Spoiler Warning: This article contains heavy spoilers for Ghost of Tsushima.
A warrior is wronged, or sees evil happening within his steely gaze. Armed with only his considerable skills with the blade, that warrior proceeds to carve his way through many foes. By the end of the warrior's tale, he will lose someone important to him, and either walk into the distance or die in a blaze of bravery. (I say "he", because the character in question is rarely a woman.) This is the codified story of many samurai films, part of the DNA they share with Hollywood Westerns of the same era. These are the threads Sucker Punch Productions used to craft to Ghost of Tsushima.
Ghost of Tsushima pulls from cinema rather than devoting itself to any historical reality. It acknowledges that real samurai from that time didn't really look or act like protagonist Jin Sakai or his uncle Lord Shimura. The katana wasn't the standard weapon in use in that era. The code of "bushido" was largely mythologizing a class of aristocratic warriors after the fact, another connection between samurai and the cowboys of the old West. Sure, Sucker Punch did nail some of those details, like an older style of Japanese writing or specific flora and fauna, but Ghost of Tsushima is really about getting across the coolness of those old movies from Akira Kurosawa, Masaki Kobayashi, Hiroshi Inagaki, and others.
As I played Ghost of Tsushima, I found myself checking off the boxes of Jin's story ahead of time. One of the few survivors of the initial beachhead attack on Tsushima, Jin leaves behind the bushido code of his father and his uncle, Lord Shimura. When you had the chance to name your horse, I figured that was a setup for a forthcoming death. When Yuna, the peasant thief who leads Jin to his new life as the Ghost, talks about getting her brother off the island to safety, I knew he was going to die as well. When Jin's former friend Ryuzo, who lost his chance to ascend to nobility during a previous duel, appeared leading a group of ronin, I literally said out loud, "Well, he's going to betray you, Jin." Every moment of Jin's journey marched forward, beat by predictable beat.
I don't have a problem with simple, straightforward stories. Many of the films Ghost of Tsushima draws from have uncomplicated, unsurprising plots, with the magic coming from conflict and character. And the writers understand this, as the side quests do a much better job of giving us a glimpse into the hearts of Jin's compatriots. It's in the main quest where Ghost of Tsushima falters.
The Cruel Art of Bushido
Jin's adherence to bushido, the honorable code of the samurai, is set up as the central conflict of Ghost of Tsushima. We're supposed to feel Jin fighting between his noble upbringing and the more efficient, deceitful tactics of the Ghost. But the color is missing. We never really get a feeling of what that upbringing means to Jin, as the game starts at the beginning of the attack, with Jin and his uncle at the head of the failed samurai army. When Harunobu Adachi announces himself to the Mongol army and gets unceremoniously cut down in a surprise attack, I didn't really feel any sense of loss. Instead, I found myself thinking, "Wow, that was dumb."
Upon waking up after the bloody battle, Jin is forced to sneak through a village to survive. He weakly tries to uphold the samurai code again, riding right up to the enemy fortress to challenge Khotun Khan to a duel, only to lose again. From that point, 30 minutes into the story, Jin is largely onboard with Yuna's guerilla tactics. A short time later, he commits his first assassination and never again leaves the path of the Ghost.
The moral switch doesn't work, because we don't spend time with Jin in the company of the samurai prior to the invasion. We don't really have a foundation in how he truly views the code prior its abject failure in the face of a larger fighting force. Harunobu Adachi seems important, but he's dead and gone in two minutes. Sucker Punch tries to backfill this understanding with flashbacks to Jin being raised by his uncle, but they're equally brief. We have to get to the open-world adventure, the standoffs, and the stealth kills, so we slide past it.
By the time we finish Act 1, Jin is the Ghost. He's been named as such, and when challenged on his methods by the newly-freed Lord Shimura, Jin forcefully replies, "I did what I had to. For you." He does not waver. He doesn't promise to recant and return to a more honorable style of warfare. Because the struggle in Ghost of Tsushima isn't internal, it's between Jin's new ideals and the hopes and dreams of his uncle.
But again, we don't spend enough time with Lord Shimura. Selling the myth of the lone samurai wanderer means Jin is largely alone for his adventures. The myth of "the Ghost" works because Jin is only seen by a few people, his interactions limited to the lengthy side quests. And Lord Shimura isn't really a major factor except in the climax of each Act.
