Ghost of Tsushima Review
A code of honor
Working with a great first-party developer is always a nice ace to have up your sleeve, and that's why Sony has been able to achieve success with Sucker Punch Productions. The studio created the popular platforming franchise Sly Cooper on the PS2, and followed it up with the great Infamous series on PS3. Although their PS4 title Infamous: Second Son was a little bit weaker, the developers are now back to close out the console's lifecycle with a new IP. Featuring an authentic setting, exciting combat and great art style, Ghost of Tsushima is a strong exclusive title that brings Sucker Punch back into the spotlight.
The game takes players to Tsushima Island, off the coast of mainland Japan, in the late 13th century as the island faces an incoming Mongol Empire invasion. The island's few samurai warriors attempt to mount a defense on the beach, but they are defeated by a foe that fights with new tactics and no sense of honor. Among the fallen warriors is Jin Sakai, who barely survives and is dragged to safety by a thief. As possibly the last surviving samurai of the island, Jin regains his composure and tries to challenge the Mongol general and leader of the invasion, Khotun Khan, to a battle. Khan has taken over the castle of the island's Lord, Shimura, who is Jin's uncle. During their fight, Kahn reveals that he didn't kill the Lord and instead kept him as prisoner, before swiftly defeating Jin and tossing him off a bridge. Jin realizes that he must grow and change his samurai methods if he has a chance of defeating the Khan, rescuing his uncle, and freeing the island.
Ghost of Tsushima tells a fairly compelling story, and while not particularly original, it's solid enough to carry the entire playthrough as the main narrative thread, even as players divide their time with numerous side quests. You'll meet a few different characters on the journey who join your cause of freeing the island and stopping the invasion before they move on to the main island of Japan. From helping your rescuer save her brother, to assisting a bowman sensei in tracking down his former student, the major characters all have their own optional quest chains. It's still an action game first, so while you make very rare and inconsequential dialog choices, there are no player choices to make that affect the story or gameplay. A few of the story beats also feel unearned and a bit cliché. But a well executed dramatic ending caps off a satisfying narrative.
But by far the most interesting part of the narrative is how it ties into gameplay. As samurai, Jin and his fallen clansmen always held themselves to a code of honor, to tradition, and attacking the enemy in a fair head-on battle. However, as Jin finds himself alone, he must resort to stealth and striking from the shadows. This is of course to also explain away the typical stealth mechanics as you'd find in most modern titles, but it's interesting that the characters do address this. Jin will be conflicted, and criticized by others, for using such methods. The game never quite finds a believable balance, as Jin himself often feels unconvinced that his new tactics are up to the honor code, but it's still intriguing to see the gameplay concept get tackled in the historical setting.
Stealth is definitely encouraged, as Jin will almost always be outnumbered, so it helps to sneak around and thin out the herd of foes. Some locations also have hostages, who will be quickly killed if you decide to run in and raise a fuss. As a third person stealth/action title, Ghost of Tsushima features some typical mechanics such as hiding in tall grass, using Focused Hearing to see outlines of enemies, throwing wind chimes to distract, and utilizing plenty of crawl spaces and open windows to sneak around the settlements and camps. From melee stealth takedowns, to using a bow for silent headshots (many foes lack helmets), the stealth tools available to the players are versatile. Over the course of the game you can unlock further abilities, such as assassination chains, smoke bombs, darts with poison, and slowing time briefly when aiming with a bow.
Sneaking through enemy camps remains satisfying, though the enemy AI is quite basic. Their vision cones are inconsistent, and if they find a body, they'll raise an alarm, walk around for a bit, and go back to their normal routine. That routine is also usually very basic, with a simple patrol structure, letting you get by easily. Another interesting aspect is that entering battle doesn't immediately alert the entire area. You will have to fight the enemies in the very near vicinity, but those out of sight won't care – you could slaughter a few men in the yard, but those inside the house won't blink an eye. Similarly, when clearing large villages, they are often split into three or four distinct groups of foes spread around, and they are entirely not interested in what happens elsewhere, even if the alarm is raised. It certainly helps not to deal with a ton of enemies because of one mistake.
However, there will also be plenty of action, whether it's in story-mandated encounters or just by roaming the open world, and the combat in the game is quite gratifying. The first thing that stands out is how well animated Jin's moves are. Unlike most action games, his katana is a weapon of art, and it's satisfying to see him stop with precision after a swing, perform moves to incapacitate an enemy with little flash, and all substance. You only have a light and heavy attack, as well as a dodge/roll, and a parry/block buttons. The game doesn't have a big combo system, though you can unlock moves that deliver stronger blows. There is no stamina system so you can swing away and dodge as much as needed, which is helpful to keep combat entertaining and free flowing. Similarly, you can block all normal incoming attacks just by holding the block, which lets you take a breather and adjust. Enemies do have unblockable attacks that must be dodged, which have a clear visual indicator. It all combines to make for some really enjoyable gameplay, with further variety coming from having to switch combat stances.
