Ghost of Tsushima blends the best elements of the most outstanding games in recent memory, weaving them together into an experience players will get lost in for the rest of the year.
Take the captivating open-world of Red Dead Redemption 2, throw in the twitchy combat from Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, add the diverse talent trees from Shadows of Mordor, then sprinkle in a campaign reminiscent of Mass Effect 2. Set it all in feudal Japan, and you've got Ghost of Tsushima.
Sucker Punch Productions has long coasted on the successes of PlayStation exclusives like Infamous and Sly Cooper. With the release of its first new IP since 2009, the Sony-owned developer nimbly leaps out of its comfort zone and sticks the landing in style. The two weeks I spent playing as protagonist Jin Sakai left me consistently wide-eyed and slack-jawed. Ghost of Tsushima oozes the samurai swagger of anime classics like Samurai Champloo and Sword of the Stranger, but grounds its narrative in a rigorous historical account of the first Mongol invasion of Japan in 1274.
Characters and Story
The Mongols — led by Khotun Khan — have ravaged Jin’s home, cut down his fellow samurai, and are now plotting their invasion of mainland Japan by torturing, bribing, and extorting the people of Tsushima. It’s up to Jin to unite a scrappy force of fighters to protect the island and its people.
Ghost of Tsushima never lets you forget the power struggle between the Khan and the Japanese feudal forces. Mongol banners wave in the wind where samurai clan flags used to stand while pillars of smoke rise in the distance. But the truly enchanting parts of the game’s narrative happen between the setpiece battles.
The main plot takes roughly 25 to 30 hours to complete, but each ally you meet, folktale you discover, and stranger you aid has their own backstory that’s as gripping as the core campaign. Sucker Punch estimates it could take completionists as long as 90 hours to finish every side quest and find every collectible. It’s a feat I will without question try to achieve, a true rarity in a landscape full of bloat.
Each of Jin’s allies has a backstory interwoven with mythical tales that award you secret techniques and tools. You might need to gain the trust of a renowned sensei who’s had a falling out with his pupil, or work together with a drunken sake dealer who cuts shady deals with the Mongols and sabotages them at every turn.
Ghost of Tsushima suffers a bit from a lack of real consequences. It may seem like an ally’s loyalty hinges upon completing their side missions, leading to a Mass Effect-style payoff, but that isn't the case. All of your allies will fall in line whether or not you invested hours into their backstory, rendering all those sidequests mere set dressing. Still, even if the destination stays the same, the journeys with these characters are rewarding in their own right.
The Island of Tsushima
The virtual world in Ghost of Tsushima is nothing short of a technical and stylistic masterpiece. Sucker Punch opted for a comic book-y, almost Sin City-like aesthetic to many of its environments. Crimson maple leaves and fields of white flowers starkly contrast against the dull, scorched earth left in the Mongols’ wake.
Ghost of Tsushima’s world is visually stunning and an absolute pleasure to get lost in, with its craggy landscapes and serene shores. Sucker Punch’s inclusion of an intricate, feature-rich photo mode suggests this is a game designed to be explored and admired.
But Ghost of Tsushima can occasionally be cinematic to a fault.
Even the most trivial of conversations warrant a panning shot of vast plains and irimoya-zukuri rooftops. While this often succeeds at making you feel like the hero of a Kurosawa movie, less memorable moments are bogged down by constant camera cuts.
Ghost of Tsushima makes up for that by doing away with the need to continuously check the map, thanks to an innovative feature called Guiding Wind. By selecting a destination on your map, you can swipe up on the DualShock 4’s touchpad to kick up a gust of wind that will guide you towards your target. This not only saves time, it lets you appreciate the environment instead of chasing quest markers.
I often found myself roaming Tsushima freely without using the Guiding Wind to stumble upon the innumerable sidequests and collectibles. Ghost of Tsushima is a living, breathing universe that begs to be zealously explored — I had no choice but to obey.
Combat and Enemies
Throughout your journey as Jin, a noble samurai who stood against the overwhelming Mongol invasion, you unlock skills in two broad combat categories: The time-honored techniques of a samurai and deceitful tricks of the Ghost.
As a samurai, Jin challenges his opponents directly, as dictated by a set of intricate codes of honor. Meanwhile, the Ghosts stalks his enemies from the rooftops, uses black powder to craft explosives, and cuts the Mongols down when they least expect it.
For the most part, Ghost of Tsushima gives you total freedom to approach combat situations however you want, which was missing in similar games like Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. More often than not, I’d start by thinning a herd of enemies with a couple of stealth kills, which would inevitably devolve into full-blown brawls where I had no choice but to challenge the Mongols head-on.
You will inevitably settle on a handful of skills and tools you enjoy the most, but the game encourages the player to at least try all aspects of combat. This is primarily done by liberating Mongol-occupied villages, where the game offers you bonus rewards for eliminating enemies in specific ways.
Samurai combat is the most satisfying, giving you the ability to perfect parry (with L1) or dodge (with O) and deal a lethal blow, just like in Sekiro or Bloodborne. The stealth aspects of the game felt nearly identical to Shadows of Mordor, with the occasional animation glitch. It’s not quite up to the standard of newer, more polished titles like The Last of Us Part II.
Enemy diversity is satisfying and surprising. There are four main archetypes of Mongol warriors that you’ll encounter, with more difficult variations are introduced as you progress through the story. Jin learns four different combat stances to deal with each category, which you’ll need to manually toggle between in the heat of battle using R2 and the XO▢△ buttons.
Ghost of Tsushima is entry-level when it comes to timing parries and attacks compared to something like Sekiro, and those experienced in reflex-based action games will want to turn the difficulty to Hard right away. But Ghost offers a satisfying challenge without feeling cheap or excessively punishing, and it took me just the right number of attempts to master each new enemy’s combat pattern.
Ghost of Tsushima is irresistibly enchanting but just shy of perfection because it never pushes its narrative or gameplay to the cutting-edge. Sucker Punch’s latest tries to do a lot, and it slam dunks a vast majority of its narrative, design, and stylistic choices. Sure, the game could have leaned more aggressively into some of its best features. But I’ll happily take Ghost for what it is: an incredible showcase of everything great about this generation of video games. 9/10.
Ghost of Tsushima comes to PS4 on July 17.
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