Red Dead Ronin
Ghost of Tsushima is a game about moments. Yes, okay, I know – every game is about moments, whether they be discreet levels in a platformer, or a specific run in a rogue-like. But Ghost of Tsushima embraces the concept of moments. Sure, this is a big open world game with a bunch of stuff to do, but the developers at Sucker Punch have constructed the flow of this world in such a way that it feels less of a tick list exercise, and more of a series of intimate moments in which you, the player, is organically discovering and guiding the story.
The story itself starts with a big moment – a huge battle. Mongol hordes led by Khotun Khan are invading the Japanese island of Tsushima to be met with a wall of resistance from the local samurai led by Lord Shimura and his nephew, Jin Sakai. Despite initially overwhelming the Mongols, the brutality and lack of honour displayed by their foes ultimately leads to the samurai’s defeat and the capture of Lord Shimura. After a failed attempt to rescue his uncle, Jin is taken in by Yuma, a thief, and turns to the life of a ronin, vowing to free both his family and people from the grip of the Mongols.
This whole opening section acts as the games tutorial, and you’ll be forgiven for feeling like you’ve seen all this before. It’s far from the game’s strongest showing, a “led by the hand” series of combat, stealth and learning the upgrade systems. But, once Jin has chosen and named the horse he will spend the rest of the story with and rides out into Tsushima, the game has its first significant moment, and you start to realise that perhaps you’re going to be in for something different.
On leaving the survivor camp Yuma took me to, riding through a forest and eventually galloping out into a field of tall grass, I noticed two things. The camera was pushed in close, much closer than I was used to in third person action games, and the world was also much sparser that you’d expect. Anyone who’s seen any of the previews will have noticed this, but I came into Ghost of Tsushima blind and was momentarily taken aback. The close camera, while initially disconcerting, leads to a far more intimate feeling game, something that’s only emphasised by the sparsely populated world that is far more focussed on moment to moment experiences and discovery than more recent open world titles. The closest cousin that Tsushima has, both in the design of its world and how you navigate it, is probably The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
In Breath of the Wild, Nintendo dipped their toe into the open world action genre with surprising results, leading to a version of Hyrule that wasn’t ruled by objectives or a smorgasbord of markers on a map. This was a world that wanted you to go forth and see what was over that ridge, what lay in that forest, and the island of Tsushima is the same. Sure, you have a map, but at first it’s only populated with three key objectives. To navigate to those objectives, Jin literally follows the wind, one of Ghost of Tsushima’s smartest mechanics. A quick flick up on the touchpad sends a gust of wind rushing in the direction of your currently tracked objective, giving you a general route to follow. As you track that location, you’ll find other places of interest, more survivor camps and towns where you can upgrade your gear, wandering bandits and Mongol troops to fight, and enemy outposts to liberate. Maybe you’ll find a local that you can talk to who will tell you about a rumour somewhere on the island which will add a more concrete marker on your map to track, or maybe you’ll just come across something interesting. This emerging adventure lends a more organic feel to the story of Ghost of Tsushima, adding more moments to a story that is full of them.
One thing I absolutely love about this game is the way it treats each mission, be they main or side, with equal importance. Not only is Jin a nobleman trying to defeat the hordes that have invaded his island, he is also a lord who cares deeply about his people and wants to see them thrive and prosper. Each quest is called a “tale”, and each tale starts with its own unique title card. Maybe you’re searching for a lost family member, tracking bandits that have ransacked a home, or just helping someone in need – none of these tales feel like they have been thrown in for padding, pointless fetch quests that in other games would be tedious. In Ghost of Tsushima, everything feels like it has purpose, every person you help feels like another step along the road to bringing back peace to your island.
Then there are the smaller, quieter moments, where the world of Tsushima opens itself up and allows you to appreciate its beauty. Having spent so long with the tighter camera angle, I found myself at one early point of the story scaling a cliff to gain entrance to a hidden shrine, one of the games many side quests to help you level up Jin’s abilities and arsenal. Crawling under a rocky outcropping, the camera suddenly pulled back and I was looking out over forests and plains, bathed in an orange sunset. It was a beauty the game hadn’t shown me until that point, its world a tightly designed map of hills and forests which make each turn in the road a new discovery. I stopped and took in this vista, pausing for a moment of quiet among all the bloodshed and war. I found many more moments of reflection like this, from the haiku you can stop to write, to the foxes and birds you can follow to quiet areas of the world where you will find points of interest such as hit springs to meditate in or shrines to offer praise to. While most modern open world games require you to treat nature as another target, resources to be harvested to level up your gear, Ghost of Tsushima’s respectful take on the world its story exists in is refreshing and almost calming.
Almost. This is still a game about war and a story that embraces the ying of bloodshed as much as it does the yang of nature. The combat system in Ghost of Tsushima is tight, focussing on action vs reaction. Your only primary weapon will be your family’s katana, but it is the only weapon you need. Enemies always attack in groups and you’ll find several primary types through your adventures – bowmen, swordsmen, spearmen, shieldmen and brutes. Each of these enemies has a very distinct array of attacks, some of which can be blocked and parried, some of which have to be dodged. There’s no lock on system here, with Jin training his focus automatically on the enemy posing the most immediate threat, but as with Sekiro before it, Ghost of Tsushima’s combat relies on reading enemy attacks and deciding how to react yourself. Fights become a ballet of blocks, parries and strikes as Jin pirouettes from enemy to enemy, his sword flashing and crimson gouts of blood from his enemies coating his armour and the world around him. Button mash and you’ll surely die, but learn the ebb and flow of combat and you’ll be rewarded with some of the most intense gaming moments that Ghost of Tsushima has to offer.