Even the moment where Jin goes too far, poisoning the Mongol army's food, is undersold. The tactic is turned on Tsushima's populace, only we don't dwell too long on that. And honestly, it's not much worse than the burned bodies hung from trees and pikes all across the game's first region. Ghost of Tsushima shows, but never dwells, and that's its biggest weakness. Being able to be in the world controlling Jin means having the chance to really impart the scope and consequences of Jin's actions. Instead, it amounts to missed opportunity after missed opportunity.
When the finale of Ghost of Tsushima comes, we've fully leaned into the conflict between what Jin is and what his uncle wants him to be. Lord Shimura believes in his adopted son and sees Jin as his legacy, the passing down of a noble calling. Yet, the Ghost has become an enemy of the Shogun, a warrior aligned with the peasantry. Jin becomes seen as a threat to the code of bushido. So Lord Shimura duels his surrogate son, forced to kill him so that order will return to Tsushima.
The pair are forced to confront this gulf between them. "I had to stop you from throwing away our people's lives," Jin defiantly says when Shimura presses him on his actions.
"You have no honor," replies Shimura.
"And you are a slave to it," says Jin.
This ending works because of the presentation. The framing and the music. Daisuke Tsuji and Eric Steinberg sell the hell out of this final scene. You can feel the pain in Steinberg's Lord Shimura, the complete loss of his dreams. It's heartbreaking because of the acting being done, less so for what the player has personally experienced before now.
At the end, I was left with a choice: to kill the wounded Lord Shimura, as honor dictates and he asks, or to leave him alive, the proper option in a humane world. But this choice is more about Lord Shimura than it is Jin. Shimura is the one that wants to die, now that he's lost everything. But it's telling that I honestly could've gone either way on this choice: I didn't really get a feeling of where Jin would land without my feelings at the helm. Ultimately, I gave Shimura his honorable death, which seems to be the choice Sucker Punch wants you to make, as you're rewarded with a white Ghost outfit, as opposed to the crimson version you get if you walk away.
This is part of the difference between a film and a game. Lord Shimura was a tiny fraction of my 62 hours of playtime. I spent more time with other characters like Yuna, Lady Masako Adachi, Sensei Ishikawa, and Norio. Hell, I spent more time with my horse, Nobu. Shimura needed to be more present in Jin's war against the Mongols after he was freed, perhaps as a larger part of the story's second act. It's another microcosm of the larger problem with the main quest, which breezes past too many of the pillars that would really give Jin's actions and ethics more impact.
Strength on the Side
It's a shame, because I found the side quests to be a much stronger part of Ghost of Tsushima. Across the full scope of Ghost of Tsushima, for instance, Yuna felt like a stronger, more well-rounded character than Jin concerning her character's journey. The same is true of the story of Lady Masako Adachi. The late Harunobu Adachi's wife, the matriarch of her clan, Masako is concerned purely with killing those who murdered the women and children left behind in the assault of Tsushima. You see the depth of her despair in front of the graves of her family, and are there with her when she mourns the loss of her sons. You're witness to the absolute rage against those that have wronged her, the callous madness with which she cuts them down.
I was even surprised at Lady Masako's story, which isn't something I can say about most of Ghost of Tsushima's narrative, when it's revealed that one of the conspirators against her family is a woman she loved named Mai. After being spurned by Masako, who chose responsibility over love, Mai set off on her own course of revenge. Mai as a result is the only person she spares in her quests. It's rage, fueled by love, and love is the only thing that breaks it, even for a moment.
Like the side stories of Yuna, Norio, and Ishikawa, Masako's story is rooted in the act of revenge and where the line is in that dark pursuit. But it also ends up being a surprisingly nuanced journey. When you face off against Masako underneath the falling leaves of a Japanese Red Maple, I honestly thought it was going to end in her death. And that duel held more meaning for me than the one against Lord Shimura.
All of the side stories represent facets of Jin's journey in the main campaign. The difference is they do a much better job than the main plot, because we spend far more time with its characters. We experience the foundations of their characters in real-time, and experience the loss, the love, and new directions they're forced into.
The biggest problem with Ghost of Tsushima's main story is time, something that the side stories get in spades. Sucker Punch built a world that offers time to breathe and reflect (literally, with reflect time in onsens), but neglects to give that space to the anti-hero of its story: Jin Sakai.
Ultimately, I enjoyed Ghost of Tsushima, but I think that Jin himself could've been a stronger character like Yuna and Masako. A stronger focus on the foundations of his upbringing would have grounded us in seeing what he's leaving behind when he becomes the Ghost. I can forgive the ahistorical nature of Ghost of Tsushima, but if the emotional battle between bushido's tenets and the people's lives is what Sucker Punch wanted to focus on, then that needed more… focus.