Following the release of Infamous: Second Son in the early days of the PS4’s release, Sucker Punch has been developing Ghost of Tsushima for the better part of this console generation. Finally, they have unleashed their samurai epic in the dying days of this era in gaming.
They make an immediate impression with the stunning, cinematic sweep of the opening as samurai Jin Sakai, and his uncle Lord Shimura, lead the charge against an invading Mongol horde. The moonlit beach, the scope of the carnage around you, the propulsive score driving you forward on horseback. You are drawn into this conflict with great intensity, but it will not last long. Their forces are depleted, Jin is left for dead, and Lord Shimura is taken captive by Khotun Khan, the menacing cousin of Ghengis.
Following this, a short but generous prologue guides you through the core mechanics of traversal, stealth and combat as you work your way through a Mongol controlled territory to freedom.
Combat, in particular, is taught in a beautifully composed flashback to Jin’s youth while he trains with his uncle under a cherry blossom tree. You go through the basics of combat, what each button does and how to spot certain attack styles, but you are also questioned on the psychology of combat. There is a philosophy to the way you engage an enemy in this game, simply running into the fray and swinging wildly will not work.
Equipping yourself with a new horse, and choosing one of several spiritually significant names, you travel to your uncle’s castle, now under Mongol control and make an attempt to free Jin’s uncle from Khan only to fail once again. Jin is cast off a bridge and assumed dead. Haunted by the mistakes of his past, haunted by his failures in battle, Jin must find a new way to battle his enemy. He must make moral compromises in order to save his people. He must become more than a man. He needs to become a myth. A folk story. A ghost.
This is when the game truly opens up to you and you can begin to explore the island of Tsushima more freely. Ghost of Tsushima feels very different from the more popular Ubisoft open-world mindset of arbitrarily expanding an environment to create the illusion of scope, and then cramming every square inch with repetitive tasks. The rationale of this approach is that it gives you value for money but what it does is drain any enjoyment out of exploring the map, forcing you to just power through the story campaigns instead of taking in everything the game has to offer. Ghost of Tsushima is more sparing in its approach and the result is a far more satisfying gaming experience. From chasing foxes to hidden shrines, scaling treacherous mountain paths to find monuments, finding hot springs to stop and reflect on your journey or a scenic locale to compose a haiku, on top of the usual random encounters, treasure hunts, side quests and main quests that you find. It’s all spread out enough, and considered enough, that it allows you time to just travel and explore without feeling like you have to be doing something to make it worth your while.
The design of the island of Tsushima makes even travelling from A to B feel special. There are a beautiful array of biomes on offer, and none outstay their welcome, cast with a variety of stunning lighting effects from the luminous sunrise to the moonlit dead of night. I have sampled “Kurosawa Mode” but you are honestly doing yourself a disservice if you play that as your primary style, the game is simply too beautifully made to remove all that colour and the exceptional sound design. Everywhere you go is bathed in colour and life, with fields of swaying flowers beneath you or the air around you dancing with loose petals and leaves, every frame teems with movement, the entire world feels like it’s breathing along with you. There’s a genuine sense of life to Tsushima as you explore it, simply being in this world is a spectacle unto itself.
This brings us to the Guiding Wind, the game’s unique navigational mechanic. There is no intrusive HUD on-screen with arrows pointing out where to go, or a mini-map cluttering up the corner of your screen with a route mapped out, you simply select where you want to go on the map screen and then follow the flow of the wind around you. It is a masterstroke of design, one that forces you to focus on your surroundings and really engage with the world around you rather than disconnecting to look at on a small compass or glowing markers. The wind has a thematic purpose, too, as it is said to be the spirit of your deceased father aiding you on your journey. It is the single greatest navigational tool I have ever seen in a video game, one that fits the world, has emotional resonance, and it does not intrude on your immersion in the game.
The entire visual language of Ghost of Tsushima follows this philosophy, visual clues built into the world offer you suggestions on where to go. Distant plumes of campfire smoke, openings in tree lines, the flight paths of birds, gatherings of fireflies, it all suggests rather than commands and I have never once felt lost while exploring this game. It is a masterpiece of open-world design and should be the new standard-bearer for the genre.
Traversal on foot feels very much rooted in that Naughty Dog, Uncharted style, with a lot of wall scaling and grappling hooks. It is incredibly well designed, aided with intuitive and responsive controls, you always know where you can climb and how to go about it without any of the cues feeling telegraphed or inorganic to the location.
Fast travel is possible once locations have been discovered and the necessary objectives are completed but the game world is so captivatingly beautiful and so effortless to explore that you will want to travel everywhere on horseback unless you are truly strapped for time.
