Ghost of Tsushima | Review

Ghost of Tsushima (2020)

PlayStation 4 | Sucker Punch Productions

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This is my first formal review in a long time (since April, I think). Help, I don’t remember how to write introductions anymore. This baby *slaps roof of car* can fit so much samurai into it. So much honour. Having just come off my “On Writing” post, where I talked about frustrating writing tropes and techniques, I ended up being quite critical, and taking a close look at certain elements of the story in this game. This is to say, I rambled about my personal opinions a lot. Sorry. Ghost of Tsushima, set on the island of Tsushima in 13th century Japan, has fallen to the Mongol invasion. Led by Khotun Khan, the Mongol army is razing farms to the ground, murdering peasants, and co-opting all the food supplies. After a bloody showdown on Komoda beach, where all the island’s samurai are thought to be slaughtered, the lone surviving samurai, Jin Sakai, decides to fight back. He wants to find a way to save his beloved homeland, and push back the encroaching tide of Mongols. And he finds he may have to abandon the ways of the samurai to do it. Mild spoilers ahead.

In order to become the “Ghost,” simultaneously striking fear into the hearts of the Mongols, and giving hope to the beaten down people of Tsushima, Jin develops a style of fighting all his own. Combat in Ghost of Tsushima falls under two general umbrellas: the “ghost” methods, which focus on stealth, and the “samurai” options, which are used in a straight fight. The base combat is your tried-and-true light attack, heavy attack, and block/parry. I preferred the head-on samurai style, simply because I found the combat to be more enjoyable that way. The Standoff feature, which allows you to call out a challenge to enemies, was easily the best part of any encounter. In facing an enemy, mano-e-mano, you wait for them to launch an attack before cutting them down in a single strike (by holding down triangle, and releasing it as soon as they attack). Eventually this gets trickier, as enemies will attack faster, and start to use feints (where they lunge at you to try to trip you up). I wasn’t particularly good at this, since it relies on fast reactions, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. Beyond this, there are four stances which can be switched on the fly, each specializing in countering a specific weapon type. For instance, the Wind stance was most effective at countering spear-wielders, and it was the default stance I usually stuck to. The duels (effectively, the boss fights) were highlights of the combat for me, and were one of the more challenging segments of the game.

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Though the samurai fighting style was the more solid of the two, there was one particular element which I found quite off-putting: the lack of lock-on. I didn’t realize how much I took the concept of lock-on for granted – it’s just one of those omnipresent elements in these types of games, I had never thought about it. In this title, however, simply aiming the left stick while attacking dictates who Jin will swing at. While this keeps the screen clear and uncluttered, it didn’t always work the way I felt it should. I can’t express how many times I felt like I was pointing toward a certain enemy, only to have Jin take a swipe at a different one. This was especially annoying when I was trying to rush the freakishly accurate archers (I’m talking Legolas levels of speed and accuracy) only to have Jin stab the wrong enemy, and get nailed in the back with an arrow. Eventually I got used to the system, but it was an issue that bothered me periodically throughout my time playing.

Once you’ve got these basics, there are options to further supplement your swordplay (samurai or stealth) via the Ghost weapons – sticky bombs, kunai, and smoke bombs, for example. These weapons were invaluable in helping to deal with large mobs, but also made smaller encounters almost mindlessly easy. Even on the hardest difficulty, Ghost of Tsushima is not a particularly challenging or punishing experience. This was another reason I usually stuck to a more samurai-esque approach to fighting – the stealth options varied wildly from making the game a cake walk, to being absurdly frustrating, with no in-between. Certain areas were clearly not designed with stealth in mind, and it was occasionally difficult to take out enemies without their body being discovered 8 seconds later. However, even then, enemies would rarely find you, despite being hidden in close proximity. On the other side of the spectrum, the dense A.I. present in this game made stealth extremely easy – using wind chimes to attract and lure enemies to their doom (one at a time, conveniently) and your bow to snipe soldiers from afar made the stealth gameplay far less engaging.

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Some other minor annoyances cropped up during combat, many of which were caused by the amount of interaction mapped to the R2 button. R2 serves as the pick up item/loot, switch stance, and switch Ghost weapon actions. There was more than one occasion where I was attempting to switch stances or Ghost weapons, and the game seemed to think I was trying to pick something up. For example,  I’d be mashing R2 and nothing would happen; in the meantime, I’m getting slapped around by a group of Mongols  – all because I wanted to switch to my smoke bombs. While Ghost of Tsushima has a variety of accessibility options, re-mapping the controls is not one of them, so I was stuck with this system as well. I can, however, appreciate the difficulty in balancing a combat system that has to function for both the normal, one-on-one and group fights, as well as the stealth elements. Despite my few complaints, it was generally well-executed. The variety in enemy types (that continue to evolve throughout the game), Standoffs, and duels represent a system that is fairly refined and fun. The stylistic elements coalesce well with the story that the game is trying to tell.

