Two warriors circle silently, hands on the hilt of their blades. Who will strike first? The bandit yells in my face, but I am unmoved. He leaps for the kill. Too slow. My katana cuts through the air, followed by an arc of blood. The bandit drops dead to the earth. I sheath my blade, whistle for my horse and ride towards the pillar of smoke on the horizon.
This is but a small taste of my embarrassing samurai wish fulfillment that Ghost of Tsushima brings to life, set to some of the most beautiful art direction I have seen on a PS4.
Made by Sucker Punch of Infamous fame, Ghost of Tsushima is available exclusively on PS4 and PS4 Pro in New Zealand from 17 July 2020. I reviewed the game on a standard PS4.
Battle like its 1274
It’s 1274, and the Mongols have launched their invasion of Japan on the island of Tsushima. Faced with overwhelming odds, samurai Jin Sakai will do what he must in order to return peace to the island. Decent of him, really.
Ghost of Tsushima lets you be any type of Kamakura era badass you like, historical accuracy be damned. Through Lord Sakai you’re a sword-slashing samurai, an archer, or a stealthy assassin depending on your mood.
Sword combat is smooth and satisfying to master, employing traditional parry, block, dodge and roll mechanics. Different enemy types can be countered by changing stance or using ninja-esque “Ghost” techniques. Melee combat sometimes devolves into spamming the heavy attack button, but the stances help provide some variety. Gunpowder-based items make an appearance – a nod to their use in the real-life invasion of Tsushima.
Lord Sakai is also a master of the sneak. Standing on the shoulders of stealth games before it, Ghost of Tsushima contains all the crouching, listening and aerial assassination that gamers have come to expect. While the stealth gameplay in Ghost of Tsushima feels clean and unforced, it never compares to starting a fight with a “standoff”. There’s something about the recklessness of challenging enemies to a one-hit-one-kill duel that never gets old.
While Sakai can initially be defeated by two or three hits, I found the quick accumulation of buffs and the ease of the combat system to substantially drop the difficulty level. There are also little to no penalties for death, due to generous autosaving. I didn’t mind this, as it encouraged creative and risky play.
Partial to particles
You have to hand it to them – Sucker Punch pushed PS4 particle effects to their very limits. Ghost of Tsushima features an endless and almost unrealistic amount of reactive leaves, flower petals and fireflies. The citizens of Tsushima must be constantly pulling leaves out of their hair, there’s that much debris flying around.
Lighting is also a strong point, with individually lit blades of grass fluttering through a beautiful night/day cycle. Characters are decently animated, complete with moving beads of sweat and gritted teeth. Dialogue sometimes slightly de-syncs to facial animations, but that could have only stood out due to how good expressions were in general.
I know that’s a lot of compliments, but trust me – go use Sucker Punch’s brilliant in-game photo mode and see what this beast is capable of. The art direction is so mind-blowing that practically anywhere will make a good screenshot.
Speaking of photo mode, that’s also a great place to go listen to Ghost of Tsushima’s exciting traditional Japanese-inspired soundtrack without distraction.
Sucker Punch have drawn heavy inspiration from old samurai movies, not unlike Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai from 1954 (but with 21st century pacing). There’s even a black and white “Kurosawa” mode with muted sound like an old film. It’s successful at creating an authentic, cinematic vibe and is a fun novelty. However, the colours of the game are so beautiful that I felt like I was missing out. Some enemy attacks also use colour as an attack indicator, and while the light can still be seen in black and white, it can be difficult to retrain your reactions.
Everything the light touches is our kingdom
While Ghost of Tsushima’s opening scenes are fast-paced, time slows to crawl once you reach open world as is so often the case in this genre.
And you know what? This didn’t bother me at all.
Exploration is obviously intended to be the soul of Ghost of Tsushima. There’s no mini-map to speak of, so you’re guided to waypoints by the wind. Points of interest are visually sign-posted, including by smoke, birds, or foxes who lead you to secret shrines.
And yes, you can pet the fox.
I’ve been waylaid for hours doing Uncharted-style ledge-grabbing, led by smoke signals and birds and wondering what’s over the crest of the next hill. The incredibly beautiful vistas combined with a large draw distance meant I was easily distracted on my way to save a village, but in the best way (well, maybe not for the villagers).
There’s no real wrong way to play the game, so you can just as easily stumble upon a major side-quest as you can that collectible you were hunting. Collectibles are fun to collect rather than a chore, and mostly provide either a combat (or in my opinion, more importantly) an aesthetic benefit.
Exploration of human settlements can be a tad dull due to the lack of unique interactables, but they do have merchant NPCs and random quest-givers to guide you to further places of interest. I also love a good “save a village/return when it’s bustling/feel like you made a difference to the lives of these sad peasants” mechanic.
The ends justify the means
Ghost of Tsushima asks whether it is more important to stick to your principles, or do what it takes to get the job done. It lays on the guilt for using Ghost techniques so thickly that I wondered if it was possible to complete a play-through without using any Ghost techniques at all (it’s not).
While never verging into grimdark, Tsushima is not exactly happy-go-lucky. Side quests have bittersweet endings as often as happy ones, and many of the main characters are perpetually angry and unlikable. Tonally, this feels appropriate. The real life invasion of Tsushima was a massacre. The Mongols were only stopped by a storm that destroyed their fleet – the earliest known use for the term “kamikaze” (divine wind). Ghost of Tsushima is a fantasy impression of Japanese history, with Jin Sakai acting as the metaphorical storm.
Beyond the main storyline, Ghost of Tsushima contains “tales” best described as an anthology of side-quests. These quests can be very formulaic, mostly comprising of taking over Mongol outposts, tracking people via footprints or stealthily following targets.
“Mythic” tales are the clear exception to this. While still employing similar tasks, these standalone side-quests feature incredible illustrated cut scenes, huge rewards and some of the most stunning locations in-game, not to mention some of the best boss-fights.
Truly, do the mythic tales. Treat yo self.
Unfortunately, the version I played had no subtitles for ambient NPCs. The dialogue itself is well-written and provides much-needed world building. It’s just hard to hear without swinging the camera around unnaturally. Even when playing with Japanese audio, subtitles aren’t present for ambient NPCs, meaning that many will miss out on the dialogue entirely. A further minor gripe is that NPCs, even if given a name in dialogue, are universally labelled “Peasant” in the subtitles.
Telling a tale of Tsushima
Ghost of Tsushima is visually a masterpiece. It can’t quite escape the sometimes repetitive side quests that plague open-world games, but the locales were so gosh-darn beautiful that I wanted to keep exploring anyway.
Sucker Punch have combined many of the hallmarks of this console generation, including slick melee combat, stealth and huge open-world exploration to create what will likely be one of the last great PS4 releases.