The PS4 is entering the twilight years of its era, and Ghost of Tsushima was positioned to be the finale to the long list of extremely high caliber and amazingly crafted Playstation exclusives; while it certainly does hold up, it hardly shakes the boat. Created by Sucker Punch Productions, Ghost of Tsushima is a samurai cinema influenced take on the Mongol invasion of Japan; it contains a very familiar open-world structure that plays well with its butter-smooth combat and its serviceable stealth mechanics. While Ghost of Tsushima does achieve the Sony Exclusive standard of polish and craftsmanship, it lacks polish and innovation to truly compare it to its peers.
Become the Ghost
Ghost of Tsushima follows the journey of Jin Sakai, a sheltered and highly positioned nobleman who serves as a samurai on the island of Tsushima during the first Mongol Invasion of Japan. Jin finds himself doubting his honor, upbringing, and beliefs as he begins to adapt underhanded tactics in order to match the sheer military might of the Mongol Empire. Doing so, Jin becomes the Ghost, a near-mythical figure on the island of Tsushima that strikes fear in the hearts of all those who witness, friend and foe alike. Ghost tactics include assassinations, utilization of sneaky tools, and other sneaky, indirect actions.
Prior to the launch of the game, I was honestly a bit lukewarm about the premise of the honorable warrior story, but I am pleasantly surprised that the plot emerged from that initial premise to a tale much more engaging. What bothered me the most about the honor premise was not the historical and cultural inaccuracy, but it’s predictable arc. However, established within the first act, Ghost of Tsushima shows off that it truly can take this conflict further. Challenging the teachings of honor still remained at the crux of the story, but also displays the grayness of the definition of honor, especially when honor is being enforced exclusively by those within privileged and affluent positions. Honor is reinforced throughout the story as not a simple “Good and Rigid vs Bad but Necessary” structure, but rather the honor that samurai class in Ghost of Tsushima preach about is a shallow farce that is actively being challenged by almost every named character within this roughly 30-hour tale.
The beautiful and brilliant island of Tsushima
The atmosphere in this game is certainly one of the most incredible achievements of this beautiful open world. When the music swells and the wind blows, I would often find myself just completely taken back by what was appearing on my screen. What I definitely appreciated the most is how much Sucker Punch also realized how important it was that you absorb and find those moments and designed the game around that experience. The UI is impressively slick while maintaining the proper amount of information needed to communicate to the player in an open world. Waypoints and markers are heavily reduced and are instead substituted with diegetic and immersive directions. Smoke on the horizon, the direction of the wind, or even creatures are all your guides on this island and is probably one of the most brilliant solutions I have ever experienced to the classic problem of “staring too much at the waypoint” in open-world games. The very design of Tsushima is highlighted in the way they have decided to have you interact with it, the beautiful lush fields and composed mountains can truly be appreciated without any interruptions.
Ghost of Tsushima is without a doubt a technical marvel; the dense foliage reacting dynamically to the brilliant wind navigation and lighting that bounces between the leaves within realistically dense forests all give the island of Tsushima a sense that it breaths. The lack of variety in creatures and beings within the world is easily made up with how much of the world feels handcrafted. Almost every part of the island feels as if it was sculpted to create unique and artistic landscapes that mirror the cultural and cinematic roots of this Island.
The diegetic navigation system truly was the most innovative addition to the open-world genre, that being said, it does have its share of flaws. Golden birds that can lead you points of interests are often times very frustrating to see/follow as it would fly over the field of vision of the camera, and would oftentimes collide with geometry in the world, flying into a wall, getting stuck. After a short while, the navigation system becomes too predictable, the sense of discovery and curiosity is quickly lost when the guides always lead to the same locations, and the rewards are rarely exciting, I did however really enjoy the progression and accessories found within the game, it hardly kept that initial sense of exploration for long as the guides were preventing me from making any real discoveries for myself.
The Lighting, while beautiful, did have its issues. It seemed almost impossible to get a correct brightness setting between its nondescript dramatic contrast and normal contrast modes and darks seemed too dark, and brights seemed too bright at pretty much most of the game. For a game that emphasizes appreciating the natural beauty of the Tsushima, it forces you to spend an unfortunate amount of time in the menus.
Outside of visuals, however, there really isn’t much to interact within the island of Tsushima, the type of activities are a shortlist of combat encounters, cutscenes, and small interactions such as bamboo cutting or drafting haikus. The NPCs of the world are practically limited to scenery, an issue I’ve had with Horizon Zero Dawn; they offer little interaction besides adding bodies to a scene and hearing little nuggets of dialogue in the air. In the end, Tsushima is a beautiful island with clever tricks and incredible loading times but offers little past its beauty.
Precise and Deadly
The combat of Ghost of Tsushima of primarily split between its sword gameplay, and its ghost gameplay. Sword combat maybe the highlight of the game for me, it feels butter smooth, and extremely reactive; a single mistake could end up costing you your life in even the most common encounters. However, the sword gameplay is at its peak when you are either outnumbered, or in the cinematic duels, you will encounter across your journey. As the game progresses, as Jin gains more abilities and grows stronger, single enemies become somewhat trivial but being outnumbered still felt like a real threat. Counters feel well earned, parries are smooth, and dodges are far less of a safe option as the enemies can actually attack you in a group; each action feels like it has to be well calculated and precise, and the flow of combat never really feels interrupted. My initial playthrough was on hard, and it took me close to the end of act 1 before the combat really clicked. Before that point, it was made extremely clear just how deadly the enemy really was, and this remains true up until the end of the game. Sword swings have to be precise and plans have to be made, yet it never felt unfair, truly one of the best melee combat experiences in a while. However, this only applies if you don’t use the arsenal of ghost weaponry at your disposal. The Ghost weapons, such as the kunai, sticky bomb, and smoke bombs just win fights for you. They’re satisfying and make thematic sense as these weapons are supposed to be your advantage against the Mongols, however, they don’t require the same amount of precision or decision making that the sword combat has, making them feel anti-climatic and abusive. There are really great strategic times to use these weapons that feel really great, such as rounding up the bulk of the enemy forces for the perfect sticky bomb or using the smoke bomb to make clever escapes, but the opportunity rarely calls for the occasion.
The ghost gameplay, for the most part, is completely functional and satisfactory; it feels satisfying and everything feels fair about the AI. When it works, there really isn’t anything special about it, but it doesn’t always work. The AI seems ill-prepared to deal with any situation that isn’t immediately hiding or immediately fighting. They don’t really know how to fight you if you are on a small platform, or on a ladder and you can break their line of sight by walking through a door, and you can repetitively assassinate them over and over again as they walk in, one by one. I personally didn’t see this happen a lot during my playthrough, but it definitely ruined the moment when it did. When the stealth works,
There exists light shooting mechanics with the bow, and for the most part, it feels really great to use, except in the few segments where it becomes a cover shooter, and they want you to shoot at enemy archers from a distance. The most frustrating part of these is when you take damage, you automatically stand up, taking you out of cover.
What really surprised me was the customization available, Jin himself cannot be customized, but rather the game offers a good amount of variety of skills and meaningful armors that can result in a number of unique builds, flavoring your playstyle. In my playthrough, I’ve created an archer built, a lifesteal build, a fear build, and a kunai build alongside my all-purpose armor set. Each build genuinely changed enough of the gameplay to create a good amount of variety.