Near the twilight of every generation of PlayStation, there comes a great game that can be considered as the swansong of that console. The game is usually a fair representation of that generation and showcases what the “ageing” hardware is truly capable of. For PlayStation 4, Ghost of Tsushima is that game!
Set in 1274 on Tsushima at the start of the Mongol invasion of Japan, you play as Samurai Jin Sakai, who will do anything to save his people and drive back the invaders. Ghost of Tsushima is an action-adventure game that sees you explore the wonderfully designed and beautiful island of Tsushima.
Welcome to Tsushima, you’re going to be here for a while
From the moment the game starts, you know you’re in for a real visual treat. Ghost of Tsushima looks gorgeous and is probably one of the best-looking games available today. But you don’t realise to what extent you will experience this absolute visual and auditory pleasure over the next couple of dozens of hours. The world you find yourself in, especially once you actually start to explore it after the initial introduction to the game, feels so organic and full of life. And so much colour! From autumn leaves in a forest to the green fields of grass, everything just looks amazing, and no amount of screenshots will ever do it justice.
The main reason for this is that everything moves. The wind, which is a major component to the game’s exploration, is always moving and blowing, and that movement of the environment makes it feel alive and that is what makes it so great. This coupled with fantastic sound design and you have a game world that is one of the best to explore. Ghost of Tsushima’s Photomode is of the best I’ve seen in a video game. You bring up with a simple press of a button, and everything except the environment freezes. It looks so cool if you pause the action, but the grass, cloth and particle effects are still blowing in the wind. You can then save a video clip of the “picture” and convert it into a Gif which you can share. It’s a great feature and I cannot wait to see what more creative people than myself come up with.
There’s also the much talked about and fantastic Kurosawa mode, which gives the game an old 1950s look and feel inspired by legendary Japanese filmmaker, Akira Kurosawa. It gives Ghost of Tsushima a very drastic look and feel, and even the slight microphone interference you might expect in one of these old Samurai movies on which the game draws so many inspirations from. It’s a great touch, but beyond checking it out and maybe using it in photomode, it really is a bit limited seeing as you rob yourself of the explosion of wonderful colours the world has, and it makes combat, which has some visual tells, rather challenging.
Let the wind guide you
While Ghost of Tsushima is an open-world game full of open-world things, exploring it is rather different than what you might be used to. Where in other games, we can set a waypoint to a location and have an indicator on your screen showing where to go, here that doesn’t happen. Sure, you can mark locations on your map, but nothing shows you where to go. Instead, you follow the Guiding Wind which with a simple up swipe on the DualShock controller’s touchpad will show you where to go with a gust of wind.
Everything about exploration and the way the game is designed is incredibly well thought out and you should really stop using the map and just let the wind and nature be your guide. You can always see something on the horizon, whether it is the black smoke of an enemy encampment or the white wisps of incense being burned near a point of interest. And nature itself guides you as well. You might happen upon a golden tree where a fox will wait for you to show you to a shrine, or a little bird will sing and guide you to an NPC who needs your help or a different point of interest. There are no towers to climb to reveal the map and get a ton of question marks, but rather a more natural way of a normal man exploring the island of Tsushima, and it feels both refreshing and amazing.
The incredible gameplay mechanics isn’t just what makes the exploration so wonderful, but everything else in the game just makes sense. When you reach your Point of interest or the place you decided to check out, it’s not always just a collectable, or something that improves you, but rather something or a mini-game you need to do in order to gain some strength. Want to improve your resolve? Strike through some bamboo cleanly with your sword. Want to increase your health? Reflect on life while soaking in a hot spring. It’s subtle and doesn’t take long, but it allows the game and progression to feel more natural and real.
In terms of combat, you essentially have two approaches, taking your enemies head-on like an honourable Samurai or being more deceptive and stabbing them in the back.
