As a fan of Asian Cinema, watching samurai films, particularly those of Akira Kurosawa was a big part of my life. There have been a few samurai and ninja based games over the years I’ve played. But most of them could be almost any game re-skinned from another action game. Sucker Punch studio not only made a samurai era game, but made a loving tribute to the genre that is genuinely immersive, not in the historical world of the samurai, but in the legendary world of the samurai. Based on historical events, Ghost of Tsushima is an action stealth game that immediately grabs the player and drops them into a world straight out of samurai cinema. Whether it is the best game of the year will be debated, but it is certainly one of the most beautiful games of the year and also incredibly fun. It is exclusive to Playstation 4 consoles. For now.
Historically, in the later part of the thirteenth century, the island of Tsushima was overrun by Mongols who would use the island as a stepping stone towards the invasion of Japan. The Mongols were repelled at Kyushu by the Shogun’s forces and the Mongol fleet was reportedly lost to a typhoon.
In Ghost of Tsushima, a small force of 80 samurai are defeated defending the island against the Mongol invaders. Only a handful survive the battle, one of whom is Lord Shimura, the governing lord of the island. The other, is his nephew Jin Sakai who is will be the game’s main character. Lord Shimura is captured by the leader of the invasion Khoutan Khan, who wants the lord’s surrender and cooperation to quell any insurgency from the rest of the island. Jin was rescued from the battlefield by a peasant woman who is also a thief and sees in him an ally who can help free her captured brother, a talented smith, from Mongol hands. Jin sees her as a useful ally to help in freeing his lord and uncle from the Mongols in the hopes that he may lead the island against the foreign invaders.
Ghost of Tsushima is an open world game with many sidequests and character based quests along the way to a conclusive story that Sucker Punch wants to tell. As opposed to RPG open world games, what you say or do in the game does not effect how the outcome of the game eventually ends. It has a three act structure where you can take your time finishing each act or rush through the main story to finish the act. After each act, another portion of the map will open up for exploring and liberation.
A major theme of Ghost of Tsushima is the transformation of Jin from an upright samurai warrior to become what the peasants will eventually call the “Ghost,” a spirit of vengeance who slays the foreigners without mercy, fading in and out of the shadows. The conflict comes not only with the struggle between Jin and the Mongol invaders but with his principles as a samurai as well. Face your enemies and look them in the eyes, or sneak up on them and put a knife in their backs. You may try your best to stick to the code of the samurai and are welcome to it, but there are definitely some quests and story driven scenes where you compromise your samurai honor. Either way, there really is no deciding choice to play strictly as ghost or samurai. Within the game you can stealthily go into a camp, clean out lookouts and guards and then challenge the last handful or even the commander to a standoff. Or you can go right up to camps and forts like a complete nutter taking on a dozen guards and archers. How you play is up to you. But since you are playing a narrative, you will end up in the same place in the end.
From the opening screen, you are presented with multiple choices in how to play. Besides the difficulty level you are given the choice of English dialog with or without subtitles or Japanese dub with English subtitles. Please note that since the game was motion captured using Asian American actors, the original language spoken on set is English and in my opinion matches the characters and expressions properly. And as a treat for samurai cinema fans, there is a Kurosawa mode which has the game in black and white, with added film grain and even the occasional film scratches. You can change these options in the menu at any time. Kurosawa mode is fun, but then you would be denying yourself some of the colorful and beautiful art direction.
Gameplay in Ghost of Tsushima is very fluid and is based on combinations of light attacks, heavy attacks, dodge or parry. With these simple sword moves, you can switch to different stances on the fly to adapt to different enemies. One stance is effective against sword wielders, another is effective against spear wielders, etc. Within that framework, you also have access to other weapons than your sword, you can switch on the fly to a half bow, and a longbow, each with the option to ar specialised arrows. You’ll also have access to a range of less than honorable throwing weapons at your disposal which you can use either stealthily or in combat.
Throughout the game, you will unlock perks that upgrade your fighting abilities and armor sets. Each armor set has their own perks and buffs. The main weapon that Jin will be using throughout the game will be his katana and tanto (neither of which are historically accurate for the era). The set he has in the beginning will stay with him throughout the game, they can be improved at a smithy. The armor sets, his swords, as well as his bows can be upgraded as well by visiting armorer or bowers. They can all be cosmetically changed by collecting flowers within the game and trading them for dyes at a merchant for different looks.
As is the norm in modern video games, there are many side paths to take and opportunities to pick up collectables. Some of these are not essential like Mongolian artifacts or records, but they do provide historical context to the game. But you will want to pay attention for certain side paths. Following a golden bird will often lead you to points of interest, either an important quest, a piece of armor, a sword skin, or importantly a hot spring bath where you can recover and increase maximum health. Practicing sword strikes at the scattered bamboo sword strike spots in the map is more than just good practice, they increase resolve which is the gauge that empowers powerful attacks.
Visiting Shinto shrines and bowing before them allows Jin to obtain charms that will give many different advantages such as increased attacks, healing, or better stealth. And most importantly, following foxes to a fox shrine will increase those charm slots where you can equip more charms, even stacking them for increases in damage. Most importantly, you can often pet the fox afterward. Sometimes they don’t stick around though, and that distresses me.
Though there are many side quests in the game, none of them are “fetch quests.” You won’t find yourself looking for someone’s lost pet or carrying a letter from point A to B. There are character based quests that follow the storylines of the game’s supporting characters. Completing their quests will reward you with perks, so do those for sure. You will also encounter what are labeled as Mythic Tales, quests that Jin first hears from a storyteller that is based on Japanese myth but will lead to him learning a legendary attack, armor, or weapon. The end of these quests will usually result in a one on one duel that once won will award you with said reward. These duels are set up like classic samurai films with the tense standoff and the draw of weapons.
While playing Ghost of Tsushima, Jin will often encounter peasants who are under distress and will as for his help in either saving someone or ridding a farm of invaders. Often this doesn’t have a happy ending and you’ll sometimes end up being the bearer of tragic news.
And of course there are also random Mongol patrols to challenge. There is also the opportunity to liberate Mongol forts and camps so that they may be re-occupied by the citizens. Killing leaders will unlock upgrades to Jin’s stances and also learn new ones. So there is very little filler in the game and it doesn’t feel artificially padded out to stretch out the length of the game.
The acting really works well and suits their characters well. Character animation and fine detail may not be on par with that of games such as The Last of Us, though. But don’t let that turn you away as this is an absolutely beautiful game to play, and play with. I’ve spent a great deal of time using photo mode and recording some duels. Sucker Punch really shows off what they can do with particle effects as the screen is often filled with falling leaves or even burning embers from fires. The backgrounds are without a doubt works of art.
The sound design is top notch and in the game’s options you can choose various ways you listen to the game from a soundbar (like me), home theater, headphones, 3D headphones, etc. The music by Ilan Eshkeri and Shigeru Umebayashi is award worthy.
Despite that, there are a few things I wished they included in the game. Samurai may be best known for their swords, but they were also supposed to be adept at using the naginata, the Japanese spear. He does not get to use one in the game. And although their are instances of dialog choices, whatever you choose doesn’t effect the game in any way. And as of this writing, there is no New Game Plus mode in it or announced which many online, including me are clamoring for. However, Sucker Punch has announced a free multiplayer element that will incorporate more supernatural elements to the game and will be separate from the main story.
Honestly I was looking forward to the game for some time after seeing the original trailers and picked it up on the day of release. I fell in love with it right away. It is one of the only games I received a platinum trophy (it’s actually not that hard to do) from and even took the extra step of completing every collectable in the game.