First unveiled at Paris Games Week 2017, the latest project out of Sucker Punch was a far cry from the Sly Cooper and inFamous titles PlayStation fans had been accustomed to seeing. Instead, a samurai game with deep action mechanics was shown taking place in feudal Japan. The game looked as promising as it was beautiful and bloody, and I’m happy to report that it’s one of the best experiences there is on the PlayStation 4.
What Is It?
Ghost of Tsushima is a new IP out of Sucker Punch, one of Sony’s first party studios whose last foray came just a month into the PS4’s lifespan with inFamous: Second Son. Now hot off the heels of The Last of Us Part II, Ghost of Tsushima is Sony’s last big first party exclusive of the year leading up to the eventual release of the PlayStation 5, and if it is indeed the PS4’s swan song, it’s ending on quite the high note.
The game puts players in the broken armor of Jin Sakai, a proud samurai warrior in the midst of a war with the Mongols. Unfortunately, the samurai failed to get their desired result as most of them were wiped out and their leader captured. Fortunately, Jin was nursed back to health by a warrior thief named Yuna, who’s out looking for her brother Taka, a talented swordsmith.
As Jin, you’ll be exploring the island of Tsushima fighting Mongols as well as bandits and thieves, assisting the island locals all while preparing to rescue his uncle, Lord Shimura, the head of the Tsushima samurai and hopefully recruit new and old friends to the cause such as Yuna, the reason why Jin is alive.
If you’re looking for a wholly unique samurai story, you won’t find it here. Some of it even feels like The Last Samurai, because that’s basically what you are, but as the “Ghost of Tsushima,” Jin will have to deal with a lot of situations where the honorable way of the samurai just doesn’t work, and he deals with both internal and external conflicts that force him to handle issues in his own way. The game does its best to make you believe that as Jin, you have the power to create change. However, like The Last of Us before it, that isn’t really the case. For better or for worse, Sucker Punch forces through its story no matter how you choose to play the game. Samurai don’t stab people in the back–they look their opponents in the eye during combat, but stealth is really important is this game, so you’ll find a lot of contradictions to how the story is told versus how the game is played.
While the story and its continuity are hardly strong points, Ghost of Tsushima‘s presentation is unrivaled. The game is very much a western that takes its obvious share of inspiration from many great samurai films of the past. The result is one of the most impressive cinematic experiences you’ll ever seen in a video game.
Why Should I Care?
There are plenty of fantastic open world games on the market and Ghost of Tsushima just adds to that crowded mix by taking various elements from all the good ones to create its open world.
The most direct comparison I can make with Ghost of Tsushima is with Breath of the Wild. While you can’t just decide to go the game’s version of Ganon right away and there aren’t any brainteasing shrines to find in Tsushima, its world still offers a wealth of worthy distractions from the golden path, and for the most part the game doesn’t doesn’t stop you from exploring them to your heart’s content–in fact, it supports it.
The diversity of things you can do is as simple as it is impressive as well. You have Shinto Shrines which pretty much show Sucker Punch’s colors by making you do a lot of of parkour to pray to a shrine–usually at the top of a mountain.
There are Fox Dens where you have to follow a fox around the environment to pray to a fox shrine and upgrade your charms, which are equippable combat buffs. If you’re lucky, you can even pet the fox after following it.
There are bamboo strikes where you have to follow very specific button combinations and press them all in rapid succession to cut through all the bamboo pieces in one strike. The prize? An upgrade to your remorse, which is used to heal Jin during battle or as spirit points for special abilities you’ll learn.
You have haiku areas where you look around at the environment and write poetry to describe situations.
There are even baths that maximize Jin’s health.
There’s just a whole lot of stuff to do, and when you’re traveling on your horse, it’s easy to get sidetracked. The best part of it all is that everything that’ll sidetrack doesn’t take that long to do, and every time you finish one of these tasks or sidequests, you’re rewarded with something that’ll help you out on your journey as well as unlock that area as a fast travel point. You’re in, you’re out, and you can warp back to that point anytime you’re playing, just as long as you aren’t in the middle of a fight.
This brings us to the game’s exquisite combat system, consisting of Standoffs and the game’s standard combat.
Standoffs are unique to Ghost of Tsushima and give you the option to start one when encountering a handful of enemies. When at a standoff, the camera goes behind Jin’s shoulder focusing on enemies coming up to you for a one-on-one duel. You hold triangle, and just as you see the enemy you’re dueling with about to attack you, you release the triangle button and are treated to Jin getting a one-hit kill in. Eventually, you’ll reach the point where enemies try to cheat by having another enemy rush in, and just as you see them attack, you can hit square to also treat them with a one-slash kill. The art of samurai combat is about ridding yourself of your assailants with the least amount of movement and effort possible. It’s all the more satisfying getting a chain of kills in Standoffs, and as you progress in the game, it’ll also be essential as it fills your health and aforementioned remorse.
