Ever since Assassin’s Creed started leaping from ancient Jerusalem to renaissance Italy to colonial America and beyond, there has been a longstanding itch to see the open-world stealth-action series take on feudal Japan. Consider that itch sufficiently scratched with Ghost of Tsushima. Sucker Punch’s latest is an absolutely gorgeous adventure through one of history’s most strikingly beautiful landscapes, and that beauty is compounded by one of the best blade-to-blade combat systems the open-world action genre has seen. There are some stumbles when it comes to stealth, enemy AI, and a few general minor frustrations, but for just about every moment where Ghost of Tsushima falters, there are plenty more where it soars.
Ghost of Tsushima is a fictional tale told with fictional characters, but it’s based on the very real invasion of Japan by the Mongol Empire in 1274 that began on the Island of Tsushima. You take control of Jin Sakai, capably acted by The Man in the High Castle’s Daisuke Tsuji, who starts off as a samurai before a disastrous battle against the invaders quickly teaches him that perhaps the honorable but restrictive ways of the samurai code might not be enough to deal with this new and existential threat.
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Ghost of Tsushima revolves around this inner conflict as Jin’s formative teachings push up against his need to save his homeland at any cost, and though it takes a little while to really get going, it’s a compelling struggle. Even if Jin himself isn’t the most charismatic of protagonists, his foil, Khotun Khan, played by Glee’s Patrick Gallagher, has charisma in spades. He’s one of the most memorable game villains of recent memory thanks to his soft intensity that is oddly calming despite his terrifying intentions. He’s extremely cunning, always one step ahead, and his presence as the “Big Bad” is a large part of why Jin’s 40 to 50-hour quest for vengeance works so well.
[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=Khotun%20Khan%20is%20one%20of%20the%20most%20memorable%20game%20villains%20of%20recent%20memory.”]As good as the English voice cast is, though, it’s a shame that Sucker Punch wasn’t able to find a way to have the performance capture match the Japanese voice acting as well. As a result, if you choose to play with the excellent Japanese audio track, which features the outstanding Kazuya Nakai as Jin, it comes off as a comparatively cheap dub with wildly mismatched lip flaps and facial expressions that don’t mirror the emotion in the voice. It’s not a huge issue as it’s still well worth playing in Japanese – and you have the option of enabling the beautiful Kurosawa Mode, which puts a film grainy black-and-white filter over everything to match the style of the classic Akira Kurosawa movies that Ghost of Tsushima so effectively pays homage to. I wouldn’t recommend playing the whole campaign in Kurosawa mode, as there are some quests that demand some color recognition, but it’s a great visual effect to turn on every now and then.
What isn’t ever a bummer is the music. The dynamic score seamlessly shifts from quiet and ambient shakuhachi flutes during stealthy moments to thunderous taiko drums once blades start clashing; tense encounters are made even more palpable thanks to increasingly speedy strums of biwas and shamisens. Overall, it doesn’t matter what you’re doing – the music always fits and serves to enhance whatever emotion the gameplay and the cinematics are trying to evoke.
Fight Like a Samurai
Ghost of Tsushima’s combat is like a witches’ brew made with bits of the Batman Arkham series, the pre-Origins Assassin’s Creeds, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, and the entire library of Kurosawa films. And, as witches’ brews tend to be, the result is magical. Like all great combat systems, it’s simple to understand on a surface level: there are light attacks to quickly deal damage and beat out slower strikes, heavy attacks that deal more damage and can break through enemy guards, a block button to guard against certain attacks, and a dodge button to avoid the attacks that can’t be guarded.
That probably all sounds familiar, but the glue that holds this combat system together and allows it to remain interesting the whole way through is the addition of the stances you can shift between at the push of a button. As Jin completes certain tasks, he’ll unlock new sword stances that each come with their own movesets, and, more importantly, their own strengths versus a particular type of weapon. The starting Stone Stance is ideal for dealing with swordsmen, as one charged-up stab attack can sneak through their guard and either kill them outright or deal massive damage. Later on you’ll learn the Water Stance, which uses slower but more powerful strikes that can break through the defenses of shield-wielding enemies.
