Ghost of Tsushima Review: Hopefully Not The Last Samurai

Ghost of Tsushima Review: Hopefully Not The Last Samurai

The era of the PlayStation 4 ends with this rousing samurai adventure.

It's weird to me that the PlayStation 4 is capping off its run with Ghost of Tsushima. It feels like every open-world game I've played over the past generation; like a game that came out two or three years ago, with comparisons to Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed that come easily. It follows The Last of Us Part 2, a game that really does feel like a grand send off for the PS4. And yet, I found Naughty Dog's opus and the conversation around it fading into the background while I wandered around 13th century Japan, katana in hand and a wind at my back.

Sucker Punch's latest adventure is an ode to samurai films, carrying forward the visual and thematic DNA of movies like Akira Kurosawa's Sanjuro, Kihachi Okamoto's Samurai Assassin, and Masaki Kobayashi's Harakiri. It's a friend who's consumed the entire chanbara genre over the course of 48 hours, excitedly telling you the best moments and characters as they chug another Monster. USgamer Editor-in-Chief Kat Bailey compared it to Kill Bill, but really it lives in a similar space with many of Tarantino's films: a loving, sometimes voyeuristic, homage to the past that also manages to be enjoyable in its own right.

Sucker Punch doesn't even go so far as to pump fake towards any sort of historical accuracy, like Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed series usually tries to do. Instead, Ghost of Tsushima is rooted in a real event—the first Mongol invasion of Tsushima island in 1274—but full of ahistorical ideas. It sticks to the popular concept of the samurai, an idea from 16th century ideals and later, rather than the 13th century reality. Sucker Punch is openly aiming for the fantasy of the samurai. The look and the feel, not the letter of the historical law.

I'll give it this much: it really nails that feeling. As a fan of samurai cinema, the hooks in Ghost of Tsushima pulled hard on me. "Oh, this is absolutely a reference to Harakiri. That's goddamn awesome," I found myself saying. Every time I step into a standoff, Jin dispatching an enemy with a smooth, quick iaido slash, I feel Toshiro Mifune's Miyamoto Musashi. I've wanted this game for years, and for the most part, Ghost of Tsushima delivers.

Welcome to Tsushima. | Mike Williams/USG, Sony Interactive Entertainment

Journey of Honor

Ghost of Tsushima is the story of Jin Sakai, the last heir of the fallen Sakai Clan. His story begins when eighty samurai ride into battle alongside Lord Shimura—Sakai's uncle and closest relative in full armor, with only bravery and honor at their backs. It doesn't go well, leaving Jin as one of the few surviving samurai on Tsushima.

Some trailers for Ghost of Tsushima play up Jin's struggle between the samurai code of honor and his actions as the Ghost, a ninja-like Robin Hood figure. In reality, following the massacre of the samurai, Jin makes a wholly pragmatic switch to kill the Mongols by any means necessary. The results speak for themselves, as outside of a brief emotional struggle during his first assassination, Jin pretty much stays the path for the rest of the story. The outward conflict is Jin and the people of Tsushima versus the Mongol leader Khotun Khan, but the emotional struggle is between Jin and the more dogmatic samurai who rule Tsushima.

Where the narrative falters is in not sitting longer with key character beats, whether in doing more to explore the samurai code of honor prior to the massacre, or in delving into Jin's struggle with leaving that code behind. It instead opts to breeze right past those elements, accepting Jin's pragmatism as a given while mainly focusing on the conflict engendered by his increasingly brutal methods; his development into a "man of the people," and the old "revenge is toxic" theme—that last point being a huge part of the lengthy, multi-part sidequests scattered throughout the world. It mostly works in the end, but it doesn't do enough to sell Jin's choices in getting to that point. Any sense of investment is owed to the consistently high-quality performances of its cast.

Act 3 in particular feels rather perfunctory, like an add-on for the "main game" that was the first two acts. Of the 62 hours of my total playtime, Acts 1 and 2 were around 27 hours each, while Act 3 was the last nine hours. Yes, it seems odd that I ask for a tighter game elsewhere, while wanting a bit more of Tsushima's story, but I feel those additional tweaks would've elevated the tale of Jin Sakai.

