Ghost Of Tsushima Review – Slick Samurai Action Wrapped In A Wonderful Open World
The PS4 is making its way for the PS5 later this year, and Ghost Of Tsushima is the final Sony first-party exclusive for the outgoing console.
Sucker Punch has gone a completely new direction with their new game. You can trace the platforming heritage the developers have from Sly Cooper to the open-world superpower romp Infamous. Ghost Of Tsushima, on the other hand, is a more straightforward open-world action game with a strong inspiration from samurai cinema.
As an open-world action game, it is brilliantly crafted. A breath of fresh air from the awfully stagnant genre, with an enjoyable tint of a cinematic experience that helps cover up some of its teething issues.
Set in the late 13th century, the Mongols’ conquest campaign has brought them to the island of Tsushima, Japan. Eighty samurai fought the first wave of invaders, most of them lie dead.
The samurai Jin Sakai, nephew of the jito Lord Shimura, miraculously survives the massacre. Now he embarks on a campaign to retake his homeland from the invaders. By any means necessary.
Tsushima Island is lush and picturesque, with so many beautiful sights to behold. The opening region of Izuhara is filled with colourful trees and majestically sharp cliffs, in contrast to the plains of Toyotama, home of marshes and low rolling hills covered in flowers and paddy fields. Sucker Punch has crafted a majestic open world that’s a feast for the eyes.
Well, maybe not so much on a base PS4. It’s easy to see blemishes like low-res textures, jagged edges and oh-so-many clothing clipping when compared to the slick and polished State Of Play gameplay presentation. There are major, noticeable frame rate drops during the most hectic of battles on the base PS4.
Also, don’t be fooled with the overly detailed character models that sweats and has detailed facial gestures with believable emotion. Those are indeed rendered in-game, and are done sublimely well but are definitely cinematic-only models that are way more detailed than what’s use in normal gameplay.
An Ode To Samurai Cinema
But where it lacks in technical fidelity in some parts, it makes it up with an amazing aesthetic choice. Weather plays a large part in building the right ambience. Pair that with beautiful dynamic lighting, it makes the open world, despite literal rough edges, still look breathtaking. The game has photo mode on launch, and those who love snapping screenshots are in for a treat.
Sucker Punch also went all the way with the particle effects. Leaves blowing through the wind and the many glowing fireflies in the night air are obviously exaggerated, but man it feels nice to see.
Ghost Of Tsushima’s choice aesthetic is, of course, emulating samurai cinema. I notice many of the cinematic camera angles are taken from afar minimalising the dreaded shot, reverse-shot usually seen in some games- (ahem, Horizon Zero Dawn). And probably avoiding close shots where the awful lip-syncing (especially if you opt for Japanese audio) can be seen.
Also, you can bet when a duel begins the camera pans out to have the two fighters side by side with some dramatic backdrop at the back. The places where you engage in duel always have some gorgeous backdrop to it as if it’s a fighting game stage. Think of that last boss area in Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, but that sort of ambience applies to many of the duel arenas you’ll encounter in Ghost Of Tsushima.
The soundtrack perfectly captures the spirit and time period of the game’s setting. It only hums and chimes a bit in the lull hours of you exploring the island. Clear, distinct stinger beats plays when you discover a specific location type. Epic beatings of the taiko drums and other high-intensity scores are reserved for the biggest (and most emotional) of battles. The previously mentioned duels begin with the loud, deafening sound of silence.
You can even go all the way and play the game in black-and-white filter with a light touch of film grain, which is boldly called Kurosawa Mode. As many pointed out on social media before, I don’t think the filter captures the aesthetic of Akira Kurosawa’s films well enough- the films have sharper black and white contrast while this filter greys out the vibrant colours that make the game look great in the first place. I don’t really like it, but it is an option you can toggle.
What I do like is the Japanese audio. It just feels oh-so-right to hear Jin with more grit. His Japanese voice has a bit more gravitas you’d expect from a noble samurai.
Not to say the English audio is bad- I tried it and it’s perfectly fine, with characters saying Japanese words with Japanese accents as they should. I just prefer the Japanese audio. And if you are too, you’re in for a treat. Just.. don’t pay attention to the odd lip-syncing that don’t quite match up sometimes.
There are so many Sony first-party titles that are open-world. Yet it’s more than just “Assassins’ Creed Japan”, though that is an apt description.
