Simultaneously reminding us of where the platform has come from, and where the next generation is going, Ghost of Tsushima is a gorgeous and thoroughly entertaining title that will stand among the cornerstone titles of the generation.
“Let’s live there.”
As I finished composing my haiku, looking over a gorgeous lake surrounded by autumnal trees, my wife made the suggestion casually as she walked by.
“No problem.” I said, sincerely wishing that there was actually a housing mechanic so I could do just that.
Ghost of Tsushima, now nearing its 3rd week of release, has been long-awaited by many in the Playstation universe. Since the earliest trailers, gamers hoped for the opportunity to explore a Witcher-like world with Japanese flair, and that is precisely what this game delivers.
It also happens, by nature of its timing, to be among one of the last AAA titles for the PS4.
In Ghost of Tsushima, you play as Jin Sakai – nephew of the current ruler of Tsushima, Lord Shimura, and one of the only remaining samurai after a disastrous battle to defend their homeland from the invading Mongols, led by the merciless Khotun Khan.
Your uncle, initially feared as killed, is revealed to be captured. After a hasty attempt to rescue him ends badly, Jin finds himself embarking on a journey to gather the necessary strength to free his uncle and save his people.
If it sounds like the very familiar premise of every samurai film or media you’ve ever consumed, this is not an accident. Sucker Punch has made it very clear that their inspirations for Ghost of Tsushima derive from the classic Kurosawa films – from the structure of the standoff sequences to the custom camera mode that paints the world in that classic black and white style.
As someone who has long admired Japanese culture and history (I went to school for a long time to get a very expensive piece of paper to prove it), I’m well aware that the romanticized version of Samurai in most pop culture is problematic – to put it mildly. That being said, Ghost of Tsushima has no problem complicating this narrative by making their protagonist bend his own morality and ideals in pursuit of the greater good.
Some reviews have referred to the narrative and characters as “stoic”, but I disagree. I think Ghost of Tsushima is a powerfully emotional game, with wonderful vignettes strung throughout the game outside of the main campaign. There are recurring central elements, to be sure: revenge, honor, peace, justice…but the varied characters that you explore these narratives with make it less like a monotonous repetition and more like a delightful series of echoes.
One of these characters is Yuna, voiced by the talented Sumalee Montano (whom we had the pleasure of interviewing some time ago about her time on Critical Role). A thief from a region that had a rebellion put down by Lord Shimura’s forces, she saves Jin’s life after the disastrous battle at Komoda Beach. She proves herself to be a useful and trustworthy ally, and their kinship grows from there.
You also have the warrior Lady Masako and archer Sensei Ishikawa, each with their own charged narratives to navigate before they offer their assistance in rescuing your uncle. Masako’s arc in particular is heart-wrenching, and the voice acting really shines as you help her track down the traitors that killed her family and destroyed her life.
As the adventure continues, other allies enter your orbit, with equally long tales, broken up into smaller missions for you to drop in and out of at your leisure. I was impressed with the balance when it came to the length of these smaller missions – as I could typically knock one out in 10-15 minutes before continuing on my way, exploring the island or seeking out the next hot spring.
Ghost of Tsushima is, in case you weren’t aware, an open-world game. While there is a rather substantive main act to pursue, there is so, so much more beyond saving your Uncle and driving the mongols away from Tsushima. You quickly identify a handful of allies in the first act, and follow their journeys across the three major segments of Tsushima, which unlock as you progress the main plot.
In addition, you can discover serene retreats in nature and compose haiku. You can practice your sword skills on bamboo. You can find discarded banners of the Samurai that were killed in the initial battle. You can pray to the fox god Inari for protection, or scale perilous paths to pay homage to various temples. You can relax in hot springs, learn songs for your flute, discover cosmetic components for your sword kit and much, much more.
As the game progresses, you have the opportunity to upgrade your weapons, but what Ghost of Tsushima does really well is avoid overcomplicating it. You have your katana, your kanto, various armor sets, as well as a short bow and longbow. That’s it. All of the materials & supplies you find are put towards one of those upgrades. You can also collect pelts from various predators to increase your capacity for thrown and other projectile items.
I really liked not having to worry about developing a blacksmithing skill, or heading into a mine to farm rare ore for one upgrade or another. The map also provides a useful tool of letting you know what upgrades are available so you can hop over and get that done.
