Ghost of Tsushima Review – Duty, Heavier Than a Mountain; Death, Lighter Than a Feather
Ghost of TsushimaJuly 17th
It's been over six years since developer Sucker Punch Productions released Infamous: Second Son in March 2014, which means the studio has a lot to prove with Ghost of Tsushima.
Fans were frankly hoping to be able to play a couple of years ago, but it eventually became the last big PlayStation 4 first-party exclusive, out only a few months ahead of the launch of the PlayStation 5 console.
This makes Ghost of Tsushima a particularly interesting case study of how the same console hardware can produce massively improved results at the end of the generation, when the developers have had time to figure out how to squeeze every ounce of power out of it through sheer experience. That's been true of every console generation and likely the same will occur with the upcoming next-generation, with the first wave of titles only providing a mere glimpse of what will be possible later on.
As you might have guessed by now, our time with Ghost of Tsushima demonstrated a much better, not to mention much more engrossing, open world game when compared to Infamous: Second Son. In fact, when all is said and done, this could be regarded as Sucker Punch's finest work yet, both in terms of critical reception and sales, in a similar way to what Horizon Zero Dawn did for Guerrilla Games and Marvel's Spider-Man for Insomniac.
That's not to say Ghost of Tsushima is particularly innovative in the open world genre, but it is hard to hold it against a game this polished and compelling. You'll find many of the usual trappings seen in other major open world games here, though they have been mostly well-disguised and adjusted for the setting so that they feel appropriate. Then again, those aforementioned fellow first-party titles didn't really focus on innovations, either.
Ghost of Tsushima can be best described as an action/adventure with light RPG elements, again much like Horizon Zero Dawn and Marvel's Spider-Man. Whereas Guerrilla's title focuses mainly on long-range combat and Insomniac's one mainly on melee combat, however, Ghost of Tsushima features a more even mix of fighting styles and it will be ultimately up to the player to pick and choose in the moment-to-moment action.
Trained to be an outstanding samurai by his uncle Lord Shimura (the jito, or steward, of Tsushima), over the course of the game protagonist Jin Sakai can also access stealth options, archery (shortbow as well as longbow), and a variety of tools ranging from smoke and black powder bombs to poison and hallucination darts.
Every aspect of the combat feels deep and fleshed out. As a result, the action can often be thrilling once you've mastered all the many ways to defeat Mongols at Jin's disposal. An individual aspect could probably be found ever so slightly wanting compared to the gaming gold standards of melee and stealth, but rarely has there been such a complete and well-rounded package in the hands of players.
Melee combat, for instance, requires almost perfect timing when it comes to parries and dodges. Enemies aren't nearly as deadly as those seen in the Soulsborne games, mind you, but it does take quite a bit of finesse to avoid taking too much damage even at the default difficulty. Swordfighting feels amazingly satisfying to boot, thanks to the fluid and great to see animations.
There are four sword stances to be unlocked in the game, which can be done by killing and/or observing enemy leaders as they train in their outposts. These can be switched in real time and their main use is to be able to stagger and thus break the guard of a specific type of enemy; for example, Stone stance is optimal against swordsmen, while Water stance is geared towards shield-wielding enemies. However, even setting aside all of the other tools and weapons at disposal, you don't actually need to switch all the time once you're good enough at telling the exact attack timing of your foes. Perfect parries and dodges alone are an excellent way to beat almost every enemy, and you can also perform jump attacks at the right time to catch your opponent off guard.
Stealth is often a very rewarding approach, especially since you'll generally have to deal with plenty of enemies. As is the case with many games that have some form of stealth, there is a meter that fills up before Jin gets spotted. At that point, you can still silence the alerted enemy before they sound the alarm (a war horn), calling for reinforcements. Even when you've been spotted by multiple opponents, a smoke bomb will let you re-enter stealth if needed.
Perhaps the highlight of the stealth design is how it is woven into the layout of all buildings. You've got the option to sneak into an occupied house from multiple trapdoors, and that comes in handy when you have to avoid being seen at all costs in order to prevent the execution of some prisoners.
One specific standout feature added to Ghost of Tsushima by Sucker Punch is that of 'Stand-offs'. Whenever first approaching an enemy force, Jin will be given the opportunity to openly challenge one of them (automatically picked by the game) to a one-versus-one duel.
