As we enter the sunset of what is to be the PlayStation 4 era, it is inevitable that fans would want what is arguably the game console of a generation to go out with a bang. Following the stellar performances of first-party exclusives like The Last of Us Part II and God of War, it is now Sucker Punch Productions’ turn at the bat with Ghost of Tsushima.
An action-adventure epic that brings gamers back to Tsushima island in the 1270s, it is against this backdrop that we are introduced to Jin Sakai, the culture of the samurai, and the unrelenting aggressiveness of the Mongol invaders. Right from the off, it is a clash of polar opposites.
It is clear this is a force that the Japanese samurai has never encountered – brutal, zealous, and most of all, willing to win at all costs. As the first samurai is sent to challenge the leader of the Mongols, Khotun Khan, to a duel, he is unceremoniously cut down and set on fire. Such disdain for the traditions of honourable combat sets the stage for the rebirth of Jin Sakai as the titular Ghost of Tsushima if he is to win this war.
Having been born and bred on this island, Jin is the perfect tool in which to exact revenge on the Mongols. As a samurai, he has been schooled in the way of tradition and discipline. Yet, it is the rigid adherence to such values that have brought about their decimation at the hands of their oppressors. And just as players are taught new ways of fighting as the Ghost, so does Jin as a character.
This examination of duality is reflected throughout the 30-40 hour journey that takes you across Tsushima. From struggling to abandon his values to fully embracing the gifts at his disposal, Jin Sakai evolves from one of the few remaining samurai into a whirlwind of destruction, fear, and intimidation.
Aided on his journey by allies and hunted down at every corner by his enemies, the people on Tsushima do more than their fair share at being great characters. Jin Sakai’s growth and development is driven by player agency, yet, he remains his own person, growing out of naivety into one who can shoulder the heaviest of responsibilities.
The thieving archer Yuna is instrumental to Jin’s survival, and is an invaluable ally in helping to establish the Ghost. Lord Shimura, Jin’s uncle, is a constant reminder of the samurai traditions, honourable in his own right, yet curiously lacking the wherewithal to understand the need for change. Khotun Khan is fearsome and commanding, and as the villain to the entire Ghost of Tsushima experience, has plenty of grandstanding moments and decisive actions.
People on both sides of the conflict, be it the Japanese or the Mongols, are distinct and enliven your adventures. You will witness rebellious townsfolk, invaders run amok, scared people, and opportunistic rogues, all trying to make it another day amongst burned down houses, settlements, and even corpses. War is never pretty, and Ghost of Tsushima delivers that excellently.
The people of Ghost of Tsushima help to tell a story that is captivating from start to end. Through them, you will learn about how actions have far-reaching consequences, the need for sacrifice, and the extent to which people will go just to survive the horrors of war. These constant reminders of working towards something bigger than oneself makes Ghost of Tsushima one of the most interesting narratives in 2020.
Speaking of Tales, there are plenty of activities you can get yourself into throughout the three large regions that make up Tsushima island. While you can barrel through the main story content and work towards your revenge, this is a gigantic world rife with opportunities.
Ghost of Tsushima eschews a traditional waypoint system that points you towards an objective. Rather, the world itself acts as a signpost, directing your attention at the nearest point of interest. Sure, you can drop a pin on the map and let the wind guide you, but pay attention and you will see plenty along the way.
Smokestacks can mean a settlement in need of help, flocks of birds will guide you towards a peaceful spot to compose a haiku, or stumble onto a mystical fox den that can lead you to an Inari shrine. There is simply so much to do, and so much to see in this world.
A particular favourite activity of ours is finding torii gates that will lead to Shinto shrines found around the island. While praying at one of these shrines will grant you a charm, it is the journey that you make that is satisfying to experience. It is never a straightforward affair of climbing some stairs.
You could be swinging between chasms, making death-defying leaps, or figuring the best way to climb up a cliff before you reach your goal. Best of all, the view at the top is always staggering and breathtaking.
There are resources to collect in order to upgrade your gear, hidden collectables that grant both rewards and lore, lighthouses to light, hot springs to enjoy, and bamboo strikes to complete. The rarer Mythic Tales speak of legends of old, which hides some of the best rewards in the game. It is highly recommended to get these done as soon as you can.
Each of these side activities provides some gameplay bonuses should you seek them out, and will make your time in Ghost of Tsushima easier. However, you can also just ignore them and grind it out, the world is your oyster.
And what a gorgeous oyster it turned out to be. Ghost of Tsushima is a strikingly beautiful game, and Sucker Punch has done a fantastic job at imbuing a sense of wonder and spirituality into almost every facet of the world. From the guiding wind to the wildlife that inhabits the island, there are many moments where you will want to just sit back and admire the scene before you.
Galloping deer, rampaging bears, and wild boars can be seen going about their business. Spot a golden bird and follow it as it reveals secrets of the island, the aforementioned foxes and flocks of birds have their own treasures to share, and the fireflies that light up the night are just wonderful.
Add them to the lush greenery you will find at every turn in Ghost of Tsushima and it becomes a masterful painting come to life. This is one game that demands a Photo Mode, and thankfully, Sucker Punch has provided one with great features to help you capture those memorable moments. The bonus of having animated environments in the mode will certainly give birth to amazing GIFs.
Of course, the bulk of Ghost of Tsushima is all about action. Taking back your island from the Mongols will require the spilling of blood, and there is plenty of that going around. The Mongols have taken over many important settlements, camps, and towns, and have roving patrols to keep the people in check.
The fallout from the invasion has also led to the emergence of bandits and other ne’er-do-wells, taking advantage of the unrest and pillaging unprotected areas of the island. For peace to reign on Tsushima, such intrusions are unacceptable.