Speaking of “hopping over”, I need to comment on something else fantastic about this game: loading times. Fast travel in this game is probably one of the best ever executed in an open world title of this caliber. The game is barely 50 GB total, which definitely helps with this, but when you are able to zip quickly from one survivors camp to another on the other side of the island in a matter of 5-10 seconds, it really encourages you to take the time to explore every last inch of the vast world that Sucker Punch Productions painstakingly brought to life.
As I mentioned early on, I spent the better part of 25 hours in my first three days with Ghost of Tsushima, and had explored approximately 45-50% of the first island. I had done a handful of “Mythic” quests, discovered some hot springs, etc. I was so wrapped up in the beauty and appeal of the broader world that Ghost of Tsushima had crafted, that I delayed the main storyline for quite some time. Something I’m sure many open-world fans understand.
Throughout this broad world full of so many things to do, there is of course something you do quite a bit: kill mongols. At first, you do this by following the Samurai code – meeting your enemy in combat…looking him in the eyes as you strike him down with your superior swordsmanship.
Indeed, one of the central elements of encounters is the “Standoff” mechanic, which pits you against an enemy and acts like a simplified quick time event to see who gets the first strike. You literally call out to a group of enemies and essentially ask if they have the balls to fight you. Not your typical approach, especially when it comes to raiding enemy forts. Nope…definitely not used to strolling up to the front gate and asking if they can come out to play.
Very early on, you find that this style may not afford you the victories you seek. Instead, you learn to sneak quietly into enemy bases. Assassinating enemies before they get a chance to see you…even those that may be sleeping. You gain an assortment of weaponry, from smoke bombs and kunai to sticky bombs and wind chimes, to distract and disorient the enemy before visiting a swift death upon them.
As you kill mongols, and more specifically their leaders, you unlock additional stances to help you more effectively dispatch enemies of varying types: sword users, shield users, spear users and “brutes”. Switching between these stances quickly in the heat of battle helps you dispatch your enemies in an effective and cinematic manner.
Now, a common complaint I’ve seen in the weeks following release is that combat essentially boils down to “switching stances and mashing triangle”. I can assure you that I have gone into many-a-fight with that exact strategy in mind and have found it does take quite a bit more parrying and dodging to really be successful, especially as the game progresses.
That being said, you will be using triangle quite a bit.
As you kill mongols and pursue various side quests, your legend grows throughout the island. This reputation system is what helps to guide your skill-point gains, and you can even earn gifts at your main base as you grow more reputable.
With so much to do, and such engaging and fun gameplay to draw you further in, it’s no wonder that fans of Ghost of Tsushima put in some serious playtime in its opening week.
The PS4 has been out now for nearly 7 years. Throughout the generation, there have been plenty of legitimate reasons to comment on stunning visuals, from Horizon Zero Dawn to God of War, to Spider-Man, Last of Us 2 and beyond.
Ghost of Tsushima’s visuals are exactly what you’d expect from a team that has explored the boundaries and utmost limits of what the PS4 can do. The title drop alone gives me goosebumps every. single. time.
It’s gorgeous. It’s stunning. It’s beautiful. It’s transcendent.
I can’t emphasize enough just how beautiful this game is. Galloping through beautiful fields of flowers; trotting around a crystal-clear lake, surrounded by autumnal trees; venturing into a fog-dense forest at dusk…the scope of environments and the depth of their detail will have you stopping to capture moment after beautiful moment in the game’s brilliantly executed photo mode.
The appreciation for these visuals isn’t restricted to sweeping shots of the landscape, but also in the detail of combat and the framing of the various scenes throughout the larger narrative.
Puncturing the overall awe that you’ll experience in exploring the island of Tsushima, there are some…hiccups here and there. You might jump towards a rock, thinking you can climb on top, only for Jin to get stuck halfway and shake back and forth for a while until launching himself into the air like a bottle-rocket.
The camera has also been commented on numerous times, due to the lack of a lock-on system. While 99 times out of 100 I was able to see my enemies perfectly well, there were a handful of incidents where I felt like I was grappling with the camera to get a good angle. This can disrupt an otherwise great experience.
It has been a long time since I straight-up spent an entire day playing a video game. Even when I took the weekend off for Red Dead Redemption 2 I ended up walking away from the game after a few hours of my initial playthrough.
I took the weekend off once again for the release of Ghost of Tsushima – and I spent the better part of 15 hours playing it that very same day. I had put nearly 25 hours in over 3 days, and had barely begun to scratch all that the first island had to offer. The stunning visuals, engrossing narrative and addictive combat blend together to create a feat of gaming that is sure to stand proudly among the best in its class from this generation.
Good things come to those who wait, and we have waited quite a long time for Ghost of Tsushima.