Highly anticipated and unafraid to release close to heavyweights like The Last Of Us Part II and the now delayed Cyberpunk 2077, Ghost of Tsushima is a breakaway hit for Sony’s first-party developer Sucker Punch, infamous for, well, Infamous. I’m going to come right off the bat and gush over this beauty of a game put together from what seems like the best features of similar open-world role models of recent years: Horizon Zero Dawn, Breath Of The Wild, The Witcher 3, and of course the North American studio’s own learnings from the aforementioned Infamous franchise.
Sucker Punch is certainly no neophyte in this stage and this is clearly their best work yet. While it hardly breaks new ground with its gameplay, Ghost of Tsushima (GoT) is a tour de force of cinema in videogame form, combining iconic moments nearly only seen in films with exciting and varied combat flowcharts and exploration elements that meld with a plot-pushing pace that strives to never lose its tempo.
Let’s head into the thick of this romanticized take on the 13th century Mongol invasions of Japan and allow me to do so in the form of one of his hobbies – a Haiku (it’s one of MANY side-activities you can do in GoT; a more serious equivalent to Yakuza’s and Sleeping Dogs’ karaoke).
This review is spoiler free.
Story and visual,
Combine in sheer artistry,
Crowned by wondrous sound.
Our hero, the eponymous Ghost, begins the game as only Jin, the scion of a clan of warriors born and sworn to defend the island they call home. The tutorial area is a brutal introduction to real-world-inspired initial reaction of the Japanese to the Mongol horde – Jin participates in the defense of Tsushima, but is met by a foreign enemy employing foreign tactics.
I had qualms over the seemingly slow approach of the game, and the first “WOW” moment did not come immediately, but come it did after the game finished with its intro sections. GoT was slowly and surely weaving a tale founded on a rich lore of alternate history, with its characters as cornerstones with which the pillars of its master plan would hinge on.
Jin and the other characters’ relationships are built over really well-acted dialogue, both in English and Japanese dub, although the facial animations and mouth movements might be a little bit disorienting as they are keyed into English scripts only. You would expect a Samurai game to be paired perfectly with Japanese dubs, but the English voice actors are equally as deserving of praise, oftentimes being the better option so as not to have the subtitles distract from the on-screen action.
The main characters each develop their motivations, actions, and emotions over the course of their own Tales, always inviting you to uncover more and more about them – and it is an offer that’s hard to avoid as they mesh together well in the grand scheme of the island’s politics and setting.
We are soon presented with the central conflict of the game, a Batman-esque premise of the guerilla Ghost being the hero the people of Tsushima needs, while Jin’s rigorously trained samurai self is forcefully evolved by dire circumstances of a new and inscrutable enemy from beyond the seas. The Mongols are not afraid to use fire, hostage-taking, and other tactics samurai would consider dishonorable – and the Ghost learns to employ assassinations, stealth, and actual new technology (at least for warriors of the time in this portrayal of shogunate Japan) against them.
Eventually, the Ghost learns that the people have flocked to his name not only for protection, but to support him as well – Tsushima was not going to be saved by one man alone, but it sure does begin with his efforts in bringing down their oppressors, one peasant saved at a time.
We meet other like-minded individuals – some from Jin’s past, and others new acquaintances – that will share our journey, not as tag-alongs but as well developed characters that bare their motivations and energy in their actions. Together, along with legends, myths, and events from all the corners of the island, a living, breathing setting is borne and raised in the matter of anywhere from 40-60 hours, the amount of time it will roughly take to Platinum the game.
The game shines in the presentation of its story in these regards, which, while it is a very Hollywood take on the honor-and-swordplay beats of samurai flicks, is very respectful, well-developed, and nurtured over a forgiving but adventurous pace, especially for an open-world game that comes with lots of side quests and distractions.
If you loved watching The Bride demolish gangsters and assassins, or Daigoro protect his cub, or Jack stand steadfast against time and a gigantic demon warlock, you will love GoT. I’ve heard it compared to Sekiro if only for its theme – while they are two games floating down diverging river paths, the love for the lore of bushido is embraced in both – GoT is just more grounded in realism, though not without dabbling in a little mythological spirituality.