For one thing, Sucker Punch made the welcoming choice of having no tower points where you can scan and the area have the world map littered with too many icons. The game purposefully obfuscates those icons to avoid you roaming the map just to tick a checkbox.
The world map is a giant fog of war with barely any icons until you go out and find those points of interest yourself. Go explore the world on foot or on horseback at your own pace.
There is no mini-map, or even a compass on the HUD. In fact, the HUD is usually absent during exploration. And there’s no need of them. What you get instead is the guiding wind.
Where The Wild Wind Blows
The guiding wind is essentially a waypoint line. Like the one used in The Division 2 or The Crew. But instead of being a HUD element, it’s part of the world. You set a waypoint (either a pin on the world map, or to a location you discovered) and then follow where the wind blows. See where the flowers and trees bend, or the direction the cape at your back flies.
Flick up on the touchpad and it blows again, should you need to reorient yourself again. Or do it just see the particle effects work its magic again, why not.
What makes this great is that you’ll be spending more time looking at beautifully crafted landscapes while on the way to your location rather than be detached by looking exclusively at one corner of the screen.
While the wind guides you to a general area, there are many other hints that will pinpoint you to the actual points of interest. Speaking to the commoners will reveal a rumoured location, marked on the map. Hot springs emit steam that can be seen from afar or from a high vantage. Smoke burns from campfire in a Mongol camp. Majestic views surrounding a small resting place with a flock of birds hovering above it shows you a great spot to compose a haiku – one of the best collectables in the game. Fox dens have you trail a fox to an Inari shrine. Torii gates lead you to Shinto shrines.
And there are golden birds, which will point to a few of the above, quest spots and other secrets.
The golden bird sometimes works, but it really struggles with pointing you to something that’s indoors. Sometimes the poor birb is stuck at walls. Though they serve their function more often than not. It will take time to get used to them, but once you know where to look at, the golden birds will usually steal your attention from whatever you are doing to discover something else. Maybe there’s a cool straw hat you can pick up and make Jin look more like a wandering ronin?
The open-world and exploration mechanics are smartly designed. Ghost Of Tsushima invites you to be immersed into the TV screen, as it rewards your eyes with not only the natural beauty of the open world, but for following where the many in-world signposts lead you. It’s brilliant and well-executed. This should be a thing other open-world games should do- let players see and explore the world with their eyes and using the game mechanics, not by staring at a mini-map.
Moving around the island feels frictionless. Jin moves at a brisk pace, and even with some inertia to the controls he is responsive to movement. There is ledge jumping and scaling ala Uncharted where you move in the right direction to progress.
And despite the many cliffs and hills around the island, there is enough ledges of this kind to let you scale up and down the walls easily. Jin can also jump and climb on buildings. A bit limited since there isn’t that many high-rise buildings, but rooftop and rock edges you expect can be climbed on, can be climbed on. No complaints on the movement and platforming here, it’s done well, as you’d expect from this developer.
Live By The Blade
Jin, the last of the samurai clan Sakai, fights primarily with his katana. In the prologue, sword hits are hard-hitting and swift. It feels so good to slay the Mongols, with blood splattering all over the battlefield. But as you would expect, Jin starts with nothing when the game begins proper and you’ll need to upgrade and acquire most of your moveset over time.
Like a dignified samurai, you can start a fight by challenging enemies to a standoff. Think of it like cowboy duels, the first to counter-blink gets the kill. It’s a simple mechanic that becomes harder over time (enemies will feint an attack to bait you to strike first- which will lose you almost all of your health). And it never gets old.
The swordplay, once you have enough moves and upgrade the sword enough times, is intense and rewards precision. Enemies don’t wait patiently in a conga line waiting their turn to strike. If there’s an opening, say, while you’re parrying an attack, another enemy will happily try and stab you in the back.
Making every hit count means you get to kill enemies faster. And you need to kill them fast because they can easily overwhelm you.
There are enough enemy variety that should keep you on your toes every battle. Some of the Mongols fight with swords, some have shields and spears that require a different sword stance to effectively take them out. Archers will hang back and slowly pick you off- each time shouting out a call for their allies to duck down.
Jin can dodge and do perfect parries as his defence options. And healing uses “resolve”, which behaves like a more lenient Dark Souls Estus Flask that is filled up by killing enemies.