How appropriate then, to have most of these problems solved with a swing of the katana. As a trained samurai, Jin is no stranger to the blade. In fact, he is a formidable force. However, to master the blade, samurai are taught to control their emotions, tempered with patience and discipline.
That is a lesson players must learn as well, for recklessness will cost you dearly. Observing your opponents and picking the right moments to strike with the right tool will keep you alive to fight another day. As the story dictates, it is often Jin going up against overwhelming numbers, and mastering how to fight is key to that.
Connecting with your katana is only the first step, as enemies are smart enough to dodge and block your attacks. As you complete more Tales, explore the island, and grow your legend as the Ghost, your repertoire of skills will only get larger and more specialised.
At the start, you may only be parrying strikes and countering your enemies. Engaging in proper offence and defence will also earn you Resolve, a resource used for healing and other skills.
As you learn different stances to take on different kinds of foes, you will be staggering them, delivering kicks, and taking full advantage of their mistakes. Technique points earned will help unlock more devastating attacks and defensive options that will even the playing field.
Be it swordsmen, spearmen, hulking brutes, or shield carriers, they will stand little chance against a seasoned warrior. It is a marvel to behold as you take on groups of enemies that require different solutions, switching stances on the fly, and delivering the fatal blow to each of them.
The pinnacle of combat comes in the form of Mythic Arts, rewards from completing certain Mythic Tales. These are dangerous skills that require Resolve to utilise, and are extremely useful against anyone who stands in your way. Heavenly Strike, for example, is a swift and unblockable attack that is both flashy and useful, and deals extra damage to staggered enemies.
Swordplay is but one of your tools as Jin also gains access to other useful equipment throughout his journey. Kunai can hurt enemies at a distance and open them up, while smoke bombs and sticky bombs can obscure and thin out the numbers. Ranged weapons also come into play, with Jin well-versed in the art of archery.
Defensively, Jin will also build out his arsenal with some truly grand armour. Every set that you will obtain comes with its own bonuses, attained through upgrading. You will come a long way from donning broken equipment, to transform into an imposing figure wearing awesome gear by the time you reach the conclusion of Ghost of Tsushima. The customisation of colours, headbands, and even your katana just adds even more flair to your legend.
For situations that require a more stealthy touch, the Ghost side of Jin comes into play. Distractions in the form of firecrackers and wind chimes, assassinations, and even poison are tools in this war against the Mongols. The more you can take out without drawing attention, the easier it is when Jin needs to emerge from the shadows.
His ability to climb, swing, and blend into tall grass allows for Jin to approach situations in a multitude of ways. Rooftops and elevated positions will give you a better view, while Jin can rely on the Focused Hearing skill to reveal enemy positions before making your move.
If you are a master of combat, the Standoff mechanic will be your go-to. Approach enemies and proclaim your intention, time it right and you will be looking at instant kills in the coolest of fashion. However, you can also pick off enemies one by one, moving in from the periphery, until there is none standing. It is entirely up to you.
On occasions, Ghost of Tsushima will pit you against other experts of swordplay in duels. These pseudo boss fights are a treat, requiring you to bring all your skills to the table in order to win. There are no tricks to be used in duels, only proper timing on both offensive and defensive fronts. They are satisfying to engage in, and a true expression of your might as a warrior.
On the technical side of things, Ghost of Tsushima definitely has its ups and downs. Animations can sometimes glitch out, with Mongols getting flung high into the air by dead bears, or the hilt of Jin’s katana poking out of his cape. There were some quests that failed to progress with missing NPCs and points of interests, but those were all fixable with a quick load of a checkpoint.
However, the plus side is that Ghost of Tsushima has little to no loading at all. Even fast travelling from one point to another on the huge map takes only as much time as you will spend reading one of the many useful tips the devs have provided. It is simply amazing to see it in action, and with the upcoming PlayStation 5 set to surpass all that with its technology, this is a treat to savour for the current generation.
The graphical fidelity of the environments is also amazing to look at as a whole. From the wind billowing through the leaves to falling foliage, most of Ghost of Tsushima can be captured and hung as a lovely piece of art.
Small touches like Jin’s hand reaching out to touch the grass as you make your way through the fields are also easily missed, but still appreciated. The Kurosawa mode that gives the game the cinematic feel is extraordinary, but it is also a huge miss if you do not see the life and colour that went into this world.
Music in Ghost of Tsushima also goes a long way in setting the mood. The crescendos that accompany a combat scenario and the soothing tones of more meditative sequences embody the spirit and core values of the game perfectly, and the many moments of reflection afforded to players throughout their adventure will push you to examine your own life in contrast to Jin’s.
The entire experience of Ghost of Tsushima is one that will be enjoyed by most. Jin Sakai’s tale of transforming into the Ghost and pushing back the Mongols is an epic adventure that contains great storytelling, delightful combat, and interesting stealth mechanics. The game’s reliance on emergent exploration is wonderfully realised, and provides plenty of incentive for players to explore an island that might just be a little too big.
It is likely that comparisons will be made between Ghost of Tsushima and the later entries in the Assassin’s Creed series. In fact, it can be argued that Ghost of Tsushima has everything great without some of the more niggling bits that hold back the Ubisoft titles. If you have been yearning for the assassins to visit Japan, it has already been done and a new bar has been set.
Even as fans await a new console, Ghost of Tsushima is here to remind us that this current generation is still going strong. Sucker Punch Productions have definitely made something fantastic, and a fitting swansong for one of the greatest consoles in history.
GEEK REVIEW SCORE
A fitting PlayStation first-party exclusive to arrive for the PS4, Ghost of Tsushima is an epic adventure that has all the right ingredients for major success.
Gameplay - 9/10
Story - 9/10
Presentation - 10/10
Value - 9/10