Ghost of Tsushima is, at its heart, a samurai fantasy. Playing as Jin Sakai, a samurai who has mastered the katana, there will be an expectation to have fun, engaging and exhilarating combat. Chris Zimmerman, the co-founder of Sucker Punch posted about how the team has approached the combat, looking to samurai film for inspiration.
To make a game about being a samurai, the combat needs to be perfect, or the game will falter without this central pillar. However, what works in a movie doesn’t always work for a video game, so the studio started focusing on three things: speed, sharpness and precision.
Zimmerman goes into detail about how human reaction speeds are just too slow, and that slowing down the combat would make it feel stilted and less exciting. In a movie, the choreography means everyone knows what is coming next, making fights look exciting. In real combat, fights end up looking sloppy by comparison, thanks to reaction times.
NPCs can react immediately meaning it is okay for Jin’s attacks to be blisteringly quick. But if the Mongols hit back at that speed, players would be unable to react. So a concession was made: The first attack would have a wind-up or be slightly slower, with the rest of the combo being full speed. Because while our reaction speed has a limit, our ability to anticipate something is much faster.
“If an enemy launches into an attack string, we need to give the player enough time to react to the first attack in the string, but since subsequent attacks can be anticipated, they can happen arbitrarily fast. One of our Mongols uses a five-hit combo, for instance; the first attack is slow enough to react to, but the others happen fast.”
Attacks could also overlap, allowing for combat with multiple foes to feel like a movie scene, with the hero fighting several combatants. “While one enemy attacks, another enemy can be winding up. We tune things so that Jin has barely enough time to deal with each enemy attack as it lands, just like in the samurai movies that inspired us, but there will often be two or even three attackers in the middle of an attack sequence at once.”
This makes fights intense, and captures the feelings of movies like 13 Assassins. “No enemies standing around waiting to be attacked, just unrelenting aggression. That’s great, because we wanted players to be just a little bit nervous about jumping into a fight. Ideally, players leave fights a little bit exhilarated, because that’s how Jin feels. Barely in control, barely alive, but moving forward nonetheless.”
To make sure the katana felt deadly and sharp, enemies couldn’t have too much health. Similarly, Jin falls quickly if he takes blows, making sure he plays by the same rules.
Jin spends as much time defending as he does attacking, and that slows down how quickly he can ladle out damage. And late in development we had success building in more defensive tactics for the Mongols — blocking, parrying, dodging — which sidestepped the damage problem.
For precision, blocking at the right time will convert the hit into a parry, which can be upgraded to allow for perfect parries. Heavy attacks can also be cancelled, letting you react to a situation or changing battlefield. Players will have to be quick to adapt and react, switching stances to deal with specific threats. Fighting a swordsman takes different attacks than defeating a foe with a shield, so Jin will have to adopt new stances and techniques to overcome the military tactics of the Mongol army.