Die By The Blade
The only problem I have with the core swordplay is that the camera requires manual adjusting. I have a feeling it’s a deliberate design choice. Having you reorient the camera once in a while- taking the thumb of the face buttons where all the attacks are- means you need to be calculative in where you attack. Don’t button mash your way out of it.
However, the camera couldn’t keep up with framing Jin and the enemy he’s attacking. Imagine you’re mid-combo, but the camera awkwardly blocks your view of the two. And that opens up to an opportunity for another guy to backstab you. That sucks. Especially when there’s a wall or tree nearby that can block the view. I don’t mind if it’s a design decision, but maybe it can use some tweaking, just a bit so you don’t have to babysit the camera that much.
The camera absolutely works during the aforementioned duels. These are one-on-one fights where you are locked to only your use of the katana. It is fun trying to learn their attack patterns and strike, parry or dodge at the most optimal time. Each fight has multiple phases, as you’d expect, the attack patterns change. The camera is much closer to the ground, and definitely kept the one enemy you are facing in focus, which is nice.
Early in the game, being overwhelmed by the enemy will be a running theme. You think it’s possible to fight fair and square, but you will be overwhelmed by sheer numbers most of the time, and you can’t kill them fast enough. You’ll need something else to even the odds.
Fight Like A Coward
Jin realises his strict samurai code isn’t going to defeat the Mongol forces, who have not only learned their language but also learn the way of the samurai (and how to exploit it). In order to free Tsushima, he slowly adopted stealth and subterfuge. Dirty tactics that are against the samurai code of honour.
This is all story context for what is basically the gameplay option of direct combat versus stealth. We’ve seen this dichotomy before. But I love how in this context of late 13th century Japan, sneakily stabbing people in the back is taboo- especially for honour-bound samurai. It makes for an interesting story point. You will see Jin slowly becoming “The Ghost”.
Also, no, there is no morality system here. You’re free to use all the tools you can unlock, unlike Infamous.
Over time, Jin will have access to more stealth moves and Ghost Weapons. These ranges from quick-throw kunais to wind chimes to lure enemies away, or toward you. In intense fights, throwing quick-fire Ghost weapons gives you a bit of crowd control, and it’s a great utility tool to keep you in a fight. Unless you’re super efficient with the sword and bow.
Stealth comes into play when taking over Mongol-controlled territory. These are the outposts need clearing in Ghost Of Tsushima. There is some neat ideas brought in here to set it apart. You can crawl under some buildings and squeeze through gaps. Outposts are elaborately designed with clever enemy placements that should stop you from easily cheesing the encounter. Not to say it’s impossible to just sit still and shoot arrows from one location to clear it, but it’s not the optimal strategy.
Enemies are crafty too when they know you are lurking. When the Mongols are alerted of your presence (most likely because they saw dead bodies) they will patrol areas in pairs, with their backs against each other. A neat touch. But early on, this is a nuisance.
It’s a running theme in Ghost Of Tsushima. Not only your legend grows, so to your arsenal of moveset and skills. But the best part is that enemies will begin to cower in fear over you. This is a slow-building power fantasy that starts you utterly weak and slowly makes you over-power. To the point that enemies can tremble and cower in fear of witnessing The Ghost, in all of his over-powered glory, in the late game.
Action Game, Not RPG
Ghost Of Tsushima is more of an open-world action game rather than an open-world RPG. For one reason: the game really tries to obfuscate damage numbers. Health is only represented as that bar in the lower-left corner of the screen. Most of the item description uses “minor”, “major”, “moderate” and other similar modifiers instead of proper numbers. There is percentage numbers, but that’s it.
There are charms which lets you put different passive buffs, so there is room to build Jin with specific playstyles in mind. You can gain different outfits- the main clothing grants different buffs but the rest are all cosmetic. There is room for making different builds for specific playstyles, but you’re not min-maxing numbers like a proper RPG.
There is crafting and an upgrade system, but there are relatively streamlined and linear. There’s only three tier of resources for upgrading the sword, bow and armour. And another three currencies used for general upgrades (supplies), new cosmetics and clothing colour (flower) and ammo pouch upgrades (predator hides). They are sparsely littered around. And you’ll attain enough resources from just playing the game normally.
