For some time I’ve wondered at the prospect of an open-world game where you take control of a samurai and/or ninja in feudal era Japan, going about on all sorts of adventures and getting into sword fights. While there have been a number of games in the past that let us play as samurai and ninjas, they were mostly fighting, adventure, and strategy games, and none of them let you wander about in an open-world Japan (at least none that I know of). I’ve had my fair share of experiences with samurai/ninja-focused games in the past by playing through or dabbling in such series like Tenchu, Way of the Samurai, Ninja Gaiden, Samurai Warriors, Onimusha, and Nioh, and I had a blast with most of these games. However, after playing Nioh, a fun but extremely linear game, I was left wanting something more immersive. I wanted to BE a samurai wandering the Japanese countryside, getting lost in the world around me; basically, The Witcher or Red Dead Redemption with samurai. Thankfully, I didn’t have too long to wait since good old Sucker Punch came to the rescue and provided me with my dream samurai game: Ghost of Tsushima.
Taking on the role of young samurai Jin Sakai, you take part in a large battle on the beaches of Tsushima, an island off the coast of Japan. Mongols have begun a large-scale invasion of the island, and you charge into battle, only for you and your forces to be crushed by the Mongols’ superior numbers and weapons. Jin is the only samurai to survive the battle, and with help from new ally Yuna, he gathers his resolve and begins efforts to kill the leader of the Mongols, Khotun Khan, and free his imprisoned uncle from the Khan’s clutches. In order to accomplish his mission, Jin must find himself some allies to help him rid their home of the Mongols. Along the way, Jin will have all sorts of quests and adventures to undertake, meeting new enemies and friends in the wilds and villages of Tsushima. It must be said that the island of Tsushima is B-E-A-utiful. The many forested areas with lush vegetation, fields full of tall grass swaying in the wind, golden leaves cascading from the trees in temple areas, the snow falling in the northern tundra, the ocean filled with Mongol ships surrounding the island, they’re all sights to behold.
Early on, Ghost of Tsushima’s gameplay loop is, quite honestly, nothing to write home about. You’ve got some missions and random encounters that all revolve around saving villagers from Mongols and killing said Mongols. It’s fun but nothing that hasn’t been done in countless other open-world games. As you progress further through the story, however, and play more missions to open up new ways to dispatch your enemies through stealth or newer sword fighting techniques, then the whole gameplay loop really begins to come into its own. You can choose to kill enemies through direct combat or through more “dishonorable” means, such as stabbing them from behind or above, shooting them with arrows from a distance, throwing bombs at them, poisoning them, it’s up to you. As for the direct combat, it just doesn’t get much better than this, certainly not in most open-world games. The sense of weight you feel with every swing of your sword as it cuts into an enemy is just perfect, and the fact that Jin and most of his enemies can die in just a handful of hits makes each combat encounter appropriately tense and impactful (and certainly less grindy compared to how most RPG-type games have you fight enemies with so much health that they take at least 15 to 20 hits before they finally die).
While not nearly as unforgiving as the combat in games like Nioh, Ghost of Tsushima’s combat will prove troublesome for button-mashers. Enemies will counter or dodge repeated attacks, forcing you to do the same, lest you wish to be sliced to ribbons. Parrying enemies is particularly useful since it helps fill up your resolve meter more quickly than anything else, which in turn lets you heal yourself and launch specialized sword attacks that can help even the odds if you’re in trouble (they’re also just fun to use for the hell of it). Using different combat stances against different classes of enemies makes it easier for you to break through their defenses and stagger them, at which point you can slaughter them with the greatest of ease. You also have the choice of calling out enemies to a standoff (basically a quickdraw duel between gunslingers but with swords) when you run into them either in set piece encounters or random encounters, at which point Jin must strike right as his opponents attack him to kill them with one deadly stroke. Striking too early or too late will result in Jin getting damaged. Thankfully, combat encounters and standoffs actually get a little more challenging as you advance through the game since the enemies themselves become a bit stronger and more skilled.
As a buddy of mine who is also playing this game said to me, “You have to respect every encounter.” That goes double for the duels, which are one-on-one sword battles that Jin will undertake against tougher warriors, most of which will be found in the game’s side missions. These always get me all excited and, in some cases, a little nervous as Jin and his opponent stare each other down and prepare to draw their swords, often times with the wind blowing dramatically in the background or thunder in the distance (and in one specific case, lightning striking all around Jin and his opponent).
And what better way to dispatch your enemies than by looking like a badass by wearing the most appealing armor and attire the game has to offer? There are only a handful of armor sets in this entire game, so don’t expect to find new outfits every five minutes after completing missions or killing enemies like you would in your average loot-based RPG. Some armor sets let you locate items and collectibles, and others give you extra perks with regards to combat and stealth, like doing extra damage, gaining extra defense and health, and making it harder for enemies to detect you when you’re sneaking around. And for those who want to add a little spice to direct combat or stealth, Jin’s collection of “Ghost weapons” gives him an extra edge. He can throw multiple kunai that can severely weaken or outright kill enemies, wind chimes and firecrackers to distract enemies, bombs to scatter large groups of enemies, poison darts to instantly kill enemies or make them go nuts and attack their allies, etc. Jin’s sword (katana), dagger (tanto), and bows can be upgraded for extra damage too, and his armor/attire can be upgraded as well to increase the effectiveness of their perks. Furthermore, you can find and earn new dyes to change the appearance of your armor/attire and bows, as well as sword kits to change the appearance of Jin’s katana and tanto.
