Ghost of Tsushima, Sucker Punch Productions and Sony Interactive Entertainment's latest PS4 exclusive, features an impeccably designed open-world set on the island of Tsushima in the 13th century. Protagonist Jin, a rogue samurai, defends his home against the invading Mongol armies. Along the way, the player is able to explore a vast, beautiful landscape. You always feel like there's somewhere to go and something to do, and environmental interactions with the natural world play a major part in the exploration.
Truly, Ghost of Tsushima has the best world design I've seen in a major open-world title since The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild in 2017. Unfortunately, Ghost of Tsushima comes up a bit short when compared to Nintendo's classic Switch launch title; It misses the mark because the player isn’t given adequate enough tools to explore Tsushima in a gamified way that feels creatively inspired.
What's missing? This feeling first sunk in as I climbed to my first shrine in Ghost of Tsushima, a special kind of destination vaguely reminiscent of Shrines from Breath of the Wild. I reached the top after a long obstacle course of climbing up the mountain. Then I saw a tower that I wanted to go to far in the distance. But how to get there? From here, my options were limited. I'd either have to climb back down the way I came up or fast-travel back to the bottom and reorient myself before I set out on foot in the general direction.
Even after I do that, I'd be at the whim of the elevation, roads, and other environmental obstacles between me and the place I want to get to. It's all rather mundane and a bit too realistic.
In Breath of the Wild, this situation would play out in a very different way.
If I'm at the top of a Sheikah Tower in Breath of the Wild and see somewhere I want to go in the distance. I can simply mark it with my Sheikah Slate, and if my stamina is high enough, paraglide and climb my way to whatever has caught my interest. The world design is just as effective as Ghost of Tsushima's, but Breath of the Wild gave me more effective mechanics — and options — to supplement that: the paraglider, ping system, and universal climbing.
Despite the immaculate world design, Ghost of Tsushima's exploration still feels a bit limited for the sake of realism. Of course, as a samurai, Jin can't have a paraglider, ping objects in the distance, or climb up any surface, but the game’s focus on cinematic realism means it has to omit the kind of game mechanics that made Breath of the Wild one of the most fun and engaging games in recent memory.
Breath of the Wild isn't held back by any concerns about realism, allowing the player to do anything or go anywhere as long as they have the tools and sense of adventure needed to make it happen.
What did The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild do better? This key difference between two games with equal ambition in world design seems to ultimately come down to a game design philosophy: How do core gameplay mechanics allow the player to navigate these open worlds?
Mario and Zelda creator and Nintendo Creative Fellow Shigeru Miyamoto called the Breath of the Wild approach "open-air" in a 2016 IGN interview. "We didn’t want to just make a game where you can do anything," he said. "We wanted to make sure that we make a game where the player is able to do anything, but it’s also a form of entertainment." Breath of the Wild embraces what it means to be a video game. Much like Naughty Dog games such as The Last of Us Part II, Sucker Punch's Ghost of Tsushima is more of a stunning cinematic experience — it just so happens you can play through it.
"It’s not just a world that you’re passing through," Nintendo's Bill Trinen added of the Zelda game. "It’s sort of a world that you’re a part of. So much of the adventure and exploration is in this outdoor space, and the theme of wilderness collectively seemed like 'Open Air' was the right fit for it." This philosophy is what fueled the creation of Breath of the Wild's useful traversal tools and unconventional structure, and that holistic approach paid off in spades.
Ghost of Tsushima plays it much safer from a gameplay standpoint despite having such an enthralling world. While the environment directs the player more than in other games, your ways of getting around the world aren't that different from a game like Red Dead Redemption 2 where traversal is slow and limited.
Even climbing, a hallmark of Sucker Punch's Infamous games, feels terrible here as it takes more from railroaded games like Uncharted rather than the developer's own previous work. The environment may look great, but you can only interact with it in so many ways.
Looking forward — I've enjoyed my time with Ghost of Tsushima, but I constantly find myself wishing for more traversal mechanics. The game could’ve benefited from drifting a bit further away from the cinematic realism to explore better climbing mechanics or some tool that lets players move long distances.
My time with Ghost of Tsushima has given me a greater appreciation for the way Breath of the Wild gives players an array of options. It highlights that fun mechanics and player control will almost always trump realism when creating a game.
Breath of the Wild's influence over Ghost of Tsushima's world design is obvious and shows the massive impact Nintendo's game had on the industry. As more games begin to take inspiration from Breath of the Wild, they shouldn't lose sight of why Breath of the Wild's world was so fun to explore.
Ghost of Tsushima is now available for PlayStation 4.