Helping you tackle these different enemy types are four different stances which are essential to unlock as early as possible to make the most of the combat. Each of these stances provides a different moveset which is effective against a specific type of foe, and switching up stance mid combat to tackle different oncoming attacks is key to victory. On top of all of this, brawls are often kicked off by a “stand off”, a cinematic mechanic where Jin takes on foes one at a time, timing button presses to deliver lethal takedowns – when successful they can thin out the enemy pack and even induce fear in the survivors, but fail and they’ll leave Jin with low health and the enemy with the upper hand.
This combat mechanic is often at its most intense when boiled down into boss fights, one on one battles that will test your mettle and the skills you’ve picked up so far. Here the game pulls the camera as tight and cinematically in as possible, allowing you to focus on your enemies attacks, learning often new patterns as well as variations of one’s you’ve seen before. At this point the game feels more like a samurai fighting game such as Bushido Blade, and I would gladly take a stand alone version of these fights, should Sucker Punch be considering any fun expansions down the line!
Open combat isn’t the only way to take down your opponents, however – Jin can also make use of stealth to sneak in and assassinate foes; useful for taking down enemy encampments where a frontal attack would be suicide, stealth and sneaking comes at a narrative cost as Jin begins to abandon the honourable ways of the samurai to embrace the sneaky, duplicitous tactics of thieves and ninja, techniques that eventually gain Jin the nickname “Ghost”. Jin’s constant internal struggle is at the center of the story as he weighs up not only the traditions of his clan, but the safety and prosperity of his people and the purposes of following dogmatic ways. It does help that throughout this guilt trip, these tactics are not only useful for progressing, but also super cool to watch, whether it be Jin sneaking through an enemy encampment, stealthily slicing Mongol jugulars, or deploying throwing weapons such as kunai or bombs to thin a large enemy herd. Added to the bow and arrow you’ll get early in the game, Jin eventually builds quite the arsenal.
As with any game of this type, Ghost of Tsushima offers various tech trees to help your character level up, from adding guard breaking moves for your sword, to the ability to hold more throwing weapons or even slow time while aiming your bow. The levelling system here is fairly open and easy to navigate with the game dishing out experience points fairly liberally; it’s easy to plan a route through a given tech tree as you can always see what a future skill will give you and tailor your gameplay to your own preference fairly early on. Another refreshing aspect of the game is that there is no arbitrary “level” for Jin. You gain experience which ultimately leads to new titles, but these are more for narrative purposes than anything. All enemies are fairly equal, able to be taken down in one hit with certain moves, but the skill as you progress to later areas of the game is in being able to take on larger groups with more efficiency and to tackle enemy variants that change up the move patterns they deploy. Some may have better armour, some brutes may have slightly different weapons with greater reach, some swordsmen may be duel wielding; but by making use of the skills the game teaches you, victory can be easy to come by.
On top of levelling out your moves, there’s also upgrades for your armour and weapons – again, no one piece of armour is “better” than another; they each have their specific uses and each one looks badass to boot. Picking the best gear for any given scenario is key, and also counts for the charms that you can earn and equip in unlockable slots. These give you small perks and buffs, such as increased healing, damage output or accuracy with your bow. On top of all this, you can unlock “special moves” that are triggered with specific button combinations and powered by “resolve” – orbs that you charge in combat. You start out with three of these but, as with your overall health, they can be increased by finding specific points of interest in the game, or by completing certain quests.
This may seem like a lot of mechanics and, yes, laid out like that it kind of is, but Ghost of Tsushima eases the player in, never overwhelming them and allowing them to learn how to play at their own pace. The world of Tsushima is slow and considered, the map is not as big as most open world games, and the flow rewards experimentation and exploration greatly.
For all the moments that you experience in Ghost of Tsushima, it’s release is in and of itself a significant moment. This is it – the final first party release for Sony’s PlayStation 4 console. Coming hot on the heels of The Last of Us Part II, with both games being delayed thanks to Covid 19, there was concern that these titles would show the ageing console for what it was – fortunately in both instances this is not the case. Ghost of Tsushima runs at a rock solid 30fps on a standard PS4, with options for visuals or performance on a PS4 Pro. It’s also a hell of a looker, with some superb lighting and environmental effects, weather ranging from thick fog to bright sunshine and thunderous rainstorms. Strolling through a forest in fog, the sun blooming through the trees and casting deep shadows across the landscape has led to more small moments than I can count, and I’ve spent more time in Ghost of Tsushima’s photo mode than any other game I have ever played – in fact, all screenshots in this review are ones I’ve taken through my time with the game (with many omitted to avoid spoilers, of course!) It’s certainly a game that will also benefit being played through a HDR capable TV, with gorgeous greens, oranges and reds popping from the landscapes of Tsushima.
The big question is, of course, should you buy Ghost of Tsushima for PS4 or wait for the inevitable performance enhancements on PS5? Categorically yes, don’t wait – you should totally get this game. Sucker Punch have distilled Japanese history and the works of filmmakers such as Akira Kurosawa (the game even has a “Kurosawa mode” which gives the image a crackly black and white look) into a story which takes an introspective look at what we have come to expect of open world action games and twists it into a much more measured, thoughtful experience. Sony have picked a hell of a game to see out the PS4 and I cannot think of a more essential title to play in 2020.