After cultivating a highly successful series with fans and critics since 2009, you wouldn’t think developer Sucker Punch would have used the last six years to make a new IP; but they’ve gone and done it. Ghost of Tsushima represents a bold statement not just for the studio itself, but also as a game among the PlayStation exclusives slate.
The elements from the developer’s previous games — the cartoon-like Sly Cooper series and comic-inspired Infamous franchise — are absent from their new game. Ghost of Tsushima is the biggest departure the studio has undertaken.
The Rise of The Ghost
Much of it is due in part to the setting and the world. Ghost of Tsushima is based on the very real Mongol invasion on Tsushima Island that occurred in the late 13th Century but is told through the eyes of fictional character Jin Sakai, a samurai warrior.
Jin is among the samurai forces assembled to drive off the Mongol army as they arrive onto Tsushima Island, but are soundly defeated by their foreign adversaries who make use of unconventional tactics and weapons to overwhelm the Japanese. The samurais are wiped out, but Jin survives the battle, only to find the Mongols occupying the island.
Realising that the ways he was taught have proved fruitless against this war, he sheds his values to become The Ghost — a man who goes against the samurai code and uses unconventional methods of his own to instil fear into his Mongol enemies as he takes back Tsushima Island.
A Thrilling, Unpredictable Narrative In War-Torn Tsushima
Ghost of Tsushima’s story has surprised me in many ways, continually subverting my expectations in the direction it takes; it is definitely Sucker Punch’s best-written narrative to date. Jin Sakai’s evolution from a man struggling to betray his samurai values to one who will do anything necessary to combat the Mongol threat is also a fascinating journey to experience and makes him the studio’s most multi-faceted protagonist yet.
Ghost of Tsushima’s main antagonist comes in the form of Khotun Khan, a general for the Mongol army. He is cunning, intelligent and brutal, but doesn’t appear nearly enough to stamp his authority onto the story. It is a massive shame as Khotun makes for a compelling villain but not enough time is spent on him.
Though Jin is central to Ghost of Tsushima’s narrative, he isn’t the only person hanging around Tsushima. He is joined by a rich supporting cast of characters, each with their own unique personalities and convictions. They too have their own stories to tell, which you can follow as part of the multitude of side quests found in the game — called Tales of Tsushima here.
The Tales of Tsushima: For Those Who Prefer Distractions from The Main Storyline
These unique character narratives are separate from the main story but stretch across the duration of the game and feature some of the most engrossing storylines I’ve experienced in a game, such as the story of Masako, an aged female samurai and friend of Jin who has lost her entire family and is on the hunt for their killer. Much of the credit for these stories go to the aid provided by the performances by the voice actors — who are excellent — and the writing by Sucker Punch.
Other Tales of Tsushima you will find within the world involve helping the residents of Tsushima Island who have their own problems. They don’t quite reach the heights compared to the specific character Tales in terms of story but do have some notable ones like helping a healer with an outbreak at a survivor camp or investigating the claims of spirits haunting the forest.
Admittedly the structure of these Tales is its biggest shortcoming. They are rather formulaic and predictable on starting them; consisting of the same cycle of going to a location and fighting enemies to resolve the issue. At the very least the stories from these Tales are varied enough to avoid repetition and also are short enough to not overstay their welcome.
The last set of Tales that Ghost of Tsushima has are Mythic Tales offered by a Tsushima musician in the form of fables that you can investigate, granting you special moves and gear to use upon completion. Unlike the normal Tales, Mythic Tales does offer different objectives from one another which help break up the monotony, and the rewards at the end do help.
Completing any of the Tales not only rewards you with items but also props up your legend on Tsushima Island, which grants you titles as you slowly weed out the Mongols. As you slowly raise your reputation, you’ll be gifted Technique Points to use to upgrade your abilities.
Getting That Samurai Aesthetics Check
The Tales of Tsushima aren’t the only things to find on Tsushima Island. Dotted across the map are locations like hot springs, fox dens, shrines and more which offer benefits like increasing your health to giving you new aesthetic items to accessorise Jin with. Flowers also surround the landscape and collecting them lets you change colours on a set of armour.
Finding these locations takes you exploring the island, either on foot or with your horse. The Infamous games were great at enticing players into roaming their sandbox worlds because of how fun the superpowered traversal system was; Ghost of Tsushima does not have that luxury. Other than being really good at climbing, Jin is a normal man and doesn’t have any cool powers that might persuade you into running around the world.
Instead, there is a greater emphasis on the world itself coaxing you into exploring what Tsushima Island has to offer. Areas are vast and open and provide a clear view of what is ahead, so much so that you’d almost definitely see something that catches your eye and make you want to venture towards it. Cliffs are likewise the same, strategically placed to give a sweeping view of the island, with landmarks on full display.