Ghost of Tsushima follows Jin Sakai as he attempts to slow the Mongol invasion by killing their leaders, disrupting their supply lines, destroying their camps, and generally being a pain in the ass. There is an overarching goal to each of the games three acts, and for the first leg, you’ll be trying to muster some forces to storm Khotun Khan’s current fortress, Castle Kaneda, to save your uncle. Lord Shimura was captured after the battle at Komoda beach, and is being held captive by the Khan. Of course, the main crux of the narrative is to defeat the Mongols entirely, and kill the Khan. The relationship between Jin and his uncle was one of the more interesting elements of the story, as the tension between them increases throughout the narrative. Lord Shimura is the jito of Tsushima – essentially, he’s the local leader of the samurai clans, and it’s his job to embody and uphold their ideals.

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However, Jin begins to break away from these strict policies of honour. He realizes that, being vastly outnumbered, the samurai will have to adopt different methods of combat to beat the invading force. He begins to take advice from thief, Yuna, and incorporates different, less “honourable” tactics into his approach. Naturally, this causes a divide to form between Jin and his uncle, and seeing this tension build kept my attention. My only formal complaint about the story is the occasionally absurd “everyone needs to stand up and fight!” stance that many of the protagonists take. In that, this game is quite shortsighted, because it never acknowledges anything beyond violence as a valid form of resistance. Hearing Jin lecture peasants on the need to stand up and fight the Mongols was unintentionally extremely funny. Like yeah Jin, these people who have no money, food, weapons, or formal training should definitely try to throw hands with the Mongols.

Though the story of Ghost of Tsushima isn’t the most interesting or unique tale I’ve experienced, there are a few elements that save it from being mediocre. The first being the gorgeous setting, and the second being the cast of supporting characters. My personal favourite was Lady Masako, whose entire family has been slaughtered; she recruits Jin to help her find the ones responsible for the heinous crime. Yuna’s tales are equally enjoyable, especially as you delve into her backstory in the later acts. As an aside, the wonderfully casual way that women are integrated into the story was so refreshing, I absolutely loved it. Both Yuna and Masako are phenomenal characters, and it was nice to enjoy their tales without anyone questioning their presence or fighting skills. They’re just there. And it’s great. As a further aside:

Of course, there is always the vocal minority of the internet that whines about “SJW politics” and the “historical inaccuracy” of women being included in, well, anything. I find these arguments extremely disingenuous. I think it’s strange that certain people can’t tolerate women fighting because it’s historically inaccurate/breaks immersion, while simultaneously accepting that the protagonist can singlehandedly slaughter a small army of Mongols, magically “hear” the location of enemies within a 60 meter radius, and heal himself through sheer willpower. But yeah, women are the most unrealistic element here. Kindly fuck off is all I have to say about that.

Anyway – characters. Sensei Ishikawa, a mentor of Jin’s, must hunt down his former student and heir, Tomoe, who has defected to the Mongols to teach them the Japanese way of the bow. It becomes clear early on that the Sensei is hiding something about his fallout with Tomoe, and seeing this story play out was one of the most interesting tales. Conversely, Kenji (while enjoyable as the games signature comic-relief character) and Norio were quite dull by comparison. Ryuzo (my favourite character in the game) had a short but fun bout of tales that involved securing a stock of food for his men, the Straw Hat ronin. I enjoyed the way that all these characters are presented with a large degree of nuance, and none are the spotless, shining heroes that they might initially seem to be.

This does lead me into my one major criticism of the story, though it’s entirely a subjective problem that I doubt would bother many other players. The story, largely via character dialogue, gets so close to broaching the disparity of the class system, but never quite gets there. There are countless times the subject is approached, but never dug into. Several characters (Ryuzo, in particular) point out the hypocrisy inherent in the samurai: that their sense of honour is rooted in their wealth and power. They’re able to uphold their lofty ideals of honour, and rigid system of fighting in large part because of their status. Peace affords them the luxury of sticking to those ideals, but as soon as the Mongols invade, they quickly realize that this system won’t be effective any longer. I mean, Jin’s entire journey in becoming “the Ghost” boils down to him breaking away from the samurai code, and employing new, “dirtier” ways to fight back. Though on some level the narrative acknowledges that these fighting methods are tied to class, it never goes the distance by having the characters discuss that wealth/power gap.

