Ghost of Tsushima Review: An Gorgeous Samurai/Shinobi Experience
My first experience with Ghost of Tsushima is playing the introductory prologue sequence on a friend’s PS4 and getting hyped for the idea of another Japanese, clashing swords-type game, especially considering Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice and Nioh 2 are some of my favorite recent games. I honestly assumed it was developed by a Japanese studio initially, so I was pretty surprised to find out that it was released by Sucker Punch Productions, a very western company known for the Infamous titles, so Ghost of Tsushima was actually their first game in quite a few years. I recall the studio’s goal was to emulate the feeling of Japanese samurai cinema when developing the game, and after playing through its entirety and part of NG+, I can safely say that goal was achieved; Ghost of Tsushima is an excellent game, and it’s regarded as one of the better Playstation exclusives for good reason. I will also only be covering the single-player story, as the game does have a co-op “Legends” mode, but I have not played it much and probably will not in the near future unless I feel like picking it up again.
While Ghost of Tsushima is a fictional work, it is inspired by actual historical events, mainly the first Mongol invasion of the island of Tsushima during the late 1200’s. The player controls Jin Sakai, a samurai serving under Lord Shimura. The game starts off with the Mongols invading the shores of Komoda Beach, and in an attempt to fend them off the samurai are horribly defeated, albeit Jin survives. The rest of the game involves Jin exploring Tsushima island, trying to rally support and liberate his homeland of the Mongol threat.
Ghost of Tsushima is an open-world game that mixes stealth and action. The primary driver of its gameplay is its combat, and it’s very satisfying. The stealth elements are fairly standard and nothing worth writing home about with the AI being somewhat cheese-able, but the combat is quite good. It focuses on sword combat, with basics like attacking, blocking, dodging, and parrying that’s found in a lot of similar games, but Ghost of Tsushima’s combat is generally pretty fast-paced and the player/enemy balance is generally pretty well-done, in the sense that enemies don’t feel like health sponges but Jin Sakai also is not some invulnerable god. Granted, that power balance changes very heavily later on in the game as the player acquires more techniques and skill upgrades. The best part is that the game has a difficulty mode catered specifically to that balance, known as “Lethal” mode, where Jin kills enemies with ease but regardless of upgrades, will always be one, two hits from death. The combat is given a bit of depth with the stance system, where Jin can swap between four stances that are advantageous against different enemies depending on what weapons they’re using, and stance-switching is seamless mid-combat. Jin also acquires “Ghost” tools eventually as his legend grows, like throwing knives and smoke bombs (reminiscent of a shinobi), and those allow more diverse play-styles and more creative ways to slaughter enemies in fights. The combat is not as complex or in-depth as something like Nioh 2’s, but it does not have to be.
My favorite part about the game’s combat is the “Stand-off” mechanic, where Jin basically goes up to a bunch of enemies and tells them to come at him, then depending on the timing of player input, proceeds to cut a bunch of them down with a single swing each. It’s super cinematic and entertaining to watch every time, and has the benefit of being able to thoroughly thin out a camp of Mongols (after upgrades). On the other hand the part I hate the most is the game’s camera/lock-on system, or lack thereof. The camera itself is fine, but the game does not allow players to lock on to enemies, and instead tries to predict what the player is going to go after and then uses that as a soft lock-on. However it does not work perfectly, and thus it ends up making combat against multiple enemies feel very clunky (sometimes Jin will swing towards one enemy, then switch to a different enemy without directional input). I got used to it by the mid-game, but it is still an awful system that would easily be fixed if it had a basic manual lock-on mechanic. Why re-invent the wheel?
The open-world mechanic is honestly pretty standard, and I didn’t quite dislike it but I also do not think it is particularly innovative or amazing. The coolest part of the map was probably the shrines, as the shrines give pretty awesome rewards on completion and are basically full-blown obstacle courses, and navigating through them was the most fun I’ve had as far as world exploration is concerned. The biggest strength of the world relies heavily on how good it looks, as it does feel nice galloping through such amazing scenery on a horse, but as far as gameplay is concerned it’s not particularly special.
The game does have character progression, in the form of gear upgrades, different techniques, armor sets, and charms. It gets the job done, and a lot of the upgrades can be very substantial, so the feeling of Jin going from a helpless, defeated samurai to the almost-untouchable Ghost of Tsushima is very real. If the game does get a bit too easy (which it does on normal difficulty modes by late-game), I recommend switching to Lethal. Overall, the gameplay is very solid, and I had a lot of fun throughout my entire play-through despite the game not being short.
