Ghost of Tsushima whisked me away to feudal Japan to provide an authentic experience that draws from samurai epics in film. Sucker Punch’s latest outing is a tour de force in many ways, and it began drawing me in from the opening cinematic.
From the clashing tamahagane-made katanas to the beautiful soundtrack, Ghost of Tsushima pulls from Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and The Hidden Fortress. These touchstones make for a delightful love-letter that kept me enamored throughout the game’s main story, and had me coming back for more long after the credits rolled.
Ghost of Tsushima plays it rather safe when it comes to its moment-to-moment gameplay. There are clear parallels that can be drawn from other third-person action games. This notion never detracted from the sheer bliss of riding across the many stunning landscapes, all beaming with color. Ghost of Tsushima acts as PlayStation 4’s swan song and utilizes the hardware effectively. The somewhat repetitive mission structures were greatly outshined by the enthralling atmosphere and many other qualities.
The ‘ghost’ of Tsushima
Ghost of Tsushima focuses on Jin Sakai, a noble samurai warrior with a respected bloodline and heritage. Since the death of his father, Jin has been under the wing of his uncle, Shimura, the jito of the island. Jin has trained his whole life to fight with honor under the Bushido code.
When we’re introduced to Jin, he is on the frontline of a battle against the Mongolian army. Lead by Khotun Khan, the Mongolian army lands on Tsushima, with the intent of a violent invasion and takeover. This leads to the majority of Tshushima’s most revered warriors to be slaughtered by the Khan’s army. Jin survives by the hand of a local thief, Yuna, while Shimura is taken captive by the Khan.
Tsushima has already been pillaged and usurped by the time Jin has recovered. Jin takes it upon himself to free the locals from the Khan’s wrath by banding with other capable warriors. The situation also puts Jin’s nobility to the test. He reels with the reality that honorable combat can only take him so far. He slowly delves into more stealthy tactics, thereby being hailed as “Ghost”.
A warrior of honor
Throughout many moments in the game, you can approach a Mongolian outpost head-on or sneak in and take down each soldier from the shadows. Neither method has an objective advantage over the other, so personal preference plays a large role here.
Jin is a proficient warrior with many skills, and as I began progressing further into the game, the opportunity to refine said skills began to arise. The juxtaposition between samurai swordplay and the stealthy ‘Ghost’ gambit not only served the narrative, but the gameplay as well.
Taking a look at the traditional samurai combat structure, Ghost of Tsushima rewards patient players. Jin can wield his katana blade and slash enemies with both light and heavy attacks to wear down their defences. However, like a disciplined warrior, if I waited on the enemy to strike, I could perform a perfect parry and open up a larger window of opportunity to attack. Taking a hit from an enemy, I’d have to use Resolve to heal myself. Successful strikes would replenish the Resolve meter.
On top of that, Ghost of Tsushima has a unique Stance mechanic. Quick selecting each of the four stances allowed me to break down enemy defenses. Using the Stone Stance, for instance, is more efficient on the swordsman. Though swapping to the Water Stance, I could break down the shieldman defense, opening them up for a fury of attacks. It’s an interesting mechanic that does take some time to get used to. Once you master it, battling a group of soldiers becomes a satisfying endeavor.
Becoming the ghost
If taking the stealthy approach, Jin will skulk through the high pampas grass or traverse rooftops. Luring his foes with throwable chimes and firecrackers, Jin can silently assassinate them with his tanto sword. I became very comfortable using the short bow to pick off the many archers without raising suspicion. Enemy AI is fairly predictable, as they typically follow the same paths, allowing players to create a perfect strategy.
Completing missions and finding collectibles will grant ‘technique points’ to unlock new abilities for Jin’s many skill trees. There is a dedicated ‘Samurai’ and ‘Ghost’ tree with a plethora of useful abilities to unlock. Examples of such abilities are being able to string together assassinations to up to three enemies. You can also reduce the cooldown on the Concentration ability to slow time when aiming your bow.
The island of Tsushima is a vast open world with various settlements and points of interest to discover. You’ll be encouraged to explore the land by taking on side quests from the locals. There are also longer, more detailed quests known as Tales which are given by companions.
