It is the end of an era. Almost seven years since the PlayStation 4 was unleashed upon the world, and Sony’s push towards quality first-party content is coming to an end on that platform. In the beginning of that age, developer Sucker Punch pushed the console to a glorious new level with InFAMOUS : Second Son.
A technological leap for the PlayStation 4, InFAMOUS: Second Son set a precedent for the types of games that Sony’s various studios would focus on for the majority of the 2010s: Sandboxes with memorable characters, unique gameplay twists and plenty of stunning visuals. With the release of Final Fantasy VII Remake and The Last of Us Part II this year, the PlayStation 4 is going out with a bang. But in true Sony fashion, Ghost of Tsushima is a surprising final jab from Sucker Punch that serves as a contemplative and measured epilogue to everything that came before it.
Kicking off in an age of fire and steel, Ghost of Tsushima wastes no time in setting up a conflict that erupts across the land of the rising sun and within the soul of its protagonist Jin Sakai. A Mongol threat has arisen, a war machine built on past failures and fine-tuned to learn from the mistakes of the past as its merciless leader Khotun Khan fights a vicious war that has no room for outdated concepts such as honour.
It’s within that opening hour that players are thrown headfirst into Ghost of Tsushima’s status quo: A lone wolf (and no cub!), forced to abandon everything that he was taught to win a war across an island that has been ravaged by the Mongol hordes. The way of the sword may be the honourable method for which players can fight back against the Mongols, but the way of the ghost is the smarter method for keeping your head on your shoulders.
Ghost of Tsushima gives you free reign between either path, melding them together in a style that emphasises a more fluid approach to taking down invaders as opposed to solely sticking to your katana guns. It’s not too dissimilar from Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, but this Samurai sandbox still has plenty of unique flavours with which you can wield your sword.
Jin’s samurai path is one of skill and discipline, cold calculating steel that can be used to call out opponents in tense showdowns. A gameplay mechanic born out of countless samurai showdowns and tempered by the fire of iconic film director Akira Kurosawa’s contribution to the genre, these moments play out like a game of poker where a winning hand results in a spray of blood and bodies littering the round around you.
I’ve done hundreds of these duels, and they never cease to be armpit-moistening moments of waiting for the precise moment to strike and not being fooled by the feints of increasingly crafty opponents.
That path is also augmented by Jin’s journey to acquire new skills, as he’s able to freely switch between one of four stances that can stun opponents and leave them wide open to a killing blow. The Stone stance is your default attack strategy for swordsmen, the water stance allows you to shred shield-bearers, the Wind style gives you deadly typhoon kicks with which to punt spearmen off of cliffs. One final stance completes the quartet, allowing players to topple even the heftiest of Mongols who would otherwise look at your sword like a fancy butter knife.
The beauty of this system, is that it echoes the discipline of the Samurai. This isn’t combat where button-mashing will save your hide: True masters of the blade need to survey the battlefield, slash when the moment is perfect and deliver a killing blow that will terrify the opposition swarming around you. That cool and measured response, combined with the stances, perfect parries and a last-second evasion turns Jin into a deadly tornado of steel and death in the hands of the master.
Every fight is a deadly dance, and by the time the DJ has finished spinning a few tracks it’ll be murder on the dance floor with Jin left as the last man standing. Annoyingly, this system comes so close to a perfect edge but a roll on the blade in the form of a dodgy camera system can be felt. While it’s not a deal-breaker, it does feel like an unnecessary encumbrance when you have to keep a close eye on the angle at which the game camera is positioned, constantly spinning it to get a better view of the opposition and to occasionally work it out of a blind spot.
You can’t lock onto enemies either, forcing players to be extra-precise with each swing of the sword and thus dulling the otherwise superb combat slightly.
On the other end of the spectrum, Jin’s hesitant embrace of the dark side of war is a ninja’s wet dream. Quickly discovering that thinning the Mongol herd with stealth and subterfuge can level the odds in his favour, Jin begins to adopt new methods to fight back while concealed in the shadows: Basic sneaking around earns you a quick kill from behind, with these abilities further augmented by kunai throwing daggers, smoke bombs, archery and more explosive tools.
