Shadow of the Samurai…
The tale and role of the samurai is a relatively common element in the video game medium. From Capcom’s initial foray with the exquisite Onimusha series to the impeccably crafted Soulsborne formula of Nioh – the way of the samurai is a satisfying and intuitive experience that simply works. Translating the core fundamentals to an open world landscape would appear to be a conspicuous idea, but for some reason has never come to fruition. Sucker Punch has a vast array of knowledge when it comes to the intricacies of open world game design – with the excellent Infamous series being a prominent notch on their belt – and lend their scope of achievement and understanding to the organic and tangible world of Ghost of Tsushima. The illustrious and eloquent island of Tsushima is one of the most vibrantly crafted worlds that evoke an articulate sense of deliberation and consciousness, breathing in a welcomed sense of tranquility and flow. Its true brilliance lies in the organic and seamless nature of exploration and discovery, mirroring Breath of the Wild’s pristine aura of wonder. Ghost of Tsushima is a game I enjoyed the more I played; its inaugural segments were rough around the edges and lacked an overall sense of polish, but each fundamental layer perpetually developed and enhanced into something robust and profound. The samurai combat – while initially underwhelming, unsatisfying, and formulaic – eventually became intricate, gratifying, and methodical through continual practice and the introduction of abilities and stances. Its extremely situational stealth mechanic was notably cumbersome and frustrating in the beginning hours but unlocking additional ghost weapons incorporated a satisfying melodic dance of control and manipulation, resulting in an intuitive and dynamic gameplay experience. Ghost of Tsushima is an intriguing tale of transformation, sacrifice, and moral struggle; while not all of its thematic elements and character arcs reach a pristine level of polish and quality, its overall presentation results in a gripping experience. In the crowded space of the open world genre, Ghost of Tsushima ends up being an exquisite combination of the photo realistic beauty of Red Dead Redemption II and the organic and whimsical aura of Breath of the Wild, while never reaching the meteoric heights of either masterpiece.
Taking place during the historical Mongol Invasion of 1274, Ghost of Tsushima is a remarkable period piece that not only accurately and respectfully depicts the illustrious beauty and culture of the titular island and its inhabitants, but delivers an intriguing narrative of sacrifice and the transformative experience that follows. Protagonist Jin Sakai is a prestigious and well-respected samurai who is taught throughout his life to live by the samurai code of honor. This is further accentuated by his poignant relationship with his uncle and Jito of Tsushima, Lord Shimura. However, his code of honor is ultimately put to the test during the Mongol Invasion, kickstarting the transformation of a vigilante story. The crux and fundamental success of the narrative is Jin’s internal struggle with becoming the Ghost, a shinobi warrior of sorts. As the Ghost, he attacks from the shadows and eliminates his foes in a brutal, stealthy fashion – an undeniable act of disobedience towards the samurai code. It becomes abundantly clear of what Jin needs to become in order to save Tsushima and defeat the Mongol empire, even if he is cast out by the warriors and code that initially gave him meaning and purpose. He is essentially the hero that the people of Tsushima needs but not the one they deserve – sound familiar? His emotional struggle is further compounded by the remembrance of his uncle’s teachings, cementing their paternal relationship that is ultimately in the midst of destruction. It is a rather heartbreaking development that leads down an inevitable path that manages to strike resounding chords of poignancy. The actual core narrative of reclaiming Tsushima island from the Mongols pales in comparison to the narrative of moral conflict in Jin’s transformation to the Ghost, although the two are intermittently woven together. The final confrontation is also one of my favourite video game moments of all-time. While Jin’s character arc and journey is a satisfying, albeit predictable endeavor, Ghost of Tsushima’s side characters are relatively likable but ultimately one-dimensional. While their side stories are interesting and act in a similar fashion to Mass Effect 2’s loyalty missions or social links in the masterful Persona series, they lack a proper sense of character growth and unpredictability. I definitely have to commend Sucker Punch for incorporating an all Asian cast, an incredible display of representation and each performance is unsurprisingly excellent. The illustrious world of Tsushima is exquisitely detailed and gorgeously rendered with some of the best lighting and particle effects to grace the medium of video games. From the vivacious rays of a lavish sunset to the glistening sheen of moonlight gently grazing the tips of grass, exploring the vast landscapes of Tsushima is an absolute pleasure and visual treat. I could not tell you the number of times I would stop to soak in the astonishing environments or tinker around in the glorious photo mode to bask in Tsushima’s immense beauty. Tsushima’s immaculate environments match the graphical prowess of the masterful Red Dead Redemption II, however its character animations and graphical detail, while still good, do not reach the same level of quality. Areas with a heavy amount of action and characters on screen experience notable frame drops and immersion breaking character animations can also detract from important story moments. The serene and tranquil musical score also lends to the authentic aura of this pristine samurai tale.
