Tsushima is an island situated between the Tsushima Strait and the Korea Strait, approximately half way between the Japanese mainland and the Korean peninsula.
According to Japanese mythology, Tsushima was one of the eight original islands created by the Shinto deities Izanagi and Izanami and its two islands have a long history and was an important trading post during feudal Japan, which was invaded by the Mongols between 1274 and 1281.
In 1274, the first Mongol invasion of Tsushima killed a great number of the island’s inhabitants and it’s with this historic backdrop that development studio Sucker Punch has set its latest creation Ghost of Tsushima – and I rather liked it [That’s the short version but I’d be rather thankful if you stuck around to the end as it took me a while to get these words just how I wanted them].
Sucker Punch has a long and illustrious history with PlayStation 4 and it kicked off its PlayStation 4 relationship with the rather excellent inFamous Second Son and now as we near the end of a console generation it ends it with PlayStation 4 exclusive Ghost of Tsushima, first announced way back in 2015.
The game opens with the Mongol invasion of Tsushima and Jin Sakai is one of the last remaining samurai, left for dead and his uncle Lord Shimura captured, presumed dead. Leading the Mongols is Khotun Khan, the nephew of Ghengis Khan, and a brutal, well-studied enemy who offers the people of Tsushima a bleak future: Bow to him or they will die.
Jin is found and nursed back to health and he vows to rally the splintered factions across Tsushima to his join his cause, defeat the Khan and reclaim Tsushima.
As a highly trained samurai, throughout the game Jin constantly battles internal demons as he tries to reconcile what it means to be a samurai while being forced to evolve his tactics to face a new, more brutal enemy, something unlike the Japanese had seen before.
As a child being trained by his uncle, Jin was taught the ways of the samurai: “Loyalty to our lord, control of our emotions, fight bravely, and honour the legacy of clan Sakai.” As his legend grows, Jin must decide does he kill stealthily to become the Ghost or challenge foes face-to-face as is the way of the samurai?
I played Ghost of Tsushima from start to finish with how I personally feel is the most appropriate way the game should be played: With the Japanese language track and English subtitles. It just didn’t feel right to me to play a game set in feudal Japan and featuring samurai in any other way, at least not in my first play through.
Central to combat is something called resolve, which is earned by killing enemies, parrying attacks and completing tasks. Resolve can be used to activate special attacks, as well as used to replenish your health when it falls dangerously low.
Completing story quests earns Jin technique points which can be used to upgrade his stances and combat tactics, allowing him to be a stronger fighter, or unlock throwable weapons such as kunai (knives), sticky bombs (which sticks to an enemy before exploding) or wind chimes (which can be used to distract an enemy).
Sucker Punch has made a point of mentioning that GOT doesn’t have an on-screen pointer to tell you where your objective is – and they’re right: Apart from a small line of text in the top left corner showing the current objective title and how far you are from your destination is, the screen is devoid of any other elements. It is a minimalist’s dream and a recent patch brought an even more sparse UI (recommended for “expert players”, apparently).
So if there’s no on-screen objective marker, how the heck do you know where to go? By following the wind, my friend, by following the wind. If you swipe up on the Dualshock 4’s touchpad, gusts of wind blow in the direction you need to go. It’s effective and is frankly refreshing to find a game that is using the technique.GOT is very much a game where you look for visual cues to tell you something is nearby or where you’re going: Tori gates point you to cliff top shrines that grant you charms that help in defensive and offensive moves; yellow birds flying to hot springs where you can soak to recover health or religious monuments; foxes lead you to inari shrines.
Visual cues also play an important part in combat: From the yells of Mongol archers which indicate they are about to unleash arrows on your to the red glint of an enemies weapon, meaning an unblockable attack is coming and you need to roll out of the way.
Then there are the standoffs where Jin challenges opponents to lethal one-on-one face offs. Press, hold and release the triangle button just as the enemy strikes and Jin will kill the enemy with once slice of his razor-sharp katana. A downed fow will stagger forward briefly, grasping his neck, blood spurting from the wound, before crumpling to the ground, a lifeless body.
By the mid-point of the game, I had maxed out Jin’s standoff ability, enabling him to take down three enemies in quick succession during a standoff encounter (if I didn’t screw it up, of course), each strike captured in glorious slow motion.
There has been talk online by many that the combat looks Sekiro like: It’s nothing like Sekiro a game I downright hated and gave up on. GOT is all about learning attack patterns, parrying blows and striking hard and fast.
Make no mistake, though, the combat can be brutally unforgiving, especially if you get surrounded by a group consisting of the game’s four main enemy types: Sword wielders, shield carriers, spear bearers and big dudes [but I just call them tanks because that’s what they are] and crucial to defeating them all is mastering the four “stances”: Wind, stone, water and moon, each more suited to a particular enemy. You’ll find yourself switching between stances on the fly as you tackle all the Mongels have to offer.
