Ghost of Tsushima is a game of compulsion. Like most open-world adventures, everything is designed to get you to explore what’s over the next hill or across that nearby river. The map is peppered with question marks, many of which surround towns and temples in which you meet allies and upgrade equipment. Helpful diversions like hot springs and fox dens have obvious environmental tells. The wind, a major contributor to the game’s overall aesthetic, literally guides you to objectives. But there’s a big difference between scouring a map to completion and actually having a good time, no matter how obsessive a person you may be.
The story opens with Japan on the brink of war. A small group of samurai have gathered on a Tsushima beachhead to repel an invading Mongol force led by Khotun Khan, a fictional descendant of Genghis and Kublai Khan. While the Mongols attacked Japan on multiple occasions, Ghost of Tsushima liberally combines various historical and cultural artifacts for an entirely new narrative. As was the case in the late 13th century, the samurai find themselves unprepared to deal with the invaders’ overwhelming military tactics and get almost completely annihilated.
Ghost of Tsushima puts you in control of Jin Sakai, one of the island’s last remaining samurai on the island. A half-dead Jin is pulled from the battlefield by a wandering thief named Yuna, only to rush off in an attempt to free his captured uncle. Jin makes it his mission to save his home from the invaders, who have wasted no time in running roughshod over Tsushima as a prelude to their attack on the Japanese mainland. For the player, this translates to random battles throughout the countryside and liberating villages occupied by the Mongols, sometimes with Jin’s allies but mostly on your own.
Screenshot: Sucker Punch
Jin is a blank slate in the early hours of Ghost of Tsushima, with only brief flashbacks to his time learning from his uncle as any indication of who he is under his gruff exterior. As an idealized image of the samurai warrior caste that existed in Japan at the time, he spends a lot of time worrying about the dichotomy of honor and shame. But it soon becomes abundantly clear that Jin must adopt new tactics, even those he views as “dishonorable,” to liberate Tsushima, adding a thin layer of internal strife to the more overt conflict against the Mongols.
This aspect of Ghost of Tsushima gave me pause when developer Sucker Punch Productions showed off early previews. Samurai have been extensively mythologized in modern times, reimagining what was essentially the paramilitary arm of a system of feudal land ownership as noble, superhuman dispensers of justice. Before playing the game, I imagined this stereotypical concept would tie into some weird, Mass Effect-esque morality system by which the main character would vacillate between “honor” and “shame” depending on how he approached every situation.
Thankfully, that’s not the case, even if the game’s narrative tunnel-visions on the concept. There’s no penalty for approaching battles in Ghost of Tsushima stealthily, which Jin considers a violation of samurai code. You don’t get locked out of any skill trees or storylines depending on how you decide to fight. While Jin is forced to take a more stealthy approach for both tutorial and narrative reasons early on, there’s also nothing stopping you from proudly walking into an enemy encampment and challenging dozens of Mongols to a straight-up fight. Sure, the best approach will always be a mixture of traditional katana skills and more “underhanded” tools like smoke bombs and firecrackers, but the game never punishes you for living out your own personal version of Seven Samurai.
That enduring image of a lone warrior surrounded by foes becomes a neat gameplay mechanic in Ghost of Tsushima. When approaching a group of enemies, Jin can call out to them with a challenge for one-on-one combat against their strongest fighter. Here, the game asks you to hold the Triangle button and keep a close eye on your opponent. When they make a move, that’s your cue to release the button, which causes Jin to unsheathe his sword and unleash a deadly, one-hit kill. By the end of the game, a combination of skills and armor made it so I could slice through five enemies in a row before actually starting a battle, which proved to be a boon for some of the more difficult dust-ups.
Gif: Sucker Punch (Kotaku
Ghost of Tsushima’s swordplay is basic and engaging, a mixture of light and heavy attacks, parries, and dodges, tied to specific buttons or button combos. The combat system is very easy to grasp if you’ve played any recent video game, perhaps as a way to indicate, through gameplay, that Jin has been learning to fight with a katana since he was a child. As the game goes on, you learn various stances—combat styles that you can shift into at will—by observing and killing Mongol generals. Stances are meant to deal with different types of enemies: The stone stance, for instance, is better suited to taking down swordsmen, whereas the water stance’s flow of bludgeoning strikes is perfect for decimating shields. These stances, much like the rest of Jin’s repertoire, can be improved with skill points earned from defeating enemies and completing missions to unlock more combo strings and increase damage.