Ghost of Tsushima’s samurai combat initially sparked a mixed reaction from myself; it left me feeling relatively underwhelmed by its derivative combat system and lack of a lock-on mechanic. However, through gameplay progression, you unlock a slew of new abilities that enhance Jin’s fighting style and opens a window of possibility for rewarding combat flexibility. The perfect parry/dodge system is arguably the most integral mechanic in the entire game which results in some exquisitely satisfying executions. Sword stances are progressively unlocked at the player’s discretion, with each stance providing superior efficiency against a different enemy type. The strategic element of determining which sword stance to use and switching stances on the fly to adapt to enemies is remarkably intuitive and engaging. Another fundamental system to the combat experience is the stand-off mechanic, a profusely tense and engaging one-on-one encounter. Through proper timing and patience, you can unsheathe your katana and immediately slash your opponent for a one-hit execution in glorious cinematic fashion. You can also upgrade this ability to chain execute additional enemies with each extra slash. One-on-one duels are equally as intense and ultimately take the form of your traditional boss encounter. While these fights do not differ greatly from the established formula, they are the only encounter with a built-in lock-on system and enemies attack in a relatively unpredictable manner which results in some unbelievably tense battles. What began as cumbersome combat experience developed into a melodic dance, which continuously impressed with the discovery of each exceptional layer. Departing from the way of the samurai, when you fully embrace the path of the Ghost, Jin can also eliminate his enemies in a swift, silent manner. Again, when limited to his bow and the standard assassination ability, stealth combat felt extremely restrictive, underwhelming, and absurdly situational. Through the introduction of ghost weapons and unlocking the ability to chain assassinate, the true brilliance of Ghost of Tsushima’s stealth mechanics started to seep in. Using wind chimes and firecrackers to manipulate and orchestrate enemy positions and executing up to three of them with an extraordinarily gratifying chain assassination is such an unbelievably rewarding sensation that never got old. Smoke bombs can be used during normal combat encounters to stagger enemies or conceal your position, and you can follow up with a chain assassination to quickly eliminate foes. There will also be instances where enemies run away in absolute terror at the sight of you executing their comrade, further cementing Jin’s presence as the Ghost. The level design of each stealth encounter is notably rinsed and repeated, given the open world structure, but manages to be efficiently intricate despite the repetitive nature. The plethora of unique ghost weapons further accentuates its profound sense of player choice and flexibility, constructing a remarkably rewarding and robust stealth combat experience. Additionally, samurai combat, stealth abilities, and ghost weapons can be upgraded in a robust technique tree to improve their efficiency. While combat is nothing short of satisfying and engaging, Ghost of Tsushima’s mission structure leaves much to be desired. Its formulaic tendencies and conspicuous lack of creativity are apparent far too quickly. Mundane trailing missions and shallow investigative mechanics arbitrarily hold back the exquisite action counterparts. Luckily, the presentation crafted for each mission resembles the stylistic, cinematic flair found in samurai film.
