What sorcery is this? Last Friday, Sucker Punch Productions launched Ghost of Tsushima: Legends, a multiplayer update for their previously single-player adventure. And after a week of play, I'm shocked to say that Legends is really good for an entirely free update. What arcane ritual did Sucker Punch Productions undertake in order to launch it in this state?
In Legends, players take on the role of Ghosts, plural. It's an unconnected side story to Jin's tale; these are literally the spirits of fallen samurai, brought back from the dead to face the supernatural forces unleashed by the Mongol invasion. The Ghosts face these oni, working together in the afterlife, a twisted shade of the real world. Their exploits are narrated by Gyozen, a mysterious teller of tales who can seemingly pierce the veil between life and death.
The unnatural shroud over familiar locations from Sucker Punch's shrunken Tsushima is part of the draw. Ghost of Tsushima was a beautiful game, with forests exploding in a kaleidoscope of colors and leaves drifting on the winds. Here, that's all covered in a corruption that looks equally stunning. A haunted miasma drifts at the edges of each map, and strings of flesh are tethered to walls and buildings. The skies are filled with floating objects: a mass of beating, disembodied hearts, the smoldering corpses of the dead, or simply giant stones hanging unnaturally above the villages of Tsushima.
Free from the shackles of reality, Sucker Punch's art team manages to outdo themselves, to the point that I honestly wish the single-player had featured more of what's on display here. Similar to Control's more impressive locations, there's a sense of free-wheeling fun here, with the artists cramming in weird ideas in an effort to one-up each other. The visual splendor also helps to break up the game experience, given that you will be playing the same levels over and over again in Legends.
The Ghosts Arise
You do not play Jin Sakai in Legends, instead fitting into the role of four Ghosts. While Jin was a one-man army, able to chain assassinate and duel like a man forged in hell, Legends is meant to be played in a team of two to four players. The Ghosts straddle various aspects of his style, with none of them fully accessing all his capabilities.
The Samurai is the straightforward warrior, able to stand face-to-face with enemies and siphon life from them to keep going. The Assassin is Jin's stealthy side, who moves quieter than the rest and can quickly kill with their tanto. The Hunter is the master of the bow and arrow, able to deal far more damage at range compared to the others. And finally, there's the Ronin, the support samurai that can heal and summon ghost dogs to harry foes.
You'll get a chance to taste test all four at the beginning of Legends before choosing your favorite. You will eventually get to unlock all four and switch between them as necessary, but you have to work your way up to that. Given my preference for quietly dispatching foes in the campaign, I chose to start as the Assassin.
It's clear that the Ghosts won't entirely surpass Jin's capabilities, as the progression system prizes a choice in skills, rather than being able to unlock all of them on a single character. Take the first tier of the Assassin, where you have the choice between doing 30% more damage during assassinations, having the ability to pull off a double-strength assassination at the cost of a single Resolve pip, or decreasing the cooldown of Toxic Vanish, the class ability that poisons enemies as the Assassin vanishes into nothingness.
You can't take all three skills in a tier, so you have to decide which one gels with your playstyle. And as I said before, some abilities are exclusive to Jin, so the Assassin never gets access to Chain Assassination, because that would minimize your reliance on other players. Each class is distinct enough that you'll definitely settle into a groove with one of them, and the skill system ensures that you'll bring something to the table even if you're in a group of players that all chose the same class.
The levels in Legends are discrete locations tied together by mystical Torii gates that whisk the Ghosts from place to place. Sucker Punch uses this style to control the encounters: enemies are usually closer together to encourage simultaneous assassination by a team, and elevation is enhanced to make Hunter players useful in most situations. Sucker Punch also plays around with different types of encounters, like levels with invisible enemies that only appear when lightning strikes, or foes who require players to draw an opposing element out of a shrine in order to exploit their weaknesses. I wish that multiple players could enjoy the full scope of Tsushima's single-player, but I understand why the developer chose to go this route.
If there's a misstep in Legends, it's in the survival mode that is the rest of the online experience. Survival is a horde gameplay mode, with four players defending different areas around a map. I like Survival, but currently, it's 15 waves in total and I'd prefer an option for maybe 8-10 waves instead. By time you get to Wave 14 or Wave 15, you just want it to be over.
Forging Your Armor
Developing a multiplayer experience based around loot isn't easy—as is evidenced by the false starts and stumbles in the genre, among them Anthem, Fallout 76, and Marvel's Avengers. There has to be balance between the loot drop rate and the actual loot being dropped. Loot has to feel meaningful, but it can't be so good that players stick with one set of gear and have nothing to strive for. You also have to allow for players to have the chance to tweak and change gear as necessary. And developers need to give players a carrot to work towards for consistent play.
Those three games I mentioned above have all faltered in some way. Anthem and Avengers' gear didn't change your visual look, and also weren't that interesting in terms of stats or perks. Neither game allowed for the tweaking of items, or the reroll of stats. If you're not dropping a ton of gear like Diablo or Path of Exile, you need a way for players to massage gear towards what they want, otherwise they're wholly at the mercy of random drops. And if you have visual-only items, you'll engender a good amount of goodwill by allowing players to unlock that stuff through play alone, rather than microtransactions.
Legends actually nails the loot out of the gate. Gear drops come at the end of each level, with the amount of gear being based on how many objectives you were able to complete. Rarity increases the power of gear, adding strength and additional perks as you move up the ladder. Some items allow you to use skills that aren't class-specific, like dirt throwing or caltrops. You'll make choices between feeding your overall gear score and having specific perks, like the ability to have your arrows light enemies on fire. And you can reforge any gear above the "Rare" level, so if the level of that gear or perks don't meet your current needs, you have a chance to address that. Reforging costs Essence, a resource you get by completing levels, but also from dismantling gear that you don't want.
If acquiring cosmetics are your poison, that's easy in Legends too. There's no guessing, no hoping they drop from a random chest. Instead, the cosmetics screen shows all of the available looks and tells you exactly how to unlock them. You want that Noh mask? No problem, just complete this task or that challenge.
Even low-level stuff simply works. Matchmaking is quick and easy; I've never had to wait all that long to jump into a mission. There's a ping system, so you don't even need to vocalize your intentions to other players. Every story level has three different levels of difficulty, and there's the four player survival mode if you want to just kill enemies in a group. Sucker Punch is also planning to release a raid on October 30.
All in all, I'm shocked at how well Legends manages to avoid all the pitfalls endemic to the loot-based multiplayer genre. Sucker Punch has crafted a piece of free DLC that is far and away superior to some of the biggest multiplayer releases of the past couple years. Amazing.
Ghost of Tsushima was already well-worth the $60 price tag, with 25-30 hours of wandering and killing your way across a beautifully-realized island in medieval Japan. But this is an entire free multiplayer mode, akin to a live service game, that just works. I weep for whoever's soul was used to make this ritual work.
Legends carries forward the aggressive fun of the single-player campaign in a unique way: the moment you see another player fighting a tough enemy, and then you assassinate them from the tall grass or drop an arrow into their skull, you'll feel that badass nature once again. I'm absolutely in love with Ghost of Tsushima: Legends, which is sad in a way, because I have so many games that are barring me from playing it.
But when a game is as good as Ghost of Tsushima: Legends, I guess that's not a bad problem to have.