Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Developer: Sucker Punch Productions
As we near the end of this console generation, the PlayStation 4 has chosen not to go gentle into that good night, but rather, has spent 2020 raging against the dying of the light, pumping out some of the best exclusive games of the generation. Final Fantasy VII Remake, Persona 5 Royal, Nioh 2, and the undeniably divisive The Last of Us Part II. Now Ghost of Tsushima gets to join that list, and in my opinion, plant itself firmly at the top.
Ghost of Tsushima takes place in late 13th Century Japan, in what is known as the Kamakura period. This was when the Shoguns wielded all of the real power in Japan, and the Samurai reigned as the warriors supreme. Ghost of Tsushima manages to walk a very fine line between fact and fiction, honoring the true events that took place during this time and weaving fictional a tale that is both enjoyable and believable. The Mongol leader Kublai Khan is referenced throughout, while the fictional Khotun Kahn serves as the game?s main antagonist. The playable protagonist is a fictional Samurai, Jin Sakai. Jin is the Lord of Clan Sakai and the last remaining member of his direct line. His Uncle is Lord Shimura, Jito of Tsushima, and one of the main characters you will interact with throughout Ghost of Tsushima.
I am going to delve into some very early game spoilers, but nothing the trailers and advertisements have not revealed. Ghost of Tsushima begins with the Mongol invasion of the island of Tsushima. Lord Shimura, Lord Sakai, and an army of Samurai stand to face the threat, but virtually all of them are wiped out. Khotun Khan is described as a brilliant strategist and someone who conducts an enormous amount of research into who he plans to conquer. This knowledge primed him for a fight against the Samurai of Tsushima and is what led him to the decisive victory.
Jin Sakai falls in the battle with two arrows in his back. He is rescued by the resourceful thief Yuna who nurses him back to health. She begins to teach him the ways of a thief and assassin and starts him on his journey to becoming The Ghost. Jin lived by a strict code of honor as a Samurai, and the new path he must walk as The Ghost to save his people causes him to re-evaluate the true meaning of honor and what it really meant to be Samurai.
Ghost of Tsushima does an excellent job of touching on these huge cornerstones of character, and causes the player to evaluate the decisions they make through the lens of Jin Sakai, but also remains true to its core as a video game and will allow players to set aside those things if they wish and just play. It is not heavy-handed or nihilistic and manages to really touch on issues of honor, duty, family, and responsibility without becoming so bogged down in the message that the game is no longer fun.
The actual gameplay loop in Ghost of Tsushima is somewhere between a Far Cry game and an Assassins Creed game. Combat is a strategic dance of stance changes, heavy and light attacks, perfectly timed parries, and vicious counterattacks. Ghost weapons and throwable items such as sticky bombs and kunai come into play later on as well but are never required for combat. A large part of the side questing and world exploration comes in the form of retaking the island of Tsushima from the Mongols, which means taking over Mongol camps and strongholds. This plays a lot like recent Far Cry titles, with the player having complete freedom to choose a stealth approach or to walk in and attack head-on.
The stance changes form the core of combat. You have a quick attack and a heavy attack, and different stances change those heavy attacks. Heavy attacks are used to stagger enemies, opening them up to a flurry of quick attacks for huge damage. Each of the 4 stances are effective against specific enemy types. There are sword wielders, spearman, shieldmen and the heavies. The specific stances are required to do any real stagger damage to their respective types, and you can change fluidly during combat. This makes encounters against large groups both challenging and extremely rewarding once you unlock all of the stances.
Stances are unlocked by defeating Mongol leaders found through the story and in camps/scattered throughout the world. I suggest hunting down as many leaders as possible early on because unlocking all of the stances is the fastest way to get stronger and be able to take on greater challenges.
Visually, Ghost of Tsushima is an incredible, intensely cinematic experience. It may not be the most photo realistic, cutting edge game to come out this year (looking at you, The Last of Us Part II), but it is still stunning. The sheer diversity of locations and environments is astounding. Pampas grass fields stretched as far as the eye can see, giant snow covered cliffs and mountains, fields of deep purple or red flowers, bamboo forests, massive riverbeds and waterfalls, the glittering ocean, all of these make up the island of Tsushima, and it is all yours to explore. I was just as impressed on hour 50 as I was on hour 1. It consistently impressed and surprised me, and it is probably my favorite game of this generation visually.
The camera angles are all expertly and subtly adjusted to give you the most impressive shot, and make you really feel like you are part of what is happening. When you mount your horse and start to gallop the camera drops back low and to the right, giving it even more of a cinematic feel. Slow motion finishing moves and a rotating camera in combat keep the action centered and moving.
The cherry on top, which some players will use and some players will never know about, is the Kurosawa mode. This is a visual setting that puts the whole game in classic black and white, complete with film grain and a slightly adjusted audio track to really make it feel like a classic Akira Kurosawa Samurai epic. I found myself transitioning back and forth between standard and Kurosawa mode for different side missions, because both modes are so gorgeous it is impossible to pick one and stick with it.
Exploration in Ghost of Tsushima is organic, with traditional waypoints being replaced by guiding wind. A quick swipe up on the track pad triggers strong gusts of wind which lead you to your location. Points of interest and collectables are all marked with either rising steam, flocks of birds, and a golden bird or a fox which, if followed, will lead you straight to a collectable. All of these come together to make it easy to find what you need, but also keep the world feeling real and natural, and not bogged down with HUD elements that break the immersion.
Ghost of Tsushima takes the best elements of Assassins Creed and Far Cry, throws in some of the signature Sucker Punch flair that made Infamous so successful and ends up being something that is both familiar and unique at the same time. The stealth elements are not the strongest, and aside from the missions requiring stealth, I almost always took the more forward approach to combat, but the freedom to DO that is part of what makes the game so good. Sony has consistently released incredible, single player, story focused exclusives for the PS4, and Ghost of Tsushima stands tall as one of their best yet.
Sony Interactive Entertainment provided us with a Ghost of Tsushima PS4 code for review purposes.