The Wrath of Khan
Ghost of Tsushima makes its intentions very clear before the game has even started. Before beginning the adventure the player is given multiple display modes to view the adventure through. In addition to choosing the language, the characters speak (choose Japanese!) another option is named “Kurosawa Mode”. Named after the great director of Rashomon and other essential classics this mode lets you play in black and white with crackling film grain, intended to transport you to the samurai world of cinematic legend. Despite being incredibly on the nose, it’s a sweet gesture. Though far from the optimal way to play it’s shorthand for the loving attention Sucker Punch has put into this ode to the samurai.
Set on Tsushima island during the first Mongol invasion of Japan (the late 13th century for those of you who weren’t there) we follow Jin Sakai, a young samurai lord. After a blistering action intro, the samurai are decimated by the brutal Khotun Khan leading Jin on a quest to rescue his uncle and avenge his fallen brethren. A juicy set-up, from here Jin forms a ragtag group of surviving warriors to take back the island. This serves a Seven Samurai-esque adventure, your posse providing the majority of the best side quests.
Speaking of characters, let’s! Jin himself is a far more stoic character than games usually offer with nary a wise-crack or ounce of snark to be found. However as the game progresses and his samurai code of honour is challenged he proves an interesting, complex hero. His relationship with his strict uncle is a brilliant mix of loyal yet fraught. Villain and Robbie Coltrane lookalike Khotun Khan is another standout. As brainy as he is brutal the narrative highlights are all Khan-centric.
Jin’s allies are a varied, enjoyable bunch. From stern bowman Sensei Ishikawa, noble thief Yuna to even the dodgy sake salesman Kenji they provide engaging side stories as well as some levity to a quite sombre adventure.
Most surprising of all is how well-paced the narrative is for an open-world adventure. The main story has a clarity and sense of direction uncommon to the genre. This means that your main allies are elaborated on more in the side quests, leaving the campaign brisk and balanced. Also diverting from the main game are the Mythic Quests, perhaps the best missions available. Based on folklore and legend these are the most colourful and varied with the most impressive and game-changing rewards.
The Colours of the Wind
It’s impossible not to be swept up in how stunningly beautiful Ghost of Tsushima is. The rolling hills of grass blowing in the wind as Jin charges towards his next battle makes every second as vibrant and alive as one of Kurosawa’s later colour movies. It’s honestly a mistake to choose to play in black and white, few games are as colourful and vibrant as this. Seeing these gorgeous vast landscapes filled with grass blowing in the wind is a promising mission statement for adventure. The lighting is especially incredible, players will definitely make use of the photo mode during their stay.
The wind being a gameplay feature as well as visceral eye candy. Unlike the usual open-world formula of uncovering your map through repetitive tower takeovers (looking at you every Ubisoft game) Tsushima uses the wind to gently guide the player towards missions, the map uncovering like the fog of war in an RTS. Exploring is a far more natural, rewarding experience this way although you still have access to way-points and dreaded question marks on your map. There’s a real satisfaction to removing the Mongol presence from the island.
This side-content includes run down shrines that test your platforming skills, whimsical foxes who lead you to… smaller shrines and even bamboo to hone your blade skills with elaborate button combos. The haiku composing element may seem a bridge too far but the fact it’s included is a testament to the widespread of Japanese culture represented.
Galloping around the world you can come across side-quests entirely by chance. One example is an early encounter with a group of peasants trying to cross a bridge. Seems easy right? Silly peasants! Ah, but there are Mongols relentlessly firing arrows at them below. Take them out for experience, raising your reputation across the island. This experience unlocks new combos and gadgets. Thanks, peasants! Speaking to the people of the island and hearing their stories and rumours is a fun way of finding out where side-quests are located and truly make Jin feel like a man of the people.
The Way of the Bushido
The samurai are most famous for their combat ability. So how is the fighting in Tsushima? A very strange mix of strategic accuracy and startling sloppiness. Choosing your stance mid-combat to better counter weapon types and change attack combos is a very interesting concept that doesn’t feel fully realised and can be frustrating considering the lack of lock-on for focusing on a particular foe.
At times Jin will slash thin air, the system for targeting an enemy betraying you without rhyme nor reason. The block sometimes fails you, confused between which foe it’s meant to deflect. These issues aren’t extremely common but are unbelievably frustrating when it rears its ugly head. The camera can be an unexpected foe here too. Just forget about fighting indoors unless you enjoy being stabbed. (If you enjoy being stabbed, enjoy? Weirdo.) These fights work far better in the 1 v 1 boss encounters.
These encounters are at their best when facing huge squads of Mongols or bandits in Ghost of Tsushima. You’re forced to use every trick up your sleeve, from throwing knives to smoke bombs, swapping between every combat stance. Here it feels like the brutal climax of Hara-Kiri, a mad scramble against impossible odds.
A Ghost of a Chance
Before you engage in these fights you get the chance to challenge a group’s strongest warrior to a standoff. This is a matter of attacking just before your foe strikes you, resulting in an instant kill. As you progress these encounters can take out multiple foes who’re trying their luck. Unfortunately, this leads to the most aggravating AI issue where occasionally your duel partner will approach Jin and forget to stop, walking away and out of shot entirely. The penalty for this error is a devastating blow to Jin’s health, a weird error both funny and annoying simultaneously.
In spite of the Ghost section of the title, the stealth is disappointingly slight. The standard, crouch-walk, stab, throw distraction, stab cycle. Near the beginning of the game, Jin mocks the idea of sneaking around enemies, finding it a dishonourable concept. That might be true but fighting is also a lot more fun! As the great John Goodman once said in Speed Racer “More like a nonja. Terrible what passes for a ninja these days.”
Speed Racer is technically Japanese right? Still relevant! The stealth is serviceable but unless a mission has made detection an instant failure there’s a lot more joy in charging in with wild abandon.
Ghost of Tsushima certainly has flaws but it’s hard not to admire its confidence and ambition. Nobody would have guessed that Sly Raccoon and inFamous developers Sucker Punch’s next project would be a historical fiction samurai epic and their attention to detail is second to none.
If the Assassin’s Creed series leaves you cold with their nonsensical Ancient Aliens lore then Tsushima is the island for you, a meticulous if flawed samurai paradise. Make the most as the Ghost of Tsushima.