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There are four stances total, and once you have access to them all combat will challenge you to not only identify the greatest threat at any given moment but also to swap to the stance that is best suited to deal with them, all while balancing the very real need to play defensively. When it’s at its best, combat in Ghost of Tsushima is fast, chaotic, tactical, and is true to the fantasy of being a lone hyper-skilled but outnumbered samurai.
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The little touches go a long way toward combat’s exquisite feel, in addition to bringing a bit of visual spectacle. The on-screen HUD is minimalist and the camera always stays really tight so you can get an up-close view of the action; enemies have clear audio tells so that even if you can’t see them you know when to dodge or block; fatal attacks often end with Jin spinning around to face the camera while your enemy stumbles around with blood spurting out before finally keeling over. Even smaller still, defeated enemies will sometimes crawl helplessly on the ground desperately trying to escape you, you can wipe the blood off your sword, you can bow to pay respect to your opponent, and the list goes on and on.
The best part, though, is that there’s no traditional level-based stat progression. When you get stronger in Ghost of Tsushima, it’s not because invisible numbers went up and now you deal more damage and take less when you’re hit; it’s because your techniques got better and now you have new, better ways of dealing with tougher enemies. It’s so incredibly satisfying. When you level up you might spend a point to unlock the ability to block a previously unblockable attack from spear-wielding enemies, or you could choose the ability to block arrows so you can better deal with situations where you’re surrounded by archers. Or maybe you’ll unlock the ability to make enemies flee in terror when you execute a perfectly timed Sekiro-esque parry.
It’s fantastic because it means that you’ll never run into an area in Ghost of Tsushima where, all of the sudden, you’re getting one-hit killed by archers who you’d previously brushed off, or having to spend a week chopping away at the sword equivalent of a bullet sponge just because they’re arbitrarily several levels higher than you. Crucially, this removes the problem of being forced to grind sidequests in order to reach a certain level minimum in order to progress in the story, which is something that certain other games are notorious for.
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Impressively, Ghosts of Tsushima’s difficulty always managed to be appropriate no matter what point of the campaign I was at. Enemies do get tougher, and you do need to improve your gear by upgrading your sword, armor, and charms to meet the difficulty curve, but the stat improvements from gear always felt secondary to the skills that you’d accumulate, but and the challenge always felt fair. Even when I bumped the difficulty up to hard mode, which makes enemies more aggressive, it never took away from the lethality of my sword.
On top of all of this, there are also the various tools and gadgets that you earn over the course of your adventure. As Jin gets more and more comfortable with bending his samurai code and using tools outside of his normal repertoire, his combat abilities also expand dramatically. He can use kunai much like Batman uses his batarangs to quickly interrupt or eliminate weakened enemies; he can throw sticky bombs to disorient a large crowd; or he can take out his trusty bow and land a headshot to bring down a heavily armored foe in one hitpotentially end the fight before it even begins. The sheer variety of ways to approach combat in Ghost of Tsushima is incredible.
It’s a good thing that the blade-to-blade combat in Ghost of Tsushima is so good, because Jin’s ninja-inspired stealth does not hold up its end of the bargain. It works, on a very basic level, in all the ways that you’d expect it to: you can crouch-walk through fields of tall grass to invisibly sneak around enemy encampments, you can assassinate foes from above, and you can even buy upgrades that let you take out multiple enemies at once if they’re all foolishly clumped together.
The problem is what happens once you get spotted. Enemies just don’t know how to handle it. What if you climb onto a rooftop? They don’t follow you, they don’t hunt you, they kind of just yell and throw shurikens. What if you suddenly break line of sight and crouch into a nearby flower patch that they can still clearly see? They just turn around, look elsewhere for a bit, and then blow their little alarm horns. It’s as if you do anything other than just fight once you break stealth, the AI just throws up its hands and shrugs.