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Ryuzo is the only character that points out this hypocrisy, and the fact that Jin is in a position to do what he does because of the privilege being samurai affords him. Jin doesn’t really seem to understand where Ryuzo is coming from, and as such, he never fully realizes that part of the reason his uncle begins to look down on him is because he’s embodying a lower class. Ryuzo’s bitterness stems from his loss to Jin at Lord Nagao’s tournament – his one chance to become a samurai, to ascend to the upper class. Jin (who already has everything) beats him, then basically says “you should have told me you were salty about the loss, I would have just asked my uncle to make you samurai!” Yikes. Yuna is also of a lower class – a peasant, and a thief, who Lord Shimura openly despises, especially when he sees that Jin has begun to adopt some of her methods. It doesn’t seem to occur to Jin or his uncle that people who have no food, money, or the luxury of formal education (both in combat, and otherwise) might have to resort to alternate methods of survival. Jin never spares a thought for this, even after he starts to chafe under the oppressive rigidity of the samurai code. It was frustrating that no dialogue, or moments of reflection (when Jin soaks in the hot springs, for instance) are ever paid to this very obvious issue.

I’m not counting this as an inherent negative – not a lot of games are willing to get this political, and it’s hard to tackle history from a modern mindset. But they also include women without addressing any kind of sexist attitudes, so there’s that. From the perspective of a modern audience, it feels like the narrative shies away from a topic that it walks into on its own. Instead, being dishonourable is treated as an intrinsic characteristic of being lower class, which is troubling, because it’s never challenged by any of the characters. Regardless, it was frustrating to me that Ryuzo is vilified by the narrative, and becomes one of the lesser villains, because he was genuinely one of the most “real” characters in the entire story. He’s my favourite, regardless of how the writing pushes me to feel about him.

There’s also a lot of narrative gymnastics going on, in order to ensure that Jin is painted as this completely selfless, noble hero. There was one particular sidequest, where Jin approaches a boarded up house – the woman inside refuses to let him in, or answer the door. She says she doesn’t know him, or trust his intent – which I feel is a perfectly valid response to a scary situation. Jin resolves to bring her some supplies, but when he returns, a group of Mongols has attacked the homestead, because of course they have. After killing the raiding party, Jin realizes he’s arrived too late – the woman who refused to let him inside earlier is dying in the snow. “If only I had listened to you before!” she laments as she dies dramatically. It was quite laughable, honestly. The story is a lot more compelling when it leans into the nuance, the gray areas, of everyone’s actions, rather than these ridiculously contrived subplots designed to put Jin on a pedestal. He’s already a fairly grounded protagonist, and we understand his actions, so it really wasn’t necessary.

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Each tale has a name and title card when you begin.

If I can continue to nitpick for a moment, and focus on the not-so-polished aspects of the game, it has to be some of the janky animations. Nothing was overtly awful, but there are a few that stand out in my mind as being quite funny. My personal favourite is the door opening/screen sliding animation. For instance, when Jin slides a door open, he only opens it far enough to slip in, before immediately closing it behind him. To be in the middle of a sidequest, or story tale, and have a character say something akin to “follow me, we can talk in here!” only to slide open a door and slam it in my face (despite being right behind them) was endlessly amusing. It was these small oversights, and A.I. hiccups that took away from the overall presentation. One thing I will say that Ghost of Tsushima gets absolutely right: the walking pace of your compatriots. How many of us have played a game where a certain mission sees you following a character who inexplicably walks at half the speed of the protagonist? I’m left to walk ahead, or spin in circles while this NPC walks at a snails pace, and imparts wisdom that I should probably be listening to. In Ghost of Tsushima, the side characters will match Jin’s pace: if you’re walking, they walk just a touch faster. If you start sprinting, they will as well. It was such a small detail, but a noticeable one. I see you, Sucker Punch. I appreciate you.

Ultimately, the clear stand-out element of Ghost of Tsushima is in its setting: the island itself is lush, vast, and has a variety of environments (from snowfields, to golden forests) that highlight its beauty. The dynamic weather and superb lighting make Tsushima a place that is a genuine joy to explore, while also making up for the somewhat lowgrade graphics. I mean, just don’t look at anything too closely. But the fields of blood-red flowers, forests blanketed in crystalline snow, and wide array of impressive temples and statues are utterly stunning. The almost completely empty HUD also worked extremely well for this style. Having the guiding wind, and golden birds to lead Jin around the island were leagues better than any tired mini-map or waypoint tracker. The musical accompaniment while exploring was also gorgeous: the soundtrack of this game is another highlight for me. From the melancholy singing that begins as you compose a haiku, to the intense dueling music, the soundtrack really elevates the experience of this game. I remember at one point climbing to the top of a temple in Jogaku. For no reason I could discern, a swell of beautiful music started as soon as I reached the peak. I simply stood and enjoyed the vista before me, as this track played out. The island was more interesting to discover in and of itself when compared to the staggering amount of side content that it houses.

