When I was offered the chance to review Ghost of Tsushima, I sheepishly turned to a fellow gamer colleague and said “so…what can you tell me about this game?”. I didn’t follow the progress of the game’s creation, see any game footage or trailers prior to beginning. I went in blind, only knowing I was going to have to put a lot of my personal plans on hold, to get through this highly anticipated, mammoth open-world game in time.
I’m in no way a history buff, I’m more of a ‘live in the now’ kinda person…aka I struggle to retain information. So it was kind of great coming into Ghost of Tsushima with no prior knowledge of what went down between the Mongols and the Samurai inhabitants of Tsushima Island in the 1270s (which I assume everyone else has extensive knowledge of). Ghost of Tsushima kicks off with the Mongols, led by General Khotun Khan, invading Tsushima island – bringing with them a fighting style the Samurai are in no way prepared for and unwilling to adapt to as it goes against their honour code. It’s an intense and fairly brutal beginning which sets the tone for the rest of the game.
Even with it’s epic start, the introductory gameplay did concern me initially. Almost instantly I walked into an invisible barrier as I tried to have a nosey at a body on the shoreline. An invisible barrier in an open world game. I was frustrated to say the least. Just let me look at the bodies and climb the burning ramp!!! I’m happy to report that the opening sequences are the only parts of the game you will encounter invisible barriers. After recently finishing The Last of Us Part 2 it also took me a bit to get used to the classic ‘fade to black’ transitions between gameplay and cut-scenes, but in the end it actually complimented the overall feel of the game.
Everything is so beautiful in Ghost. SO BEAUTIFUL. I wanted to stop and use camera mode to take photos ALL THE TIME. Much to the annoyance of my husband who was watching me play. No matter how long I played the game for, the scenery consistently took my breath away. Even showing up in an area I’d already extensively explored, but at a different time of day, was enough to leave me in perpetual awe. AND I PLAYED IT ON AN ORIGINAL PS4, so I can only imagine what the visual experience would be like on a PS4 pro.
The photo mode in Ghost is almost like a mini game in and of itself. It’s accessible by pushing the right directional button, which made it very easy to keep accidentally entering it. It’s the first game that I’ve actually wanted to try out photo mode in, and boy did I try it exhaustively.You can adjust absolutely everything to create the perfect shot. From weather (including wind strength and direction), time of day and Jin’s facial expression to focal distance, depth of field and colour grading. I’m OBSESSED.
Now for the answer you’ve all been waiting for. Do you get to see Jin’s butt? Yes. Yes you do. My husband genuinely exclaimed: “Do you have to take a photo every time!?!? You’ve got like 7 butt shots now!” out of pure disdain for my dedication to capturing his behind from every angle.
The most incredible thing about Ghost of Tsushima is simply the experience of exploring the vast, rich landscapes of medieval Japan, that Sucker Punch have created. Your surroundings feel alive. Everything moves with the wind. Even the sunlight feels alive as it dances on fields of rippling grass. I do not have the words in my vocabulary to describe the beauty of Tsushima. The way the game mechanics blend into the beauty of the surrounding world is extremely impressive. You are literally guided to quest locations by the wind’s direction and fireflies congregate around the bodies of fallen enemies you have yet to loot. It’s these small integrations of common game mechanics into the natural environment that make Ghost of Tsushima such an organic and immersive experience.
Collectible resources are shiny and easy to spot as you gallop through the scenic locations and you can collect them easily as you travel, without needing to slow down or dismount. The attention to detail in the game is also very satisfying. You leave behind footprints and a swim through a lake will clean your clothes which inevitably end up covered in mud. The weather changes a lot through the game and assists a huge amount in building atmosphere and tension. However it also leads to some jarring and sudden shifts between the types of weather, which can break your immersion.
Play with Japanese audio if you’re able. Please. It was an uncomfortable experience accidentally beginning in English. However, they do not provide subtitles for the random conversations NPCs are having as you roam about the island so, unless you understand Japanese, you will miss those small details. When I realised this and switched to English for a bit to see what sorts of conversations were being had, I was very torn as to whether I should continue in Japanese or switch to English. But, in the end, I couldn’t get as absorbed when the main characters were all running around with Britishesque accents.
The main plot that you follow with Jin Sakai feels like a solid storyline for a classic samurai flick that I would personally watch and love. Thanks to Naughty Dog setting the bar for games that feel like playable movies and only having recently exited the world of The Last of Us: Part 2, myself, I couldn’t help but notice that Ghost doesn’t quite hit the mark in that regard. But it comes damn close. It particularly shines, in that respect, during its climactic battle sequences. They’re insane and incredibly good fun. If you want the game to have an even more intense cinematic feel, then I recommend trying out Kurosawa mode! It basically adds an old-timey, black and white, projector film vibe – with the aim of letting the player feel as though they are actually playing inside an Akira Kurosawa samurai movie.