As a samurai trying to reclaim an island beset by invaders, you are going to be getting into a lot of fights on your travels, from randomly encountering mobs of Mongolian soldiers or opportunistic bandits, to liberating settlements from enemy forces, you won’t go far before needing to wet your blade with the blood of any man stupid enough to cross you. This is another area where Ghost of Tsushima absolutely excels. This style of combat is akin to the Batman: Arkham series, fluid and free-flowing with blocks and strikes and parties at your disposal, with no lock-on button to anchor you down a simple move of your directional stick to target a different enemy and every enemy requiring different strategies to defeat. Earn Renown for successfully defeating enemies, parrying blows, and putting wounded enemies out of their misery which you can channel into healing mid-battle or delivering devastating special attacks that you unlock as you progress.
Stand-Offs are a brilliant new combat component in this game. When you approach enemies who have not been alerted to your presence you can call them out to lure them in with your sword still sheathed, hold down the triangle button and simply wait for them to make their move, release it and cut them down in one smooth motion. You can eventually upgrade this ability to string together one-hit kills on up to three approaching enemies. It is absolutely badass, there is no better way to put it.
Boss battles are handled as one-on-one duels, usually set in truly beautiful locations which only amplifies the cinematic feel of the game. These duels are gruelling, requiring strategy and good timing to master, no gadgets or ranged weapons allowed, just a true test of mettle between skilled warriors. These are simple in design but the combat is so tight and intricate that they feel like enthralling epics.
Jin can learn new stances to effectively battle and disable different enemy types, switching between stances and projectile weapons in combat is easy enough with the swift pull of an R2 and the relevant contextual button. Once you truly get into the flow of the combat system, and it will not take long, it is simply one of the best I have seen. An impressive feat given the PS4 era has already given us some truly great combat systems in God of War and Final Fantasy VII Remake. The fundamentals alone are so good, you could avoid switching stances or incorporating projectiles into a fight and the core elements of combat will still reward you with a rewarding experience.
Little details help only enhance your experience, such as swiping to the right on your touchpad to clean and sheath your blade after a particularly bloody battle. Swiping down to bow to an NPC showing you respect. Swiping left to play a tune on your pipe (new tunes can be unlocked through collectables). It all builds up to a very complete samurai experience, it makes you feel like you are part of this world and this warrior culture. The level of thought put into immersion is utterly inspired.
As Jin, combat is not your only weapon against the Mongol invaders, you must also become the titular Ghost by creeping through the shadows and striking unsuspecting enemies. The stealth is solid and functional. It starts out feeling quite basic but begins to open up as your upgrades begin to roll in. The game world is not tuned specifically for stealth movement in the ways The Last of Us Part II is, so do not expect a particularly nuanced stealth system, but if you enjoyed the style of Batman: Arkham Asylum or Shadow of Mordor then you will be well served here. It didn’t really need to be any elaborate mechanics; samurai aren’t famous for their stealth. That’s ninjas. The game will only demand you execute a perfect run a handful of times, often it is perfectly acceptable to break cover and go on a katana rampage.
The writing is similarly strong, there are some inspired moments, particularly in the early stages of the game but the storytelling is not audacious or groundbreaking in the ways The Last of Us Part II or God of War were, but they were strong nonetheless. Every side quest has depth, they are not mere fetch quests or combat grinds, they have human stakes attached to help you invest.
Jin is not a particularly charismatic or nuanced lead but his performance has enough moral conflict and the right level of stoicism to help you channel all your badass warrior fantasies through him. He will never threaten to be one of the great icons of the PlayStation but he is a dependable lead for this sort of game, he does not distract from everything around him. The supporting cast, however, is nuanced and interesting from top to bottom. Every character has a motivation and a purpose in the bigger picture. Such as Yuna, a gifted thief from a region that once rebelled Lord Shimura’s rule, or Ryuzo, a tragic and conflicted mercenary leader who dreamt of being a samurai. It is a testament to the work put into writing and performing this roster of supporting roles that I could happily see myself play any number of them as DLC mini-campaigns in the future. Jin may feel overshadowed by these characters but he is better served as an avatar for the player’s fantasies of being a stone-cold samurai.
Ghost of Tsushima is not comparable to the likes of The Witcher 3, where the quality of the writing propels you to complete side quests. The writing is good and the quests are always compelling but it is the depth and beauty of the world, the engaging design choices, and thrilling combat mechanics that encourage you to push beyond the main campaign and sample everything the game has to offer. It is a game that very much compensates for any comparative weak points with overwhelming brilliance elsewhere from world-class open-world creation to the gorgeous and evocative score.
Ghost of Tsushima is the swan song for the PS4, which has been a monumental part in PlayStation’s legacy. With world-beating levels of artistry and design and a keen focus on carrying the single-player experience forward, Ghost of Tsushima is one of the best games of this generation and perfectly exemplifies the PlayStation 4’s place in gaming history.
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