Reviews July 28, 2020
Suker Punch’s original Infamous game was a PS3 masterpiece. It was one of those titles that showed gamers how an open-world game should look like. Full 6 years have passed since the release of the studio’s last title, Infamous: Second Son, and 6 years is a lot of time to develop a new game. The result? Ghost of Tsushima a cinematic experience with a simple, flawed, and yet oddly satisfying gameplay.
And, once again, it’s the kind of game that shows how an open-world should look like: gorgeous and inviting.
Ghost of Tsushima has sold over 2.4 million units worldwide since its July 17 debut according to PlayStation 4. That makes it the fastest-selling first-party PS4 exclusive to date. Not even a month has passed and it’s already amongst the original Sony best-sellers, below Uncharted 4, Marvel’s Spiderman, Horizon Zero Dawn, God of War 4, The Last of Us Remastered, and The Last of Us 2.
Is it because this is one of the best games of 2020? Yes, yes it is. Even though it has simple and unpolished gameplay, this action-adventure game has something going on. Those are not casual numbers. So let’s keep this Ghost of Tsushima spoiler-free and see if you should spend those $60 to play it on your PlayStation 4 (and most probably on the PlayStation 5 with backward compatibility)
Less is more. I think Suker Punch took those words as their policy to construct the gameplay of this samurai fantasy. Game-wise simplicity, aesthetics on everything else: Ghost of Tsushima is a tale of honor and vengeance across. It’s a gorgeous, simple-to-digest adventure across beautiful feudal-Japan landscapes.
With elements taken from Assasin’s Creed and combat gameplay inspired by The Shadow of Mordor, Suker’s Punch new title combines fine blade-to-blade gameplay systems with one of the most beautiful open-worlds current-gen consoles have ever since. And they do more than okay without adding overly complex RPG elements, convoluted plot twists, or overly hard-to-master combat mechanics. It’s just friendly.
But there’s a definite focus on its a heartwarming story. And it blossoms like a flower, a cherry blossom where the characters have time to develop, the plot has time to grow, and the player has time to explore.
The narrative starts when the fictional Mongol Emperor Khotun Khan begins his invasion of Japan on the island of Tsushima. Legendary Samurai warriors must defend the island, but they are outmatched by the firepower of their enemies. Our hero, Jin Sakai, is The Last Samurai standing, and so you rise from the ashes to fight back.
However, you’re now one man facing an army, desperate needs to change your honorable combat tactics arises.
Ghost of Tsushima is a samurai tale, and we can recognize a samurai tale as a Western. They are full of grit, passion, revenge. Most importantly, the character is always a lone-wolf man fighting against the evil in his heart, and the evil in his world.
The grit comes from a tangible grounding, a particular historic moment, and a place in the world. There’re various perfect examples of tough cowboy games in recent history, one of those being Red Dead Redemption, and the other being The Witcher 3. Both games tell a similar story with a stoic, outlawed character that must endure the suffering to succeed right against enemies much stronger and powerful.
Furthermore, all of these games are about arriving into a depressed village and solving problems with a sword (or gun, or magic). There’s also a sense of immensity through the open-world features whilst character moments and details happen during quieter, more intimate moments.
So, if you like these two games (and Suker Punch even listed Red Dead Redemption as their inspiration), you’re also going to like this one. If you’re looking for something else, something truly original, maybe skip?
This is a fictional tale based on true events. It revolves around the invasion of the Empire of Japan by the Mongol Empire in 1274. The army was led by one of Ghenghis Khan’s grandsons, Kublai Khan. He was the successor of the powerful mogul and had enough power to found the Chinese Yuan dynasty (1271 . 1368 CE). The Khan amassed two fleets from China and Korea to invade Japan, and they first arrived at Tsushima island.
Samurai warriors defended their feudal lord and people to the last, but no one survived, unlike the game. History’s “Ghost of Tsushima” wasn’t a man, it was instead a typhoon. As the invader army kept conquering surrounding islands, the so-called “kamikaze” storm (“Divine Winds) sank countless men, beasts, and ships, thus saving the Asian country from Chinese conquest.
The victory became a legend in Japanese culture and it’s remembered as a mix of godly intervention with human heroism.
In the game, though, both Jin Sakia and his uncle, Tsushima’s Lord Shimura survived the initial onslaught. After you survive death during the first attack, you soon realize your uncle has been taken by the Khan. It is your job to save your family, the island, and the empire. You are the human-made storm that brought the enemy’s fleet apart. And you must do so quickly and silently. Barbaric forces are roaming the land.
“Lord Shimura is my uncle. He’s the last family I have left. I have to save him.” – Jin Sakai
The best thing about Ghost of Tsushima is its storytelling. It ticks all of the marks of a summer Blockbuster and takes forward the cinematic experience policy commanded by The Last of Us’ studio, another important Sony IP creator.
