Last June, the good folks at Sony Interactive Entertainment granted me the privilege of early access to Ghost of Tsushima for the purpose of writing a review, and I was thrilled. Having been a longtime fan of samurai and ninja-centric games like Onimusha, Ninja Gaiden, Tenchu, and recently Nioh and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, I was excited to experience what will probably be the last samurai game we’ll be seeing for the PS4.
Like Cyberpunk 2077 and The Last of Us Part II, Ghost of Tsushima is releasing at the tail end of the PS4’s commercial lifespan, and it’s part of the final hurrah before we all move on to the PS5. Looking back, some of the best games of previous PlayStation generations were released at their tail ends too, like Persona 4 for the PS2 and The Last of Us for the PS3, so it might be the expectation of many that Ghost of Tsushima is our season finale of sorts for the PS4 generation.
I myself certainly had that expectation, and adding to that the fact that Ghost of Tsushima categorically falls under my favorite kind of game (the kind in which you jump around and swing a katana at people), it was almost impossible for me to play Ghost of Tsushima expecting nothing less than a masterpiece.
So how well did it stand up to my impossible expectations of it? Was it the masterpiece I had dreamed it would be? Sit back and make yourself comfortable, because this is going to be a long read. Here is my review of Ghost of Tsushima.
Note: I played Ghost of Tsushima on a PS4, which means that I wasn’t able to experience its graphics at full potential through a PS4 Pro, but I can tell you that it looks no less amazing on a regular PS4. All images in this article are courtesy of Sony Interactive Entertainment and Sucker Punch, and were captured on a PS4 Pro.
The plot of Ghost of Tsushima centers on its protagonist, Jin Sakai, the lone heir of the Sakai clan of samurai, and one of the most skilled swordsmen in all of Tsushima, a small island off the western coast of Japan. Jin is also the retainer to his uncle and father figure, Lord Shimura, Tsushima’s jito (地頭, “land steward” or “lord”).
When the Mongols, led by Khotun Khan (the more famous Khan’s lesser-known, fictional cousin) raid Tsushima and decimate its army of samurai, they take Lord Shimura hostage in an attempt to gain his support in raiding Japan’s mainland. Jin, who survives the Mongol onslaught after being rescued by a passing thief named Yuna, enlists the thief’s help in finding a way to rescue Lord Shimura from the Mongols’ encampment.
Outnumbered and ill-equipped, Jin is powerless to face the Mongols in combat as an honorable samurai and realizes that the only way he can fight them is from the shadows through underhanded means that go directly against the code of the samurai. Despite his having been born into samurai royalty, Jin’s desire to protect his uncle and the rest of Tsushima takes precedence over his principles as a samurai, and thus begins his rogue transformation into the vengeful and unpredictable Ghost of Tsushima.
While I can’t reveal much more than that, lest I spoil one too many plot details for you, Jin’s tale of revenge and inner conflict is what emotionally drives the game’s main plot. You can expect some twists and turns along the way, but the story is nothing groundbreaking. That said, the mostly predictable progression of the plot isn’t a bad thing, as it lays the foundation for Ghost of Tsushima’s excellent gameplay. For a game about a samurai who suddenly starts jumping across rooftops and throwing kunai at his enemies, you need a solid, blockbuster-like story to explain such a drastic change in character, and Ghost of Tsushima’s plot serves that purpose well.
The game’s most prevalent theme in both its narrative and gameplay is Jin’s duality. Though he doesn’t get the “Ghost” nickname until a certain event in the story, your earliest encounters with the Mongol invaders serve as tutorial levels for learning to play the game in two ways: as the samurai you’ve always been, and as the Ghost you must become.
Each skill set has its advantages and disadvantages, and you’re free to use either for any enemy encounter at any point in the game, except for stealth missions that require you to sneak past enemies. There’s never an event in the story that makes you choose between the two playstyles, so you can adapt to any situation that might arise during combat.
Playing Ghost of Tsushima like a samurai means facing your opponents head-on, and no combat mechanic captures the essence of samurai combat better than the Standoff. Whenever you encounter a group of enemies from the front, you can challenge them to a Standoff, which is basically the samurai equivalent of two cowboys playing quick-draw at the crack of noon. Your goal is to anticipate your opponent’s attack and counterattack when you find an opening.