Poison also becomes a useful idea later on in the game, with Jin even able to long-distance inject his foes from afar with mind-bending hallucinogens that’ll turn the enemy against each other. While the path of the samurai requires pinpoint precision and timing in battle, the path of the ghost exists as the polar opposite to it and allows for careful shinobi to sneak into an enemy camp and wipe it out before the opposition knows that you’re even there. Even supposedly ninja-proof obstacles such as pesky falcons and trusty guard dogs are no match for a cautious and prepared warrior.
Either approach is incredibly satisfying to focus on, but when they’re both combined into a new form of warfare and combat? That’s where Ghost of Tsushima truly shines. There’s a visceral thrill to evening the odds, chopping down enemy troops with your blades and then vanishing in a puff of smoke. Why risk being surrounded when you can launch yourself into the fray and take down every opponent around you with a quick throw of kunai?
Why face overwhelming numbers when you can pop a smoke bomb and use the confusion to launch a triple-kill assassination chain? Why run into hostile territory when you can pick off the invaders with well-placed headshots as they rush towards you? Every encounter is a puzzle box of peril, and Jin’s ot the right tools for the job to solve these threats in any way that he sees fit.
All of this plays out across a section of Japan that is beyond beautiful. While Ghost of Tsushima has its fair share of realistic visuals including some of the most impressive nostril animation of this generation, it’s the land of Tsushima that’s the true breakout star here. Every single blade of grass, falling leaf from a mighty tree or flower petals decorating the side of the road is presented in stunning detail and artistic vision.
This is the Japan of a more romantic era, born from imagination and cinematic adventures. The landscape is saturated in vibrant colours, and even with roving bands of Mongols and bandits looming around every corner, you can’t help but be consistently amazed at the world that Sucker Punch has created. Every village has a story to tell, every road leads to a breath-taking view of the land around you and there’s absolutely no shame in soaking up this beauty through a game that forces you to slow down and drink it all in.
It’s that meditative splendour which will make you want to explore Tsushima. Make no mistake, Ghost of Tsushima has its fair share of typical sandbox diversions in the form of outposts that need to be tackled and side-quests a’plenty to take your mind off of the task at hand, allowing you to further strengthen Jin by discovering new sets of gear that focus on key combat aspects and enhance them with talismans from shrines that fox spirits lead you to. At this point, the most important question you may be asking is if you can pet these adorable foxes. Yes, yes you can.
To its credit, Ghost of Tsushima’s map feels like just the right size. Not too much guff, just enough diversions and some meaty unlockables in the form of Mythic quests and deadly duels between swordsmen seeking to prove their skill against your blade. Side missions further flesh Tsushima’s world out, taking you from ruined cities to swamps and mountains, all the way to the tip of the island which is covered in a blanket of snow and ruin.
They’re entertaining dives into the lives of your allies on Tsushima, although they’re also frequently the victim of padding as many a mission requires engaging in detective mode and following a set of footprints to your next destination. Minor gripes aside, these short stories are plentiful in nature and add a new layer of nuance to the people whose sword arms you’ll depend on as the core campaign continues.
Perhaps that’s the most important takeaway with Ghost of Tsushima’s tale: Subtlety. At first glance, it’s a story which nails typical sandbox beats as you embark on a quest to save the day. Deeper into the game however, and ideas subtly change. Themes of honour and respect in the face of overwhelming odds, adapting to new dangers and embracing the consequences of abandoning tradition, begin to shape Jin and the people around him.
Ghost of Tsushima is a story that is steadfast in its stoicism, but in the context of a samurai epic it makes sense and it also allows for those rare moments of emotion to erupt with raw fury thanks to its talented cast of actors. That story is further augmented by a soundtrack that is subtle but still impactful in its execution, thanks to composers Shigeru Umebayashi and Ilan Eshkeri. Thanks to the duo’s talents, Ghost of Tsushima never overwhelms the senses but can still pierce your emotional ribcage with the precision of a katana in the hands of a master.
It’s not easy to quickly sum up Ghost of Tsushima. In many ways it’s the typical sandbox game: A vast slice of digital real estate that wants to hold your attention for dozens of hours, Sucker Punch rises above the average nature of the genre by doubling down on sharpening and polishing aspects of it that would have become dull blades in the hands of any other developer.
Ghost of Tsushima’s gameplay is a cut above the rest thanks to its thrilling blend of samurai and shinobi action, but it holds that edge by giving players a world that you want to explore.
Last Updated: July 14, 2020