me to tears. But, looking beyond that, Ghost is still built on a familiar and at times often predictable open-world shell, and the attention to the relationship between Jin and his uncle came at the price of the other characters. If, unlike me, you don’t find something compelling in that, you would hopefully still find Ghost of Tsushima a fantastic game to play at least.
6/7 – EXCELLENT.
Games with a touch of brilliance. It might only just miss out on being an absolute favourite, but you should definitely play this.