I mastered the combat but even late in the game I was still getting my arse handed to me on a plate sometimes when I managed to get surrounded by too many heavy enemies or I screwed up a stand off. If I have one piece of advice it’s this: Use the right stance against the right enemy and max them all out as soon as possible.
As Jin becomes more powerful and his legend grows, he gains the power to terrify nearby enemies through the sheer brutality of some of his attacks and frightened foes will run off, too scared to face you. Assassinations are brutal, too, with sprays of claret erupting from the chests or necks of hapless Mongels.
I have to talk about the side quests because they’re incredibly well written and varied but, importantly, feel a natural extension of the main narrative and not just tacked on to pad the story out. It might be a woman barricaded up in a remote wooden cottage who requires medicinal herbs that mongols at a nearby camp stole from her or a quest to find a mysterious vengeful spirit that rewards you with a mystical power that comes incredibly handy in combat against some of Mongol’s more formidable warlords.
There is so much to discover and much of the time you’ll just stumble across things, be it side quests or points of interest.
Ghost of Tsushima starts off slow, perhaps too slow for my liking, with Act one rather pedestrian at times and I did wonder at one point “Does it get better than this?”. It does and once you start upgrading Jin’s abilities the game opes up dramatically, combat is more free-flowing and the narrative gallops ahead.
For all that is excellent with Ghost of Tsushima, it is still lumbered with the odd tired old gaming tropes from time to time, like instant fail stealth sections if you’re spotted by an enemy and a “Follow this person of interest for a bit to see where they go but don’t get spotted” mission. Thankfully, that one didn’t last long but I had flashbacks to the Assassin’s Creed games I’ve played with its stealth mechanic.
I also encountered the odd “Return to the tale zone” messages (complete with a countdown timer) after I’d apparently stepped outside the prescribed area for an active tale. Aren’t we past this type of mechanic this late in the current generation? Here’s hoping the new generation will see an end of those tired cliched tropes.
Animation is generally top notch, especially in combat, but from time to time you’ll notice Jin’s feet not quite sitting right as he wanders about and climbing is not as smooth as I’d hoped for.
Visually, Ghost of Tsushima is stunning, which you’ll hopefully see in the screen shots peppered throughout this review – and it gets more stunning as you move through the game world. It’s particularly nice to see that in an industry where many of its products are so often dominated by browns and greys, Ghost of Tsushima is a burst of vibrant freshness, with the island of Tsushima bursting with explosions of colour: Golden yellows, vibrant purples, bright reds and greens, piercing blues and glowing orange.
There has been much talk about the Kurasawa mode which pays homage to the movies of Japanese director Akira Kurasawa and it’s a nice touch, with the black and white image featuring film grain and more dramatic camera angles, but, personally, I couldn’t play the game from start to finish like that. I switched to the mode for a few minutes to see what it was all about then reverted back to the normal mode.
For those video game photographers, GOT also has got you covered, with a great photo mode. I found myself pausing the game and framing photos far too often: Before too long I’d captured 3.7Gb of images and video, some I can show here, others I can’t until after the game is out in the wild, so to speak. It’s an amazingly comprehensive photo mode, too, with a huge number of tweakable options including a black and white mode, the ability to determine the amount of on-screen details and a day-night cycle.
By the time the credits rolled on the main story, I had found 12 of 49 fox dens (yes, you can pet the foxes), gained two of the four mystic powers, soaked in six of the eight hot pools, visited six of the 16 Shinto shrines (all atop rocky peaks) and visited three of the eight lighthouses. My goal is to find everything this game has to offer, no matter how long it takes, and I reckon I’ve already sunk more than 35+ hours into it (an hour counter would be really helpful), with my play time including at least two six hour sessions. I plan to take my time and discover al the hidden locations and mop up the remaining Mongol stragglers.
The bottom line is I enjoyed Ghost of Tsushima immensely and while it doesn’t fundamentally do anything radically different from all the other open-world games out there, I enjoyed the narrative and its characters.
If you plan to play it, I have this advice: Don’t rush it. Take your time, explore the world, soak in the atmosphere, discover what lies behind that hills, over that rise, behind that stand of trees. Take. Your. Time.
With Ghost of Tsushima, Sucker Punch has delivered a wonderful closing chapter that not only fittingly celebrates the Japanese samurai but is a fitting farewell to this Sony console generation.
*Thanks to PlayStation New Zealand for the advance copy of Ghost of Tsushima. I completed the main campaign on a PlayStation Pro.