The visual artistry is without a doubt, its most breathtaking aspect. The world is littered with views and vantages straight out of a feudal-era painting to enjoy. It is an experience that begs you to appreciate beauty even in the ravages of strife and suffering, if only to serve as a breather between the tense battles you have to take part in. High Resolution and High Frame Rate mode is present for PS4 Pro users, but we noticed hardly any frame rate dips so we opted to use High Resolution all the way, rewarded with some of the most stunning scenery in any game.
The score and ambient audio provides bountiful support in immersing us through the various locales, feeling as authentic as a Kurosawa masterpiece. Speaking of the famed filmmaker, there’s even an option to up the cinematic feel – a
It is a creative marvel of passion – delighting with every scene, every vista, every muddy roll through the rice paddies and bloody slashes through flesh and armor. And I absolutely loved the ending credits song – can’t wait for the official soundtrack to be released.
Samurai action hero,
GoT is an amalgamation of the best bits of the action-RPG sub-genre, opening up once the initial mechanics, plot points, and characters are introduced. The core loop is familiar: unlock a quest line via meeting an NPC, follow them or their story to a place of interest, do battle or solve a puzzle, and reap the rewards.
It seems a pedestrian formula at first glance, but the implementation is streamlined to keep you always wanting more. Quests, or Tales, are manageable in length and will almost never feel like a drag because of wonderful writing for the most part, which could possibly stand toe to toe with The Witcher 3. Longer Tales are split apart in chapters that you can conveniently sidetrack yourself out of if you feel like taking on something else for the meantime. Exploring Tsushima’s nooks and crannies will, for the most part, be bursting with flavor.
Tsushima Island itself is divided into three main regions corresponding to the game’s possibly film-inspired three acts. Each region is sizable, with so much to see and do that there is hardly a dull moment in the world. Across valleys and lakes and fields, each area has a noticeable theme that makes the region distinct and the map stand out in vivid color. As you ride into the sunset, you notice hardly any loading times except for the times when you employ fast travel, and even then loading times are short, averaging around 5 seconds, give or take, on a PS4 Pro.
The main navigation mechanic is presented as the Guiding Wind, a representation of the Kamikaze (literally Divine Wind) that was said to have helped drive away the IRL Mongol invasion. Swiping up on the Dual Shock touchpad calls forth a visual and aural cue in the form of a gusting wind, blowing towards the direction of the map entry you would have been instructed to track. Not only does this make exploration intuitive – it is also an immersive and clever way of merging game-play mechanics with character and plot development – Jin’s connection to the Divine Wind is explored pretty early on in a story cut-scene. Travel by horseback and just plain running around is also rewarded by the myriad activities you can do besides moving the plot along.
Question marks can sometimes appear on the map where the fog-of-war is wiped away by your world movement or mentioned by NPCs, and following these can lead to cleverly hidden mini-games, platforming challenges, or an outright trove of loot that’s still presented in a way that makes sense within the world. The map is immense, but points of interest are properly scattered that weaving to and from each point does not feel like a chore, highlighting a triumph in game design.
The amount of vanity gear you can equip is enough to satisfy a huge range of tastes – dress like a wide and towering Oni-faced war leader, a rough-and-tumble my-own-rules ronin in a hakama (please do correct me in terminology of there is a better one – I’m an enthusiast, not an expert), or the eccentric weird hats of feudal longbow archers.
Past cosmetic upgrades, shrines atop mountain peaks and beyond precarious caves provide charms that can be equipped for stacking benefits like damage reduction, hot spring onsen in hidden coves provide healing and permanent boosts to health, and even a sort-of Simon-Says sequence in bamboo practice stands that increase your resolve, basically your ‘mana’ to pull off your techniques.
Tsushima is mostly handcrafted goodness except for its random-battle system – these points in the map are fun to discover and complete and are meticulously scattered all over the island.
Always move forward,
Building your legend slowly,
Ghost or Samurai.
Experience and character progression is given form by the growing of the Ghost of Tsushima’s legend among the populace. As you conduct your exploits saving villages and their inhabitants from roving squads of Mongolians and native opportunistic bandits, the people take notice of your work and show their gratitude with meager gifts of supply rations (the game’s main currency – a refreshing alternative where actual money would not make sense for a wartime setting).
