By Daniel Shaw:
I don’t think I’ve waited so long and been so hyped for a game like I have with Sucker Punch’s newest masterpiece: Ghost of Tsushima. The announcement trailer first hit the web three years ago and immediately began setting expectations. The short, but effective, teaser presented an open-world explorer that promised to be as immersive as it was beautiful. We then heard next to nothing about the game’s development for nearly an entire year. I have to admit, it was an interesting move to completely deprive us of any information for so long. The prolonged silence even gave rise to rumors that the game had been indefinitely shelved. But, thankfully, those fears were laid to rest when new details were finally revealed at 2018’s E3 gaming convention. The new trailer was opened by an on-stage shakuhachi performance, and players were introduced to the game’s protagonist, vast landscape, and combat. Now, two years later, Ghost of Tsushima has hit the shelves and has already begun shattering sales the world over with almost universal high praise. Is the game worthy of such acclaim? Is there honor in what Sucker Punch has done? Join me now, and we shall see.
This is Ghost of Tsushima!
The year is 1274, and the Mongol Empire is a seemingly unstoppable conquering force having subjugated China and Korea. After emissaries sent to the Japanese emperor continually return empty handed, the decision is made to take action and invade; this is where the game starts. Tsushima Island is marked as the Mongol’s first target on their way to mainland Japan. The only thing standing between them and the Japanese people (other than bad weather) is Tsushima’s valiant warriors. Our adventure follows a young samurai, Jin Sakai, and his various allies who he meets along the way. The story explodes with an opening cavalry charge against the invading Mongols on Komoda Beach. Amidst arrows, explosive projectiles, and the cries of battle, we’re immediately thrust into the action. There’s a decided lack of control prompts or direction during this initial melee, and I think this was a very effective way to make us experience the chaos of such a conflict. As suddenly as the battle begins, it ends; and it does so with Jin’s uncle, Lord Shimura, on his knees and at Khotun Khan’s mercy. Jin is left for dead, unarmed and without any support. From there, a new loyal friend, Yuna, helps you recover your sword and your new path toward the way of the Ghost begins.
Ghost of Tsushima is first and foremost an open world explorer (OWE), dividing Tsushima Island into three key parts. As the primary story progresses, more of the island becomes open to roam about and explore. It is a fair criticism to suggest that right out of the gate the game is already falling into an admittedly bloated game type. There are a plethora of “open world explorers” spanning nearly every genre out there. I would like to take this time to argue for a moment that penning an OWE in outer space is one of the most daunting and fool-prone ventures a dev could undertake. Just think about it: your job is to create a game in which you openly explore space and have it NOT feel empty. Yeah, boi, good luck with that. This is the issue one will always face with an OWE. Is it dense? Is it interesting to explore? Does it feel alive and real? Does the world grab you to the point where you feel you MUST explore every nook and cranny until all shadowy parts on the map are bright? For Ghost of Tsushima, the answer is a resounding “Yes! Yes! Absolutely Yes!”
From the second the game begins, we feel the immersion. You’re given a few options at startup to play with either the intended English or a Japanese dub. The game can also be played in what is called “Kurosawa Mode.” In a nod to the legendary Japanese filmmaker, the game can be played entirely in black & white along with a fitting Kurosawa-y film grain. As amazing as something like that is, it actually would be something of crime, because the artwork is one of the highlights. To put it simply, Ghost of Tsushima looks utterly breathtaking. What we see isn’t quite photo-realistic; there’s a little detail missing here and there that holds it back from looking completely real. However I feel that was the intention. The use of color is so vivid and eye catching I found myself frequently slowing to a complete stop just to admire the scenery. The way brilliantly red oak leaves flow across the screen while you square off against an opponent makes the experience truly come alive. In fact, the use of color was so stark at times it often reminded me of the movie Hero. In that film, the glaring colors were used to convey differing points of view with the same characters. In that spirit, I got the same feeling while playing through this world. There just was never a dull image. Many reviewers focus much of their material on the artwork, and for good reason. We get to appreciate vast sweeping grasslands as we smoothly gallop through them on our trusty mount. Climb up and down moss-covered mountains in order to reach enemy camps or secret areas. The sheer amount of hard work and artistic flare are on full display for our enjoyment, and the team behind it deserves every bit the high praise. It’s outings like this that take one of the tired arguments about video games not being art and just laughs. Take it from little ol’ me, the visuals alone are worth the price of admission.
“But Daniel,” I hear you say, “this is a samurai game, and you are the undisputed champion/expert/Jesus of all things fighting, martial arts, and world peace and ice sculpting. What can you tell us about the pros and cons of this game’s combat?” Well! I’m glad you asked, voice-in-my-head, because the combat is one of the areas Ghost of Tsushima shines as well as takes a step back. The “Ghost” in Ghost of Tsuhima comes very early on when Jin must accept that winning against the Mongols means adopting new ways of fighting. The player can approach combat in either a stealthy, underhanded manner or run head on into fray. When approaching camps or patrols, you’re given the option to “stand off” against the enemy. This initiates a fast draw mini-game that challenges the player to wait for the precise moment to draw their sword. If the player is successful, upgrades will allow them to instantly kill up to three enemy combatants.
