Title: Ghost of Tsushima Released On: July 17, 2020 Genre: Action-Adventure Reviewed On: PlayStation 4 (Pro) Developer: Sucker Punch Productions Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment MSRP: $59.99 USD / $79.99 CAD / £49.99 GBP
Samurai stories are all about honour. First and foremost, it is a samurai’s duty to show utmost devotion to one’s lord, to respect clan and family, and to adhere to a strict ethical and practical code that governs all aspects of one’s life. Ghost of Tsushima is not a game about living by the samurai code. It’s a story concerning what happens when an ideal that we have held dear for our entire lives becomes shattered by a need to survive.
An epic adventure that follows samurai Jin Sakai across the island of Tsushima in search of allies to defend against foreign invaders, Ghost of Tsushima is a violent tale of retribution and rebirth. An open world action-adventure game at its core, Sucker Punch Productions have crafted a deep and engaging narrative with a brutal and intricate combat system, taking place in one of the most beautiful and enthralling landscapes.
The setting for Ghost of Tsushima takes place against the backdrop of the Mongol Invasion of Japan, during the first attempted conquest of 1274. The invasion was led by one of the grandsons of Genghis Khan, Kublai Khan, who planned to use the island of Tsushima as a staging ground for their attack on mainland Japan. After an initially overwhelming victory, the Khan was not expecting a lone surviving samurai to rally the discordant voices of Tsushima in an effort to push the invaders back into the sea.
You don the mantle of Jin Sakai, the last samurai of Clan Sakai and one of the only survivors of the Mongol’s attack at Komoda. After being saved by an unlikely ally, Jin must come to the realization that the answers to saving the people of Tsushima do not lie solely in the samurai code, but in learning new and more deceptive forms of combat. A single samurai is no match for the Mongol army, so Jin must call upon old allies and forge new and unlikely friendships if there is to be any hope of taking Tsushima back from the invaders, and stopping their advance on Japan.
While the story that follows Jin Sakai itself is a fictional narrative, the backdrop it is set against is a historically accurate and thoroughly researched setting. The historian in me absolutely drank in the attention to detail that has been given to precisely reflect 13th century Japan. There as been an extreme amount of care taken to ensure that Ghost of Tsushima reflects not just the history of the events, but the era of Japanese culture and political structure.
The 13th century in Japan was a period of tumultuous change, which was not brought on by but exacerbated through the Mongol invasion. The clans which had been in power for hundreds of years found themselves at conflict with each other as well as other sections of society, which can be seen permeating the world you play in.
To some gamers this type of attention to historical detail may seem peripheral, but it is this care that results in thorough world-craft and the creation of a truly living, breathing digital world. For a game of this size it would be easy for it to have felt empty, but through careful care and implementation, Sucker Punch has ensured that every corner of the map presents new surprises, new stories, and new reasons to dig even deeper into the rich landscape of Tsushima. It’s an absolutely beautiful environment too, with rolling fields and lush forests accentuated by blooming flowers of all colours.
Ghost of Tsushima does exploration right, through creating an organically engaging world instead of one that pushes you in a direction. The game is consistently urging the player to explore the unknown, without actually directing them to do so. There is no mini-map to guide the player to undiscovered locations or hidden collectibles; of which there are many to be found. Instead, it is up to you and Jin Sakai to explore the world organically, following the Guiding Wind and traversing vast landscapes and speaking with the local villagers to uncover new locations and secrets. It is easy to lose yourself traversing the island of Tsushima and completely forget your quest in lieu of chasing down Mythic Tales of legendary weapons, or assisting a downtrodden peasant.
Unearthing the mysteries of the island of Tsushima is an exceptionally captivating experience, as well as an extremely rewarding one. In addition to encountering other survivors who will direct you towards undiscovered locations and new side quests, some of the best sword kits, cosmetics, and upgrades in the game can be found simply through exploration. The use of the Guiding Wind to direct the player instead of a more traditional compass or mini-map adds to the feeling that you are organically uncovering locations. Whether you are tracking a quest objective, a location, or a collectible, the wind guides the player without an overbearing hand.