Completing enough adventures that contribute to the Ghost’s living legend grants us Technique Points that can unlock combat and exploration options, custom-fit to your choice of play-style.
Plying your operations across larger and larger swathes of territory will have you returning to some areas where peasants and merchants are already able to return in safety to their habitations, thanks to your efforts in driving away hostile forces. This trend of give and take echoes all throughout Tsushima, giving players and Jin constant doses of gratification.
Craftsmen, that can improve your weapons and armor, and merchants, that provide more vanity options for playing samurai dress-up, pop-up in quest hubs big and small, eager to offer their services to the Ghost in support of his heroic deeds.
These are consistent qualities maintained throughout the whole game: everything makes sense in the scope of world-building an already well-known and often-depicted landscape that may be written off as an easy or safe choice for game developers.
The life of Tsushima and its katana-sharp romanticization are given life by mechanics that are gracefully intertwined with the fact that it is still a game that needs to played – everything from character statistic/skill upgrades, crafting, navigation and exploration as I’ve mentioned above, to the combat, side-quests for loot, and overall progression is backed by a story element.
And finally, the combat – we remembered Sucker Punch’s promise of “exhilarating” fights – and they for sure delivered on this guarantee. The dance of movement and timing represents the best elements of samurai/ninja-inspired action games of old: of Tenchu’s quick and brutal stealth kills, to Sekiro’s perfect parries and dodges, even to hints of Bushido Blade – the game allows you enough leeway to choose how to take on the Mongol hordes.
A relatively fresh mechanic called the Standoff, allows you to challenge idle unalerted enemies to a duel that you can end in one strike – or fail and get punished to a sliver of your health instead. It’s another smart implementation of what is in the narrative as Jin keeping useful samurai tactics – again it makes sense in both gameplay and story.
Failing that, you can of course quietly approach an encampment and bring them down one by one without their buddies getting none the wiser. My slight gripe is that while there is a cool behind-the-paper-door insta-kill, there is no from-the-ledge kill, like from when you hang by a window or overhang and pull someone to their death. Still, the variety of executions you can commit in the shadows are varied enough.
There’s also all manner of “Ghost” weapons, the side of Jin representing his acceptance of the any-means-necessary against the invaders and bandits – throw kunai at their necks and hear them gurgle blood as you rush other targets down, smokebombs to regain the advantage of stealth (and thus enable insta-kills even amidst alerted enemies), and even a technique similar to the Mongols’ that allows you to set fire to your blade.
It’s really your choice – build tanky and fight like the stubborn and bear-like Kikuchiyo in Seven Samurai, or trick your opponents with tools of misdirection both literal and strategic, like Kyuzo from the same film.
The combat and stealth sequences in the main Tales are wonderfully choreographed and seem to enable Jin and the player to exercise their creativity in the effort of mastering an obstacle in the most beautiful way possible without ever pressuring you with a score – it’s up to you too what’s cool or not in your book. Together with lilting crescendos nudging you ever forward from a quiet buildup as you approach enemies – the pace never lets up when it finds opportunity.
Most of these Tales are topped at the end by Duels, boss fights that work a bit different from regular battles – they’re great early on but by the end, some can be underwhelming copy-pastes and re-orders of sequences you’ve already conquered. Nevertheless, the fights never lose their flair, and these are some of the most intense and visually appealing moments in the game.
Random battles also litter the landscape and offer challenges that sometimes reward Jin with information from rescued hostages – these is another appreciated break in the otherwise expected tediousness of manual travel as the battles are quick, and positioning and enemy group composition indulges you to strategize on the fly especially if you’re caught on horseback and seen from afar.
Other challenges that are prearranged but can be tackled at your leisure include Mongol work camps, the occupied village territory, and military installations filled with soldiers all waiting to be Ghosted. Terrain features await your surveying eye – be patient for the proper moments to strike undetected or be quick before you are seen and an alarm is raised.
Climb up to roofs and towers, crawl under floorboards, and squeeze through cracks in fences – they’re all here from Tenchu – done with modern-day video-game sensibilities and design in mind.