Jin’s stealth tools are also very rudimentary and don’t allow you any sort of creativity that might make stealth a little more exciting. They all kind of do the same things, just with different ammo types. There’s a wind chime that works as a distraction on a single enemy and a firecracker that works as a distraction for a group of enemies. Then there’s your bow that silently kills enemies, your longbow that silently kills helmet-wearing enemies, a dart that silently kills enemies and makes them puke blood, and another dart that makes enemies try to kill each other. There are also a handful of mandatory stealth segments which just boil down to finding the clearly laid out stealth route and occasionally using distractions to clear enemies out of the way. None of the flexibility and versatility of the melee combat is found in the stealth gameplay.
[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=By%20the%20late%20game%20I%20was%20taking%20five%20enemies%20out%20at%20the%20start%20of%20every%20fight%2C%20and%20it%20felt%20awesome%20every%20time.”]Fortunately, Ghost of Tsushima offers a way to make going loud right out of the gate just as advantageous as picking off a handful of enemies unnoticed, and it does so in the best possible way: by staying true to its samurai cinema roots. At the beginning of most combat encounters you can trigger a stand-off, which allows you to target one of your enemies in a classic showdown where you must wait for them to make a move to attack, and then strike with one of your own to take them down in one hit. If you nail the timing, that’s one fewer for you to deal with when the brawl begins. But that’s only the beginning: you can make these stand-offs a major part of your combat strategy by putting points into the stand-off technique and wearing armor that allows you to chain multiple stand-off streaks together. By the late game, I was taking five enemies out at the start of every fight, and it felt awesome every time.
Of course, there is a risk involved with stand-offs: they’re absolutely devastating if you lose. Your health is drained almost nothing and you’re put in a position where you’re surrounded by all of the still very much alive enemies in the area. That risk gets greater later on as enemies start throwing in feints to try to make you swing early. It’s an all-around fantastic mechanic that not only fits with the samurai theme, but also takes the fun but typically disadvantageous tactic of just waltzing in through the front gate of an enemy encampment and makes it potentially just as rewarding as silently going through an encampment and stealthily clearing out a bunch of guards.
Open-world games can often feature some of the most beautiful virtual landscapes there are, and Ghost of Tsushima is right up there with the best of them. It may not quite meet the promise of its 2018 gameplay reveal trailer, but this is still a stunningly gorgeous game. Every scene is densely packed with grass, trees, leaves, and flowers all gently blowing in the wind every which way you turn. The island of Tsushima is teeming with natural beauty, which makes it a joy to explore even if you don’t have a particular destination in mind.
Sucker Punch’s design encourages exactly that, with traditional waypoints being integrated into the environment instead of a UI overlay. Following a plume of smoke will always lead you to something worth investigating; a tree with different-colored leafs off in the distance will always yield some sort of reward; and following a trail of Torii gates will never disappoint. It’s all refreshingly organic, much like how it was in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, especially considering that even when you do set a waypoint from your map to head toward a specific quest or location, instead of following arrows on the screen you’ll follow the direction of the wind.
Sidequests are interesting in Ghost of Tsushima because there are actually several different types. The first and most common are your typical garden-variety tasks called Tales of Tsushima, which are short stories that have Jin going off and being the good and honorable samurai that he wants to be by helping people with their problems. Though the stories and characters in these sidequests are largely forgettable, at the very least they don’t seem like they’re just being churned out and used as padding. These are often thoughtful enough to be more special than they might initially let on thanks to some often unexpectedly dark turns and occasionally interesting gameplay scenarios. One, for example, is really the only time where I was literally surrounded by archers and nothing else. They were all spaced out on different levels of two opposing cliff sides, making it a fun and unique challenge that’s not replicated elsewhere.
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One level above that e Tales are multi-part, character-specific sidequests that basically span the entire campaign and serve to give each major character their own story arc. This includes Sensei Ishikawa, the renowned samurai archer searching for his missing student; Masako, a grief-stricken mother out for revenge on those who murdered her family; or Yuna, the thief who saved your life at the very beginning of the story and will do whatever it takes to save her brother from the Mongols. Each of these sidestories reflects an aspect of Jin’s own journey, and it’s very interesting to see both how they develop and the impact they have on his development. Some of the later ones that I’m not allowed to talk about due to embargo restrictions are especially touching and deal with some pretty heavy subject matter, with one in particular that makes exceptional use of Ghost of Tsushima’s scouting mechanic in a very clever and emotional way.