This isn’t to say it isn’t without its issues. As beautiful as every still of Ghost of Tsushima looks with all the greenery, leaves, and cherry blossoms, sometimes it’s too much, and the overproduction of the camera work suffers because of it. There were a bunch of times I couldn’t focus on my enemy’s movements because there was a bush in the way, or a bird would fly by and mess up my visual of the enemy. Standoffs become even more challenging when enemies also try to use their movements to fake you out or randomly yell with the intention of making you attack too early, so even audio cues eventually stop working. Standoffs require complete focus, and if you can’t focus because of the camera, you’ll find yourself eventually struggling in standard combat in no time.
Standard combat feels a little more like the Middle Earth games with the stealth of Assassin’s Creed titles prior to Assassin’s Creed Origins. You have your light and heavy strikes along with the ability to block and parry maneuvers plus an arsenal that includes kunai, sticky bombs, and even a bow for good measure. All of this stuff is pretty standard fare, but the game also introduces samurai stances to give the combat more of a rock-paper-scissors feel so you can adjust on the fly when fighting swordsmen, shieldsmen, brutes, or spear users. The addition of the samurai stances seemed cool at first, but they weren’t incredibly useful once I got the hang of how to really fight. Once I really built and upgraded Jin’s abilities to my liking, I rarely even thought about changing my stance, unless I saw that there were more than of one type of enemy in the battles I encountered.
This results in the combat outside of standoffs being a little clunky. There were a bunch of times in the game where I’d mess up in stealth segments and end up running around camps trying to avoid several enemies giving chase. I’d fumble around looking to use my bombs. Unlike Breath of the Wild for example, even though it had its own problems with menu management, when you’re messing around with menus in Ghost of Tsushima, action doesn’t slow down. There were too many times I tried switching to my longbow instead of the bombs I needed, or I ended up switching stances instead of switching ghost weapons. It all becomes too convoluted for its own good, and it forces you to go back to the tried and true method of combat by parrying and striking.
Combat in the game isn’t meant to be as difficult as you’d see in something like Sekiro or Ninja Gaiden as the normal difficulty is actually kind of easy. If you struggle in the game, it could help to focus a little more on exploration and sidequests, as these could lead to more loot which can all be traded for gear.
As stated, the best way to come across the best items and loot is through exploration. You’ll find yourself on horseback a lot, but Tsushima has its fair share of climbing and cliffs. It’s not like Zelda where you can climb anything and everything, but even worse than that is the fact that Jin can’t take very much fall damage. There were situations where trying to get from point A to point B were extremely annoying because I had no desire to look for slopes or grapple points to safely scale down mountains. But when your character takes fall damage from jumping off a tent, I have trouble believing that he’s a good samurai. There is an upgrade later in the game that allows you to roll after jumping from such heights, but I found its usefulness to be random because there were multiple times where it didn’t work.
So in all, Ghost of Tsushima‘s main faults are in its camera at times and random fall damage. Just about everything else the game offers is great and makes its problems forgivable.
What Makes It Worth My Time And Money?
When talking about Ghost of Tsushima, the main conversation point will probably be about the game’s jaw-dropping art style. Very much inspired by the films of Akira Kurosawa, Ghost of Tsushima is nothing short of a visual masterpiece. You can even choose to play the game in a cinematic “Kurosawa mode” to emulate his classic black and white samurai masterpieces–though I ultimately decided to leave the original presentation in there because I’m absolutely in love with the game’s use of color. There are some animation hiccups here and there, in the form of katana sheaths sticking out of capes and awkward-looking but graceful moments in combat, but virtually every moment of in the game is picture-esque. From following the winds to your nearest objective in the open world to the game’s flawless use of lighting setpieces in various tentpole shots, there aren’t very many games that’ll see use of a photo mode more than Ghost of Tsushima.
Sucker Punch also did a fantastic job with the audio. The strings, pipes, and percussion you’ll hear in the game really make you feel like you’re in feudal Japan, further immersing you in what’s easily one of the most beautiful experiences on the PS4. If you do decide to play the game in Japanese, it’s worth noting that while I don’t think the acting job is bad, it’s not a proper dub. The game was designed with American English in mind, so it’ll be less distracting when playing in English because it’s properly lip synced. I do have a few issues with characters in the game pronouncing “Tsushima” differently from time to time, but that’s easy to disregard.
There’s a sense of pride I have as an Asian-American when I notice diversity done right, and while I have some issues with a one-sided look at the Mongols who are just bad to the bone the entire time in the game, the beauty and wonder of Tsushima and various customs of the honorable samurai really made the game a joy to play. The ending was also something I had trouble stomaching because I knew it was over. That said, I consumed pretty much everything there was to do, and even got the Platinum trophy in less than a week–I’m in no way saying this game is short; I’m just saying I was so immersed in the game, I never stopped, and that’s why the 40 or 50 hours I spent to Platinum the game went by so quickly. So yes, it’s well worth the price of admission.
With its obvious beauty in art design that causes you to lose yourself in its world, to its robust combat and journey that makes you feel like you’ve gone through more than your typical hero’s journey, Ghost of Tsushima easily stands out as one of the best games on the platform and it’s a testament to Sony’s dedication to letting its developers take chances with new IPs. Whether it’s Guerilla with Horizon: Zero Dawn or even the Santa Monica studio with a fresh take on God of War, Ghost of Tsushima continues to add to the great investment that the PS4 was this generation.