When in full-blown combat, you need to learn to block and parry, then strike when the opportunity opens itself. You get different stances, which you learn along your journey, and certain stances are more effective against specific types of enemies. While you can stay in one stance and fight all of them, learning to switch between them becomes second nature as you might have some spears, shields and swords to contend with at the same time. Jin Sakai is deadly and can dispatch his foes very quickly but can also quickly run out of health and die if you’re not careful. It always remains challenging, but not to the extent of being frustrating, it simply keeps you focused. What’s also clever is how enemies ramp up in skill rather than hit points. I found myself getting very proficient at parries and perfect parries and slaying my enemies with the greatest of ease, only to progress the story and finding them becoming more of a challenge, meaning my timing and skills had to improve. It’s subtle, but very well designed.
Jin, being the honourable Samurai that he is, can challenge any enemy he comes across in a stand-off in a game of who blinks first. Time it right and you get a very satisfying instant kill with the possibility to stun any nearby foes to open them up for a follow-up, get it wrong and you end up with a serious disadvantage and severely depleted health. Here is where the subtle game mechanics are once again brought in that is so cleverly incorporated into something that makes sense. When Jin’s health drops too low, he can call on his resolve to heal himself. He gains resolve by defeating his enemies or doing certain actions in combat.
You also have the option to sneak around as the Ghost if you want to be less honourable. You have a lot of skills and tools at your disposal, and even though the AI is a little stupid, it works well and is very satisfying to do. Nothing here hasn’t been seen or done before though, so expect to sneak on the rooftops, or in the tall pampas grass as you go about your business of stabbing unsuspecting Mongols in the back. It’s not perfect and expecting anything new here would be asking a bit much, but the stealth is well designed and does the job. It’s also rather contained, so even if you mess up the stealth, you don’t suddenly have the entire enemy stronghold on you, but rather have a chance to fight the enemies in your immediate vicinity, dispatch them and return to your sneaky ways. The lack of a harsh penalty here or instant fail (with the exception of a few sequences) does make it more fun and worth experimenting with all the tools at your disposal.
Clothes maketh the man, and in this game it will have some interesting effects on gameplay, depending on what you’re wearing. Samurai armour gives you more protection in combat, while clothes worn by the Ronin might give you some stealth perks. It’s also worth wearing the Traveller’s attire while roaming the countryside, as this will clear more of the map as you go, and the controller will vibrate as you approach a hidden collectable. It’s a nice touch, but it can be a bit tedious to swap out the outfits depending on what you’re doing.
An island of Tales
The story of Ghost of Tsushima isn’t the most complex one ever told, but it is a good one none the least. It is basically about Jin Sakai and his journey to save his people. He’s not doing it alone though, and along the way he meets some interesting and well-written characters, all impacted by the war that came with the Mongol invasion. Jin himself can come across as a flat, but that I believe is done intentionally both because of him being a Samurai and for character development. There’s no missions or quests, but rather what is called Tales. It is the same thing, but it’s presented in a way that gives everything, including a simple side quest, some meaning and purpose. The game also managed to tell a story through its environments, which is something I can always appreciate since not everything has to be explicitly said, allowing some things to be seen or experienced.
If there’s a bit of criticism I might want to level at Ghost of Tsushima, it is that it can start to feel a bit like busywork, but it thankfully stops short of becoming a chore. Sucker Punch also manages to keep you entertained by introducing news mechanics and systems deep into the gameplay progression, so that helps a lot in keeping things fresh and entertaining. Also, inventory management, especially on equipment being used can become a bit cumbersome and having a favourites shortcut, and the ability to maybe put on and remove masks would have been nice, but I am nit-picking a bit.
Taking it slow
The island of Tsushima feels alive with so many things to see and experience, and a lot of interesting and awesome moments that I won’t dare mention here, as I truly believe it should be discovered for yourself. It’s ironic that the game has one of the best fast travel systems seen in a game with almost no loading times, but it’s also a game that you don’t want to use fast travel at all, and soak things in while on horseback.
The story of Jin Sakai and his journey into what he becomes in order to save his world and his people is a simple one that anybody can enjoy, and because of the way it is told, you cannot help but get invested in the world and fall in love with it. Ghost of Tsushima is not only one of the best games you will play this year, but one of the best you will play this generation!