Breathtaking World-Building of Ancient Beauty
Tsushima Island is also one of the most striking and inviting places I’ve ever visited in a game world. It’s a beautifully colourful world where one moment you can be running around a golden forest filled with yellow trees, the next riding on your horse in a sea of white in the grasslands; a feast for the eyes. Visually, it isn’t The Last of Us Part ll, but the art direction makes up more than enough for it.
It isn’t all just passive elements; the game also takes a proactive approach towards exploration. Instead of conventional waypoints, Ghost of Tsushima uses a guiding wind to point you towards the direction you’ve marked out. Birds also occasionally fly alongside you to bring you towards a location you might have missed. All of these don’t necessarily replace the ecstasy of traversing with superpowers, but it certainly makes it a lot more interesting than other open-world games.
Such is the beauty found in the world Ghost of Tsushima that the accompanying Photo Mode sees regular usage from my playtime. And as expected from the studio who pioneered the trend, the implementation here is first-class. There are options here for cinematic bars, level of exposure and also colour grading to help you capture that beautiful shot. Backgrounds can even be animated and have particle effects synced alongside music from the soundtrack to do videos which you can share.
But exploring Tsushima to capture good photos isn’t the reason you are roaming around the island, it’s defeating the Mongols, and the game gives you plenty of tools to utilise.
Mud, Blood and Steel: The Combat System
Combat isn’t quite like your typical action game, it is more meticulous and deliberate. Charging in and swinging your sword results in a swift death; you have to be reactive to the enemy. Much of combat consists of waiting for the right time to attack — delivering a quick slash after a parry from an attack or staggering the enemy with heavy attacks.
Stances also change how you engage an enemy. Certain stances are more effective against specific enemies and facing a group of them with varied weaponry means that you constantly have to switch up on the fly. It makes you think more than mindlessly button mashing and is so much more satisfying.
How you approach a combat situation boils down to two different playstyles — Samurai or Ghost, both having their own skill trees to upgrade.
As a Samurai, you are more on the offensive. You can walk up to a group of enemies and do a Standoff, staring each other down until you find the opportunity to deal a lethal blow. Samurai skills also give you more advantages in open combat, like time slowing down when perfectly timing your parry or giving you a shoulder barge to knock your enemy down.
The Ghost playstyle on the other hand leverages on you staying in the shadows and offing enemies unnoticed. This usually means taking down enemies while hidden in tall grass or assassinating them from above. The weapons for the Ghost also fit in with that approach, like using wind chimes to distract enemies or deploying smoke bombs to either retreat or for a quick unseen kill and upgrading them improves their usability.
Outfits also give certain benefits to combat along with their aesthetics. Being clad in samurai armour reduces your damage taken while a ronin outfit gets you detected less quickly. Charms also provide a passive boost to certain attributes like increased health or reduced nocking speed for your bow. And you can freely switch them up at any point if a certain situation calls for different tricks.
It’s The Little Things + Some Tips
Ultimately, Ghost of Tsushima gives a lot of freedom to how you want to play, and that is both a boon and a bane. While being able to switch playstyles on the fly means that you aren’t tied down to a singular approach, it does mean that the game is fairly forgiving.
Messing up and getting spotted as the Ghost does alert enemies to your location, but not all. Basically, triggering enemies has no substantial consequences; dispatching your screaming enemies does nothing to alert their subordinates who may just be metres away. Inversely, you can walk up to the gates of an enemy camp and cause chaos with your slaughter but you’d still be able to sneak around since the other Mongols are none the wiser.
Gameplay dissonance aside, the combat is still fun to enjoy. Systematically dispatching the Mongol forces one by one in a swordfight is just as satisfying as clearing an entire camp completely unseen.
Those who are playing on the base PS4 might experience some frame drops during some of the larger battles and even when exploring the more populated towns, but they happen infrequently enough to not be a major issue. If you do have a PS4 Pro, you can avoid this completely by opting for the higher framerate option in the menus. Alternatively, if you prefer Ghost of Tsushima to look even better, you can turn up the resolution as well.
I’ve played Ghost of Tsushima with the characters speaking English; ironic considering the setting. But the entirety of the game can also be played with Japanese dubbing for that extra level of authenticity, though lip syncs won’t match with the language, unfortunately. Fans of classic samurai films can also toggle Kurosawa Mode in the display options — a homage to the great filmmaker Akira Kurosawa that applies a black and white filter with film grain and makes it look like you are playing a classic samurai film.
A lot of credit goes to Sucker Punch for not only being brave enough to step away from an established franchise and to make a new IP, but to also make something completely unlike their previous games; it has paid off spectacularly.
Ghost of Tsushima is not only one of the most stunning games visually, but it also contains a satisfying combat system that is fun to play. Combine that with its complex characters and narrative thread and you have a compelling game that will sit with you long after the credits roll — it is another diamond amongst PlayStation’s list of exclusives.
Additional visuals courtesy of Sony Interactive Entertainment.