Close to perfection,
Details loved, flaws accepted,
Greatness still stands out.
It was a long and arduous journey we took to get here – it’s sure got that one-more-quest (one more game?) itch just waiting to be scratched and then it’s 3 AM in the morning. I’ve finished the game and still there was stuff to do. It behooves me to say that it wows in so many things, but we still have to talk about where it falls short, unfortunately.
Enemy AI is exploitable once you get the feel from the first act – even if they do upgrade in their tactics and start ganging up on you, sometimes it feels like a crap-shoot when you pick them off one-by-one with your bow, and just wait for them to drop their alert level. For this reason I’d even recommend upping the difficulty to “Hard” if you feel that the Ghost is too much for his enemies and combat starts to feel like a chore (unlikely, but I’ve felt it a few times across the play-through).
The over-the-shoulder camera can be horrendous in the most inopportune moments. There is no option to have Jin and other characters outlined if they are behind opaque surfaces, and the sticky-as-molasses camera panning often gets stuck in a corner while you get pummeled by an enemy you’re struggling to see. I’ve come to the realization that it may have been a design decision to keep the cinematographic ambiance of the game to the max – but at least a way to deliberately adjust view distance above what the game’s display options offer would have been nice.
There are also quite a bit of weird and minor quirks that can be annoying (that oddly feel in-place in a large open-world game), like NPCs asking you to follow them but close the door on your nose. You’ll notice some NPCs look like some others that fulfill other bigger roles – a somewhat common occurrence for games of this size. And eventually, you can get hit by open-world tedium – you’ll begin to notice which patterns are being repeated, which voice lines keep getting said, and which places you’d probably hate to bother with because you know it’s cribbed from some other place you’ve been to already except that the water mill is in another place, or that there’s more dogs there than archers, and the like.
For Breath Of The Wild, I think that’s both what made and broke it – experiences had a lot of variance even for the smallest side quests, but because of their sheer number, it can desensitize you to the remainder of what you can do in the world. In this case, I’m thankful they’re 100% optional like in Zelda, and the grind for materials isn’t as hard as i’d initially thought. And far removed from the (mostly) relaxed mood in BOTW, the goal of saving Tsushima is never out of sight and it is felt, alluded to, directly referenced, and rewarded for.
Overall, Ghost of Tsushima is probably the best recent open-world game to come out this year – but due to its mishaps (which, to be fair, are mostly minor), it’s a game that I love but cannot objectively say was a perfect experience for me. It comes hair-splittingly close for what I could consider our Editor’s Choice rating, and my actual editor will definitely contest me on this, but I ultimately feel that it definitely can do a lot better in terms of polish.
There are very small issues that I battled with (especially the camera) – but I have full confidence that those quibbles won’t take away anything too significant from this otherwise wonderful work of beauty (except maybe cost them the Game of the Year award).
It’s a magnificent endeavor that may have been too big for its own merit, or over-focused too far on some design elements, but it will definitely be a bad-ass katana-swinging contender with its moving story and spectacular presentation.
What we liked:
- The most beautiful and cinematic open-world game yet
- Quest writing that can stand up to the likes of The Witcher
- Fluid and sensible battle mechanics
- Very fast load-times
What we didn’t like:
- Annoying camera behavior
- Exploitable enemy AI
- Open-world fatigue can set it by the later stages of the game
- Small details that feel overlooked
Verdict: Buy it!
Ghost of Tsushima is a technical and artistic marvel. Very few games can look and play as good as this effort from Sucker Punch, and that alone makes it worthy of a full price purchase. It’s an open world game that fully immerses you in the experience with its stunning presentation but also provides nearly the same amount of quality in all its aspects. It begs the question of how they’ve managed to fit everything in a ~40GB file size with minimal loading time. We may not know, but we are thankful and amazed that they’ve managed such a feat.
Ghost of Tsushima is the title that will catapult Sucker Punch to a status not many devs and studios can and will ever reach. It is a titanic effort and it will be to Sucker Punch what Horizon Zero Dawn was to Guerilla Games, a title that may very well be considered their greatest work.
Ghost of Tsushima was reviewed on a PS4 Pro through a review copy provided by the Publisher.