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While initially engaging, the longer you play the game, the more tired and stale the side content becomes. There are the extremely common fox dens, where an adorable fox will lead you to a hidden Inari shrine, either for a new charm (equipable items that give you advantages in battle), or an upgraded version of an old one. There are the hot springs, which you can soak in to upgrade your maximum health, and haiku locations (compose for a stylish new headband). There are the bamboo strikes, which will increase your resolve, and thus, your ability to use special combat moves, and heal yourself more often. There are the shinto shrines – small platforming sections that award unique, powerful charms, and usually a stunning vista as a bonus. Then there are the Mongol camps and bases, which you can clear out to earn new stances and collect upgrade materials. Oh, and the farmsteads that need saving. Also, regular side quests. There’s duels as well. More collectibles hidden throughout the map. Are you feeling tired and overwhelmed? I was.

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I hated these goddamn things.

I genuinely enjoyed some of the optional content – the Mythic tales (pursuing a legendary figure, usually for some special piece of equipment or technique) in particular were my favourite. But towards the end of the game, it became a bit much. The repetitive cycle of gameplay began to wear itself thin, and finding my 45th fox den just wasn’t fun anymore. And of course, while these activities are “optional”… they’re not really. If you were to focus solely on the story missions (of which there are only 24 in the entire game) you would be missing the majority of what this title has to offer. There is also the fact that a huge portion of the upgrade materials and resources needed to progress your weapons and combat abilities are tied to these side missions. In this, Ghost of Tsushima feels somewhat unbalanced.

To use Act I as a concrete example, there are nine required story tales. While the optional content – including 22 fox dens, 3 mythic tales, 9 hot springs, 8 haiku locations, 21 Mongol camps, and 5 shinto shrines – compromise a significant chunk of the gameplay. This does not even cover the tales of Lady Masako, Ryuzo, Kenji, and sensei Ishikawa, nor the bamboo strikes, lighthouses, and other, smaller side quests. This felt very Assassin’s Creed-esque in its checklist style. I think fewer, but more meaningful things to do would have benefited the game, and its narrative, immensely. The sheer amount of content that gradually becomes tedious was a large contributing factor in the fatigue I felt as I approached the end of the game. Though the finale of this title was intense, I was significantly less invested than I should have been by that point, because this side content consistently drags at the pacing. This is a common pitfall for open-world style games, so I won’t fault this particular title too much.

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The Mythic tales are portrayed in this black and white, brushstroke style. 

While a fundamentally solid game, I can’t help but feel that if it weren’t for Ghost of Tsushima‘s novel setting, it wouldn’t be a particularly stand-out title. From the combat, to the style of side content, nothing is especially unique. Now, a game doesn’t have to be wholly original to be great, but Ghost of Tsushima doesn’t take any new steps, or twist the formula in any meaningful way. It’s a very safe game, with a by-the-numbers open-world structure, and generic narrative. Though the island of Tsushima is a wonderful setting, and by far the most enchanting environment I’ve seen this year, it’s not enough to carry the whole game. The overly-abundant, repetitive side content, and predictable storylines take away from the novelty of 13th century Japan. Jin is a well-rounded protagonist, and many of the side characters (Masako and Ryuzo being my favourite) are likeable, but nuanced enough to be dark in their own ways. Then again, I could have done without the writing browbeating me when it comes to some unsubtle characterization, and narrative setup.

To see Jin diverge from his uncle’s path, and the future he always imagined for himself lends a certain strength to both his character and the story overall; it would have been stronger if more attention had been paid to building the relationship between Jin and his uncle, but c’est la vie. The illusion of choice throughout the game (and especially at the end) didn’t bother me, but it also means the story didn’t have the same impact that it might have if some of your choices had real consequences. I genuinely had a lot of fun playing this game, even though that feeling of enjoyment started to wane as the game marched into its third act. Despite minor annoyances in the combat, and forced stealth sections, I found Ghost of Tsushima to be a memorable experience. It’s a comfortable, middle of the road game, with well-trod elements that players will recognize and embrace. I’d love to see a sequel where Sucker Punch tries to push the envelope a bit harder, to do something beyond the predictability of this style, because this game was very nearly something special.

Good (transparent)