Bringing to a close the era that included such lauded titles as Horizon: Zero Dawn, God of War and Marvel’s Spider-Man, Sucker Punch Productions had the none too easy task of delivering the final major PS4 exclusive. Fortunately, Ghost of Tsushima more than lives up to that pressure, spinning a beautiful saga of honour, betrayal and bloodshed. With brutal, balletic combat and vibrant visuals, Ghost of Tsushima is a thrilling samurai adventure, and an honourable end to the PS4’s legacy.
Dropping players into the boots of Jin Sakai, a noble samurai, Ghost of Tsushima begins with the very real Mongolian invasion of Japan in 1274. As history tells us, the initial battle at Komoda beach doesn’t go too well for the samurai, leaving Jin barely escaping with his life, and his uncle captured by the Mongol leader, Khotun Khan.
Faced with the overwhelming numbers and devious tactics of the Mongol invaders, Jin is forced to reckon with the limitations of the Bushido code, and adapt his methods to the new situation. Learning from new friends and old allies alike, Jin takes the fight to the shadows, using ninjitsu-esque techniques to undermine and terrify the enemy, earning him the moniker and dishonourable reputation of “The Ghost.”
Jin’s story is one of sacrifice and determination, as he contends with the realities of doing whatever it takes to defend your homeland.
Though the Mongol threat is compelling in its own right, this transformation, and the reluctance and guilt felt by Jin (voiced in English by Daisuke Tsuji and in Japanese by Kazuya Nakai) delivers the most emotionally resonant material. Raised by his uncle, Lord Shimura (Eric Steinberg and Akio Otsuka), the ruling Jitō of Tsushima island, Jin grew up on the Bushido code, and was always taught death before dishonour. As such, he struggles greatly to accept the necessity of less savoury tactics.
From the first time he stabs a Mongol in the back, a dishonourable action by pretty much anyone’s standards, Jin is consumed with an internal battle, between what’s honourable, and what’s right. This conflict is writ large as he faces betrayal, devastation, and push-back from samurai traditionalists. Breaking his code, disappointing his fellow warriors, and sometimes disgusting himself, Jin’s story is one of sacrifice and determination, as he contends with the realities of doing whatever it takes to defend his home.
Sticking to the tried and true open-world action game formula, Ghost of Tsushima‘s excellent main narrative is bolstered throughout by a smattering of side missions. Collectively referred to as Tales of Tsushima, some of these quests are one-shot adventures that expand the world and explore the impact of the Mongol invasion. Rewarding and interesting as these are, the best material occurs in the expansive, multi-staged narratives that dig into the backstories of Jin’s close companions.
Similar to Mass Effect‘s loyalty missions, each extended tale explores the motivations and history of one of Jin’s allies, greatly expanding their character through a mini-arc that is easily as compelling as the central plot. Best among them are Sensei Ishikawa (Francois Chou and Shigeru Chiba), a crotchety master bowman, stuck in an Obi-Wan/Anakin-style feud with his traitorous ex-apprentice, and Lady Masako Adachi (Lauren Tom and Mabuki Andou), the fierce last survivor of her clan, on a bloody quest of revenge on the people who slaughtered her entire family.
Whirling across the battlefield like a deadly breeze, parrying, dodging and countering with ruthless precision is an insanely good time.
Cutting a bloody path across the island of Tsushima, Jin employs two distinct combat styles throughout his journey, reflective of his transition into the Ghost. Stealth gameplay, while narratively relevant, is an amalgamation of mechanics used in other, similar titles, with tall grass, distractions and sneaky kills all present and correct. It’s serviceable, and often great fun, sneaking through a camp, picking Mongols off one by one, but it doesn’t really offer anything new.
The lack of ingenuity in stealth is easy to forgive, because the main event here (and in the game at large) is the superb samurai swordsmanship. Built around four fighting stances, the challenging combat encourages players to switch frequently between them, tactically choosing the best approach for each different enemy type.
Whirling across the battlefield like a deadly breeze, parrying, dodging and countering with ruthless precision is an insanely good time, but things get even better with the introduction of standoffs and duels. The former can be instigated when approaching an unaware enemy, and challenges them to face Jin in a tense showdown. The latter is a one-on-one dance of death, where all the skills learned throughout the game are put to the test in a mini-boss fight, presented cinematically against a beautiful backdrop.
Taking some historical liberties in order to create a complete samurai fantasy, Ghost of Tsushima forgoes a completely accurate recreation of Tsushima island, instead delivering a diverse game world that pays homage to multiple eras of Japanese history and culture. While some of the side content that fills this world is typical fare (climbing towers, liberating camps), the inclusion of more unique activities like haiku composing and bamboo strikes help to elevate the cultural immersion, and avoid open-world fatigue.
Tsushima is filled with vivid trees and swaying grass, all painted in an exquisite, brighter-than-life art style, and just begging to be explored.
Keeping the HUD nice and clean with a lack of mini-map, Ghost of Tsushima employs a few unique methods to help guide players. Mission markers are alluded to by the direction of the wind, which can be helped along with a strong gust by swiping the touch pad. Throughout the world, birds, foxes and fireflies will appear to lead the way to points of interest. While charming at first, these distractions can quickly become intrusive, especially given their propensity to zip in during a mission or stealth section.
The thing about the interrupting wildlife is, as interesting as they are at first, they are quickly made redundant. Ghost of Tsushima is such a delight to explore, that more often than not, you’ll find yourself beating the birds to points of interest. The isle of Tsushima is filled with vivid, red-leafed trees, swaying fields of crisp white grass, and looming snow-capped mountains, all painted in an exquisite, brighter-than-life art style, and just begging to be explored. It’s a good thing this game comes with the most comprehensive photo mode to date, because the stunning scenery gives plenty of reason to stop and grab a quick snapshot. Or two. Hundred.
Enhancing the desire for exploration is Shigeru Umebayashi and Ilan Eshkeri’s stirring soundtrack, which is filled with traditional Japanese intruments like the shakuhatch and biwa. The authenticity achieved here can be further amplified by the game’s signature “Kurosawa mode”, named in honour of the legendary Japanese auteur. Covering the screen with a grainy black and white filter, and switching to the Japanese audio track, this mode is stylishly distinct, and a great homage to traditional samurai films.
Despite employing a few mechanics that have worn out their welcome over the past few years, Ghost of Tsushima still rises above its less innovative qualities. Hell, it damn near soars. The story is a deeply engrossing reflection on the endless battle between honour and emotion; the combat system is frenetic chaos that rewards learning those old samurai skills, patience and technique; and the world is a lush playground filled with (mostly) unique and interesting content to get lost in for hours. All together, Ghost of Tsushima is a beautiful, exhilarating farewell to a generation and console defined by high-quality exclusives, and a tantalising glimpse at the wonders that are yet to come.
Verdict: 4.5/5 Paddles