What would you sacrifice to save that which matters most? Would you go against your beliefs? Would you betray those you love? Would you change the very nature of who you are for the sake of others? These questions are the foundation of Sucker Punch’s samurai epic, Ghost of Tsushima. A game of such epic scale, story and grandeur that it exceeds all expectations I had approaching it as simply an open world adventure. Ghost of Tsushima disguises itself behind familiar mechanics and gameplay design to deliver, in surprising fashion, one of the best new franchises not only in the PlayStation catalog, but in this entire console cycle.
The story of Ghost begins as the Mongolian invasion hits the shores of Tsushima island in 1274, inciting a massive battle for the very lives of those who live there. The game is based broadly on real events, however the characters and their narrative arcs are fictional. As Jin Sakai, you are one of the holding forces at the battle of Komoda Beach alongside your uncle, Lord Shimura. The battle proves to be a losing one as the Mongols, led by the monstrous Khotun Khan, not only overcome your forces, but brutalize them in horrid fashion. Lord Shimura is taken captive and your are left to die in the waters of Komoda. After being rescued from the brink of death, and forced to hide in the shadows from the Mongol forces, you take up the charge to fight back and reclaim your home from the invading threat. But in order to win the war, you must cast aside your teachings, your traditions and your very honor.
The Ghost becomes a legend amongst the people of Tsushima as he slowly travels across the island like a gathering storm. The game is set across three main acts as you progress across the land in your quest to rid Tsushima of the mongol forces. Much blood will be spilt and bodies left in your wake as you learn more skills and battle techniques. The game has an extensive skill tree which is not uncommon in these types of games, however where Ghost excels at leveling up your character is in the variety of fighting abilities Jin learns through the game in the form of battle stances. Instead of simply unlocking a new combo, the game opens up various stances that are optimized for combat against certain types of enemies. These are all available in battle with the press of a button and make each encounter as dynamic as they are strategic. Facing off against an enemy brandishing a spear? Toggle to the Wind stance. Battling an enemy protected by a shield requires you to switch to the water stance. The fluidity in which you shift from stance to stance depending on your closest opponent makes every battle feel engaging, which is crucial because you will be killing a LOT of Mongolians in this game. Combat is a frequent occurrence and you will spend just as much time fighting as just about anything else in the game.
Sucker Punch went above and beyond when it comes to combat, not relying on an already dynamic and deep system to carry the weight through the entire game, because there are three completely separate combat scenarios in Ghost of Tsushima. In addition to the standard combat in the game, you will engage in One on One boss battles which require much more blocking and parrying then standard battles. You will need to read your opponent’s attacks and anticipate their moves to be successful. Finally Standoffs are my favorite combat mechanic of the game. Pressing up on the D pad will trigger a standoff when prompted and you will face off against the leader of a pack of enemies in a quick-draw engagement. Much like a high-noon shootout, Jin and his enemy stare each other down with your hand on the hilt of your blade, this is emulated by you the player holding down the triangle button. Once you see the enemy make the first move you have a split second to release the triangle button and if timed precisely you will kill the enemy instantly in a slow motion slice of your blade. Later in the game you can level up this technique and chain multiple one-hit kills through the Standoff technique. It is the most thrilling experience to kill an entire group of enemies this way as your blade slashes in slow motion from one foe to the next.
Your time in Ghost of Tsushima won’t always be spent spilling blood however. Any top-tier open world game should hold many secrets, wonders and discoveries and Sucker Punch has spent just as much time and care crafting the world around you as they have perfecting the art of combat. The island of Tsushima is one of the most breathtaking landscapes I have ever traversed in an open world game. Opting to present an environment that feels more grounded in reality than it does dramatic, the island of Tsushima is lush and vibrant in its simplicity. This game has the best use of color, contrast and lighting than in any game I’ve played before. Rather than designing a world with large elaborate temples, or dramatic caves or cliffs, Tsushima feels like a world which has been lived in and it makes the quiet moments of traversal that much more impactful. Slowly riding your horse through a forest of golden yellow leaves that scatter in the autumn wind is simply breathtaking. Kneeling at the edge of a gently rushing river as you compose a haiku under the starry sky provides a dramatic break from the tensions combat and the weight of your mission. Like with all things in life, balance is key to perfection and the beautiful island of Tsushima does much to counterweight the brutality of your quest.
Another point worth mentioning when it comes to balance is how Ghost often times pulls away hard from the action and drama of the core experience to deliver moments of deliberate quiet and focus. Rather than populating your screen with a lot of waypoints or compass guides, Ghost of Tsushima rewards the player for having a keen eye. The winds will blow towards points of interest in your quest, a golden bird will soar above you and fly towards a hidden location or treasure, or a friendly fox will guide you to a tucked away shrine. It is a clever way of encouraging the player to respect his or her surroundings rather than having a glowing waypoint telling you exactly where to go. Also there are several mediation points where you can compose haikus for bonuses, and even hot springs where the game encourages you to reflect on significant events you have experienced in your travels. Not many games take as much time as Ghost does to encourage the player to reflect on their experience, and it is a very effective tool for making you feel immersed and invested in your journey.
When all is said and done Ghost of Tsushima is a game that seems more thoughtful than most. Developer Sucker Punch knew exactly what kind of game they wanted to make and rather than bowing to tried and true conventions they stuck to their vision and the end result is better for it. While on the outside it may seem like your standard open world adventure, there is much more below the surface and the deeper you delve into it, the more you’ll get out of your time with it. Ghost of Tsushima is a fantastic final act for the PlayStation 4 AAA lineup. It closes the book on what could arguably be the best lineup of generational exclusives ever with one the PlayStation 4s greatest epics.