I must’ve been around 6 when I discovered what a samurai was. From then on, I thought how cool the samurai were as my biggest exposure included Samurai Pizza Cats and TMNT III, which seemed to be the best example of the Japanese culture at that age. As I got older, I met friends who introduced me to the cinema, crushing any trivia night we would attend. So, we eventually stumbled across famed director Akira Kurosawa, and the world of Seven Samurai, Yojimbo and Ran.
It’s been a long road for Ghost of Tsushima, Sucker Punch Productions’ first game in six years. An initial reveal at Paris Games Week, the game came with a level of secrecy, with a gameplay reveal culminating only in May of this year during the State of Play. After spending the last few weeks with Ghost of Tsushima, I’m happy to reveal that while the gameplay excels in many ways, the story of Jin Sakai takes forever to deliver anything satisfying.
Through several acts, we see the beginning of the Mongol Invasion, what proceeds the failed attempt from the samurai to quell the foreign enemy, and how the guerilla forces plan to take the island back. It’s a slow burn the attempts to imitate a Kurosawa film but fails to deliver something as satisfying. To be fair, while imitation is a sincere form of flattery, I wonder whether this is a game that should’ve done something else with the narrative, it didn’t resonate with me as I had hoped it would. But thankfully, the combat makes up for it in spades thanks to how well the mechanics work.
Be like Water
A lot of the mechanics mesh together, creating loops that flow like water. We’ve seen the Guiding Wind mechanic which sees Jin, cast a leaf to the wind and point him in the right direction. According to Nate Fox, this pays homage to a scene in Yojimbo. And it’s one of the better iterations of the waypoint mechanic we’ve seen in video games because it feels like such a natural way to give players answers. It also adds a level of immersion into the fantasy of being a samurai.
And that’s what I spent a lot of time as Jin doing. Exploring the island of Tsushima is rewarding and Sucker Punch caters to that fantasy in an authentic way. Each section of the island rewards players while exploring with many hidden secrets tucked away. Fox dens offer hidden shrines that unlock charms for Jin, birds lead Jin to hot water springs spread out across the island and places for meditation. Jin writes haikus to internally inflect his situation, and these quiet moments are some of my favourite optional objectives.
That traversal mechanic always leads to something exciting, be it a duel or a Mongol camp that needs to be removed. As the game begins, the protagonist Jin Sakai is one of the samurai protecting Tsushima island, which is located halfway between Japan and Korea. As the Mongols invade the territory, they are ravaging the land, stealing food, resources, and acquiring slaves. Unable to fend off the invading forces, the samurai are effectively decimated, leaving Tsushima vulnerable. Jin being the only survivor of the samurai means the traditions of his ancestors now live and die with him.
A strong will can even pierce stone
Sucker Punch offers two schools of combat in Ghost of Tsushima. Since Jin is a samurai and they are known for being noble, you start off believing in the traditions of the samurai. However, because the invading Mongols use tactics unknown to him, Jin must become a ghost, striking his enemies down with new techniques and weapons. And the thing I enjoyed about seeing this transformation is that working in the dark goes against everything Jin knows as a samurai, he was taught to be noble and to treat his enemies with respect.
As a samurai, attacks must be quick, precise, and lethal. As the Ghost, you strike quickly and let no know you were there. There’s a fine balance between the two schools that serve a narrative purpose as much as gameplay purpose. Parrying plays a huge part in the battle, going so far as to remind me in last year’s Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. Jin is an excellent warrior and commands the enemies in front of him by his actions. You can counter from a parry with the right timing, and these are often deadly one-hit kills that drop the opponent to their knees.
From there, Jin also deals with several enemy types, each one a challenge to Jin. Over the course of the game, Jin learns four different stances that focus on an enemy type, with the first being Stone and then Water. Stone is a traditional samurai stance that word against Mongol swordsmen, while Water is something Jin picks up after watching the Mongol commanders train, focusing on the Mongol shields men.
Combat is thoughtful and seemingly fluid in the right player’s hands. Jin also has access to several supplemental pieces of gear including a short bow, smoke bombs, sticky bombs, and kunai. The way each item compliments each other in battle is a testament to the thoughtfulness the development team used when developing the game.
I also found out the hard way how difficult enemies can be when they decide to team up, which if you’re not careful, leads to death. At the start of the game, I wasn’t exactly fond of the battle system in Ghost of Tsushima, however, as I grew stronger, had some patience in battle, and learned how systems played together, I came to love confrontations against the Mongols. Also, in battle and through his action, Jin gains Resolve, which is used to health him at the press of a button and also to execute powerful moves in battle.
Know your enemy, know his sword
As Jin slowly reclaims the island of Tsushima, customization opens up to him. Alongside his armour, Jin has several outfits, some even offering wearable bonuses that can be upgraded. Not only that but by collecting glowers, you can dye your clothing in the villages found all over the island. Weapons are upgraded by collection iron and supplies, bows with wood and so on.
Tales of Tsushima offers a different take on standard sidequests. Serving as an anthology of stories, Jin helps the inhabitants of Tsushima in quests that deliver something of substance. Each story introduces a lot of the characters that help push Jin forward and while some are wonderful, others don’t resonate with me how I hoped.
That said, completing these rewards the player with exciting gear so makes sure to follow the storylines to earn some of the most exciting gear. I do like how the Tales of Tsushima offer side characters their moments to shine when you commit to a side quest, we see these characters moving forward in their own journeys. In some cases, not all those who meet our hero Jin, go down the right paths, but we see how the Mongol invasion impacts them, good or bad.
However, the most crucial thing Jin owns next to his sword is the charms he wears. By discovering Fox Dens and following these messengers to hidden shrines, Jin unlocks new charm slots. In total, Jin is able to equip several charms, mainly two major charms and five minor charms. One might allow Jin to gain Resolve faster, while another adds makes Ghost weapons more lethal. You’re free to mix and match to customize Jin to your playstyle and there’s a ton of freedom thanks to the various charms and their active and passive bonuses.
For those who dabble in Photo Mode, there’s a wealth of content available to you to create picture-perfect scenes throughout the course of the game. Various filters including a few that emulate classical samurai films are available day one, and also shutter speeds, wind direction, particle types, time of day and weather. It’s fully customizable to the player and offers a lot of tools to capture those chaotic moments in battle, or those quiet moments while playing the flute on horseback.
And you’ll want to stop and take photos almost constantly because Sucker Punch has created a picturesque island full of wonder. Regardless of where you are on the island, there’s something that catches your attention. Be it a shrine overlooking a waterfall, a field full of purple flowers, or one of the small villages you visit, its hard not to stop and take in the view. Climbing a mountain to look at the landscape, riding on horseback in the luscious green forest or sprinting across the beach towards a camp.
Ghost of Tsushima is the biggest game yet from Sucker Punch and it’s their most impressive game to date. While I didn’t appreciate the story as much as I wanted to, the combat, the characters, the island of Tsushima offer enough to make up for it. Combat is fast, chaotic, and satisfying. Stealth is as good as combat thanks to the tools Jin uses to push back the Mongols from his home and following the Guiding Wind often leads to something worth riding to. This is Sucker Punch’s most ambitious game by far and as the curtain closes on PlayStation 4, it is a fitting way to close out the 8th generation of consoles.
[A copy of the game was provided by the publisher for review purposes.]