“Wake the fuck up Samurai, we have a city to burn.” Ah wait, that’s the wrong game. Despite not featuring the shining excellence of Keenu Reeves, being overshadowed by The Last of Us Part 2 and getting considerably less attention from Sony than Naughty Dog’s long-awaited disappointment, Ghost of Tsushima has ended up being a fantastic end to the Playstation 4’s long line of strong exclusive games. Ghost of Tsushima is selling great and breaking records, and it thoroughly deserves to. Marvel’s Spider-Man let us be the web-slinger. Red Dead Redemption 2 let us live our cowboy fantasies. Ghost of Tsushima lets us live with honour as Samurai.
The game opens in 1274 as the Mongol hordes invade the island of Tsushima, a stepping stone they intend on stomping before moving onto the mainland. Leading this invasion is Khotun Kahn, a man who has learned the language and the culture of Japan so as to better understand his enemy. Our protagonist is Jin Sakai, a Samurai who heads with his uncle, Lord Shimura, and the island’s other Samurai to head off the Mongol invasion. In honourable fashion Lord Shimura dispatches a Samurai to meet with the Khan on the beach and challenge their best warrior to one on one combat in order to crush the Mongol spirit. But the Khan isn’t interested in fighting with honour, so he simply burns the Samurai alive. Angered, Jin and his Uncle ride with the other Samurai, but are quickly overwhelmed by the sheer number of Mongols. The Samurai are decimated, Lord Shimura is captured and Jin is left for dead.
Fortunately for Jin and for us, he’s rescued by a woman known as Yuna and nursed back to health. His goal is to rescue his Uncle and repel the Mongol invaders but that won’t be an easy task for a single Samurai, especially if he insists on trying to fight them head-on as was the way he was taught. As a thief who has always done what she must to survive it’s Yuna who begins to show Jin that stealth, distraction and assassination may be the only way to successfully fight the Mongol army, all tactics which go against Jin’s code of honor.
A lot of other reviewers seem to have written Jin off as being emotionless and dull. However, to say that ignores the game’s context: Jin is a samurai, taught to keep his emotions under extremely tight control and bound to a strict code of honour. He was raised to be an example to his people. This does mean he can come across as a flat character, at least initially, but Sucker Punch do an impressive job using this to their advantage. Jin’s development is more subtle, the main focal point being his internal struggle between adhering to the teachings of the samurai and the more brutal, dishonourable tactics he has to employ to defeat the Mongol’s. As Jin learns, the Mongol’s aren’t interested in honour and fair duels, and they are a supremely overwhelming force. The emotional core of the story is Jin understanding this, and his conflict over whether employing stealth, assassinations and ghost tactics are all justifiable in the name of saving his people.
But you do also get to see Jin’s personality come to the fore through side-quests, dialogue with allies and even in smaller moments. His character needs a more subtle writing style, and I think Sucker Punch do a good job of it. Jin may not wear his emotions on his sleeves, but you can always tell exactly how he’s feeling, and it makes his rare emotional outbursts more impactful. When his façade cracks, you feel it.
Ultimately I found that Ghost of Tsushima tells a compelling, emotional, interesting story filled with characters I wanted to know more about and even moments that genuinely hit me hard in the emotional nutsack. The narrative itself isn’t anything special, but the people and the fantastic, dramatic sequences kept me enthralled until the end.
In particular, I loved watching Jin go from a regular Samurai to becoming a legend in his own right, the titular Ghost of Tsushima. Sucker Punch builds up the reactions of everyone around Jin so that eventually you get to feel like such a badass. He’s basically the Batman of Tsushima – a lord with plenty of wealth who has honed his body to a peak, and who now seeks to scare the shit out of the enemy. Actually, now I think about it, didn’t DC put out an animated movie with Batman and the Joker somehow ending up in Feudal Japan?
