Ghost of Tsushima is the latest from Sucker Punch Productions, the makers of the Infamous series. Set during the first Mongol invasion of Japan, the game is an open-world action adventure in feudal Japan. A pastiche of every beautifully romanticised version of the samurai you’ve seen on screen or read in comic books, Ghost Of Tsushima is Sucker Punch’s take on the samurai genre, and a beauty to behold.
I am samurai
My blade cuts through Mongol hordes
Swiftly and deadly
The game is set on the island on Tsushima, where the Mongols first tried to invade Japan in the 13th century. The invading party decimated the samurai defenders of Tsushima, but you, Jin of the Sakai Clan, survived thanks to a bandit named Yuna. Driven by his quest to defend Tsushima, Jin goes on a journey to do whatever it takes to drive back the relentless Mongol horde.
Ghost Of Tsushima will take you through Jin’s epic story as both samurai and the Ghost. The former, the defender of the Bushido code; and the latter, one who will do whatever it takes, including bending the rigid Bushido code. All this, with the aim to bring down the (fictional) leader of the Mongols, Khotun Khan.
THE LONE WOLF
Playing as Jin, you’ll be traipsing around Tsushima largely alone, as he clears out Mongol invaders from the various villages and forts in Tsushima. Born in a samurai family, Jin is trained in various ways to take down enemies with his katana. As you complete quests you’ll unlock new skills, before also learning the ways of the Ghost.
Combat in Ghost Of Tsushima is fun and snappy, whether you’re focussing to be a samurai, or ghost. Samurai-style gameplay is more akin to Dark Souls or Sekiro, where you’ll have to parry and block at the right times for maximum success. There’s some technique involved, and mastering this technique is rewarding. That said, it is not as punishing to get there as the Souls-style games.
You’ll also unlock different stances (see the four stances above), each specialising to take on different types of enemies. You’ll also get to learn various skills that allow you to do those cool things you see in movies – I’ll leave you to discover them.
But one very cool thing is the stand-off, which comes right out of various samurai shows, or somewhat akin to battoujutsu, or the Iaijutsu duels from Legends Of The 5 Rings. Here you’ll have to hold down △ until right before the enemy strikes, upon which you’ll kill them instantly. But release too early or too late, and you’ll get hurt instead. It’s a moment of intense concentration that’s as cool as it is challenging.
Being a samurai also means that you’ll get some epic one-on-one duels where you’ll have to depend solely on your katana to get the decisive win. These battles are all about honour, so those Ghost tricks go out of the window. These are the closest to the tactical fights you might see in Sekiro, but they do come few and far between, which makes each battle something to savour. (The click when Jin draws his blade before each duel? Pure chef’s kiss.)
Being the Ghost will have you sneaking around and employing tactics that most samurai will frown upon. You’ll depend on stealth, as you hide among the pampas grass, clamber unto rooftops and backstab your enemies instead of facing them head-on. From bombs to tools of distraction, there are many ways to take down enemy mongols and ronin.
Both samurai and Ghost skills are on separate skill trees, but as the story progresses … you won’t just be focussing on one path. Jin’s story takes him on a path to be the titular Ghost, so you will end up mastering both aspects of Jin’s skills.
You’ll also get to spend materials to upgrade your weapons and armour. There are various kinds of armour each with their own benefits, so there’s something there to match your playstyle. What you’ll be needing most for upgrades are the generically named “Supplies” scattered all over, on top of other materials. (I must note that it is very weird to be walking into a temple to take all their supplies. But, you know, a samurai needs his upgrades.)
And not forgetting, there are legendary skills and gear for you to unlock. You can only get them by completing Mythic Tales. These tales all come with a beautiful ink-wash animation to tell its story, and they’re all epic in their own way. You’ll definitely want to be completing these.
I am the Ghost
My blade concealed in shadow
Terror, my weapon
And while you’re slashing away like a graceful, vicious samurai, what helps heighten the epic feels is just how good the game looks. Ghost Of Tsushima is a visual feast. But don’t expect something like, say, The Last Of Us Part II (our review) – Tsushima’s characters do look slightly less realistic. But soon you’ll fall in love with just how good it looks as a whole, as Ghost Of Tsushima transports you to feudal Japan.
From the bright yellow of the gingko leaves, to the falling red maple or cherry blossoms, it’s clear that Sucker Punch have spared no effort in transporting you into a hyper-distilled Japan. Traversing across the island will bring you to various environs in Japan, from bamboo groves to fortresses, and even different types of Japanese villages. Battles also bring you to Mongol ships, wetland marshes and open groves, each with its own mood. This Japan is one full of tradition, interspersed with folklore, and there’s a sense of reverence throughout.
The game also features a minimalist HUD, so you can really enjoy just looking at the game. And instead of arrows pointing you to where you need to go, swiping up on your controllers conjures a wind which guides you. It’s a simple, subtle touch, but such a clever one. If you wish, you can play in “Expert HUD” mode, which reduces even more HUD elements.