There are other more worthwhile collectibles and events to discover when journeying across Tsushima, and they all serve their own gameplay-specific purposes. Finding shrines gives you access to charms that grant you with extra perks on top of the ones your different armor sets provide you with, completing bamboo strikes through a rather clever implementation of quick-time events grants you with more resolve, and finding hots springs and resting in them for the first time increases your overall health (subsequent visits to discovered hot springs will restore any lost health). Completing main and side missions will grant you with some more charms and helpful things, and this will also increase your legend, which in turn will grant you with more health and skill points that can be used to level up the effectiveness of Ghost weapons and unlock new combat abilities and new skills for your different sword stances. There are even areas where Jin can reflect on the landscape around him and compose haikus (certainly one of the game’s more relaxing activities), and he’ll gain a new headband each time he composes one.
Best of all, finding all these missions and activities feels more organic in Ghost of Tsushima compared to most other open-world games thanks to the “Guiding Wind” mechanic, where you simply swipe up on the controller’s touchpad to summon a gust of wind that will blow towards Jin’s current objective after you’ve set it on your main map. This is a surprisingly effective way to guide the player, and I love how it works. No mini-map or compass needed. And every time you summon the wind, the surrounding trees and grass, as well as any flowing portions of Jin’s attire, will sway in the wind, which is mechanically impressive. Even if you’re not actively looking for any particular mission, event, or collectible, there will be plenty of moments where you will happen to run into a fox den, at which point a fox will start leading you to a shrine, or a golden bird will fly by and lead you to the closest side mission, event, or collectible (amusingly, I once had a fox and a golden bird appear at the same time to lead me to two different points of interest).
Speaking of missions, Jin will mostly be helping his allies deal with their own personal issues (whether it’s Mongols or other enemies that need to be disposed of), and other minor missions will focus on Jin helping the people of Tsushima with their problems. Often times these missions will have you following tracks and investigating the sites where people have been slaughtered by unknown assailants (and they’re not always Mongols). Yet other missions where Jin will go off in search of legendary armor sets or on quests to learn particularly deadly sword skills will provide you with some of the best and most epic moments in the game. No matter what you’re doing, the stories in both the main missions and side missions are normally very compelling (some moments stand out more than others though). The main story in particular is surprisingly good and full of surprises…not all of them pleasant, mind you, but engaging, nonetheless. I particularly appreciate how this is a story where we don’t really have to make any big moral choices like the ones that had me second-guessing myself long afterwards in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. Outside of a few moments where we choose between two dialogue options when Jin is conversing with one of his allies, we can just sit back and let the game’s story take us away, and sometimes that’s better than actively taking part in one and hoping you’re not making a huge mistake with a particular decision.
I just realized that I haven’t really mentioned anything negative about Ghost of Tsushima. Well, the reason for that is because I personally don’t see any large flaws with this game. Sure, the NPCs act stupid at times and run around like they don’t know which way is up with the same “jogging” animation used by the NPCs in Sucker Punch’s previous Infamous games. I also encountered a couple of spawning glitches where I would see deer standing atop 20-foot high platforms that they could not have possibly climbed up to on their own given that they can’t climb ladders, but those were actually more humorous than anything. A couple of times I got stuck in the environment and couldn’t get Jin out, but thankfully, the game recognized I was in an “out of bounds” area and transported me back to the nearest stable ground. One time I had to reload a save because an NPC I was supposed to speak to couldn’t be interacted with, but the game autosaves so often that I literally only “lost” about 5 seconds of gameplay once I reloaded the last checkpoint. And considering how much is going on at pretty much every moment when playing this very windy game, I’m surprised at how well this game runs. It has not once frozen or even stuttered, it’s a smooth ride all the way through.
Really, the biggest problem for me is the game’s camera, which has gotten stuck behind obstacles more than once while I fought multiple enemies in somewhat confined areas, but even this doesn’t happen all that often when you consider how long I’ve been playing this game (which has got to be somewhere in the 40-hour mark by now, if not longer). I’ve heard others complain about the lack of a lock-on feature when fighting enemies, but considering that more often than not you’ll be fighting multiple enemies simultaneously, I find that the game’s “soft lock” feature works well enough since you will pretty much naturally gravitate towards the closest enemy when you start attacking. A standard lock-on wouldn’t work as well, in my opinion.
Ghost of Tsushima may not break the mold of what constitutes an open-world game, but it most certainly refines it. The desire to find out what’s over the next hill or in the next village is just too strong, so that addictive quality is there. The combat never gets old because it consistently challenges you without making you want to crush your controller beneath your foot, and the story is engaging and well written, with superb voice acting provided for pretty much every character. And yes, there’s a photo mode for all you wannabe photographers, and the whole game can be played in a black and white mode to match the style of old school Akira Kurosawa samurai movies, film grain and scratchy audio included. Fans of samurai and Japanese culture must get this game, as should fans of open-world epics since this game is bound to have something that you’d like.
Developer: Sucker Punch
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Release Date: 17th July 2020