Activating the option will basically put you into a mini-game of sorts where you'll be required to press down the triangle button while focusing very carefully on your foe's movements. The triangle has to be released only when the enemy has just begun performing his strike, or you'll not only fail to kill him but also get severely damaged in the process.
Later on, foes will be able to perform feints (even multiple ones), which could throw you off. Conversely, Jin will get the chance to extend his 'streak' and one-shot a few enemies who rush in as soon as he wins the duel, though even here you'll have to time the swing of your katana accordingly in order to succeed in killing them.
This plays into the overall samurai movie vibe, which is reinforced by the sheer quantity of duels available in Ghost of Tsushima. Most 'boss fights' happen under this set of rules, where you'll have nothing but your trusted katana blade as your weapon, as 'Ghost' weapons and even bows become temporarily unavailable in order to enforce an honorable fight according to samurai code.
Here, the camera shifts back and forth, as if in a Western movie during those sun-drenched O.K. Corral style shootouts, highlighting each duelist's expressions and subtle movements as they prepare to unsheath their blades. It's incredibly effective in its cinematic goal, though some players (myself included) might have liked an option to skip this brief cutscene after the tenth duel or so.
As hinted by the very title of the game and briefly showcased during pre-release footage, Ghost of Tsushima's plot is heavily centered on Jin Sakai's journey from a samurai into the 'Ghost', a warrior willing to do whatever it takes to rid his island of the Mongol invaders.
After the crushing defeat suffered by the samurai army on the beach of Komoda, Jin realizes that adhering to the samurai way of waging a war simply won't cut it against the vast and ruthless army led by Khothun Khan, a fictional cousin of the real Kublai Khan. It is important to note that even though the gameplay of Ghost of Tsushima lets you choose whether to approach fights stealthily, head-on, or anything in between, the story is fixed and will therefore not take into account how you're actually playing, in contrast to Sucker Punch's own 'Karma' system seen in inFamous 2.
While rewinding the main story, it is hard to pinpoint any real twists or surprises. Every major event was fairly predictable in its outcome, which means those who absolutely need to be surprised by at least a big twist might feel a little disappointed in that regard. However, the plot is otherwise expertly told and narrated, thanks to excellent voice actors and motion capture.
Furthermore, Sucker Punch did succeed in creating a memorable cast of characters, something that's arguably the most important part of any fictional story. These are fleshed out through a series of tales (the game's official name for quests) specifically dedicated to each of Jin's allies and friends, as you help them find their own way. Even here, the developers have surely outdone themselves compared to their previous works, and the stories told rarely turn out to be as black and white as they first appear.
Content-wise, Ghost of Tsushima certainly impressed during the playthrough. Its map (divided into three zones, Izuhara, Toyotama and Kamiagata, that are unlocked as you progress through the story) is simply huge and there's a lot to do, more than enough in fact to keep most players occupied for dozens of hours.
Beyond the main tale and the aforementioned 'ally' side content, there are also a great number of secondary tales. Sucker Punch devised a rather interesting way to point out these local tales for the player. When you manage to free civilians who've been captured by the Mongols, they'll often reward you with rumors of what has been going on in the vicinity, or possibly how they were captured in the first place, which will put the rumored location on your map. Again, even it's not quite a revolutionary feature, it's a nice way to organically weave side content into an open world design.
Perhaps the most interesting ones are the 'mythic' tales. These are multi-step quests where Jin uncovers the truth behind long-lost legendary items and combat techniques, such as the 'Dance of Wrath', the 'Heavenly Strike', or the 'Way of Flame', which are all incredibly cool and powerful additions to Jin's already impressive skill set.
Much like in the open world titles seen in the past years, there are also random events occurring throughout the island. These can range from simple patrols to more structured ones, such as a local inhabitant warning Jin that the Mongols are cutting down a sacred forest nearby to get wood for their ships.
Overall, side content may not be on par with the quality seen in The Witcher 3 (which remains the pinnacle of the open world genre in that area), but it's not too far off either and it certainly is no letdown.
