The Way Of The Samurai
Led by the war tyrant Khotun Khan, mongol invaders arrive on the shores of Japanese island Tsushima. Their forces are great, too numerous to fight for you and your honorable samurai brethren and you’re forced to flee on horseback. As you race through the trees, wind blowing in your hair, the dense woods dissolve away to reveal a white field of flowers.
The thin sliver of peace felt during this moment peels away as the orchestral score picks up and the opening credits hit. You take a moment to run your hand through the flowers, admiring the beauty; the proverbial calm before the terrible storm. This was the exact moment I fell in love with Ghost Of Tsushima. And from there, that love only grew.
Echoing ideas presented within its story, Ghost Of Tsushima feels like a triumphant last stand for this console generation. It’s a game that’s not only visually stunning, it’s one that manages to nail almost every facet of its gameplay loop. Tsushima certainly suffers from the same open-world fatigue that a lot of other games in this genre feel though. To try and counteract that however, the game notably avoids a mini-map and map markers. Instead, in an effort to move beyond that visual cues like smoke and wind guide you to important locales.
Between this, the masterful use of particle effects and general art direction, Tsushima is a visually stunning title. It’s also one of the best looking on Playstation 4. I do appreciate that sounds like hyperbole, especially given The Last of Us Part II’s staggering graphical fidelity, but Sucker Punch’s title is much more colourful and pleasing on the eye. This use of colour in particular is nothing short of spectacular and there’so many different biomes and contrasting areas in this that it’s hard to put into words how good the game looks.
There’s a couple of moments here that echo that first ride down from the mountains in Red Dead Redemption 2. Sucker Punch have done everything in their power to capture that same awe-inspiring feel and a couple of times the game achieves just that.
This visually memorable journey has so many stand-out, unscripted moments like that and a lot of the fun to be had here come from just riding around and exploring the world. Warm orange trees open up to gorgeous rolling hills boasting pink flowers lazily blowing in the wind. Water-soaked swamps open up into farms reflecting the late afternoon sun off the damp ground.
Late on, as you ride ever-further North on your quest, the colour palette changes and makes good use of snow to present something wholly different for you to experience. It really is wonderful stuff and Tsushima has a way of making it so you never get bored of the open world which comes with it.
Of course, graphics are just one part of the game and much has been said about the simplicity of the main story. Only, out of that simplicity comes some poignant and relevant themes that play out further on down the line. The main conflict here comes from the aforementioned Khotun Khan arriving on the island, intent on conquering and enslaving all in his wake.
The Japanese certainly won’t take this lying down though and the resistance lies before Jin-Sakai and his Uncle Lord Shimura. Trained in the ways of the samurai, your honorable methods play right into the hands of the Khan and result in you and your Uncle taking very different paths. With Lord Shimura captured and Jin left all alone, he’s forced to recruit a rag-tag group of men and women to his cause.
The narrative is split into three distinct Acts, with Act I seeing you storming the castle, Act II moving that conflict North to a much larger playground before the final Act wraps up the loose threads and brings everything to a satisfying, heartfelt and conclusive end. It’s here you’re given a choice during the final scenes of the game that play into two different endings, depending on what you choose to do in this moment.
Before reaching those climactic moments, the story introduces you to a host of different characters including thief Yuna, Lady Masako and Sensei Ishikawa. It’s here some of the story’s big themes come into play and help to elevate the story beyond its simplistic framework into something that expands the inner conflict Jin feels into every facet of the game. You see, the samurai way isn’t working in the fight against the Khan. He’s too strong and too cunning, which is why you failed to prevent the Mongols from docking in the first place.
Instead, Yuna suggests an alternate way of fighting, “dishonorable” methods that contradict everything Jin has been taught. Toward the second and third act, these ideas spill over to the main narrative and, without spoiling anything, threaten to destroy everything you’ve built up until this point.
Early on though, Tsushima gives you the choice between being stealthy or honoring your Samurai code and fighting head-on. The open world is packed with numerous things to do (more on that later) while the main story arcs make good use of Jin’s choices. There’s a variety of stealthy and not-so-stealthy missions through each of the three Act that eventually culminate in one big battle or set-piece against a stronghold.
Most of these instances will see you tackling enemies along the way. Being stealthy and sneaky brings with it the simple task of creeping around, pressing Square to assassinate soldiers (whether from up high or from behind) and hiding in tall grass, biding your time to strike. By comparison, the combat options allow you to engage in “Stand-Offs” with up to three soldiers. This acts as a duel that sees you holding Triangle and releasing just before your opponent hits you; the Samurai version of a Mexican stand-off.