Exploring the island of Tsushima is made even more inviting because of the absolutely wonderful traversal system. It’s not that Sucker Punch’s parkour mechanics have anything exceptionally unique to them; it’s that they have been so refined that when you get the hang of it controlling Jin feels like flowing wind. The way he jumps from rooftops and smoothly rolls into an expedient crouched walk; before slipping under the seam of a tent unseen. While I would have preferred a more open climbing mechanic instead of the more classical footholds you have to find to climb or descend terrain, their implementation like everything else was smooth.
While I have focused on the marvelous exploration up to this point, you can assure yourself that combat takes center stage in Ghost of Tsushima; the protagonist is a samurai after all. Much like the open-ended approach to exploration, you are free to engage in combat however you see fit. From his beginnings as a samurai warrior adhering strictly to his clan’s mantra, Jin must come to face the fact that the samurai code does not hold all of the answers for taking Tsushima back from the Mongol invaders. Much as Jin’s understanding of his place in the war changes as encounters with allies and enemies alike shape his perspective, his shallow grasp of combat — seen strictly through the eyes of a noble samurai — shifts dramatically throughout your adventure.
You increase Jin’s Legend, the Legend of the Ghost, through your exploits across Tsushima. Everything from saving a peasant on the side of the road, to taking back villages or completing major quest objectives, rewards Jin with increased reputation which translates into new skill points that you can allocate across a number of trees. You can uncover new abilities, augment your combat style, and improve your special Ghost weapons which are unlocked through increased Legend.
Ghost of Tsushima‘s combat is extremely satisfying. Armed with a katana and a tanto, open melee against opponents is a very measured dance. You have to wait for your openings and learn the precise timing to block or parry opponents strikes, as well as when to dodge unblockable attacks. Jin has four stances, each of which are useful against a specific type of enemy, and which are unlocked as you progress through the game and defeat Mongol leaders. The ability to fluidly alter your combat stance, and simultaneously the style of your light and heavy attacks, creates a depth to the combat that is as intricate as it is engaging.
Switching between these stances on the fly is paramount to breaking the various enemy defenses, and each stance can be upgraded to increase its effectiveness against the intended opponent, unlocking new attacks. I had initially found the absence of a lock-on mechanic to be a little disorienting in combat, but the longer I played the more I understood its exclusion. You parry and attack in the direction that your left stick is facing, which allows Jin to quickly move from enemy to enemy, whereas changing locked-on targets would have likely taken away from the free-form flow of combat.
It’s one of the few games where after 30+ hours I was still going out of my way to engage groups of enemies I passed on the road, because the combat never felt repetitive.
You have the option of starting any combat with a “Standoff,” which easily constitutes the most tense-excitement that you will experience in the game. Each Standoff begins with Jin facing off against an opponent, waiting for them to attack. You have to closely watch their movements to ignore any feinted actions, and then strike only when they lunge to attack. If timed properly, you can fell your opponent with a single swing, and if there are multiple opponents you have the ability to continue the chain, timing your attacks to their swings for deadly results.
Jin can also remain stealthy if you choose, and you have the ability to cut swaths through the enemy ranks without being noticed, using your tanto and careful use of the environment. Stealth executions are brutal and satisfying, and you can upgrade Jin’s abilities to allow him to assassinate enemies more effectively. Utilizing a combination of subversive and traditional samurai forms of combat is where the game shines, and understanding how to engage with each situation is the mark of a true Ghost.
Combat evolves exponentially as you progress through the story and increase your Legend, unlocking access to a wealth of new weapons and gear. From being armed solely with the katana and tanto of Clan Sakai, gifts passed down through generations of samurai, Jin will expand his arsenal to include bows, as well as a wide variety of Ghost weapons from smoke bombs to kunai (throwing daggers). Rather than simply supplementing the core combat, each new tool provides the player with a new way to approach combat.
A perfect example of this is the wind chime; a seemingly innocuous item that when thrown distracts an enemy to the target location. Until you unlock this item through increasing your Legend, Jin has no way to distract enemies away from their posts, which can make taking back a village or destroying a fort exceptionally difficult if you want to adopt a stealthy approach. On the other side of the coin, adding smoke bombs or kunai into your combat repertoire allows for Jin to do quick damage or buy himself some time if the melee becomes too frantic, which it often does.