Suker Punch delivers its 35mm intentions by making a very clear homage to Akiro Kurosawa’s classic samurai movies (Yojimbo, Rashomon, The 7 Samurais, Sanjuro,…). You can even activate the Kurosawa Mode, a darkened film grain that taints the game to make it feel like a product of the director their they’ve taken inspiration from.
That brings us plenty of cutscenes, cherry blossoms, and meaningful conversations we’re happily going to see. It brings us plenty of character moments, motivations and desitions we’re going to understand. Most of all, it delivers one of the most memorable video game villains of recent times: Khotun Khan.
By the way, Kazuya Nakai (One Piece’s Zoro), delivers an excellent Japanese audio track to Khotus Khan, reason enough to play this game on its original language.
Our main story revolves around Jin’s honorable teachings when he was a child, now in conflict with a dire need to save his homeland no matter the cost, consequences, or methods. It takes a while to get everything started (about 30 minutes to reach the much-expected tutorial-part), but when it does, it’s a compelling inner struggle.
That also delivers one of the best mechanics, which is the built-in tutorial events. Instead of having a fully fledge samurai re-learning how to fight, we get to see flashbacks of Jin Sakai training and bonding with his uncle. Naturally, times to travel back is when the narrative wants us to understand why Sakai’s old teachings might no longer be relevant.
As one of the last samurais standing willing to fight, you get the company of the savvy thief Yuna to rescue your uncle back from the Khan. The goal is setting the island free from the conquerors on a 50 hours epic journey across the blossomed Japan of the past and the wasted scenery of the present.
Yuna is there to teach you the other way. She’s there to make you consider being stealthy ultimately brings the better good to the majority of people. On the contrary, fighting with honor might be the end of hope.
That’s how the Ghost of Tsushima’s storyline focuses on how Jin Sakai develops over time. He’s a respectable member of the royal Sakai Clan You can even activate the Kurosawa Mode, a darkened film grain that taints the game to make it feel like an Akira Kurosawa movie at the beginning of the game. However, you need to use “dishonorable” skills and tactics to defeat the Mongols: poison, sabotage, assassination, raids, and similar.
Throughout the single-player campaign, whenever you learn or perform a disrespectful skill (like assassination), you’re going to see Jin suffer from his moral dilemma. Should he honor the Samurai’s bushido code? Or should he protect his people?
Without spoiling too much, this is the kind of story that goes from…
“Jin, you need to control your emotions” – Lord Sakai
This happens during an introductory flashback whilst Jin is training with his uncle, to…
“(Uncle!), honor died in the beach. The Khan deserves to suffer!”
By the end of the game, you have used guerrilla warfare to defeat the Mongols. You become the Ghost, an unethical warrior who betrays his tradition to win. Instead of a Divine Intervention, you become a dishonor to Clan Sakai.
While the main character doesn’t have a lot of charisma, the villain more than makes up for it. “A movie is only as good as its villain” is an old Hollywood adage we should have taken to the video game industry a long time ago. We can only care about the protagonist when the antagonists pose a treat for our heroes, both morally and physically.
Remember Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier? Well, Bucky Barnes drowned Roger’s moral compass and bested his physical strength as well. That’s how good we want our video game villains to be.
That said, Khotus Khan has everything it joins a shortlist of legendary video game antagonists like Saren / The Illusive Man (Mass Effect 1 / Mass Effect 3), Sin (FFX), Kerrigan (Starcraft), and Andrew Ryan (Bioshock).
Khan’s menacing figure is ever-present. His intentions, terrifying. And despite his gruesome nature, he keeps an oddly calming attitude and soft menacing tone.
He’s a real threat. He’s cunning as he’s fast. The “Big Bad” is always two steps ahead of Sakai, which is part of the reason why Jin takes up to 50 hours to beat him. He’s so dangerous and smart he forced Sakai to abandon everything he was, everything he knew, to defeat him. Photos Khan is reason enough for the venerable samurai to ditch his honorable code in favor of revenge.
The last point of this cinematic experience is music. It’s a dynamic, searing score that shifts from ambient Japanese flutes to stealthy tension and Taiko drums when swords and spears start clashing.
Its music is tense, speedy, and calm all at the same time. It’s also historically accurate and put together with great passion. The music always fits and its there to improve whatever gameplay experience you’re having. Plus, it’s a great company to the plentiful cinematics we get.
Just like the grain filter, Ghost of Tsushima’s score shows great attention to detail and great love for its sources of inspiration. It shows Suker Punch truly wanted to turn a Kurosawa movie into a game.
What makes the bulk of this game is combat, though, and that’s what most of us are going to play this game for. After all, doesn’t samurai mean swords?