For example, there is only that one sword Jin will be using. But it can be upgraded multiple times, but there’s no choice of upgrades to choose here.
There are multiple skill trees, with technique points unlocked for increasing your legend (like XP and levels, but there are no numbers). Obviously, you can make decisions on how to spec Jin in this regard, but play long enough and you can gain all the skills.
So if you want to compare it with Assassins’ Creed, it’s more like the games before they went full RPG with Origins. And I prefer it that way- your time will be less spent on menus and more in the world itself.
Ghost Of Tsushima is long. It’s an epic journey. I emerged out of the first act after 17 hours. And the credits only roll after the 50-hour mark for me. I say for completionists, add another 10 hours to see and do everything to see in Ghost Of Tsushima.
Most of the content is front-loaded. As in, you will only see that many things to discover in the first act. Later acts have less side content to go through. The way all the main quests are placed makes you have to explore the island. And hopefully get distracted on the way with cool discoveries and side content. It happened to me, hence the 17 hours spent in the early part of the game. I blame those golden birds.
I can’t stress enough how amazing the move to not reveal every single activity on the world map so easily. But when you’ve trailed the 9th fox, wrote the 10th haiku, and see Jin’s well-sculpted buttocks as he enters a hot spring for too many times, it will eventually get repetitive. Either these activities need some more gameplay variety, or they need to be culled in numbers. Be careful to not get burned out too early for too much exploring.
But there are activities that do get the level of variety right. Platforming sequence to climb to Shinto shrines are usually engaging just because the layout is different every time. Likewise to the aforementioned Mongol-occupied territories.
The story is good. It’s a tale of revenge, of being a loner and a battle of differing ideals (pragmatism to face a new threat versus honouring and continuing a dying tradition). It doesn’t try to make bold narratives, but the tales it’s telling is well told and worth seeing to the end. And the game length makes it more natural seeing Jin slowly becoming The Ghost.
The many sidequests help flesh out the world and see how the common folk see the world, but can be repetitive. The tales of Jin’s allies (missions marked with character portraits in the menu) and mythic tales (missions based on legends told by the musician) are worth your time. The gameplay rewards are great too, but so are the story beats surrounding them.
I have played various open-world games before, not because I like the genre. Rather, I love the thrill of exploring the unknown, while having a high tolerance for the many formulaic “open-world-isms” this genre is suffering from.
The fact that Ghost Of Tsushima deliberately hide the activities and collectables from the map and have you stare at the beautiful world more is such a brilliant breakaway from the usual formula. It’s an inspired move to evolve this stale and stagnant genre.
While I feel a conflicted and in someways guilty of enjoying Sony’s last open-world game Days Gone, that’s not the case for Ghost Of Tsushima. This game is not only more competent, but in more ways much more appealing and easier to recommend.
Medieval Japan may be cliche, but that hasn’t stopped it being a compelling setting. The ferocious swordplay that demands swift moves and composure is amazing when it clicks with you. The stealth aspects feels fresh enough from its genre stablemates that it stands out still. The cinematic flairs in duels, and the beautiful world left for you to discover on your own kept me playing for hours end.
Plus points for having a seamless photo mode with settings galore on launch. It’s a treat to mess around with. But minus just a bit for not putting invert camera axis options on the otherwise well-made initial start screen. Though that’s just a minor gripe.
That said, this is still based on the familiar open-world game formula that may be a bit bloated for some to stomach. Understandably so. I enjoy my time on Tsushima for the reasons above. But if it all sounds too samey and not worth your money or time, I won’t blame you.
Also, I haven’t really watched any of the samurai movies Ghost is inspired from. And my knowledge of Japanese language and culture is minimal. From my perspective, they’ve done a great job (I really love the create-your-own-haiku collectable). But you may need to seek other critics who are more knowledgeable in this regard to see what they have to say. To a normal, mainstream audience like myself, I love the setting and story.
Ghost Of Tsushima brings new ideas to an otherwise stale genre of open-world games. This love letter to samurai cinema should bring new fans to appreciate the movie genre, but despite the innovations, won’t change the minds of those who don’t like open-world games in general.
That said, it’s a good open-world action game that you can get lost for hours on end. With a reverence to its inspiration showcased in great style.
Sucker Punch’s latest ends the PS4’s first-party exclusive games on a high note.
Played on the base PS4. Review copy provided by PlayStation Asia