The real tour-de-force here though comes from the combat. On paper, the set-up is straight forward enough. You’ve got your strong and quick attacks (mapped to triangle and square respectively), a bow and arrow (L2 and R2), Parry (L1) and Dodge (Circle). When enemies attack, a red cross-hair will determine the attacks you need to dodge while visual cues of a character about to strike give you a good indication of when to parry and hit a counter-attacks. Deepening the tactics further though are one of four combat stances you unlock along the way; Stone, Water, Wind, and Moon.
These correspond to the four different enemy types you encounter. You’ve got your tank-brutes that tower over you, sword-and-shield soldiers, pike-men and dual-wielding swordsmen. There’s some variation here and there, including archers and different costumes, but these are the predominant enemy types you’ll encounter through the game. Those combat stances I mentioned serve as more than just an aesthetic purpose.
The beauty here comes from the ease in which you can stagger certain enemies, helping to get crucial strikes on tough foes. Patience is the key here though and rushing in all gun’s blazing, hacking square and rolling all over the place will almost certainly see you dead within seconds. Trust me – I learnt very quickly not to play like that.
Alongside these different enemies is your Combat Resolve meter which fills up by conducting honorable and dishonorable actions. Whether it be putting an enemy out of their misery as they crawl toward you, sticking a knife in an enemies throat from behind or even successfully parrying at the right moment, this bar fills up and gives you a crucial life-line in tough fights. As a minor gripe though, it would have been nice to see the honorable actions fill the meter more than being stealthy, giving you a decent incentive for being a proper Samurai.
Stealth is enjoyable enough but it’s this combat system that’s the real winner. I found myself desperate to engage in more combat and trying to liberate every outpost just to feel that adrenaline rush of fighting. As you progress through your journey and start to grow your legend, you uncover Technique points which allow you to buy new abilities to aid you in your quest.
These feel pretty similar to Assassin’s Creed and range from rolling after jumping from high heights, upgrading your combat stances and even unlocking new techniques to use in combat. By the end of your 20-35 hour adventure – depending on how thoroughly you collect and uncover everything – you’ll be throwing knifes, sticky bombs, pulling off counter-attacks and switching stances on the fly. It’s an incredibly satisfying system and never grows tiring. That’s before even mentioning the one on one boss fight duels dotted through this that really test what you’re made of.
Where the game does feel some fatigue though is from the various busy-work activities dotted around. Thankfully, Ghost Of Tsushima does give you good incentive to actually go out and explore the world, along with valid reasons for doing so. Chasing foxes leads you to Inari Shrines. In exchange for a sign of respect, you’re granted charm slots. Charms act as combat buffs which can be obtained through completing Shinto Shrines, pulling out a page from the platforming book as you jump between cliff-faces and use your grappling hook to ascend to the top.
There’s Hot Springs too (complete with an unskippable scene of Jin’s behind getting in the water!) which gives you a boost to your maximum HP. Bamboo strikes and Haiku’s are here too and have their own purpose while Lighthouses feel like the Synchronize spots from Assassin’s Creed but without the 360 degree camera spin or uncovering the map. Instead, they serve to increase your Legend across Tsushima. There’s lots more to do in Ghost Of Tsushima and it’s only during the post-game that you really start to feel the fatigue.
Thankfully a lot of this is stifled by a wonderful orchestral score composed by Ilan Eshkeri. There’s a distinct cinematic feel to a lot of the tracks, although “Jin Sakai” and “Sacrifice of Tradition” are two of my favourites. Throughout the game these audible moments combine beautifully with the letterbox-style of the cut-scenes as the camera pulls away and shows off the beauty of this game.
The voice acting is fantastic too and although personally I would have liked there to be lip-syncing for the Japanese audio, the English is compelling enough and likely to be the one most gamers choose.
If you’re really in the mood for authenticity though, Tsushima also introduces a classic Samurai movie mode complete with grainy textures and a black and white backdrop. While these are nice in theory, it’s a little disappointing that there’s no option to solely switch this on during cinematics as the world is just far too beautiful to view it in black and white.
The game’s not perfect though and along with the side quest woes, the game has trouble creating memorable characters along the way. Some of this can be attributed to the in-game cut-scenes which see heartfelt, incredible voice acting back-dropped against flat and motionless characters standing in one spot. This is a particular problem for a lot of the supporting characters who never quite grow out of there stereotypical archetypes.
Despite all of that though, Ghost Of Tsushima is a visually stunning game that matches its beauty with an incredibly fun and tactically sound combat loop. The open world is diverse, full of interesting locations to visit and helped by a simple but effective tale about a Mongol Invasion. The game does suffer from the same issues other open world games do too but there’s at least a consistent effort here to make Tsushima stand out from the pack. And stand out it does. Sucker Punch deliver a powerful, memorable game that caps off this gaming generation on a high.
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