Jin can use special attacks of his own by using the Resolve meter, which builds during combat. Those attacks are called Mythic strikes, and you discover a few of them over the course of the story. They can deliver big damage to a single enemy and ignore blocks, or strike a group of foes and stun them. The Resolve is also critically the only way to heal, thus creating a dilemma of how the meter should be used in any particular situation. You can use your bow in battle as well, as they come with flaming and explosive tips, in limited capacity. But even if you do fail – whether due to mission or combat death – the checkpoints are very generous and there's no punishment. There are three difficulties to choose from, and medium seems very well balanced for challenge and entertainment in combat.
The Mongol enemies you'll encounter fall into five types – swordsmen, shieldmen, spearmen, large brutes, and archers. Over the course of the adventure, the enemies will also evolve a bit and start wearing more armor, and even utilize some of the same bombs you can use, because they have seen Jin use them and learned from his methods – another interesting story tie-in to the gameplay. For each enemy type, Jin has a combat stance that is the most effective. It doesn't alter your moves or prompts much, but Jin visibly changes his style and attacks, letting you deliver damage to the enemy of a certain type. To switch stances, you press R2 to slow time and use one of the four face buttons on the controller. This adds a dynamic aspect to the combat, as you must often switch stances multiple times in a single battle depending on the enemy you're facing. Clashing swords, dodging and parrying, switching stances – everything combines to create a rather enjoyable combat experience for the entirety of the adventure and beyond.
In cases where you feel comfortable – such as a few bandits on the road, or a very small enemy camp – Jin can actually choose to just ride into the front gate and initiate a Standoff mechanic. Here, players must hold the attack button but not release until the enemy chooses to swing (and they will try to fake you out). Doing so results in instant elimination with slow motion, and the nearby foes fall too as they try to rush and you swing again. This won't clear all foes, but gives you a nice and fulfilling start to the encounter. Another neat mechanic is the duels, which you'll encounter a few times. These dramatic one-on-one encounters have you face off against either a swordsman or a straw-hat ronin, though the mechanics don't change much. They are just tense encounters against a foe with a lot of blocking ability and health. While cool, it would have been nice to see more than one same cutscene before each duel. Lastly, in the second half of the game you'll unlock a Ghost Stance – which you can activate by eliminating a certain number of foes without getting hit. Activating this ability makes enemies freeze in fear, and you get to eliminate any three foes with a single strike.
While fun and exciting, there are a few minor quibbles with the controls. R2 is not only used to bring up the stance selection interface, but also interact with the world – squeeze into gaps, pick up items, loot bodies, and so on. This means that you're often running around, pressing the button outside of the combat, which keeps bringing up the UI when you're collecting items. It's a bit of a strange choice. There's no lock-on camera function, which means there are times where you must swing a bit blindly, before having to adjust your view manually, taking your thumb off the key face buttons. Not huge issues, but there was room for improvement.
When not dealing with enemies, be it through stealth or combat, players can explore a good sized open world. You have a horse that can be called in anytime, but more conveniently many of the places you visit act as fast travel, even the simple shrines. The game does a good job of making the world worth exploring, by offering just enough points of interest to keep it interesting, without overwhelming players by putting question marks all over the place as in Assassin's Creed or The Witcher 3. Each spot on the map offers something to do that often leads to a reward; fox shrines can help you increase your resolve meter, hot springs increase your health, and getting to the top of a large shrine rewards you with charms. With bamboo strikes, you perform a fast QTE to slice through them. One very cool and immersive activity is composing your own haiku from a few line options. Other points of interest simply provide cosmetic items, such as new hats or skins for your weapon holsters, or are simple collectibles.
To reach the shrines on top of mountains, and other environment navigation challenges, you will have to do occasional platforming by climbing across handholds on cliffs, or using a very basic grapple hook as in Uncharted 4 to swing. The controls feel okay, though it's by no means a platforming-focused title; jumping can be a bit stiff, and many of the climbing holds do not look like believable natural spots.
Ghost of Tsushima has a few RPG elements, but they are light adaptations rather than full systems. For instance, the experience meter is represented by your Legend as your reputation grows across the land. You won't find experience numbers anywhere; even on your weapon and armor stats, they instead use words such as Minor / Moderate / Major increase. Over the course of growing your Legend, you earn skill points which are used to unlock new moves and improvements. The game opts to use a multitude of short standalone skill trees for each combat stance/special attack you have, providing more flexibility in what to improve.
