Ghost of Tsushima Review: Bringing Honor to the Open World Genre

A beautiful and moving Samurai adventure that respects its players

Ghost of Tsushima
Release Date: July 17, 2020
Developer: Sucker Punch Productions (known for the Infamous and Sly Cooper series)
Platform(s): PS4
Genre: Open World Action-Adventure

Review By: Brandon Wright
Played: On PS4, At Release
Review Date: January 21, 2021

Minor discovery spoilers ahead (no story spoilers)

I didn’t follow the development of Ghost of Tsushima very closely, but began to hear a ton of hype shortly before its release. I didn’t own a PS4 so I was not all that excited. However, one of my favorite YouTubers, Skill Up (and his other channel Laymen Gaming), with his review put me over the edge in terms of wanting the game. In fact, I went ahead and purchased a PS4 outright primarily so that I could play this game. I was really interested in the Samurai theming, the lauded combat, and the beautiful world I’d seen previews of. Somehow, I was not disappointed.

Ghost of Tsushima is a semi-historical take on the Mongol invasion of Japan of 1274. You take the role of Jin Sakai, a samurai who fights to defend his home island of Tsushima. However, the overwhelming and clever forces of the Mongols crush the samurai and scatter any resistance. Jin embarks on a journey where he must learn to balance the honor of the samurai with the effectiveness of more underhanded methods of killing, in order to defeat the Mongol invaders.

Initially, the most striking aspect of Ghost are its visuals. This is perhaps the most beautiful game I’ve ever played, matched only maybe by Red Dead Redemption II and Breath of the Wild.

Unlike BOTW, Ghost goes for a more realistic look, but does stylize it in a way that draws out colors, lighting, and particle effects in a striking way. Landscapes often look like paintings, with bursts of color and contrast across the screen. A special call-out is deserved for the foliage in this game. Flowers, grass, and tree blow in the wind and stretch across vast expanses of land. It’s impressive to see the performance that Sucker Punch has gotten out of the game with the sheer amount of foliage visible at any one moment, even on the original PS4 hardware.

The dynamic vistas are also incredible. Every type of weather conveys a distinct mood and are evocative in their own way. Clear skies provides bright sunny days, brilliant orange rays at dusk, and star-specked nights. Fog creates an eery and breathtaking plume that mixes brilliantly with light. And when a storm rolls in, the sky grows dim and the light fades as rain pours from the heavens.

The variety of biomes is a big plus as well. The game is split into three large areas, and each features a distinct macro-biome. But within each area, there are a myriad of different micro-biomes. Everything from fields of red flowers, striking mountaintops, a serene lake, a thick bamboo forest, and more. These biomes transition fairly seamlessly into one another which gives the land a diverse and varied feel.

On top of looking gorgeous, the open world that is the island of Tsushima is filled to the brim with content. Ghost caps off a decade of open world games with one of the most finely crafted takes on the concept in gaming. It sidesteps most of the negative aspects of the genre. One common complaint of the genre is an overwhelming world map littered with things to do, but with not enough focus on discovery or on quality of individual tasks. Genre entries like Breath of the Wild have tackled this issue masterfully, and Ghost of Tsushima does as well.

Ghost places very few objective markers on the map; only a main quest marker and maybe a couple side-quests. It’s up to the player to clear the fog and discover all of the various locations and activities. Exploring the island feels like a very natural and immersive activity. The age-old process of following a objective marker via the HUD through a compass or mini-map is overhauled in Ghost. When tracking an objective, the wind itself blows across the landscape, bending trees and grass in its path, pointing in the direction you are to go. The player can activate this with an simple upwards flick of the DualShock touchpad. This is a quite brilliant and immersive way to give the player guidance without cluttering the UI.

Another clever interface element are small golden birds that show up as you’re exploring the landscape. Their shrills and fluttering will lead you to various side-activities throughout the island, and are a nice immersive alternative to compass markers popping up in the UI. Exploring the land and discovering and performing these side-activities is a key game loop in Ghost. There are a solid variety of activities, but some are more enticing than others. I can understand if some players might feel that some of the activities get repetitive, although I never really bored of them myself. In particular, the shrine activities are entertaining climbing/platforming challenges reminiscent of the hidden platforming areas in the Assassin’s Creed series. Overall, I feel these side activities fill up the world quite nicely and are discovered in immersive ways, greatly adding to the open world experience.

While Ghost is a polished game in a variety of areas, I feel the most well-tuned and exciting part of the game is the combat. Firstly I want to establish a point of reference as to my experience of various video game combat systems, or lack thereof. I haven’t yet played many of the games or series best known for evolving video game combat – games like Dark Souls, God of War, Devil May Cry, and others. Previous to Ghost, my favorite combat systems were probably Breath of the Wild and Monster Hunter World. However I can definitively say that as of right now Ghost‘s combat tops the list for me – and other more experienced critics have likewise highlighted the combat.

Combat is visceral, fast-paced, bloody, and satisfying. As any good Samurai game should, the core of the combat is focused around Jin’s skill with his katana. Against the Mongol invaders, Jin can employ light strikes, heavy strikes, blocks, parries, dodges, and more advanced techniques as he grows more experienced. However the mechanic that adds the most depth is the stance system. Jin will acquire a total of four stances to employ with his blade, each effective against a different type of enemy. On top of mastering the standard combat flow of attack, parry, and dodge, the key is to intelligently switch stances when bouncing from enemy to enemy. This will allow you to quickly dispatch your aggressive Mongol opponents.