I’m no expert in Japanese culture and the history of the Samurai, so I’m not going to sit here and claim that Ghost of Tsushima nails every little thing. But what I can tell you is that Sucker Punch have a palpable love and respect for both the real culture of the Samurai and the romanticised version seen in numerous films over the years. In particular, there’s a deep love for Kurosawa, so much so that there’s a black and white mode named after him, although using it would be denying yourself the absurdly awesome use of colour throughout Ghost of Tsushima. In short, like the films Kurosawa this is very much a dream-like version of what the Samurai were, and that’s awesome because it inspired me to go learn about them and the reality of their existence.
Simply put, Ghost of Tsushima is mind-bogglingly beautiful. In a purely technical sense the texture work and the like isn’t anything special, but from an artisitc stand-point it’s nothing short of outstanding. Lush, varied environments and vibrant colours are the core of the experience, but the star of the show is the constantly bellowing wind. Grass blows, trees sway, flower petals swirl and leaves soar. Ghost of Tsushima’s world is in constant motion. As vast as the land in Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey is, it’s also just one massive chunk of terrain that looks the same. There’s little variety. But in Ghost of Tsushima the world isn’t massive, and its split into numerous biomes that all feel and look distinctive. In total there’s 40 biomes spread across the three pieces of Tsushima island, and every one is utterly gorgeous. There’s fields of red flowers, forests wreathed in thick fog, swampy wetlands, rolling hills, trees bursting with golden leaves and calming grasslands. This might very well be the best looking game of the generation.
A lot of time has clearly been spent on keeping you firmly in the world, too. We’ve become accustomed to having mini-maps, compasses and icons littering the screen to the point where we end up spending more time looking at the map than we do at the world. Ghost of Tsushima tackles this in a few smart ways: first, the only map you have is accessed through the start menu. There’s no mini-map. Instead, you pick your destination and the Guiding Wind will show you the way. You can trigger a gust of wind by swiping up on the touch pad, but even just the regular gentle breeze will show you the way forward. All those amazing particle effects like the leaves, petals and butterflies are constantly blowing gently toward your goal. It’s a smart way of making sure you never have to take your eyes away from the beauty of Tsushima. And as you journey there are golden birds that will lead you to special locations like a quiet place to compose a haiku or an artefact. Smoke on the horizon indicates settlements to liberate. Cute foxes will lead you to special shrines. And folk you rescue from roving Mongols might tell you about new places to visit. Best of all, when you’re just travelling every part of the HUD fades away, leaving you with nothing but you, your horse and the path.
If you don’t fancy trekking he length of Tsushima then good news: loading times are so impressively fast that it makes you doubt if we even need SSDs. Fast travelling typically only takes a few seconds. It’s so damn fast that I can only assume Sucker Punch had to invoke some form of ancient magic to pull it off. Sacrificing virgins on an ancient stone alter may have been required at some point.
Mind you, all those constant particle effects do come at a bit of a price, namely your PS4. The fans on my PS4 Pro were hitting the highest levels I’ve heard from the system, topping even The Last of Us Part 2. There are moments where it’s as quiet as a ghost (HA!) such as cutscenes, but then the fans will suddenly jerk to life and hit what I can only assume to be their maximum RPM. It’s so loud, in fact, that playing without headphones means ramping the volume up. I gave the console a thorough cleaning to ensure it wasn’t just clogged with dust, but alas that wasn’t the issue. Based on my experiences and those of many other people on Reddit it seems the problem lies with Ghost of Tsushima.
It’d be unfair of me to praise the visuals so much and not mention a couple of the problems, too. For one, outside of the main story mission the game doesn’t have great facial animations, something which it hides a lot by using a pulled-back camera. And while I love the fact that you can play the game entirely in Japanese, the lip-syncing remains firmly for the default English.
You can’t talk about being a Samurai without getting all giddy about getting to wave a sword around. Combat is fairly straightforward but brilliantly executed. You have a basic attack mapped to square, and a heavier strike designed to break defences mapped to triangle. Meanwhile circle lets you side-step incoming attacks or even roll away to get a little distance. The most important thing is L1 which lets you deflected attacks with your katana, or if you time it just right initiates a parry. If you can nail a perfect parry you’ll open up the enemy to an extra hard-hitting slice that feels oh-so-good to pull off.
