Ghost of Tsushima

Platform(s): PlayStation 4
Genre: Action
Developer: Sucker Punch
Release Date: July 17, 2020

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PS4 Review - 'Ghost of Tsushima'

by Redmond Carolipio on July 16, 2020 @ 10:00 p.m. PDT

Ghost of Tsushima is a sprawling, open-world samurai game set in feudal Japan where you play as a battered samurai, fighting back against overwhelming odds.

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Ghost of Tsushima is filled with pictures that leave an imprint on the spirit. I've charged on horseback into white fields of pampas grass that bowed to the wind. I've climbed a snow-beaten mountain to reach a dojo perched at its top. A quest to learn an ancient fighting technique ended in a garden illuminated by fireflies, their neon glow joining with moonlight shimmering off the flowers.

But I'll never forget the time I accidentally found a man kneeling in the mist at the bottom of a waterfall.

I was well into the game's second act, and I decided to take Jin Sakai, Ghost of Tsushima's samurai hero, on a circuitous tour around the sprawling map of Mongol-invaded Tsushima Island. I visually drank in examples of the island's beauty, like a sea of red spider lilies dancing in the breeze and a temple blanketed under golden leaves gently falling from trees, embracing the area in autumn splendor. My travels took me to the Toyotama section of the island, checking off the question marks I saw on the game map that signaled yet-to-be discovered locations. A fox den here, a shrine there, a hot spring for healing and reflection (yes!) led me to more National Geographic-quality scenic glory to absorb. Bit by bit, I was dissipating chunks of the "fog of war" covering the map.


Then I traveled to a question mark on the western part of Toyotama in the northern part of Otsuna prefecture, just above where I stopped to meditate and write a haiku about fear, survival or rebirth — I honestly can't remember. I wrote a bunch of them. I found a waterfall a few gallops away from the green glen of my haiku spot, and I could see the little question mark icon below it, in the fall's splash basin. Because this is a Sucker Punch game, Jin showcased the deft agility and tools to free climb down the side of a nearby cliff to get there.

As I reached the watery, rocky basin, I jogged toward the question mark, toward a trio of tattered samurai banners … and a dude in a straw hat, kneeling on the rocks in the water. I got a few steps closer. Then, he uttered the words, "Lord Sakai, thank you for coming."

I had no idea what he was talking about or why it seemed like he was expecting me. I pulled the right trigger to speak to him, and the next thing I know, I'm treated to a classic widescreen shot of the two of us facing off, plenty of space in between, and locked in a staredown. "Duel Under Falling Water" flashed on the screen in Kanji and English, taiko drums punctuating the effect. The ronin's hand floated over to his sword. Jin thumb-flicked his katana out of its sheath, effectively swiping right on this sword date. It was on.

This wasn't my first duel. I'd had a few of others, but they were part of a story. I didn't expect to walk into one while sightseeing. The battle was a bit of touch-and-go, as the game's combat ethos demanded that I break down his guard and find openings with parries and dodges. He said something to the effect of, "I hope you understand, this is a job," before we broke contact. I eventually learned his timing and dealt the fatal stroke. The screen turned red at the moment of impact, blood flying to the side in slow motion as he fell. The moment passed, color returned to the screen, and Jin held his form, eventually flicking the ronin's blood off his katana before slowly and gracefully returning the blade to its sheath. I suppressed the urge to let out a small cheer, settling for a whispered, "woo," instead. Jin Sakai is a baaaaaad man.


Ghost of Tsushima is loaded with moments like that, instances oozing with the coolness and badassery of the most romanticized aspects of samurai pop culture. It's a game for people who love samurai s**t, people who picked up a copy of "Hagakure" because they saw it in the movie "Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai," have "Seven Samurai" wallpaper on their computer, or traveled to the local art museum on a torn ACL to see the final day of an exhibit of samurai art, weapons and armor. (That last one made me late for a Super Bowl party.) Somehow, Sucker Punch bottles up almost everything one could like about the samurai mystique and invites you to gulp it down like warm sake.

The main story has a simple, classic feel to its setup. Ghost of Tsushima is set in the 13th century, at the start of the Mongol invasion of Japan. You're in the armor of Jin Sakai, one among the dozens of samurai ordered to violently greet the thousands of Mongols setting foot on Tsushima Island, a place that was historically one of the first battlegrounds when the Mongols invaded Japan. You get a little taste of the combat as Jin rides into battle with Lord Shimura, who is Jin's uncle and leader of the island's overwhelmed samurai forces. The battle does not go well. Jin takes a couple of arrows to the back and is left for dead, and Lord Shimura gets taken by the Mongols, who are led by the incredibly imposing Khotun Khan, a cousin of Kublai Khan.

