I remember being in a room behind Sony's booth at E3 2018, waiting to play Spider-Man on PlayStation 4. At the same time, Sony Interactive Entertainment and Sucker Punch Productions were showing off Ghost of Tsushima, an action-adventure game rooted in the historical invasion of Japan by Mongol emperor Kublai Khan. I was vibing with everything the developer was putting down in regards to the setting, and Sucker Punch had yet to disappoint me.
It looked bad. Visually, it was a stunner on PlayStation 4, but in play, it looked silted and robotic. I wanted something like the graceful and brutal samurai duels of Akira Kurosawa's films, or the Zatoichi serials. Instead, it was clear there was more work to be done to hit that mark.
Today, during a State of Play event, we had the chance to see how far Ghost of Tsushima has come in those two years. It's still looking great, with fields of grass and wild flowers swaying in a calming dance, as petals float lazily on the wind. Sucker Punch gave us a look at exploring the island of Tsushima, protagonist Jin's dual nature as a samurai and the ninja-like Ghost, and even features like customization. It all looks fantastic.
It also recalls an older era of Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed series.
I generally divide Assassin's Creed into three distinct eras. The first began and ended with the original Assassin's Creed, a slower, more methodical game about the craft of assassination. The second era was more action focused, stretching from Assassin's Creed 2 to Assassin's Creed Syndicate. Ever since 2017's Assassin's Creed Origins, Ubisoft has leaned the series toward an RPG-style of progression and play. I enjoy the new titles immensely, but there are fans that would like the series to go back to something more pure; something without experience, levels, and specialization. I've even argued that Ubisoft shouldn't forget players who want that experience.
In the meantime, there's also been a long-running cry from the Assassin's Creed fandom: take the series to medieval Japan. I've always considered Japan to be the "break glass in case of emergency" setting for Assassin's Creed; if the series ends up there, it's because Ubisoft is trying to save the franchise. Ubisoft has steadfastly avoided it.
Past Ubisoft developers have even commented on why the publisher doesn't want to bring Assassin's Creed to Japan. "People on the internet suggest the most boring settings. The three most wanted are WWII, feudal Japan, and Egypt. They're kind of the three worst settings for an AC game," Assassin's Creed 3 creative director Alex Hutchinson told OXM in 2012 (via VG247), five years before the series indeed headed to Egypt in Assassin's Creed Origins. In a later interview with Total Xbox (via IGN), Hutchinson would add, "Feudal Japan would work as an Assassin's game, for sure, but I feel like it would start to look like 'oh, have I played this?' You know what I mean–'Oh, I've been a ninja before, I've been a samurai before.'"
Ubisoft doesn't have to cater to either vein of commentary and make a less RPG-laden Assassin's Creed in feudal Japan, because Sucker Punch Productions did it for them. I don't see this as a negative; ideas are cheap. and if one developer isn't catering to a niche, that's a good spot for another to thrive. I'm excited that Sucker Punch is picking up the baton Ubisoft put down. I'm happy because Assassin's Creed can continue in one direction with Assassin's Creed Valhalla, while that old AC feeling is here with Ghost of Tsushima.
It's not any one thing in Ghost of Tsushima's video reveal that reminds me of Assassin's Creed. Watching Jin make his way across the island on his horse, a trusty steed you call via a quick whistle, recalls the recent horse-bound AC releases. (I find myself asking if the horse is immortal.) Bits like the visual detection cones and grabbing resources on the ground while riding by remind me of Assassin's Creed Odyssey. Hell, the quest marker icon looks oddly similar to Odyssey's waypoint icon.
There's still too many questions about combat to make too many comparisons. The samurai combat does seem to carry the same counter-kill nature of earlier Assassin's Creed games, and playing as the Ghost is pure AC. The methods of distraction—throwing stones, whistling, smoke bombs, and the like—have featured in previous AC games. The firecracker used by Jin to get guards into place for a chain assassination was in Assassin's Creed: Freedom Cry.
That's not to say Sucker Punch isn't making its own path through the wilderness. Guiding Wind is a fantastic idea, allowing the player to set a waypoint and call up the wind to guide them in the right direction. Not only does it look cool, but it requires minimal UI to pull off. The design of the open-world to allow players to get more curious about locations is also smart; Ubisoft doesn't always pull that off as well as it could. The grappling hook that Jin uses is a tool that only appeared in Assassin's Creed Syndicate, where it was primarily used to create point-to-point ziplines, as opposed to the direct swinging option available in Ghost of Tsushima. And who doesn't love the idea of the black-and-white visualization mode, even if the look is slightly off compared to classic samurai films.
Questions still remain about Ghost of Tsushima. If you prefer the samurai playstyle, are you still forced to leave it behind as Jin becomes the Ghost? Is there a layer of customization that allows you to have a certain look while using armor that offers different stats? And how does combat work exactly, given the brief glimpse of stances?
Despite all these questions, I'm excited to take a crack at Ghost of Tsushima on July 17, 2020. It's looking fantastic on PlayStation 4, and will probably look even better on the upcoming PlayStation 5. And since Sucker Punch is keeping players sated with feudal Japan, perhaps fans will firmly leave behind the idea of Ubisoft visiting the region in an Assassin's Creed. It's rare that everyone wins, but with Ghost of Tsushima, it looks like that's absolutely the case.