There isn't much of an inventory to worry about, though you do have to run around and collect various materials that can be used in crafting. Jin's weapons remain the same through the game – katana, short blade, and two bows - so you'll be working to craft upgrades for them. When it comes to armor, it's presented as a full set, and more can be found from optional side quests. Each armor set has its own stats, ranging from stealth to combat focus, and they can also be improved with crafting. Last but not least, Jin will earn and discover equippable charms to provide some passive boosts, such as increased damage when at low health, less enemy detection in stealth, and improved Resolve earnings. The strange thing about charms is that you can get duplicates, and it's unclear if they stack; they are also only sorted by type and you have to scroll down the entire list. As already touched upon, you can unlock or purchase lots of visual customizations such as hats, masks, and armor dyes. While not very deep, the RPG mechanics are well implemented and there are plenty of ways to change the look of Jin.
Elsewhere, you'll collect various quests when visiting villages and camps. They indicate what the rewards are – often an increase to your Legend and rare materials – and where you need to go. The main characters get a chain of quests, while others are usually one-off. What's most interesting is how much of the Mythic arts and armor sets are found in these optional adventures. You could beat the game by mainlining the primary quest, but the game does a great job of enticing you to explore and discover these new armors and abilities by limiting their number and making their quests more interesting. The rest of the quests are pretty straightforward – brief standalone stories that have you avenging some civilians, clearing enemy camps or retrieving someone's family heirloom. Most of the time you're free to switch between quests in progress at any time, so you can visit a certain region of the map and get a bunch of things done, again leading to that sense of satisfaction. Even the Ubisoft-style outpost clearing objective is optional and only kicks in later in the game.
The open world is well designed, and it also features a lot of welcome touches and immersion. As mentioned, the very friendly fast travel lets you explore quickly. To do any trading or upgrading, you have to visit a town for the vendors and smiths, and the people even leave you gifts at the altar on occasion. The towns also feature randomized NPCs that give you the one-off quests, so you feel like your visit was worth the time. Whenever you travel with others, the NPCs travel at your speed. To immerse players, the game lacks a minimap, and instead a visible guiding wind helps orient you towards the next objective. You will also encounter a yellow bird that distracts you and guides to a nearby undiscovered point of interest.
But the game world truly comes alive thanks to the game's incredible art style. This ancient era of Japan is absolutely incredible to look at and so easy to become immersed in. From the large maple trees to the bamboo forests, with so many leaves swirling in the air, the art is simply impeccable, helped by a breathtaking color palette that spans the island. From bright red and orange leaves swirling in the air to the dark of the night sky, it's one of the most immersive settings of this console generation. The natural environments are fantastically represented, and good attention was paid to the details of character designs and armor. The Mythic quests also present brief painted cutscenes that are wonderfully drawn as well. And to further help drive home the point, the game even offers a black and white mode with full Japanese voiceover. But while it may be cool for some fans of the movies, the game's amazing colors should really be experienced in full.
On a base model PS4, there are no framerate problems, and loading times are very quick. There are occasional typical open world blemishes, such as Jin or AI getting stuck on the terrain, walking through rather than on stone steps, and some of the combat animations (particularly takedowns) featuring weapons floating outside the enemy body. Parts of the bamboo forest had trees with no collision, letting you gallop right through. Some of the distant textures get noticeably downgraded, for example when observing a nice vista from atop a mountain shrine. It also seems to storm often on the island, but there is a neat mechanic that lets Jin play his flute and change the weather. But these are minor points in an otherwise very solid experience that's often beautiful to look at.
Given how well designed the rest of the game is, some strange choices can stand out more. For example, the main map of the world shows all available icons, and often the points of interest and quests overlap each other at the same location, making it difficult to select what you need. Some villages / outposts do not become fast-travel points, for reasons unknown. On a number of occasions, the game utilizes The Walking Dead school of design by having a cutscene, having you walk a few feet, and another scene plays. Speaking of cutscenes, none are skippable, which is okay given that the characters don't overindulge by telling you their life stories. Still, the game has lengthy pauses after each completed quest just to pan the camera around Jin and his horse, which grows very repetitive overtime.
Whatever minor blemishes it may have, whether it's some presentation hitches, dull stealth or other design choices, Ghost of Tsushima is still a great title. The impeccable art presents a historical version of Japan with a high level of authenticity and immersion, letting you easily get attached to this island's turmoil and the fight against the invaders. The combat is all around great, and remains satisfying and varied throughout the game's 20+ hour run time. Of course, that time is easily extended by doing plenty of optional quests, with the character and Mythic quests being the more interesting ones. It's not a full-featured RPG, but the elements that are here are well implemented. Ghost of Tsushima is a great title for anyone looking to get immersed in a unique setting, with great combat and a well-designed open world.
A digital code was provided by the publisher for the purposes of this review.