Easily Sucker Punch’s most ambitious game to date, Ghost of Tsushima wears its Samurai cinema inspirations on its sleeve as it touches upon the themes of honour, defiance, and impossible situations. All of this comes together to present the story of Jin Sakai and his fight to reclaim his home from the Mongol Empire’s invasion of Japan, becoming the infamous Ghost in the process.
This is not a simple tale of waging war, but a more personal one, as Jin gradually has to sacrifice more and more as he tries to hold off the Mongols and save Tsushima and Japan by extension. His transformation into the Ghost is far from an easy one, causing friction between him and his allies, the writing doing well to convey each character’s point of view, their motivations and past. With Jin’s samurai training having taught him to keep his emotions in check, it’s often the supporting cast that get to really express themselves and come across as being relatable.
The same is true of the Tales of Tsushima side quests, putting the fate of the island to one side to deal with the stories of just a handful of characters instead. Some Tales are short asides to break up the flow of the story, while others, like Lady Adachi’s tale, can weave their way through the acts alongside the main story.
As you fight back against the Mongols, you have a variety of ways to approach each mission. The missions can be quite formulaic – speak to someone, go to locations, kill enemies you find there – but how you tackle them is often up to you, unless the story dictates a particular approach.
Confronting the enemy head on head on, taking a stealthier approach, or a mixture of the two, are your main options. Running in katana swinging will see Jin swiftly taken out. Instead you have to use different stances that are effective against different enemy types. Stone Stance is effective against Swordsmen, for example, while Wind Stance is most effective against spearmen.
Most of the stances are learnt quite early on by observing or killing enemy leaders – the exception being the Ghost Stance, which is only unlocked in the game’s second act and requires almost perfect combat skill to activate – but there’s some trial and error in learning how best to use them. As you skills develop, you’ll soon learn to switch stances on the go in battle, the attention to detail that Sucker Punch have poured into the game’s combat is clear to see with Jin changing how he stands and how he holds his katana.
Another option is to trigger a standoff when prompted, testing your patience and reactions against an enemy, waiting for them to charge forward before you react. Enemies will use feints in attempt to trick you into going early and taking damage, but there’s no way to know how many feints they will throw. As soon as that first enemy has been dispatched, the others will rush in one at a time, and you must swing your sword with precise timing to cut them down too. The number of enemies that run in are dictated by your upgrades and equipped armour.
Instead of fighting, you can exploit routes through each area that keep Jin hidden from view, creeping through tall grass, and using a grappling hook to reach higher points – this can only be used where there are conveniently placed markers, instead of giving you completely free reign. Jin also gets access to equipment such as smoke bombs and throwing kunai blades. These things aren’t just good for playing stealthily, but can also be used in regular combat to even the odds out.
Exploring Tsushima is as fundamental a part of the experience as fighting the Mongols. It’s a huge area to explore, split into three sections that open up across the game’s three acts, each of which has its own distinguishing areas. Tsushima looks fantastic and there may be few locations that stand out in any game as much as the Golden Forest and its temple or the Field of the Equinox Flower. You will regularly come across enemy patrols to fight, people who need your help who will let you know of a location of interest or where enemies have taken control, and Shrines to climb up to. Clearing out outposts will remove some of the fog from the map unveiling more areas of interest, depicted by question marks. There are a lot of question marks.
Unlike other games that may have waypoint arrows or lines to follow, Sucker Punch has chosen to harness the environment. The wind will blow in the direction you need to travel to reach a goal, whether it’s plants swaying gently in a breeze or full on gale force winds. You can trigger the wind at anytime by swiping up on the touchpad if you do get lost, and later harness it to help you track shrines and collectables throughout Tsushima.
You should also keep an eye out for yellow birds that will call to you to follow them to hot springs, Shinto shrines, haikus, pillars of honour, and vanity items while foxes will lead you to Inari shrines. It’s a subtle way of teaching you the structure of the world, and you’ll begin to notice the ways that points of interest standing out against the world. For example, fox dens are always by small trees with gold or pink leaves, depending on which part of Tsushima you are in.
Your exploration gradually fills in the world map, but this is not particularly clear to read. Stylishly rendered in black, white and grey, the white markers for points of interest can be lost when exploring near the coast and the white of the sea. Outside of liberating areas, which only reveals a small surrounding area, the amount of map that is revealed is linked to the armour you’re wearing, pushing players to don the Traveller Attire as much as possible, when Samurai armour might be preferred for its boost it gives to your health. It’s understandable that Sucker Punch wants you to explore every area but when some of that area is empty seafront it feels a bit like a wasted journey.
Other parts of the UI are also a chore to use. Switching between equipment is similar to changing stances, using a combination of triggers and face buttons, but adds further steps to the process, resulting in something that’s less than ideal when in the middle of a fight. Why this was chosen over a more straightforward weapon and equipment wheel, I don’t know.
The upgrade system is a bit long winded too. Naturally, you will have to find items in the world to upgrade Jin’s equipment, but you then have to seek out a swordsmith, a bowyer, an armourer, or a trapper to upgrade the equipment for you. They can be found in camps across Tsushima, but some camps may not have all of those people, forcing you to travel to another camp to find those characters.
Some cutscenes are live within the game leading to some instances of characters encroaching into the scene and breaking immersion. For example, where one scene Jin was surveying an enemy camp saw an enemy soldier from a patrol I had previously outrun follow Jin up the watchtower and blindly search for him while the scene played out, disappearing afterwards. The game camera can also cause problems, as there will be times where the environment will block your view so that you can’t see Jin or the enemy they’re fighting for a few moments, sometimes meaning the difference between success and failure.
Those flaws aside, the presentation of Ghost of Tsushima is incredible. Sucker Punch have absolutely nailed the cinematic look through the game. The way duels are shot against various backdrops really does give them a movie feel, while the soundtrack is a real contender for soundtrack of the year. Fans of photo modes will be delighted with the comprehensive tools available to you here.