A Simple But Effective Samurai Tale
Ghost Of Tsushima is a simple samurai story but told with big themes that help elevate this one beyond mediocrity. Split across three acts, Tsushima does well to stick to a tried-and-tested story structure, even if it does come up second best to the gameplay.
Set in 1274, Ghost Of Tsushima gravitates around one of the last samurai still living – Jin Sakai. Trained from a young age by his Uncle Lord Shimura, the samurai code is instilled deep within every part of Jin’s being. Unfortunately for Jin and his Uncle, Mongol forces arrive on their tranquil island of Tsushima and rain down hell. With soldiers scattered across the beach, Jin accompanies his Uncle to try and stave off the attack. It’s here we meet Khotun Khan for the first time, a war-mongering Mongol and the leader of this ravenous pack of dogs.
He intends to occupy Tsushima and gather his forces before launching an all-out assault on Japan. In the ensuing conflict that follows, Shimura is taken captive within the stronghold of Castle Kaneda. Jin follows along, desperate to get his Uncle back, and comes face to face with the murderous Khan. Unfortunately the fight goes awry and Jin finds himself bested, thrown off a bridge and into the icy depths of the water below.
When Jin awakens, he’s greeted by Yuna, a former thief who’s looking for her brother Taka near the southern-most tip of the island in Azamo Bay. Together, they set out to try and find Taka, eventually saving him and reuniting the two siblings. With Yuna joining the fight ahead, Jin’s attention turns to three other crucial allies that aid him in his quest. Of course, that loyalty doesn’t come for free.
Lady Masako is trying to find her sister, Sensei Ishikawa is tracking down Tomoe while Norio has his own issues with the monks. While these stories serve as accompanying pieces to the main narrative, they are completely optional and interwoven around the main narrative.
Unfortunately Jin’s loyal friend Ryuzo fails to show with his straw-hat army during the climactic fight to top off Act I. As Jin storms the castle and tries to find his Uncle, Ryuzo awaits him in the courtyard. It’s here Ryuzo reveals his betrayal and how he’s aligned himself with the Khan.
Betrayed and hurt, Jin tries his best to keep his emotions in check as the duo fight one on one. Although Jin wins the duel, he refuses to land the killing blow. Instead he tries to talk Ryuzo into turning back to his cause but it’s no good, Ryuzo is too far gone. He calls for reinforcements and flees.
After thwarting the threat and freeing his Uncle, the first signs of discontent show with Jin and his Uncle. Shimura notices the respect and following Jin is starting to gain as the infamous “Ghost” persona begins to show. For now though, the group join together and set their sights North for the second chapter of this tale.
The second – and largest – region of the game comes in the form of Toyotama. The target here comes from the fortified Castle Shimura which acts as the strategic heart of the island. Before that thoguh, he needs men to help in the fight ahead.
Jin sets out to help peasants revolt against the Mongols at Akashima Village. In doing so, he hopes to recruit some formidable archers along the way. Riding a wave of good fortune, Jin helps them fight back.
As the fight looks to turn in their favour, Jin learns of Ryuzo’s whereabouts in a fort and rushes in to find him. Attacked from behind, Jin is strung up and captured. When he opens his eyes, Taka happens to be there too. It turns out he went looking for Jin when he failed to show and ended up being caught in the process.
When the Khan arrives, things take a turn for the worst. With Jin tied up and the Khan antagonizing him every step of the way, he frees Taka and hands a sword to him. There, he offers the man a simple choice. If he can kill Jin, then he’ll be free to go. The sword-smith refuses and turns toward Khan, slashing wildly at him. This act of bravery is reciprocated by Khan killing the man and holding his severed head up to Jin. Tossing it aside, he leaves.
Overcome with rage, Jin slaughters Ryuzo’s straw hat soldiers and with Yuna, who descends down an equally anguished path upon seeing this, clear out the camp. With Yuna in a bad way and Lord Shimura rallying the troops, all of this culminates in a climactic fight to take Castle Shimura.