Aside from Standoffs, you also have a variety of sword combat stances at your disposal in order to take down specific types of enemies. Breaking enemies’ guards requires you to build up Stagger damage, and using the correct stance for the correct enemy type deals more of it. There are four primary stances in the game, and you start off with only the Stone Stance, which works best against swordsmen. You’ll be able to unlock the other three stances as you progress through the game, so I won’t reveal what they are here because I want you to be able to enjoy acquiring them.
Another important mechanic in playing like a samurai is the parrying system, which works and feels like a mix of the parry system of Sekiro and the counterattack system of Sleeping Dogs. Flashing indicators will sometimes show if you can parry an attack, but most of the time you’ll be parrying without explicit visual cues.
Parrying will give you an edge in battle, and each successful parry grants you Resolve, which is your primary means of healing in the game. It works like a mana gauge that you deplete in order to quickly heal by pressing Up on the D-Pad, and it’s a genius way to implement a healing mechanic in a samurai game. When you find yourself one hit away from death, just grit your teeth and show your resolve, samurai!
At certain parts of the game, you’ll also find how easily you can be overpowered by your enemies when they come at you in groups, and this is where playing as the Ghost becomes the ideal method for effectively clearing out a Mongol camp without risking death. As the Ghost, you’re able to execute silent assassinations, and you have a variety of ranged weapons at your disposal.
Due to several of the game’s Ghost weapons being closely tied to story events that happen after the first act, I’ll refrain from talking about what they are and how they work so I don’t spoil anything for you, but here’s what you can expect. Given that the essence of playing as the Ghost is fighting without honor, it’s all gonna be about attacking from the shadows, facing away from your enemies, and using deadly weapons that are more suited to rogues and bandits than samurai.
Playing as the Ghost is a great way to explore the many different ways you can approach enemy encounters, and not only does it provide more depth to the gameplay, it also strengthens the emotional impact of the game’s plot. Every time you resort to fighting as the Ghost, you end up feeling guilty about betraying the samurai code that Uncle Shimura had spent so many years teaching you, and yet for certain situations, there’s just no way you can win honorably no matter how good you can parry. The Ghost is a necessary evil that you, the player, must carry the burden of.
In Ghost of Tsushima, you’ll be spending a good chunk of your playtime on horseback, exploring Tsushima and coming across many a natural wonder. The island’s rich environments are one of Ghost of Tsushima’s biggest strengths, and they’re a truly amazing feat for video game graphics and environment design. Slowly passing through paddies, fields, and woodlands thick with flora is such an immersive experience that the only reason you’ll ever want to rush through them is wanting to drive the Mongols out of Tsushima as quickly as possible.
Traversing an open world will always require some kind of tracking mechanic, and in Ghost of Tsushima, tracking takes the form of the Guiding Wind. Tracking a location on the map will change the direction of the wind, and you can slide up on the Touch Pad to check where the wind is going. The Guiding Wind is an elegant way to implement tracking in the game without sullying the screen with too many HUD elements, and it’s yet another great idea with great execution in Ghost of Tsushima.
The game’s stunning environments are complemented by the game’s simple, unobtrusive HUD, as well as the cinematic stills that appear at the beginning of every major quest and side quest (or Tales as they’re called in the game). Outside of the game’s cutscenes and environments, certain quests will also treat the player to wonderfully directed and executed cutscenes done in the style of sumi-e. You can also find the same style of art in the game’s loading screens.
Another thing worth noting is that many of the game’s cutscenes, excepting only its major cinematics, are rendered in real-time, meaning cutscenes are delivered with in-game character assets instead of pre-made, pre-rendered clips. It just goes to show how much work was put into character, equipment, and environment design that the game is able to have highly detailed cutscenes with the same assets you see in actual gameplay. As a visual experience, Ghost of Tsushima absolutely delivers.
Now that I’ve sung my praises for Ghost of Tsushima, it’s time that we address the game’s shortcomings. For everything that Ghost of Tsushima does extremely well, there are a few things in the game that feel disproportionately lacking. It makes me wonder how a game evidently made with plenty of care and passion can have such glaring flaws. I take no pleasure in pointing these out, but I am doing so in the hopes that they may be addressed in future updates for the game.