The “ghost” in Ghost of Tsushima refers to Jin’s transformation from a rigid samurai warrior into a guerrilla vigilante willing to do anything to save his home. Where a samurai might focus entirely on his katana and bow, the covert tactics Jin learns over the course of the campaign give him access to a multitude of more subtle weaponry. This starts out with some basic kunai, which can be thrown to break an opponent’s guard from a distance, but quickly expands to include tools like smoke bombs, explosives, and even wind chimes that draw enemies’ attention. Jin’s most important tool, however, is his tanto, a short blade that allows him to perform quick, violent assassinations from the shadows. It’s rare to enter a fight where you’re not vastly outnumbered, so it’s best to balance the scales as much as possible from the relative comfort of stealth. The only time where stealth really feels required is when the Mongols have taken hostages. If an enemy spots you, they’ll start to cut down prisoners unless you can stop them.
These two aspects of Jin’s arsenal combine to make every battle in Ghost of Tsushima fluid, evolving affairs. While you might initially sneak into a Mongol encampment, one wrong move can turn the mission into an all-out brawl against the camp’s entire garrison. I usually found myself picking off high-priority targets like bruisers with medieval shotguns and explosive-throwing support troops with my bow before wading into battle, where smart usage of my stances were key to surviving. Eventually, the Mongols begin to employ the services of animals like hunting dogs and hawks, which can sniff you out or spot you from above. I never found myself tiring of the basic flow of combat, but I quickly got so strong that stealthy approaches were just a waste of time when there weren’t any hostages to protect. Why assassinate Mongols when I could just walk up, challenge them to a duel, and mop up the stragglers?
Besides combat, much of the game is dedicated to exploring the island’s lush environments. Jin strides across vast fields of flowers, the muck and mire of swamplands, and even the icy northern reaches of Tsushima during his adventure. At one point, he dropped his hand to feel the foliage as I raced along on a horse, mimicking my exact desire in that moment. Tsushima also features a weather system that, while not offering much apart from rain storms and rolling fog, gives the beautiful scenery an additional coat of aesthetic flair. Over the course of the game, Jin can learn songs on his flute that change the weather at will, which doesn’t really mean anything mechanically but makes for a fun way to customize your experience.
Ghost of Tsushima has an almost insatiable desire to remind you of its influences through its visuals. Each mission opens with a title card that draws inspiration from old samurai films. An optional black-and-white visual filter is literally named after legendary director Akira Kurosawa but imparts the game with none of the charm or humanity for which his films are known. Important duels are preceded by a lengthy, tension-building cutscene that ultimately functioned as a minute or so to check my phone while waiting for it to play out for the tenth time. Every attempt at infusing Tsushima with these cribbed details feels like a wink and a nudge for recognition rather than true homage.
Ghost of Tsushima fills its expanses with multiple diversions. Tall, white flags indicate the presence of a bamboo strike mini-game, which asks you to quickly tap out increasingly difficult button sequences to increase Jin’s resolve meter. In combat, this meter allows you to heal, use special techniques like a series of devastating slashes that homes in on opponents, and even revive yourself. Hot springs can be found beneath trees with orange blossoms, giving Jin a chance to decompress and extending his health bar. Swarms of fireflies mean a fox den is nearby, the denizen of which will lead you to a special shrine that lets you carry more charms, accessories with bonuses that range from simple stat boosts to more interesting mechanics like regaining arrows on a headshot. While it’s fun to listen to Jin’s internal thoughts while at the hot spring and to pet the foxes after their guidance, I never found myself excited to see one of these landmarks on the horizon. They were merely there to complete for a reward, a far cry from the dynamic intensity of battle.