Thankfully, the world Jin inhabits is a bit more realized than his narrative journey. The map of Tsushima is built with elevation in mind, with Sucker Punch encouraging you to climb a mountain or a watchtower and look down into the valleys for the next village in need of saving. It wants you to spend more time in the world rather than on the in-game map, preferring that you simply wind your way towards a location using the cues of the environment around you. The user interface is pretty minimal outside of combat, and you can actually turn off those elements with some of the new options Sucker Punch added during the review period.

In service of this commitment to diegesis, Ghost of Tsushima uses the Divine Wind—a mechanic that mostly replaces the typical waypoint indicator with a gust of wind, sometimes to comical effect (Tsushima really is very windy) . To that end, there's always grass, leaves, or snow in the air, so you can invariably glean the direction you're supposed to be going.

It's the main innovation of Ghost of Tsushima, and it largely works. It's a waypoint, sure, but it feels more like it's a part of the world, rather than a bright dotted line ushering you forward. I play open world games as a completionist, looking to finish every side quest and collect every collectible. You can unlock the ability to have the Divine Wind point towards certain collectibles, and for hours, I'd just leave it on and ride my horse from collectible to collectible, never hopping back to the menu. You live within Tsushima as Jin, looking down on smoke billowing from a town in the distance, before riding down and raining hell on the Mongols below.

Look down upon the world, and then make yourself known. | Mike Williams/USG, Sony Interactive Entertainment

Somewhere Under The Broad Sky

The Divine Wind, together with the amazing environmental art and design, whips up a look that's wholly unique to Ghost of Tsushima. Other triple-A games might be technically as dense, detailed, and beautiful, but nothing looks quite like this game. Playing on the PlayStation 4 Pro, I just found myself taking screenshot after screenshot. I was shocked at the beauty of the setting sun, swaying grass, and leaves falling from the trees. Every region has a firm sense of place, with different plant life set off in bright reds, blues, and yellows. Entire fields of pampas grass, islands of white in a sea of green, all moving in their own independent rotations. It is, bar none, one of the most colorful triple-A games of this generation.

On top of this are specific encounters where the art team styles even further—a lone sakura tree on a quiet mountaintop; a duel on a stormy beach in the rain; a battle against a foe at night as paper lanterns sway in nearby water. I kept stopping to take photos of all these scenes, which is easy to do as opening Photo Mode is left on the directional pad. Sucker Punch knows what it's doing.

I climbed to the highest peak in the second region of Ghost of Tsushima, and I just… sat there. I took in all the towns and camps dotting the landscape, the fires that still needed to be dealt with. A carpet of bright red flowers dotting a region to the South, a forest of yellow Japanese maple trees covering the edge of one lake. I could literally look back at the full scope of where I had been, and cast another glance to the snowy mountains to the North. "If you can see a place, you can go there," Ghost of Tsushima whispered to me.

The art is so bright and wonderful that I was reluctant to use Kurosawa Mode, the visual filter that turns it into a black-and-white film, similar to the old samurai films it draws inspiration from. There's even a film grain filter that works rather well to sell the feeling, but after trying a few times, I honestly felt it did a disservice to Ghost of Tsushima's rich artwork.

There are other triple-A games, including Sony's other first party titles, that look equally as good. They're wonderful technical showcases. But Ghost of Tsushima provides space to take in the wonder too. You'll fight Mongol patrols around the island, but the game doesn't deluge you in combat. It wants to give you time to drink in its sights and enjoy its theme park version of Japan.

No bloody spray, but it captures the chanbara feel. | Mike Williams/USG, Sony Interactive Entertainment

Samurai Assassin

Whenever you're not admiring Ghost of Tsushima's lavish scenery, you will be killing a lot of Mongols, as Jin straddles two sides of his martial nature. On one hand, there's Jin using his samurai training, wielding a katana in open sword fighting against his foes. On the other, he sneaks across rooftops, throwing bombs, wind chimes, and kunai to distract and destroy enemies.

As a samurai, Jin has access to several fighting styles: Stone, Water, Wind, and Moon. Enemies all have a strong defense and you need to break through those defenses in order to deal damage to them directly. Each fighting style is tailored to a different enemy, meant to deal more Stagger damage and open those defenses. Stone stance is effective against swordsmen, while Wind is meant to open up spearmen. Switching styles slows down time a bit, and pitched combat breaks down to switching styles quickly to prey on the weaknesses of enemies nearby.