From there, Jin can take on his enemies with a plethora of weapons and tactics that range from bows, kunai, poison darts, smoke bombs, stick bombs, incendiary oil, and brutal stealth kills. Just like Jedi Fallen Order, the devs managed to beautifully incorporate a timing mechanic to blocking and dodging. Eventually, a perfect dodge against an enemy is rewarded with an instant kill. Various stances are also learned along the way, which are all specifically suited against the game’s different enemy types. I would be remiss, however, if I failed to report on what I consider a strength and a weakness: the controls. Sucker Punch took full advantage of every single button and button combination to make the combat as fluid as possible. However, I don’t think they completely succeeded in that. Where a game like Way of the Samurai 3 fell short of leaving entire buttons unused, Ghost of Tsuhima not only uses EVERY button on the controller, it uses them in multiple ways. There are literally dozens of different weapons at your disposal, and each one requires a specific action to use them in combat. For even an experienced gamer like myself, this was pretty overwhelming for some time. Eventually, I was able to acclimate to its system, but it was definitely a challenging learning curve. On top of that, the camera tends to have a mind of its own, and various objects or foliage in the foreground will sometimes swing into view. That’s quite annoying, let me tell you! I will say that once you do truly learn how the system works, combat is never boring.
Even when facing the same 4–5 enemy types over and over again, the ways you can engage them by switching stances and utilizing various other weapons/tactics keep the combat fun and addictive. That being said, do not, at any point, take your enemies lightly. Even on medium difficulty, which I played on my first run, you will fight very bravely and die very quickly if you don’t think. I have to once again tip my hat because this is a game that rewards clever, out-of-the-box thinking. You can, if you want, charge straight into the fray and try to emerge victorious, but it doesn’t have to be that way. There are always other ways.
Now if one is going to pay so much money and spend so much time wondering about in this world, its characters better be worth their weight in gold. I’m happy to report that, once again, Sucker Punch delivered. I’ll touch on Jin Sakai a little later, only because I feel he contrasts the other characters in an interesting way. Our side characters get doled out little by little during the game’s first act. Their stories are what make up the bulk of the game’s various sidequests, and they span almost entirely to the very end. Each “episode” is perfectly peppered throughout the map and can be pursued at the player’s leisure. All of them bring something unique and interesting with their stories. Like real people, they may be your friends but they have their own agendas and may not always be completely on the level. The world (especially a war-torn one) is far from black and white, and they demonstrate that beautifully. The cast is then backed by the game’s antagonist, Khotun Khan, played by Patrick Gallagher (Lucifer, The Twilight Zone). Khotun is portrayed brilliantly as a cold and calculating warlord. Every moment he’s on screen, you feel his presence, and his words only inspire your inner rebel. Perhaps one of the side characters kind of fell short me, as I didn’t feel very motivated to see his tale through to the end. Nevertheless, the cast is well rounded and fills out the story very well.
Now Jin. Ah yes, Jin. Many have included in their critiques that our protagonist is a bit dry and wooden, especially when side by side with the other characters. And I must agree . . . sort of. Like my gaming colleagues, I too found myself quirking an eye at Jin during the preliminary hours of playing. He just seemed a little too calm and reserved, almost lifeless at times. I started to worry that the heavy lifting would be done by Jin’s friends. As I continued to play, however, that opinion gradually began to change. Actor Daisuke Tsuji (Death Stranding, Letters from Iwo Jima, Man in the High Castle) begins with a performance that’s very subdued and restrained. At first, I thought he was holding back a bit too much, but as the game progressed, he gradually opened more. Tsuji still holds back at times, but it’s clear that the character is changing as we go. Because while he is “lowering his shields” and allowing himself to open up around his friends, his mannerisms aren’t going to change that much. He’s a reserved individual who very rarely wears his emotions on his sleeve. That’s a perfectly legitimate characterization, and it makes the instances where he does truly explode all the more poignant.
Jin is a man who was raised in an ultra-rigid, dogmatic version of Bushido; it’s very much a Hollywood interpretation of the Way of the Warrior. One of the primary points of contention is Jin’s increasing use of underhanded tactics as he moves further and further away from his Uncle’s teachings. He’s realized that Lord Shimura’s rigid ways aren’t working against the Mongols and that more radical, unorthodox methods need to be adopted. Narratively speaking, this makes for good drama, but historically it’s pretty silly. Especially in the face of an invasion, samurai would not have been above using whatever tactics necessary to survive. Yes, Bushido discusses tenets such as compassion, honor, and being respectful to one’s opponent. However, these are interpretations that wouldn’t be developed for some time, which is another problem one might have if they possess an historical eye. There are many anachronistic details that do not match the time period, notably the weapons, armor, and casual clothing.
While the dev’s definitely did their homework, they used examples that wouldn’t be seen until the Edo period. To put that in perspective, this game takes place in 1274—the Edo period was the 1600s through 1800s! That’s like if I wrote a script about the battle of Agincourt in which the English defeat the French using napalm and Kevlar body armor! Regardless, I’m guessing despite their extensive research, this was a creative decision based on what is most widely recognized by audiences. Even Khotun Khan is a complete fabrication; he was invented for the story. The first Mongol invasion was orchestrated by Kublai Khan, but again this was clearly an artistic choice since now they could portray Khotun however they wished.
One other aspect I rarely discuss is the score. For some reason, unless we’re talking about a Japanese RPG, I just normally relegate the music to window dressing. Yet Ghost of Tsushima’s score is truly something to behold. Composers Ilan Eshkeri and Shigeru Umebayashi spent over a year pouring over a truly sweeping score that spans from epic orchestras to heartbreaking vocal ballads. While either cruising across the Tsushima landscape or engaged in an epic battle, the music perfectly accentuates the raw emotions of the moment. It’s quiet and calm and then big and boisterous. If you have the time, check out “The Way of the Ghost” below for a sampling; your ears will thank you.