Ghost of Tsushima
Back of the box quote
« Press R2 to compose haiku. »
Type of game
Open-world samurai simulator
Fluid combat, gorgeous landscapes, charming side characters
Tedious missions, uninspired protagonist
Sucker Punch Productions
July 17, 2020
55+ hours to finish the story and 100% the map
Most of Ghost of Tsushima’s activities exist simply to reward you rather than offer any meaningful experience. The layer of Japanese aesthetics barely hides the fact that the world is just there to be mindlessly mined for resources. It feels very weird to save a peasant from a group of Mongol soldiers, only to have them turn around and reward Jin with whatever meager possessions they were able to hide away. The game also has no problem with allowing you to raid homesteads for materials like iron and leather, which can then be used to upgrade your gear. Jin is the head of his clan, an aristocratic warrior who never wanted for anything in his life. Why is he so eager to squeeze every last resource from the people he’s supposed to be protecting? Life was hard before the Mongols arrived, and now villages and farms are burning. Those supplies would be much more useful in attending to refugees rather than a man whose sole ambition is reinstating the power structure that enforced these hardships in the first place.
Jin isn’t sympathetic or interesting enough to care about. Any growth he shows over the course of the game deals entirely with his approach to warfare, rather than the imbalances within the society he seeks to protect or even his own responsibility for maintaining them. When a friend from his childhood betrays him, for instance, Jin does very little personal inventory about how he might have contributed to the turncoat’s view of the world, instead focusing on a quest for revenge that could have been entirely prevented with a little bit of compassion.
The story’s saving grace involves the multi-part side missions that focus on Jin’s allies. Many of these missions follow a similar pattern that usually ends with just another battle, but the characters Jin recruits are so compelling and charming that it makes up for any predictable gameplay decisions. In one mission, Jin finds himself assisting an aging warrior named Lady Masako in finding the people who conspired to murder her entire family amidst the Mongol invasion. Her quest for revenge forces Jin to come to grips with his own anger, and at one point they even come to blows when he stops her from carrying out an arguably more justified form of the revenge he himself seeks against Khotun Khan. Another side mission sees Jin meeting an old archery mentor, Sensei Ishikawa, to help him find his star pupil. Ishikawa’s relationship with his student mirrors Jin’s own relationship with his uncle, giving Jin an outside perspective on his struggle between the honor taught to him by his family and what must be done to defeat the invaders.
Gif: Sucker Punch (Kotaku
Despite (or perhaps because of) Ghost of Tsushima’s reliance on combat to drive many of its set pieces, the game’s best mission requires almost no combat. At various points in the game, Jin learns of local legends that lead to great rewards, like a robe that improves your archery skills or the ability to light your katana on fire. The latter requires climbing a massive mountain, atop which supposedly sits a meteor with the ability to imbue blades with flames. While this would be dangerous in and of itself, a snowstorm threatens to freeze Jin before he makes it to the summit. The mission, then, revolves around navigating treacherous mountain paths while making sure to find sporadic campfires before Jin succumbs to the cold. The climbing mechanics are so barebones that they barely warrant a mention elsewhere, but in the swirling vortex of the blizzard, learning how to spot footholds and places to attach Jin’s grappling hook become vital. I won’t ruin what you find at the top, but the journey was enough to make the quest for a burning blade one of my favorite parts of Tsushima. I just wish the game offered more of these moments.
Ghost of Tsushima is pretty as heck—sporadic capturing left me with almost 50 GB worth of screenshots and short video clips to sift through—but at its core, it’s just another open-world game. I found myself audibly sighing every time I crested a hill towards a mystery objective only to find another fox to follow or another haiku to compose. These diversions, while unique at first glance, proved to just be busy work as time wore on. I was so strong by the end of the game—filling up every skill tree is easy if you ignore the main story and just explore for a bit—that I didn’t even bother using stealth tactics for the last third. I don’t think I even died after the first few hours. There’s so little to get excited about in Tsushima once the initial wonder of the wind physics and lush environments wears off that the only thing that kept me going was my own innate desire to fill out the entire map. And that can only hold someone’s interest for so long.