And your opponents are quite aggressive. Even standard enemies are no joke, especially when surrounded by several of them. They won’t wait take turns, instead ganging up on you. One opponent can take Jin down in a handful of strikes if not blocked or avoided. Spear users will strike from a distance, armored opponents are difficult to stagger, and enemy archers let loose arrows leaving few pauses in attacks. One of the immersive elements I like is that archers will yell for their allies to take cover when unleashing arrows – listening to these audio cues however can allow the player to dodge the assault.

As Jin grows stronger, he unlocks a variety of techniques and equipment to use in combat. These range from throwing knives to smoke bombs to enhanced combos and defensive techniques. The skill tree adds a nice feeling of progression and these various added combat tools become more necessary as enemy difficulty scales up through this game. Accessing these various additional tools is done by holding a bumper and a press of the d-pad which, unfortunately, can be a little dicey to pull off consistently during a tense battle. It’s more of a minor inconvenience than a significant issue however.

There is something to be said as regards difficulty. As mentioned, enemies are quite challenging at first and do get stronger as the story progresses. Thankfully these difficulty increases are not done simply by boosting an enemy’s health bar, but instead by giving enemies additional tools and AI. While tougher enemies can be a little bit of health sponges, it’s not nearly as much of an issue in Ghost as it can be in other games. That being said, as the player’s skill and understanding of combat increases, and as Jin gains better equipment and techniques, I did find combat becoming less tense and easier (this was on the default difficulty, Normal). I did eventually play around with other difficulty settings, including the Lethal difficulty mode added to the game via an update shortly after release. Lethal causes both enemies and Jin to do increased damage with sword strikes, making battles tense engagements that end quickly, one way or another.

I personally found Lethal the most enjoyable difficulty after becoming more experienced with the game, except for one facet – Duels. These are fun 1-1 sword battles with various characters that are tense and exciting. However, on Lethal, I found the tougher ones nearly impossible. I eventually settled on Hard difficulty as the best balance, but if I did another playthrough I think I would stick with Lethal. In any case, my point with all of this is that once you get skilled at the game, don’t be afraid to increase the difficulty as it usually doesn’t feel cheap (aside from the stray off-camera enemy sometimes causing havoc) and can really add to the experience. Playing on Normal is still an absolute blast though.

Finally, Ghost of Tsushima‘s narrative and the characters who take part in it deserve praise. I will not be spoiling anything, but the game’s story surprised me with its quality. Ghost starts out with Jin surviving as one of the last remaining Samurai on the island of Tsushima after a tragic opening battle goes horribly wrong for the forces defending against the Mongol invaders. Jin sets out to reclaim Tsushima from the invaders, assisting and recruiting survivors, coming into conflict with the well-written Mongol leader Kublai Khan, and embarking on an internal struggle on how much his Samurai honor he must sacrifice to save his land.

The various key characters you interact with have their own quest lines that develop over the three acts of the game, each honing a different aspect of the conflict and Samurai culture, and giving an additional sense of progression to the narrative and Jin’s character. These character storylines broach some difficult and emotional topics, and do a great job fleshing out the given character’s perspective and motivations. Between these optional quest lines and the main quest, there are some truly epic moments throughout the narrative as Jin establishes and grows his legend as the “Ghost” of Tsushima. A meaningful aspect of the game is that Jin’s skill tree progression ties into his character progression in the narrative. When gameplay supports narrative, it adds a lot to immersion and role-playing for any game.

A lot more can be said of the narrative, but in the interest of avoiding spoilers, it will suffice to say that the story gets better and better as it progresses, wrapping up in some moments that surprised me emotionally. While I wouldn’t say the story is world-beating, it may be the finest in any open-world game I’ve personally played.

Overall, Ghost of Tsushima presents a well-polished, player-friendly game with a beautiful world, engaging combat, and a surprisingly good story. It fixes some of the common cliches of the open world genre while not necessary revolutionizing it. There are even more facets I haven’t been able to touch on – such as how engrossing and immersive the Japanese theming is, especially coming from an American company – hats off to Sucker Punch. Or how the game rarely wastes your time and is perhaps the most completionist-friendly game I’ve ever played – in fact it’s the only modern game I’ve ever 100% completed. Or how brilliant the soundtrack and audio design is. Or how flexible the build system is (made up armor and items that provide various benefits called charms), which allows you to play in a variety of styles, from stealthy assassin to precision archer to critical-hit focused melee combatant (a favorite of mine).

Additionally, if you haven’t played Ghost yet as of this review’s original publication date in January 2021, the game has benefited from updates, free DLC, and an enhanced PS5 upgrade. For instance, a minor gripe I had with the original version is that switching between various pieces of equipment (a common occurrence) can be a little bit tedious, requiring various menus to be navigated. An update has fixed this with a new save-able loadout system. They’ve added a New Game+ mode. They’ve added highly-acclaimed, free, multiplayer DLC which I unfortunately have not had the opportunity to play yet, but have heard great things about. And lastly, if you’re lucky enough to have acquired a PS5, you’ll get to play this beautiful game in a silky 60 frames-per-second at up to 1800p resolution.

Even if you’re burnt out on the open world genre, give Ghost of Tsushima a chance, especially if you’re into Japanese history or enjoy melee action games.

Verdict

Superb

  • Pros
  • Combat
  • Narrative
  • Japanese Theming
  • Art Direction and Beauty
  • User-friendly
  • Immersion
  • Cons
  • Some side-quests and side-activities don’t reach the same standard of quality and become repetitive
  • Difficulty may need to be tweaked if too easy
  • Preference-dependent
  • A Refinement rather than Revolutionization of the open world genre – may not win over everyone with “open world fatigue”
  • With some side-quests game length can be long (50+ hours)

Thanks for reading!

Brandon

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