Ghost of Tsushima’s combat is a weird mix between Sekir: Shadows Die Twice, older Assasin’s Creed titles, The Shadow of Mordor, Jedi: Fallen Order, and the Batman Arkham series. As far as combat mechanics go, Ghost does a fine job albeit with some flaws we don’t see on these other games.
On a surface level, there’re light attacks, heavy attacks, dodges, and parry. It’s that simple. There’re additional RPG elements we get to learn to improve our skills.
As Jin Sakai completes tasks and quests, you get to unlock sword stances, each one coming with a set of moves and advantages against a particular weapon type. For example, the Stone Stance (which is the first), is great against swords but weaker when fighting shields. There’re four different stances you can learn. You unlock them by killing enemy generals, much like in The Shadow of Mordor.
The mechanics are interesting and varied with weapons, armor, tools, stances, and passive skills. What it lacks, though, is perfected combat mechanics: parrying, dodging, and fighting big groups of enemies feels is rather simple, but also flawed. On top of that, there’s just not enough enemy variety to justify such a big game with such an extensive campaign. Older games have done it better before, and that includes all of the games we’ve already listed.
Maybe it doesn’t matter, though. The battles still feel fun. And much like on Jedi: Fallen Order, you’ll be defeating hordes of enemies in seconds by the end of the game, which is always going to feel satisfying. Either way, most video games rely on repetitive combat mechanics but thrive on the value of their plot and scenarios.
Plus, there’s also a particular cinematic feature in the combats…
At the beginning of each combat, you can activate a stand-off. That allows you to challenge your foes to a classic showdown where they must make the first move so you can strike them down with a response. If you lose, though, the enemy is going to drain your health bar in one blow, which leaves you in a vulnerable position against the rest of the enemies.
On top of that, you can put points to the stand-off skills or wear gear that allows you to link multiple attacks together. It’s a nice and unique detail.
Another impressive detail is how difficulty always rises to the moment. Even though your character becomes a beast, there’s no point in the campaign that’s going to feel easier.
Enemies get properly tougher, which means you need to upgrade your skills, first and foremost, as well as your sword, armor, and charms. Challenge is always at the corner, but it never falls into the dumb trap of turning your enemies into a health sponge that suddenly makes you think your sword is made of plastic instead of lethal, very lethal steel.
There’s also a set of gadgets and tools you get to use alongside your adventure. As your character gets used to bending the samurai code, he starts to employ tools more akin to a ninja: bombs, shurikens, bows, smoke, and similar.
The bulk of this game’s work is not on the gameplay, as we saw, but on the plot and the scenarios. We can’ deny that Suker’s Punch game is beautiful. And it’s not just beautiful, it’s the most gorgeous game I’ve ever seen. It’s a piece of art.
I can start explaining that there’re four types of quests: the main story, side off quests, mythic quest, and “tales” (which are longer side quests that require multiple steps). NPCs grant you these quests as an opportunity to explore the vast island of Tsushima, a beautiful world full of color, crimson, nature, flowers, oceans, sunsets, beaches, mountain peaks, and birds. It’s all very cinematic with a splash of the Hollywood-prefered orange & teal color palette.
The bad is the side quests are mostly repetitive. Follow someone, find some tracks, kill someone, fetch something, and come back for some XP. That’s why they merely represent an opportunity to explore the world, instead of a chance of exploring your character.
Here’s where the game gets a bit frustrating. Side quests have the heart of an outlaw story, but they lack sustain, character, and variety. The bulk of these side quests are as thought-out as…
“Help us! The Mongols!”
The exception s the Mythic Tales, which grew. These are epic long sidequests that set you on the hunt for legendary gear and techniques. You can obtain the rewards by listening to a musician’s tale of whatever you’re trying to find alongside cool animations. Then, you’re mostly channeling your inner Samurai X against uber-powerful opponents holding that which you seek.
Lastly, aside from discovering the beauty of the game’s open-world, exploration also rewards something for every collectible you find, which is a nice addition. For example, Bamboo Strikes increase your resolve (which you need for special moves and healing).
PS4’s Ghost of Tsushima is part of our ongoing series reviewing the top 10 games of 2020.
Ghost of Tsushima is not a perfect game, not whatsoever. Instead of fine-tuned gameplay mechanics, enhanced enemy AI, or addictive stealth mechanics, Suker Punch took its 6 years to deliver a movie within a PS4 Blue-Ray disc.I
s that bad? Of course not. This is what the PlayStation is known for: cinematic experiences, pieces of art, masterpieces. In the end, though, the swordplay is challenging, fun, rewarding, and good enough to go through the whole game without feeling bored.
Seeing your character grow, evolve, and struggle is reason enough to see the campaign through. Killing the despicable Khan is motivation enough to reach the end. And exploring the vast, gorgeous feudal Japan with a lonely samurai is indeed a replayable experience.
Maybe the beauty of this game also relies on the simplicity of its combat mechanics.