You will advance from strict adherence to the samurai code, to moving stealthily through the shadows and striking when opportunity presents itself. The way that you play the game at its onset will be wholly different from how you find yourself approaching combat after ten or thirty hours. Much as Jin Sakai’s understanding of how he must face the Mongol invasion evolves throughout the narrative as he blends non-samurai combat into his style, so too will yours.
One of my biggest takeaways from Ghost of Tsushima is how much more understanding and respect I now have for Japanese history and culture. I’ve always considered myself a bit of an otaku, but even as a historian my knowledge of Feudal Japan was relatively minor other than a few notable events. Sucker Punch has paid an exceptional amount of attention not just to the game’s historical accuracy concerning the Mongol invasion itself, but to the changes in politics, culture, and social structure which were caused by the Kamakura Shogunate that instituted military rule in Japan following the imperial Heian period, which ushered in the era of Feudal Japan.
It’s this depth of historicity that shows the developer’s own respect for Japanese history, and you can see the care and attention permeating through all aspects of your adventure. It’s hard not to get lost in the folklore of the region, the plights of the peasants held back by powerful noble clans, and the struggle of Jin Sakai as he tries to reconcile the life he once led with the realization that clan rule and the class-struggle has led to the difficult situations many find themselves in.
You don’t have to be a historian to appreciate the Feudal Era of Ghost of Tsushima though; there are a number of nods to Japanese culture and folklore throughout the game, often tied into collectibles and locations that Jin will explore. Crickets sing in cemeteries to comfort the dead, Mongol artifacts detail facets about Mongolian history and culture, and many discoverable locations themselves are locations that were seen as integral to Japanese society. You will even learn about Japanese folklore through your quests to uncover the secrets of Mythic Tales, which lead Jin to legendary weapons, armor, and combat techniques that have been buried, awaiting a worthy warrior.
The Guiding Wind can lead you to any undiscovered location, and upgrading it will unlock the ability to unearth some of these hidden locations, each of which provides Jin with a specific bonus or upgrade to assist in his journey. You can meditate at peaceful locations and write Haiku, or take a relaxing bath in the region’s Hot Springs to invigorate your soul. There are Shrines and Pillars which pay respect to the Kami and the jitō, and fox dens to lead you to a shrine of the god Inari if you follow the playful little creature. The world is full of these locations to discover and be rewarded by, and I digressed countless times from Jin’s journey to see what was over a hillside or across a field.
My grievances with Ghost of Tsushima are relatively minor in comparison to the overall enthralling time that I had with the game. Certain context-sensitive actions — things like assassinations and opening containers — have small hit boxes which can mean that if you turn ever-so-slightly when you go to assassinate an enemy, you may accidentally quick slash them and alert an entire base. There were a couple instances in which I found I had to adjust the camera multiple times to get a container-opening action to appear.
There were a few graphical hiccups along the way too, but nothing that every broke my immersion; some clipping on an NPC or a slightly-off assassination animation that saw my opponent several feet from my stab animation. There were also a couple instances where I experienced a slight tear when I turned the camera too fast, but these issues were so minimal that they did nothing to affect the overall experience, and were far less than you’d expect in a title of this size.
The story of Jin Sakai, a samurai who bent his code to save his homeland and family, is one that will stay with me for a long time. Once the credits rolled, all I could think about was going back to uncover every hidden location and secret that I’d overlooked during my first playthrough, and that’s the mark of a truly great open world game. A world that is so well crafted that it just begs to have every inch of it explored, lest you fail to uncover even a single secret.
Ghost of Tsushima is Sucker Punch Production’s most ambitious title to date, and it’s paid off immensely. It’s an experience that easily rivals or surpasses even the best of the open world action adventure genre, a truly enthralling experience that leans on organic exploration and a constantly evolving and engaging combat system. Held up by an impressively deep and historically rooted narrative, Ghost of Tsushima is the samurai game that we’ve always needed.
Final Score: 9.5/10
Brutal and intricate combat set in a deeply enthralling world, Ghost of Tsushima is the definitive samurai game we’ll be talking about for generations.
The review copy of this game was a digital code provided by Sony interactive Entertainment.