Ghost of Tsushima’s writing is probably its biggest selling point. While the main story premise of a lone warrior trying to save his home from the big baddies is not new at all, it is executed very competently. Honor is the main theme of the game, for rather unsurprising reasons, but the game’s narrative largely acts as a critique against it, portrayed mainly in Jin and Lord Shimura’s relationship and their two respective personalities. Honor is evidently very important to the samurais, and they generally frown upon tactics that are seen as unsavory or dishonorable. On the contrary, the Mongols don’t give a shit about it, and are able to easily best the Japanese warriors because they have no qualms about using anything at their disposal to win. Over the course of the narrative, Jin realizes this, and begins to prioritize the liberation of the island, even if may come down to fighting fire with fire. The game does an excellent job with Jin’s character arc in how he goes from strictly adhering to the samurai code to becoming the titular “Ghost of Tsushima” as his beliefs and values are molded by his experiences.
The narrative’s greatest achievement is in its conclusion, which I think ranks amongst some of the best final acts I have seen in video games (barring the Nier titles, which are in a tier of their own). Without getting into spoilers, the ending of the game forces the player to make an important decision. Making choices that impact the ending of the game is not new, and honestly most of the time they are not done particularly well (see the infamous Mass Effect 3 ending). However, Ghost of Tsushima’s ending decision is easily one of the most satisfying ones I ever had to make, with both choices feeling virtually equal in validity, with the choice largely boiling down to the player’s ideological beliefs and interpretations of the characters involved. Good endings are not easy, but they are integral to the narrative, as they are the last thing on the audience’s mind. A poorly written ending can basically undo all of the progress the rest of the story made (see Game of Thrones), so thankfully Ghost of Tsushima nailed its conclusion.
The biggest flaw I find with the writing is in the villains. While perhaps it can be argued that the Mongols are merely a plot device that forwards Jin’s character arc, they are not particularly interesting or redeeming. They’re violent, bloodthirsty, and easy to despise, but that is really it. The main villain, Kotun Khan, definitely had a ton of potential, as he shows right away why the Mongols were the superior fighting force to the Japanese samurai. He is cunning and ruthless, yet not as “barbaric” as the rest of his army; he learned to speak Japanese, and is also aware of Japanese culture, particularly the samurai code and how highly it values honor. As a result he knows how to exploit it, and thus is able to utterly dominate the samurai in the initial conflict. However the game does not really utilize the Khan to his full potential, as he does not show up often throughout the game nor does he do anything really meaningful outside a few key moments.
Another more minor criticism (as I realize that fixing this criticism would essentially require a huge, likely unrealistic update), is that I do think Jin’s character arc should be more influenced by the player’s actions as opposed to the narrative. The narrative basically forces Jin on the path of utilizing “dishonorable” tactics against the Mongols for story purposes, but that is unaffected by what the player actually does. If I decide to, for role-playing purposes, to refuse to use any “Ghost” tools or stealth and stick to the “samurai way,” Jin’s character arc does not change. It would be cool if Jin’s development actually changes depending on how he takes on engagements (similar to the Infamous titles, funnily enough), but I realize that is basically wishful thinking.
Ghost of Tsushima’s biggest accomplishment that’s not game/story-related is its visuals. It is absolutely gorgeous, with the landscapes and weather effects all creating a very vibrant atmosphere. I have never been a stickler for graphics in most games, but I will admit a reason I enjoyed the game as much as I did was due to how amazing it looked, especially when running at a higher-performance mode on the PS5. The voice acting is also top-notch, in both English and Japanese. I personally played the game in Japanese (after all it is a Japanese samurai game), and the voice cast really brings the characters to life, strengthening the quality of the storytelling. I am also a bit biased as one of the main characters in the story, Lord Shimura, is voiced by Akio Otsuka, who happens to be one of my favorite voice actors.
On the other hand, the worst non-gameplay/story feature is the unskippable cutscenes. I get why the developers would want the player to view all the cutscenes (particularly the big story ones), but to not even give the option is completely unacceptable. The fact I cannot even skip the small scenes like rescuing random NPC’s definitely got grating the further I progressed in the game, and honestly made me rush the story in the final acts because I was sick of having to waste my time on insignificant cutscenes. The game does allow for skippable cutscenes in NG+, but why not add it to the base game?
Overall, Ghost of Tsushima is an excellent game, with little to dislike outside of its wacky camera/lock-on system, unskippable cutscenes and perhaps shallow open world. It has a satisfying combat system, engaging and compelling narrative, and gorgeous visuals, which all combine together to deliver a quality experience. The overall product is phenomenal, and is another exclusive that makes a Sony console worth getting.
Rating: I bought the game on sale, but it’s definitely worth retail. One of Sony’s must-play exclusives.