It's decent, but it suffers from a fuzzy feeling that can make control a challenge . Jin will attack the enemy that you're pointed towards, similar to the Batman: Arkham series. Like that game, you'll sometimes find Jin wailing on the wrong enemy, especially in the middle of a crowded scrum of foes. You'll also occasionally find the camera getting locked behind a bush, tree, or wall, obscuring parts of the battlefields. It wants to convey a sense of natural fluidity that doesn't always work with a hard lock-on, but the soft camera lock it uses as a compromise is more of a hindrance than a help.

The standoffs allow you to flex Jin's skills. | Mike Williams/USG, Sony Interactive Entertainment

As I noted before, you can also call out enemies ahead of time in a Standoff. This mode begins with a tense face off between you and a single enemy. You hold down the triangle button and release it when the first enemy attacks, and then press it again whenever a following attacker appears. It's a good way to thin the group if you're married to out-and-out fighting. The risk-and-reward of the system means if you mess up the timing, you take significant damage. If I wasn't married to the idea of sneaking around a camp assassinating folks, I'd always go for the standoff. It plays heavily into the myth of samurai duels and that first strike is so damned satisfying; Standoffs are a win in Ghost of Tsushima.

Resolve is a further expansion of Ghost of Tsushima's risk-reward system, as it powers Jin's few special attacks and his lone healing mechanic. You need to attack and parry enemies (or win a stand-off) in order to gain Resolve to using the unblockable Dance of Wrath, but if you're taking tons of damage, you'll be using all that Resolve for healing. You'll also find yourself with low health in fights, trying to figure out which enemy is your best target to kill or parrying, so you'll get enough Resolve for a quick heal.

No, Ghost of Tsushima isn't Sekiro. Individual enemies aren't a huge threat to Jin for most of the adventure. Later remixes of enemies, like archers with poison arrows or giant soldiers with shields, do step things up though. And that's when the lack of fine control over Jin's targeting or issues with the camera obscuring a full view of Jin and his opponents become a larger problem. You need that archer dead, but Jin is attacking the dude with a shield. You hear the hiss of an explosive ready to be thrown, but you can't tell where it's coming from because your screen is full of ancient Japanese wall. When Ghost of Tsushima becomes more difficult, these problems also rise in visibility and annoyance, putting a damper on an otherwise okay combat system.

Alternatively, strike from the shadows. | Mike Williams/USG, Sony Interactive Entertainment

As Jin takes on aspects of the Ghost, his style of samurai sword gives way to his Tanto short blade and a host of tools. This is the sneaky-sneaky side of Ghost of Tsushima. Honestly, I found this part to be dissatisfying until I had progressed far enough to actually unlock all the tools for proper distraction and movement. Having the grappling hook to reach rooftops, or the Wind Chime to move guards around the battlefield is pretty important, and early on you'll lack those options, forcing you to hide in tall grass and hope a guard's path diverges from their comrades long enough that you can take them down.

Once you have all the Ghost tools at your disposal though, Ghost of Tsushima stands as a solid action stealth experience in the vein of Assassin's Creed, even if the guards are a bit dumb in the service of offering a playground of murder. (With the exception of camp leaders, who you can only Critical Hit, until an unlock much later in the game.) You can work your way through an entire camp, killing guards one by one, with none left the wiser. You can hop from a hiding spot and assassinate a target, and if you're fast enough, a guard might notice his comrade fall, but not actually engage more than a slight investigation. The problems with the stealth system are related to Sucker Punch's first-time work on this style of game. The assassination prompts are likewise unreliable, forcing you to get in the exact right position for them to appear. And Jin never gets a way to hide bodies, so they drop where you kill them.

Jin's parkour, how he gets around the world and makes his way to rooftops, is in the style of Naughty Dog's Uncharted or the older Assassin's Creed games. You're always on the lookout for the right ledge, the rusty brown rock hand hold, or the lone grappling point on a wall. It's a more rigid system of getting around. I wish there was a little more flexibility to it, but moving back to the system does allow for traversal puzzles, these Shrines around the island, that require figuring out how to move forward to the destination. It's something I wish Assassin's Creed would move back towards, so it's nice to see at least a little of that in Ghost of Tsushima. (Protip: use Photo Mode to pull the camera back and figure out exactly where the developer wants you to go next when tackling Shrines.)