There’s a speed, ferocity and elegance to the combat that works beautifully. Neither you or the Mongols can take much punishment, making a battle feel fast and deadly. In fact, Sucker Punch specifically stated that the damage your sword is capable of inflicting doesn’t change as you ramp up the difficulty to ensure that the blade always feels deadly. Nor do the Mongols simply get bigger and bigger health bars on the higher difficulty settings, a dumb tricks numerous games are guilty of using to make fights feel “harder.” Instead it comes down to timing and making sure you don’t get surrounded.
As you successfully hit opponents and end lives you gain Resolve which you can spend to heal or perform special moves. Resolve works especially well early in the game where you really have to choose between spending it on an offensive move or keeping it back in order to heal up. Later when you have more Resolve to play around with the decision isn’t as tricky to make.
Spicing up the battles are the four unlockable stances that you swap between, each one designed to deal with certain foes. The default Stone Stance, for instance, works best against swordsman and will therefore inflict extra stagger damage on them. Meanwhile the Water Stance is best for bashing through enemies with shields, and so on and so on. It adds a little extra tactical layer to the fights, especially when dealing with large crowds of mixed foes.
There’s a lot of chances to square off against enemies in duels which is where the combat really gets to demonstrate its sharp edge. These epic battles are tense affairs as you block, parry and desperately dodge unblockable red attacks while looking for an opportunity to get in a couple of your own strikes. Striking locales are the stages for each and every one of these showdowns, making them feel like moments from a classic Samurai film.
If you’d like to be as honourable as possible you can also challenge enemies to a standoff with a tap of up on the d-pad when prompted. All you have to do is hold down triangle until the enemy attacks to unleash a single devastating killing blow. Release the button too early or respond to a feint and you’ll lose a heap of health and a good chunk of your pride, too. And with a couple of upgrades you can extend standoff mode so that you can slice up a couple of extra foes as they come jogging toward you. It’s hardly a complicated system, yet it delivers a nice little dose of tension and makes you feel like a 100% certified fucking badass. It’s impossible not to feel like the most kickarse Samurai alive when you stride up to a Mongol held fort, challenge their best warrior and then slice through not just them, but four of their friends, too, in one savagely sweet sequence of moves.
I’d have to say that as great as Ghost of Tsushima is to play, it’s probably the stealth that’s the weakest aspect of the entire game. That isn’t to say it’s bad: it mechanically sound and feels superbly smooth. It’s also just…kind of basic. The game employs the same stealth mechanics that you’ll find in Ubisoft, by which I mean you hide yourself in improbably thick patches of grass or behind objects before popping out to stab some unsuspecting bastard in the neck. Enemies will also conveniently fail to look upwards, a trope we see a lot but one that feels even more noticeable in a game where the average height of objects is just barely above eye level. Sure, I’m willing to suspend my belief so far that it’s practically dragging its feet, but it’s a little hard to take things seriously when I’m crouched on top of a yurt while a Mongol stands directly in front of me and somehow fails to notice the idiot in a massive straw hat waving a katana around like he’s trying to give himself a haircut.
With that said, the stealth is still enjoyable enough. You can carve through an entire enemy encampment with minimal effort, so it serves as a nice power fantasy. And in a nice touch, the more dishonourable nonsense you do (like taking someone else’s sandwich out of the fridge, you dick) the worse the weather becomes. Thunderstorms roll across the land and massive cracks of thunder can be heard as you stab someone from behind. Keep using the Ghost methods and the land of Tsushima will basically become one constant storm. Unsurprisingly, my game was basically a non-stop torrent of rain and enough lighting to make even Zeus start to get a little worried.