Ghost of Tsushima, unlike so many of the classic samurai video games we’re used to, is made by an American game studio, namely Sucker Punch Productions (known for the Sly Cooper and inFAMOUS games). It’s an outlier in the canon of big-budget samurai games, as most of them were developed by Japanese studios like Koei Tecmo, Capcom, and FromSoftware.
In the years leading up to Ghost of Tsushima’s release after its 2017 announcement, I had held out hope that it wouldn’t matter that it was being made by an American studio. A good game is a good game, no matter where it comes from. And you know what, Ghost of Tsushima is a great game that’s had a lot of research and hard work put into making it an authentic samurai game. So why exactly is everyone speaking in English?
At the start of the game, the player is asked to choose between four game modes: Standard (English audio), Subtitled (English audio with English subtitles), Samurai Cinema (Japanese audio with English subtitles), and Kurosawa Mode, which has Japanese audio, English subtitles, and a filter that modifies the game’s visuals and sounds to emulate the cinema of Akira Kurosawa.
If you choose to play the game with Japanese audio, you’ll quickly find that the characters’ mouths still move in English, and the Japanese audio is just an overdub. It’s frankly ridiculous to me that a game about samurai, set in 13th-century Japan, that received a blessing from the Kurosawa estate for its Kurosawa Mode, is playable with ONLY visibly English-speaking characters. There have been many recent games like Judgment and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild that had dual-audio cutscenes, and they weren’t even about samurai. It is a complete mystery to me why a Kurosawa Mode exists when the characters’ English-speaking mouths don’t even line up with the Japanese dialogue. Imagine watching Seven Samurai but with Toshiro Mifune speaking in English. It just does not work.
Aside from the fact that I couldn’t play the game with Japanese audio and had to switch to English lest the cutscenes become hard to watch, Ghost of Tsushima also has a “Western filter” problem. Most of the characters sound like they’re what Americans imagine samurai to sound like. At times, the game’s dialogue sounds like it’s straight from an episode of Samurai Jack, with lines like “Your father’s spirit resides in the blade”.
There are also several instances in the game’s dialogue where Japanese words are exoticized, with phrases like “May the kami (gods) protect you”, and “If you see anyone bearing this mon (crest), take your life”. It feels as if the game is only Japanese when it wants to be. Another example is how a location called Kushi Temple is referred to by Jin as “Kushidera Temple” in spoken dialogue. The word “Kushidera” already means “Kushi Temple”. Jin basically said “Kushi Temple Temple”. Yet another oversight is a female character being named Masako, despite the fact that the use of the “-ko” suffix in female names in Japan only started in the 1900’s. Ghost of Tsushima is set in 1274.
I cannot stress enough that a lot of work went into creating Ghost of Tsushima, but it’s that very same attention to detail that they’ve shown in the game’s design that makes me wonder why the game falls short in one place when it soars so high in another. Where did all that attention to detail go?
As one of the final high profile releases for the PS4, Ghost of Tsushima is a fun amalgamation of some of the generation’s greatest hits. Roaming around Tsushima on horseback will remind you of The Witcher 3 and Red Dead Redemption 2 while climbing and rappelling your way through vertical obstacles is reminiscent of Assassin’s Creed and the Uncharted series. There’s also a bit of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain and The Last of Us Part II in the game’s stealth and ranged combat mechanics.
Ghost of Tsushima’s individual parts all feel like games you’ve played before, fused together, and set on a small island in feudal Japan. While I can’t ignore the parts where the game feels lacking, there’s enough that the game does well to make it worth checking out, especially for fans of samurai games and open-world adventure games. For all my complaining, I still explored the game’s entire map and finished almost every side quest.
With Ghost of Tsushima, Sucker Punch Productions paints a big, beautiful picture, but it suffers from a few broad strokes. Does that make it any less playable? Nope, but it’s certainly eyebrow-raising for some (including raging weebs like myself). It might not be a perfect game or an overall masterpiece, but as one of the PS4’s last releases, it’s almost poetic in how it recalls so many of the generation’s best games. If you’re looking for one more game to buy before you start saving up for a PS5, Ghost of Tsushima would be a great choice.
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