As you travel, you’ll run into little foxes (which you can sometimes pet!) that lead you to shrines, or hotsprings for you to rest and rejuvenate. Golden birds direct you to hidden items you might want to find, while in the distance fires and smoke make areas of interest. (You’ll even find spots to write haiku – though the haiku are in English, and the Japanese dub doesn’t stick to the 5-7-5 syllable pattern.)
Throughout the island, Torii also lead you to shrines that require you to figure out how to jump and swing your way there. These are a fun way to get to some good omamori (charms) to improve Jin, though it must be said – how come pretty much every shrine in Japan has had the path to it destroyed. Earthquakes, I guess?
And while the environment looks good, Jin is a style maven with various skins for your armour and weapons, which can be either bought or found throughout the island. Jin can also customise his look with various masks and hats, including one very comedic one, and … something that will make you feel like Zatoichi. (Sometimes the game is too ridiculously epic.)
How good the game looks is perhaps best summed up in the Kurosawa Mode which the game offers: The whole game is rendered in stark black and white, with film grain, and with slightly different audio and lots more wind sounds. Yep, it’s inspired by the films of Akira Kurosawa and it looks fantastic. (But it’s not the most playable mode, as you will end up missing some things when it’s in black and white.)
To top it off, the game sounds great too. The music is often subtle, but rises with the action and story, and strengthens the setting well. The voice actors also did a fantastic job, though if you’re like me, you’ll end up with the Japanese dub and English subs, because immersion.
And despite how good the game looks, even with the multiple environment types, the icing on the cake is just how fast it loads. This is a game where fast travel is extremely painless – no matter how far you’re travelling, or how the environment has changed, you barely have time to read one user tip before you’re back on your journey.
So the action is good, and the game looks great. But what about the story? In some ways, Ghost Of Tsushima does have a pretty predictable story. But the way the story unfolds, coupled with the beauty of the game itself, makes it an experience to immerse yourself in.
This is largely because Ghost Of Tsushima has many of the same foibles as other open-world games. The game is packed with things to stop and see, as well as a myriad of side-quests, so you do lose some narrative propulsion from time to time. (That said, the map never, ever, looks as busy as something from Assassin’s Creed.)
Some of the quests are also somewhat repetitive: You’re going to be destroying Mongolian camps A LOT. You’ll also see quite a few of the same type of enemies, though they mix it up enough that you’ll be constantly changing your stance during each battle. And Sucker Punch have designed most most of the camps to have unique layouts, so it’s always fun to case them out and plan your route of attack. (Of course, you can skip the planning, start with a stand-off then rush right in.)
And of course, it’s sometimes hard to feel that the world is about to end with all the distractions. There was one fight where I was prompted to run to a village right away, which I did … until I saw a spot that I could write a haiku. Sorry, dying villager, have to spend some time reflecting.
Beyond the main storyline, the side-quests related to your main group of friends are quite a bit of fun too. They lean heavily on what it means to be a samurai, and it’s interesting to see the different dynamics as Jin interacts with a sensei, or a commoner, or an old friend. While conversations are largely serious, they help fill out Jin’s world and backstory nicely. There’s also one side quest with an old lady that felt interminably long, but upon completion, packs more of an emotional punch than I expected.
But that said, with the hot springs and the haiku, and even the time spent chasing the a fox. These little quiet moments also help to break up the game, so that you have some time to spend on to reflect on Jin’s journey. It’s a nice touch, instead of constantly running helter-skelter to the next waypoint.
(While the game is very polished, there was a weird bug where beheaded enemies would crawl around. But not a big issue! Just funny. I wanted to take a screenshot but right when I did the head … disappeared.)
Ghost Of Tsushima doesn’t quite reinvent the wheel as open-world action games go, but what it does do it does very well. On its core story alone, Ghost Of Tsushima is a simple but engaging one of a man driven to do what’s right even against his own instincts. It is a story of impermanence, where what we hold important might have bigger lessons for us when it is gone. It is a tale of sacrifice, of ideals, for bigger ideals, of people, for the world they live in. It is a fable of honour, of what it truly means, and of being a slave to it.
But when you add the smooth gameplay and the epic graphics, Ghost Of Tsushima becomes more than the sum of its parts. Kudos must go to Sucker Punch for this. Whether you started with anime, classic Kurosawa movies or are just a fan, there’s a good reason why samurai are just plain popular. Always effortlessly cool, wielding their katana, and embodying the Bushido code, there’s so much to appreciate about them. And with Ghost Of Tsushima, you really get to live out the those Hollywood Samurai dreams.
Ghost Of Tsushima is the last first-party exclusive for the Sony PlayStation 4 before the release of the PlayStation 5, and what a bookend. Between this, and The Last Of Us 2, there’s really no better time to spend lots of hours on your PlayStation 4.
Samurai, yet Ghost
The dual natures duel
Inner peace within
Ghost Of Tsushima comes out in Singapore July 17.