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Tales of Tsushima typically reward you with charms that boost a certain aspect of your character, allowing you to spec into specific character builds like stealth, tanky, or a focus on critical hits, and so on. In the early going these charms were a great incentive to complete sidequests, but once I had pretty much all the charms that were needed later on, these Tales of Tsushima sidequests lost much of their appeal from a reward standpoint. I lost the desire to seek them out.
[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=The%20Mythic%20Tales%20sidequests%20are%20some%20of%20the%20best%20moments%20in%20all%20of%20Ghost%20of%20Tsushima.”]Finally, there are the Mythic Tales. These are epic sidequests that have you hunting down legendary techniques or pieces of gear, and they’re obtained by listening to a musician tell the legend of whatever it is you’re seeking to earn, shown through some extremely cool animated sumi-e cutscenes. From there, they sprawl out to epic quests that each vary wildly in their design, but all are well worth playing through. Especially because their rewards are among the best boons you can get, whether it be the Heavenly Strike special move that has you channeling your inner Kenshin Himura as you dash through an opponent with a lightning-fast sword strike, or a new piece of high-quality armor that grants powerful perks like stand-offs having a chance to terrify enemies and cause them to run away. But even without those incentives, these quests are still some of the best moments in all of Ghost of Tsushima.
My favorite thing about exploration, though, and something that I especially appreciate as someone who’s not typically big on collectibles, is that every major collectible has both a worthwhile reward and a fun mini challenge tied to it. I was always extremely eager to find new Bamboo Strikes, not only because they gave me more resolve (a resource needed to heal and use special moves) but also because I just loved doing the little button-press minigame required to collect them. Shrines are even better because in addition to being the only place where you can find major charms (which offer dramatic buffs and perks strong enough to potentially design a whole character build around) they are also the only areas that you’ll be able to find those signature Sucker Punch platforming sections familiar from the Infamous or Sly series.
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The minor collectibles, like Mongol artifacts, journal entries, sashimono banners, and pillars of honor, are less exciting – they only offer some minor cosmetic items or flavor text. But they are plentiful enough that they still provide some added value for trophy hunters – and at least Ghost of Tsushima makes hunting them very easy thanks to the ability to quickly fast-travel to any discovered point of interest on the map.
[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=After%20reaching%20the%20credits%2C%20I%20still%20eagerly%20put%20in%20another%2015%20to%2020%20hours%20to%20finish%20up.”]It took me between 40 and 50 hours to play through Ghost of Tsushima (it’s hard to say for sure as it doesn’t track your time played), which included completing all of the Mythic Tales, a complete liberation of Tsushima from Mongol control, all of the multi-part supporting character sidequests, and most of the of the standard Tales of Tsushima. After reaching the credits, I still eagerly put in another 15 to 20 hours to finish up the remaining sidequests (except one that is apparently bugged for me, but Sony says will be fixed in a pre-release patch) and find all of the collectibles in the hopes that the final reward would be worth it. It wasn’t, which is a bummer because there’s otherwise not much to do in the post-game – no New Game+ and no unlockable difficulties for a second playthrough. It’s a bit aggravating that even if I did decide to just play it again (in Kurosawa mode, for instance), you still can’t skip any of the cutscenes.
Finally, can we talk about photo mode for a second? Because Ghost of Tsushima’s photo mode is the one of the best I’ve ever seen. Partially because the world is just so pretty that it lends itself well to being captured in its natural beauty, but also because of the unique touches that Sucker Punch added, like the ability to have animated background environments or to add a large selection of particles like leaves, fireflies, or even songbirds. You can change the weather, alter the time of day, add clouds, create a camera flight path to create short videos – and all of this on top of all of the essential photo mode options like exposure sliders and filters that have become standard. My one disappointment is the fact that the customizable emotions that you can put on Jin’s face could stand to have a little more… well, emotion. But nonetheless, Ghost of Tsushima’s photo mode sets a new high water mark.