While combat is the bread and butter of the integral gameplay loop, exploration and discovery surrounds this systemic structure with a remarkable sense of wonder, purpose, and satisfaction. Riding your trusted steed across the illustrious plains of Tsushima is a remarkably tranquil and therapeutic experience. Point of interests are sprinkled heavily throughout the island of Tsushima and are woven so organically into a breathable world. The actual act of travelling and discovering a point of interest is unbelievably seamless and non-obtrusive; the de-emphasis of a conspicuous UI and absence of traditional waypoint markers lend to the authenticity and immersion of this tangible world, having a prominent focus on the environments that surround the player as opposed to the tunneled vision created when focusing on the objective. When a point of interest is selected from your main map, you will have a brilliant gust of wind that will subtly and organically lead you to your destination – particle effects and tips of grass will also sway in the winded direction as additional indicators of which path you should follow. Additionally, golden birds will show up during your travels and will guide you either to a new point of interest, side mission, or piece of gear, lending to the game’s established natural and organic flow. Other visual cues such as pillars of smoke, fireflies hovering around a tree, or birds circling an area further compliment its organic sense of discovery. Points of interest vary in types of gameplay activities which provide a different reward based on the activity. The discovery of a fox den will prompt a little fox friend to guide you on a short journey to an Inari Shrine; praying at this shrine will unlock an additional charm slot – charms are equippable items that enhance certain gameplay attributes, further catering to unique and personal gameplay styles. Mongol encampments and fortresses can be cleared, but also have bonus objectives – such as performing a specific type of assassination or using a specific ghost weapon to kill a certain number of enemies – to earn extra experience. Shinto shrines provide a harmonious balance of traversal tranquility and challenge – scaling these gorgeously detailed environments is a serene experience that not only rewards you with an absolute visual treat but also a new charm. Completing bamboo strikes will allow you to increase your maximum resolve – an imperative gauge which is used for samurai abilities and health regain. Additionally, points of interest can also lead you to a wealth of collectible items that are sprawled out across the open landscapes of Tsushima. There are so many wonderful goodies to uncover and the simple act of discovery in Tsushima is a tranquil, harmonious, and organic experience that accentuates its overall sense of tangibility and immersion. Typical side missions do not offer much in the form of gameplay variance or reward, however Ghost of Tsushima incorporates Mythic Tales, which act as dedicated side missions focused and structured behind a tale of legend. Not only do these Tales offer some of the most varied storytelling, combat encounters, and mission design in the game, but they also reward you with new weapons, abilities, or armor. Equipping a different set of armor will enhance certain gameplay attributes to cater to your established playstyle – certain armor sets can be tailored towards combat or the stand-off mechanic while others might focus more on stealth, ghost weapons, or the efficiency of your bow. Scavenging resources and supplies for upgrading your weapons and armor is an absolute display of convenience – resources are abundant and physically placed with a sense of deliberation and purpose and you can retrieve all items while riding atop your horse. Speaking of convenience, each discovered point of interest becomes a fast travel point that you can instantaneously return to in the future – similar to Marvel’s Spider-Man, Ghost of Tsushima is game a consciously avoided fast travel as the natural act of travel and exploration is far more exhilarating and rewarding.
Ghost of Tsushima is essentially the Assassin’s Creed game set in Japan that we have always wanted. Its intricate combat, satisfying stealth mechanics, and novel sense of exploration raises it far above the conventions of the modern Assassin’s Creed games. While its initial gameplay implementation feels restrictive, cumbersome, and unsatisfactory, all negative facets are lamented through the introduction of each robust gameplay layer, further expanding on the established formula. Its narrative complexity of moral struggle, sacrifice, and honor is intrinsically compelling – the weight and significance of Jin’s character arc follows the familiar path and structure of a superhero’s origin story. Aside from Jin, Lord Shimura, and Yuna, characters feel rather one-dimensional and rarely show any sign of character growth or complexity. With stiff character interactions, awkward animation, and minor performance issues, Ghost of Tsushima’s presentation elements feel inconsistent and occasionally break the immersion. This is remedied by its exceptionally gorgeous vistas and exquisite technical prowess in graphical lighting which are undeniably far above the status quo. Topped off with extremely rewarding and satisfying combat and exploration, all factors cultivate Ghost of Tsushima into a gem of an experience. Ghost of Tsushima is undoubtedly Sucker Punch’s best game and a welcomed addition to their open world pedigree.