As the fight begins, Jin and his fellow samurai charge in head-first and fight their way through the forces. Unfortunately Khan is ready for them and launches a suicidal horse-drawn carriage laced with explosives at them. The ensuing explosion destroys the bridge and throws a serious spanner in the works.
In the wake of this, Jin and Shimura comes to blows as Jin suggests they sneak in and poison their food supply, thus giving them the advantage. Shimura refuses though, especially given the dishonorable nature of this being against the samurai code. Their fight bubbles up and eventually spills over to Shimura giving him a swift slap across the face.
Jin listens to Yuna and heads in anyway, defying his Uncle and ironically turning the fate of the battle in their favour. The army is driven back and the Castle returned to its rightful owners. Unfortunately Jin’s actions see him reprimanded by his Uncle who imprisons him for disloyalty.
Thankfully Kenji helps Jin escape from prison. Sneaking his way through camp, Jin makes his way to his horse and rides hard. Unfortunately guards notice his presence and shoot arrows into his trusted stead. Despite getting away, Jin’s horse is killed and forces him to go it alone in the bleak Northern wasteland of Kamiagata.
Thankfully Jin’s stumble through the snow isn’t in isolation for long. Eventually he meets back up with Yuna who encourages him to visit an old acquaintance (see: former love interest) called Takeshi. He eventually joins Jin’s cause and after taking Fort Jokaku, the group turn their attention to Port Izumi, where the Khan is holding up. After writing a letter to his Uncle asking for reinforcements (and forgiveness), he sneaks back home to personally deliver it to his desk without being spotted.
Heading back up North, Jin launches his attack. Midway through fighting, Lord Shimura arrives and together the combined force drive back Khan’s men to his boat. There, a final fight between Khan and Jin ensues and eventually the Mongol is bested by Jin, who beats him in a one on one fight.
With the Khan dead and the Mongol forces scattered, Jin’s Uncle requests his presence at their usual sparring spot down by the lake. Unfortunately Shimura, being the honorable man he is, isn’t there to rekindle familial ties. Despite paying their respects to Jin’s Father in the graveyard, he’s under orders from the Shogun to execute Jin.
Thus begins our final fight of the game as Jin and his Uncle square off. Jin bests his teacher – the student becoming the teacher – and is given the choice between sparing or killing his Father. This, ironically, brings us back to those flashback sequences where Jin’s lessons about being a samurai pay dividends. While the outcome is generally the same, at least post-game wise, there are slight aesthetic differences between killing or sparing your Uncle.
As Yuna and Jin look out at their homeland, they mention driving off the scattered Mongol forces as the story ends.
Anyone familiar with Samurai films will not find any surprises here. The traitor, the tyrant and the quirky comedic sidekick are all here but unfortunately Ghost Of Tsushima doesn’t quite do enough to make these characters memorable enough to stick with you. Having said that though, Jin’s journey is a good one and his character arc has some great closure toward the end. The final fight with Lord Shimura is such a poetic way to finish this story and it’s nice to see this moment foreshadowed throughout through the flashbacks to samurai training.
The real meat of the story comes from that inner conflict Jin feels regarding his new ghost persona and the way of the samurai. This is easily the best element of the story. Seeing this bleed into the gameplay is a great example of video game storytelling stepping beyond the pages of a screenplay to make the most of its medium.
On paper though, the story is pretty formulaic and there isn’t a lot in the way of surprises or big twists here. There’s a couple of nice set pieces and Taka’s death is arguably the bigger moments of the game, but it’s also one that rings more hollow than it perhaps should. With little in the way of deep characterisation for most of the supporting cast, these moments lack the same emotional weight they may otherwise have had with more careful character writing.
Despite all that though, Ghost Of Tsushima delivers a decent story and while it does play second fiddle to the gameplay, there’s enough here to make for a highly enjoyable narrative nonetheless.