Absolutely stunning art direction. | Mike Williams/USG, Sony Interactive Entertainment

Rickshaw Man

There are other small problems spread throughout Ghost of Tsushima. One is the Japanese voice track. I can't speak to the accuracy of the translations, but it's clear that Ghost of Tsushima was written and recorded in English with Asian-American actors, with the Japanese track recorded with different voice actors. I was willing to roll with that, but the lips on the Japanese voice track aren't synced up right. Sometimes it's spot-on, sometimes there are words coming out and the mouth isn't moving.

I tried to struggle through it for a while, but ultimately I had to switch back to the English vocal track. It's disappointing for a game that leans so heavily on Japanese pop culture to not really allow you to play in Japanese. It's just too distracting for me, and Kat said she noticed the issue but wanted to experience a Japanese setting with Japanese voice, so she got used to it. Your experience may vary.

I also found that the world itself wasn't quite reactive to the player. I tend to play open-world games by exploring everything and clearing all the side content completely, and then doing the main story quests. When you do that in Ghost of Tsushima, you'll run across literal ghost towns and camps. These are locations that are intended for quest set pieces, but since you haven't gotten to that quest yet, they aren't populated with anyone. A more flexible system would allow you to clear these places ahead of time, and then have the game react to that when you start the related quest. Ubisoft has only fixed that issue with this generation of Assassin's Creed, but the lack of it lays bare the "game" nature of the experience. Something to think about for next time.

There's also a bit of user interface fiddling once you have all of the Ghost tools available. Holding R2 brings up your stances, but also your quick throw items: Kunai, Sticky Bomb, and Smoke Bomb. Holding L2 is your ranged choices, for which you have Thrown, Half Bow, Long Bow, and Blow Gun, each with their own ammo types. In a heated battle, it's sometimes hard to get at the tool you want, meaning that sometimes I'd go to equip the Sticky Bomb when I wanted the Black Powder Bomb instead.

My final issue is more of a nitpick. In Ghost of Tsushima, every armor carries certain abilities: the Samurai Clan armor reduces damage taken, or Tadayori's Armor increases reload speed with the bow. You can switch armor at any time—even during combat, which is odd—but I wish the visuals of the armor were separate from the gameplay bonuses. Just felt like another odd first time mistake.


Jin and his horse rest a bit. | Mike Williams/USG, Sony Interactive Entertainment

Still, Ghost of Tsushima is damned good. This isn't the game that will draw accolades and tons of discussion. (Well, except perhaps an American developer tackling such Japanese subject matter.) It's not a vast tear down and rebuild of open-world exploration, combat, or stealth action. Ghost of Tsushima is very much a monument to the design ethos of this generation, while also being a loving homage to samurai cinema. If you turn your nose up at "triple-A open world" as a concept, it's best to get on your horse and move on.

But despite that and some of the other issues listed, I enjoyed the hell out of Ghost of Tsushima. I plowed through some 60-odd hours and mostly completed all the available content. It's got problems sure, but it's a good foundation for Sucker Punch to build upon. Maybe the next adventure can be a bit more ambitious in the gameplay department, as there was another invasion of Tsushima and you know, the whole of Jidaigeki genre to play with. But in the here and now, this is a very satisfying way to end the PlayStation 4.

Sucker Punch's first stab at a stealth action adventure hits the mark. The island of Tsushima is a beautiful backdrop for this tale of revenge and honor and the environmental art is a visual treat. Combat and stealth are largely solid, though there are issues with the camera and hitting the right targets. The biggest stumble comes with the Japanese vocal track, which isn't synced correctly with the character's lips, a shame for a game like this. Ghost of Tsushima isn't the most innovative way to end a generation, but it is a fun one.

4/5

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Mike Williams

Reviews Editor

M.H. Williams is new to the journalism game, but he's been a gamer since the NES first graced American shores. Third-person action-adventure games are his personal poison: Uncharted, Infamous, and Assassin's Creed just to name a few. If you see him around a convention, he's not hard to spot: Black guy, glasses, and a tie.

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