You get some fun Ghost weapons to play around with too, like Kunai to hurl mid-fight and smoke bombs that you can use for a sneaky getaway. It might not be the most honourable thing to do, but hurling a smoke ground onto the ground, stabbing someone and then melting into the shadows leaving everyone bewildered feels excellent. Batman would be proud, I reckon. Maybe not about the killing bit…
There’s a little bit of climbing and clambering involved in the game, but it’s nothing more than holding up or down on the stick and watching Jin do all the work while occasionally tapping R2 to use the grappling hook. Speaking of which, I don’t get the grappling hook. Ultimately its inclusion doesn’t feel very impactful since you can only use it in very specific locations. It’s implementation feels a bit clumsier than the rest of the game, too, like it was maybe added later in development.
The map is littered with stuff to do but also avoids becoming a bloated mass of dull tasks. There’s no level-gating or anything like that so you’re free to roam the world as you see fit, and your trusty horse can be summoned to your side in an instant. There are peaceful spots to look for from which you can compose Haiku’s. Hot springs are dotted around and increase your maximum health when you bathe in them. Various shrines offer up some light platforming and special charms which boost your abilities. Bamboo stands test your skill with the blade in order to increase Resolve. And there are things like honour pillars where you can find sweet new paintjobs for your sword.
Those are the most basic tasks, but there are also the Tales of Tsushima. Many are smaller, one-off stories like investigating a supposedly haunted forest or avenging someone’s family. However, there are also multi-part tales that focus on the side-characters that give you a chance to explore the world and learn about the allies you’ve gathered up. Lady Masako, for example, wants you to help locate the people who murdered her family and destroyed her entire clan. Sensei Ishikawa is dealing with a student who learned his Way of the Bow and is now helping the Mongol invaders, leaving a trail of bodies behind her. And old lady Yurika…well, you’ll have to find out on your own.
On top of that there are the Mythic Tales that send you off of adventures to retrieve ancient armour or learn a special technique that you can employ in fights. The Heavenly Strike is my favourite because it’s essentially that classic anime move where you performing a dashing slash before sliding to a halt while the enemy collapses. It’s the perfect way to finish any fight, making it an absolute must-have upgrade. Plus, it pairs great with the photo mode.
While the basic gameplay objectives of Tales almost universally follow a very basic formula composed of riding a horse, listening to exposition then killing some people, Sucker Punch are excellent at dressing it all up in fun stories and scenarios. I never once found myself getting bored of ploughing through all the side-missions, and frequently ended up forgetting about the actual main storyline in favour of doing everything else first. I’d spent ten hours on the first portion of the island before I even realised it.
There’s a pretty nice selection of armours, hats and Katana skins to unlock and find, too. While it isn’t a huge variety of gear each one is unique and interesting, offering different stat boosts to suit your playstyle. Using materials scattered around the place you can upgrade your armour, bows and sword, with the armour sets getting big visual changes. I love that Sucker Punch let you cycle through the different visual stages of each armour, so you don’t like the big shoulder pads of the Samurai Clan armour, for example, you can keep the basic version of it while retaining all the stats of the fully upgraded version.
There’s a lot of smaller stuff I appreciate in Ghost of Tsushima, too, like how there are plenty of armor dyes and not a microtransaction in sight. I love that there are dedicated commands for wiping the blood off of your blade and for bowing. The Fog of War on the map also helps ensure things don’t feel overwhelming and cluttered like it often can in other open-world titles. And I adore the fact that Ghost of Tsushima lets me hoover up resources from the back of a horse with the tap of a button rather than having to get off or go through lengthy animations. I know that doesn’t sound important, but it’s a single example out of many of things that Sucker Punch do right, the kind of things that add up to a smooth, pleasing experience for the player.
If Ghost of Tsushima truly is the last big PS4 exclusive then Sucker Punch have made sure the console is going out honourably. I have no doubt that Ghost of Tsushima will be in the Game of the Year conversation, and might also be included in people’s lists of the best games of all time. In a lot of ways, it’s the Assassin’s Creed game we’ve been wanting. Despite the seemingly natural fit, Ubisoft never did take their stabby-stabby games to Japan, and so it’s like Sucker Punch heaved a great sigh and said, “fine, we’ll do it ourselves, then.” And do it themselves they did, creating one of the finest open-world games of the generation.