For the most part, a lot of these supplemental missions become a bit samey. They do offer some great character moments, especially while seeing Jin get to know his companions. However, the mission structures are fairly formulaic outside of the main narrative. They rarely offer anything new in the third-person action genre outside of the setting and circumstance.
Ghost of Tsushima isn’t all about masterful swordplay. The game offers many moments of tranquillity. Littered across the island, there are opportunities to boost your stats and take a moment of rest. Finding a hot water spring, Jin will take a dip and reflect on moments in his life to increase maximum health. Taking part in the Bamboo Strike challenges rewarded me with points to increase my maximum Resolve. Being led to enough Inari Shrines by way of the game’s friendly foxes, I was able to increase my charm slots, charms being a way of boosting stats.
An island ripe for exploration
What I found to be more rewarding was exploring Tsushima with no agenda on hand. The game’s HUD is very minimal, with no traditional onscreen waypoints leading to your destination. Instead, you can naturally stumble on POIs by riding your horse towards distant billows of smoke, or following a helpful bird.
There’s an air of mystery when venturing around Tsushima. I never knew what I would stumble upon next. When deciding to travel to a specific destination, swiping up on the DualShock 4’s touchpad would call upon the winds to direct me in the general direction. This paired very nicely with the sound of wind emitting from the speaker in the controller as an added layer of immersion.
I was rewarded with new cosmetic items and technique points while uncovering the many corners and locales of the map. That said, it was gratifying enough to explore simply to take in the sights of the far reaches of the island.
Ghost of Tsushima features some of the most stunning landscapes, even on a base PlayStation 4. The dynamic lighting, day and night cycle, and weather changes amplify a feeling of wonder as you climb a mountain or steer your horse through a field of bright flowers.
The vivid visuals also paired well against the war-torn island. Bright blue skies contrasted quite well with the crimson splatter of blood against Jin’s clothes, as did the burned downed down remnants of a village against the lush green grass.
Ghost of Tsushima uses color in a very artistic way, pairing it with incredible lighting techniques and particle effects that left me astonished and had me taking pictures via Photo Mode quite regularly.
Creating an authentic piece of work
Historical pieces of feudal Japan, both fiction and non-fiction, inspired Ghost of Tsushima. The soundtrack alone is something to marvel at. As I was exploring, there was a calming nature to the score, pairing ever so well with the visual. When squaring up with the Mongols, my heart pumped with the beat.
The game captures and replicates this best during the samurai duels. The process of Jin and a rival toeing up with lengthy, cinematic shots of each warrior slowly grasping their sword. The music swells as one waits for the other to make their first move. These instances were by far the most captivating moments in the game, and they exemplified the understanding the developers had on the source material.
The game touts many systemic features that help to create an authentic experience. Delving into the options, I could switch the voiceovers from English to Japanese. The ‘Kurosawa Mode’ is the cherry on top of it all. The game would be rendered in black and white with a film grain filter once turned on. I wrestled between playing with traditional settings turned on and having Kurosawa Mode enabled. On the one hand, the vibrant visuals begged to be digested. On the other, Kurosawa Mode added a lot of texture to the experience.
Jin is a compelling character who, through the arduous task of freeing his land, embraces his new role in the world. With a full arsenal of weapons at his disposal, the freedom of tackling combat scenarios the way that speaks to the player the most is readily available. An eclectic cast of interesting characters joins Jin, providing some fantastic moments.
While the game’s supplemental missions often follow a rinse and repeat structure, they merely serve as a vessel to explore the rich sights Tsushima has to offer. With roughly 40 hours dedicated to completing the main narrative and side missions, there was still an unbelievable amount to do. In addition to that, similar to any “checkbox list” game, Ghost of Tsushima offers many collectibles and cosmetic items to find.
Fans of the chanbara film genre will surely be head over heels over the efforts put into Ghost of Tsushima. The game pays respects to great filmmakers like Akira Kurosawa. It gives players plenty of options to make Ghost of Tsushima an authentic homage to the filmmaker’s work.
Ghost of Tsushima will be available on July 17 on PlayStation 4.
A copy of Ghost of Tsushima was provided by Sony Interactive Entertainment Canada for review purposes. All screenshots were taken on a base PlayStation 4.