Exploration is very much rewarded, too, and it is nicely entrusted to the so-called 'Guiding Wind'. As you can see from the gameplay footage embedded at the end of the review, there are no regular compasses or the like in Ghost of Tsushima. You'll get a notice on the top left of the distance that separates you from the location of the tale that's currently being tracked, but other than that you'll have to rely on looking in which direction the wind blows; this can be refreshed with an upward swipe of the Dual Shock 4's touchpad.
The Guiding Wind can be upgraded to direct Jin to additional points of interests, such as fox dens, which are huge, old trees where you'll find cute little foxes who are really messengers of the kami Inari, one of the principal kami (spirit or holy power) of the Shinto religion. These foxes then proceed to lead Jin to a nearby shrine, which will initially increase the number of charms he can carry at one time, and then the power of said charms.
Separately, there are also torii gates that, just like in the real world, lead to Shinto shrines. However, here the paths to these shrines have been disrupted, which is the excuse to entice the player to do some good old climbing, jumping, and grappling (once you've unlocked the hook) to get to the top. Since the effort here is on another level, the charms provided are supposedly stronger as well, though I personally found the bonuses provided to be disappointing and therefore kept using the 'minor' charms.
But that's not all, as Ghost of Tsushima also features hot springs sprinkled throughout the island and places of contemplation where he gets to write haikus. In both cases, Jin has the chance to reflect on some of the most recent events of the story; hot springs also enhance the maximum health, while writing a haiku unlocks a new headband.
More traditional is the gathering in Ghost of Tsushima. There'll be supplies, steel, linen, iron and whatnot scattered throughout practically every settlement or little house you encounter. These will be required by the bowyer, armorer, and swordsmith NPCs in order to upgrade Jin's weapons and armor to their maximum potential.
Jin's melee weapon of choice always remains his trusted Sakai clan katana, by the way, and that's understandable for story reasons. However, there are plenty of different armor sets offering specific perks. Some are tailored for archery or stealth, others are sturdier (letting Jin soak more incoming damage) or nimbler (giving him a melee damage boost).
Of course, it'd be hard to speak about Ghost of Tsushima without ever mentioning its absolutely impressive visuals. To be honest, during the first hour or so of the playthrough, some of the weaker aspects were noticeable too. Specifically, texture work isn't quite as outstanding as someone who regularly plays on PC on Ultra settings with 16x Anisotropic Filtering is accustomed to. Still, once you absorb the whole picture, it is hard not to feel in awe at times.
There are some fantastic vistas of Tsushima island here, several of which you can glimpse in the screenshots attached to this review. The lighting, including the volumetric one, is stunning to say the least. Part of the merit goes to the artists, too, who have designed a rendition of Tsushima island so beautiful to elicit a strong desire to go visit the real place one day. The colors are warm and vibrant, though if that's not your thing there's always the option to play the entire game in the 'Akira Kurosawa mode', which adds black bars, black-and-white filters and a number of other tweaks to make the game look like one of the famed director's movies.
The optimization work is remarkable as well. On PlayStation 4 Pro, gamers have the ability to pick between the now familiar 'enhanced visuals' or 'enhanced frame rate' modes, but I never felt any need to go with the latter because of the great frame rate consistency even in the enhanced visuals mode.
Overall, Ghost of Tsushima looks like a masterful example of how to create an open world game tailored around the capabilities (and the weaknesses) of the PlayStation 4.
As remarkable as the visuals side of the game is, the audio isn't worth any less. The English voice acting is great, as mentioned above, and there's also the option to use Japanese audio to maximize immersion; additionally, the soundtrack is one of the best I've heard in recent years and may be worth purchasing on its own.
Reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro (code provided by the publisher).
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Ghost of Tsushima is Sucker Punch's best game yet and a great open world title capable of measuring to some of the biggest names in the genre. The excellent rendition of feudal Japan, along with its well-written characters and story, make Ghost of Tsushima stand out as the last must-have PlayStation 4 exclusive.
- Excellent combat system with plenty of options
- Fantastic visuals, audio and atmosphere
- Great cast of characters
- Huge scope, both in terms of map size and content
- Remarkably well optimized
- There aren't any major innovations to be found
- The main story may feel a bit too obvious in its unfolding