Jin is eventually found and revived by Yuna, a thief who helps Jin locate his sword but apparently not his wits. Jin is consumed with the samurai way of dealing with things upfront and makes the very grand mistake of marching — by himself — to Khotun Khan's front door at an overtaken castle and calling him out. The khan obliges, walks out to meet a clearly not-ready Jin and promptly throws Jin an unholy ass-whooping before tossing him off the bridge. Jin somehow survives the sea below and makes his way back to Yuna. Together, they form a plan for Jin to gather allies, rescue his uncle and ultimately drive back the khan's forces. Thus begins Jin's real journey.

I'll leave out the specifics of how the plot unfolds, but there are many things I admired about Ghost of Tsushima's overall style of storytelling, which finds a way to be both rich and Japanese-minimalist at the same time. It dances between Jin's ultimate mission to take down the khan and his dueling sensibilities. He wrestles with the honorable rigidity of his samurai upbringing and his evolution into a feudal and fatal dark knight — known by the people as a hero in the shadows who will use fear and death as a weapon against the enemy. The first time Jin assassinates someone, it's noisy and sloppy, and it drives him to a flashback of hunting with Lord Shimura, who lectures him about facing your enemy with honor and never attacking from behind. It's a process with him.


The combat system elaborately reflects some of that duality. Like Marvel's Spider-Man or the past couple of Assassin's Creed titles, Tsushima gives Jin an almost overabundance of moves and techniques for players to choose. It's like a Vegas buffet in that you don't have to eat everything, but you will eventually be able to pick and choose what you like. You don't start out with all the moves; Jin earns "technique points" as he grows his "legend," which functions as this game's version of leveling up. As you grow your legend, you can get other perks as well, like more "resolve," which enables Jin to heal and pull off certain techniques. As you gain points, you figure out where to put them. Instead of one or two big skill trees, Jin has several of them broken down into a variety of aspects that lean to both straight-up fighting and working in the shadows, such as samurai (defensive sword techniques and evasion), "ghost" (assassination, stealth), or stances (there are four, each with different helpful moves).

One thing I truly enjoyed about Tsushima's combat setup is that it's focused around the sword and two types of bow. That's it. You're not bogged down with a wealth of different melee weapons to learn; the sword was the lifeblood of the samurai, and Sucker Punch seems to pay the proper respect to the blade by building cool things around it. You have a variety of smaller tools and weapons, like throwable daggers and smoke bombs. There also are different kinds of arrows for your bow, but nothing threatens the sanctity of the sword and your mastery of it.

This "way of the sword" tenor is reflected in the game's introduction of different, elementally named stances (water stance, wind stance, etc.). Each stance has specific advantages against different foes in an effort to break down their defenses and open them up for attack. Guy with a spear? Time for the wind stance. Someone has a shield? Be water (stance), my friend. In keeping with the merit-based, earn-everything spirit of the game, you learn these stances by taking down a prescribed number of Mongol warlords for each one. You're able to switch stances on the fly, pulling the right trigger to slow down time for a brief moment and pushing one of the face buttons to pick a new stance. This adds a welcome dimension of last-second strategy in larger, chaotic fights.


You will use your sword — a lot. The combat can be wild and fast, and a combination of upgrades and skills can have you either resembling the samurai in "13 Assassins" and trying to blow through a dozen enemies with your sword, or you can explore Jin's blossoming proficiency with ninja-style tactics. The game does a seamless job of letting you bounce between disciplines. One very "samurai" thing to do is simply walk up to a group of enemies, whether it's a patrol or a full-on occupied fort, and challenge them to a standoff. This leads to a sort of quick-draw contest, where you square off against a Mongol and must hold down and time the release of the triangle button to instantly kill him as he attacks. Time it properly, and you're treated to a wondrous, slow-motion kill shot. Mess it up, and you lose a chunk of life to kick off your skirmish. You can upgrade the standoff to take down two or three guys at a time, which honestly gets a little addicting.

The stealth elements involve "Last of Us"-style listening, where you can see outlines of foes surrounding you. You can also hide in tall grass and under buildings as well as walk on ropes. You can chain together assassinations and use a variety of "ghost weapons," like smoke and sticky bombs, or wind chimes to draw enemies away from their posts. There's also an entertaining portion of climbing and platforming, augmented by a grappling hook Jin uses to climb up and swing across gaps. Some tasks ask Jin to stay exclusively undetected, while many others leave room for improv. I sometimes found that the experience came alive in instances where I had great success to being stealthy, only to be noticed and forced to whip out my katana and transform into a raging buzzsaw.