I didn’t think I’d manage to finish the main plot by the review due date, but by skipping most of the side quests (Tales of Tsushima), I did manage to reach the story conclusion in the nick of time. For a decent chunk of the game, I felt pretty unaffected by the whole thing. As you’d expect, given the game’s setting, the characters are all pretty stern and serious. It was hard to feel connected to a bunch of stubborn Japanese men from a very different time, so I didn’t really think the storyline was penetrating my cold, dead heart. As it turns out, I was wrong. My emotional investment with the progression and conclusion of Jin’s relationship with his Uncle, Lord Shimura, kind of snuck up on me. Yuna is also a large part of why I ended up loving the story of the game. Even though she isn’t the game’s protagonist, it could be argued that she is the most integral character to the game’s overall feel and direction. She’s a no-nonsense, badass lady that challenges and directs Jin at every turn. Yuna is only one of many allies you’ll get to meet and grow to love through side quests and over the course of the game’s main journey. Allies are actually very helpful during battles as well! There were definitely several times when an ally’s quick actions either saved me from a finishing blow or turned the tide.
There is SO MUCH to do and see in this game. It was so, so difficult to ignore side quests (as I mentioned) while trying to bulldoze my way through the main story to make this review as complete as time would allow. Full of diverse characters, interesting challenges and FREAKIN’ AWESOME REWARDS, each side plot that I did manage to experience, enriches the overall story. While engaging with a tale (aka quest), the game limits the open world experience by timing out and pulling you back on track when you stray off course. The way tutorials for new aspects of gameplay are integrated are truly masterful. Along with bamboo stand challenges (which I really sucked at), hunting for shrines and showing off Jin’s booty at the hot springs, a beautiful part of the game that I was constantly looking out for, was the composing of Haikus! I would take a lot of time to attempt to create the perfect Haiku. It was a serene experience in the midst of the horrors of war Jin was constantly facing.
Animals are a large part of the game and are often used to guide you to important locations. You select your companion horse very early in the game and get to name it as well. It comes running whenever you whistle, which sometimes creates some mind bending moments. For example, if you leave your horse on top of a cliff and call it while looking up at it…the game doesn’t quite know how to deal with that. Horse glitches aside, you share many moments of super cute affection and the bond that forms between you and your horse is a genuinely emotional thing to experience. Yellow birds should always be followed and the discovering of fox dens always leads to a special experience and a totally adorable interaction. Bears, dogs and boars are the only aggressive animals you will encounter and are incentivised to kill (for resources), whereas you will find no benefits from attacking or killing birds, deer or foxes and why would you even want to!? Frolicking with deer, patting foxes and admiring the wildlife are some of the most enriching in-game experiences!
I absolutely loved how Jin’s fighting style developed over time. It is pure genius. He begins as such an annoyingly noble and self-righteous samurai. He’s all about announcing himself and challenging people to one-on-one combat to uphold the honour code of the samurai. I spent a good portion of the early game frustratedly yelling at the screen “DAMMIT JIN! Just sneak up and attack people like I want you too!” Luckily, Yuna is an excellent corrupter, and she quickly talks Jin into all sorts of deliciously violent and dishonorable deeds.
The stealth aspect of Ghost of Tsushima is really, REALLY fun. You scope out areas and engage in some wise surveyance before you approach – making sure you know the best place to approach from and the order in which you will execute your mission. Focused hearing allows you to detect the presence of enemies and also quieten chaotic battle sounds in some situations. Stealth kills can also be some of the most satisfying and epic ways to deal with multiple enemies at once.
You eventually get to learn 4 main ‘stances’ by which Jin can gain advantage over various enemy types. It takes quite a while to learn all four stances, as you need to kill or observe various ‘leaders’ to unlock them, which was a little frustrating while facing all the types of enemies from early on. However, combat is really fun. You can kill people in SO MANY different ways! You can throw Kunai, snipe with your bow, slice and dice with your sword, engage in standoffs, interact with the combat environment and even utilise some far less savoury methods (which I will not spoil). I was initially very disappointed by the apparent lack of limb severing. But let me tell you that the technique tree (aka skill tree), mythic techniques in particular, unlocked limb severing and violence beyond my wildest dreams. I spent so much time agonising over my skill tree choices. They’re all excellent and it’s so hard to prioritise one awesome technique over another.
Fights can become very chaotic very quickly. Facing many enemies in melee combat while arrows hurtle towards you is no small feat and I found myself switching to the easiest difficulty setting fairly often to progress through the game at a quicker pace. The harder the setting, the harder the hits land and the quicker you perish. More often than not, dying, no matter how close you are to finishing a particular mission, will land you right back where you started. This ended up being pretty time consuming as I relied heavily on the stealth approach to most missions – hence using easy mode to speed things along.
One thing I felt the combat lacked was the ability to ‘lock on’ to any particular enemy. The game definitely does assist in this area, by pulling Jin towards enemies, but as it isn’t quite a proper ‘lock-on’ feature, certain moments of combat could end up being pretty frustrating…[In fact I think I probably experienced the worst combat moment of my entire life due to this. I just could not hit the little jerk!] Transitions from cut scenes to combative gameplay were also pretty jarring at times. One minute Jin is watching a scene unfold from his hiding place, the next the cutscene is fading to black and suddenly Jin is engaging in player-controlled combat! Moments like that really took away from the cinematic experience and made some tales feel like they’d been forced to rush their completion.
Despite the small issues and gripes I had with Ghost of Tsushima, it is an experience like no other. A glimpse into another time, another culture rich with history. It’s unique set pieces, stunning landscapes and challenging, diverse combat are already calling me back for another playthrough. It’s a breathtaking and inspiring creation of beauty and brutality that will captivate you for its entirety.