Even in the light of this dual-sided nature of combat, one of Ghost of Tsushima's strongest points is how it adds purpose and weight to the exploration of its enormous map. You can fast-travel to every place you find, and the question marks that denote undiscovered locations only pop up when you're in their proximity. A thumb-swipe upward on the speaker pad of the controller conjures up the "guiding wind" that blows in the direction of the target on your map. It's elegant by telling you where you should go but leaving plenty of room for you to run across other things.


Every location you encounter is significant, whether it leads to a simple upgrade or a piece of narrative. Every shrine led to a skill-boosting charm. Every hot spring extended my life meter. Every bamboo-chopping exercise led to increased resolve. While traveling to each spot, you get opportunities to absorb the island's picturesque vistas and, at the very least, pick up resources for the economy, which is primarily built on acquiring supplies and materials to improve and customize your gear. No money moves: You can't buy new swords or armor sets here, but you can gather materials to improve or color-customize the sword and armor you already have. Any new outfits and accessories must be found or rewarded through effort. There's little mention of money in the game at all. "Supplies" are the currency that fuels mostly goods and services, not loot, which is a very, very welcome sight after wading through the nightmare economies of other titles.

That's the beauty of the samurai minimalism mentioned earlier: The game gives you a wide catalogue of things to do, explore and collect without making you feel like you're wasting time.

This leads me to my favorite aspect of Ghost of Tsushima: its side missions. All of the missions are known as "tales" in this world, and they are treated with the depth that the word entails. Some of the tales span several acts, and some of them are one-hit wonders, but all of them felt worthwhile. This means no bulls**t tasks: no mandatory open-world race mission, no cat-in-a-tree, no help-someone-sell-50-bottles-of-sake. One mission involved gathering things to create a poison to use against the Mongols, and the mission featured emotional power that almost brought me to tears.

What impressed me most about Ghost of Tsushima's approach is the breadth of stories that it tells and the topics it tackles: betrayal, domestic abuse, honor, love, meting out justice, murder, rape, sexuality, and vengeance. It's an impressive list that I experienced through exploration and talking to the people around the island. It's how I ended up in the Duel Under Falling Water — I found out later that the swordsman was part of a tale called the "Six Blades of Kojiro," which is about a renegade swordmaster with allegedly special armor who enlisted five other guys to test their skills against Jin before he gets his own crack at him. That's just one of the game's set of "mythic tales," and I'd rather let you discover them for yourself. They are all fantastic and again, useful, as successfully completing each one leaves you with a special move or item.


Diving into the miniverse of tales also gives you the chance to witness other gameplay wrinkles. In addition to becoming a would-be sword saint of the island, Jin occasionally has to do some detective work, like examining where someone may have been kidnapped or murdered, and then following sets of tracks to whatever outcome awaits. Once in a while, he'll need to survey an area, which switches the perspective to first-person and requires you to move the camera toward a lens flare-like indicator to different points and press X to hear what Jin has to say. This mechanism is also used in "writing" haiku, as each point brings up a line you can use in the poem. Before you ask, yes, it's a real haiku, with iambic pentameter and everything.

If there's something I found wrong on my journey, it's a general lack of complete technical polish that occasionally led to indelicate and goofy results in animation, movement, sound and mission logistics. I say this with the knowledge (and hope) that most, if not all, of the stuff I ran into will get addressed in day-one patches and updates to come.

What's funny about the glitches I encountered is that as I saw them, I generally didn't care. I laughed them off, maybe raised an eyebrow, and kept playing. It's the "critical" thing to do to point out these flaws, but I was having too much fun. How much? I realized while writing this that I've accidentally erased the data of my second playthrough — and I'm looking forward to re-doing everything. I'm good with it. It just means I'll hear more of the exquisite musical score, revisit some beautiful spots, and re-experience some of the great voicework, occasionally tweaking Jin's outfit and gear along the way. Maybe I'll play it in "Kurosawa mode" with Japanese language, English subtitles, black-and-white film-grain imagery and an audio filter that makes everything sound old, but maybe I can't do that for another 50 hours. It's great in English, I assure you.

Ghost of Tsushima brought me epic joy, which is a special thing to find in the bottomless library of experiences out there. I'm deliberately leaving out the description of a moment in the game during the second act that is probably one of the dopest sequences I've ever seen. I don't want to spoil it. I'd rather you see it for yourself, either by playing or seeing it on the internet later. When the credits rolled after the final scene, I felt like I was in a movie theater and ready to applaud. I got to binge-watch and play the samurai story of my dreams. For anyone else who's ever picked up a long, empty wrapping-paper tube, held it with two hands a few inches apart, and swung it like a samurai, I have good news: We found it. We've got our game.

Score: 9.4/10



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