July 14, 2020
There is one fundamental, unassailable truth in life – ninjas and samurai are impossibly cool. Shinobi's Joe Musashi, Rikimaru from Tenchu, Mitsurugi from SoulCalibur, Haohmaru from Samurai Shodown – they're all unbelievably awesome. And now you can add Ghost of Tsushima's Jin Sakai to that list, for he is also extremely cool. Both a samurai and a ninja (for all intents and purposes), Jin is also a likeable, relatable lead character – one faced with an inescapable choice that sets him down an inexorably dark path.
Being a badass samurai is all well and good, which is why it's important that Jin also happens to be a layered, interesting protagonist faced with an internal struggle. To save the island of Tsushima from Mongol invaders led by the ruthless Khotun Khan, he's pressed into breaking his samurai code, abandoning the honourable tenets he's lived by to become 'the Ghost' – an unseen force to be feared by the enemy. When you're not killing enemies, there's a truly stunning world, which has been scarred by war, to explore – riding on horseback you'll gallop over majestically swaying fronds of grass, weave gracefully through ethereal bamboo forests, and stop to admire jaw-dropping expanses of verdant wilderness and beds of vibrant flowers.
Previously, Sucker Punch has created kleptomaniac raccoon-based platformers and morally binary superhero games, but here, the developer has crafted a truly gorgeous open-world epic – an achingly beautiful ode to the samurai cinema of Akira Kurosawa. There's even a dedicated Kurosawa Mode (present in the game with the blessing of the director's estate), which enables you to play the game in lustrous monochrome, complete with film grain and faithfully replicated audio. It should come as no surprise, given this sort of commitment to detail, that Ghost of Tsushima proves an exhilarating experience for anyone with even a passing interest in Japanese folklore, history and culture – the game is steeped in it.
While the combat might not be as punishing as Dark Souls, Sekiro and their ilk, or as fast, frenetic, and combo-focused as the likes of Devil May Cry or Bayonetta, what it does do, it does remarkably well. You can't help but feel like a proficient and enormously skilled swordsman when squaring up to enemies, poised and ready to deftly parry and strike; breaking an enemy's guard to stagger them, leaving them open to a flurry of precise, balletic, and lethal artery-severing swipes. Granted, it may not be the best example of sword-based combat in a game, but Sucker Punch has ensured that it looks incredible and feels fantastic. Finish a fight and you can even flick the blood from your sword with a swipe of the touchpad – a wonderful little touch that again, makes you feel like a samurai legend.
Indeed, growing your 'Legend' is a pivotal part of Ghost of Tsushima, every action you carry out in the game contributing to your fearsome reputation across the eponymous island. As your Legend grows, you'll earn Technique Points to spend on new skills, and you'll acquire new titles to reflect your burgeoning notoriety across Tsushima, as you gradually come to be known as the fabled Ghost. Studying and killing Mongol generals across the game's various occupied camps, fortresses, villages, and farmsteads, meanwhile, will eventually see you learning new stances, so you're better equipped to fight enemies armed with specific weapons.
Like a game of rock, paper, scissors, the Stone Stance is best used against sword-wielders, whereas the Wind Stance is ideally suited to fighting soldiers with shields. Later, you'll unlock the Water Stance, to combat crafty spear-carrying foes, and the Moon Stance, for cutting brute-class Mongols down to size. It's this switching of stances that lends a bit of additional texture to Ghost of Tsushima's combat, ensuring you're kept on your toes rather than absent-mindedly mashing buttons. Not that button-mashing will get you very far, mind, as Jin's samurai prowess is built around timing and patience, rewarding you with stylish executions and blood-soaked finishers. It doesn't even matter that there's no lock-on function (you push the left stick in the direction you want to strike, and it works just fine) and that the camera can sometimes drift behind scenery and obscure your view. You'll be enjoying yourself far too much to care about such trifles – none of these issues are ever prevalent enough to spoil the undiluted delight of the game's sword fights.
Outside of toe-to-toe swordsmanship, stealth, too, proves equally viable – and in many cases essential. Taking a leaf out of the Assassin's Creed playbook, you can conceal yourself in long patches of pampas grass, waiting for the ideal time to strike undetected; or take to rooftops and walk across ropes with perfect balance, before dropping on enemies for an aerial assassination. Jin also has an assortment of ninja gear at his disposal, such as smoke bombs, kunai throwing daggers, distracting wind chimes and firecrackers, as well as a grappling hook for vertical traversal, like a sort of 13th century Batman. Unfortunately, some quests do rely on annoying objectives that can result in instant failure, and the somewhat muddled controls can make selecting the correct items at the right time a bit of a pain (each trigger, when held, brings up a menu of multiple items on the d-pad and face buttons), but again, these are gripes that do little to sour the experience as a whole.
Perhaps Ghost of Tsushima's greatest joy is to be found in exploration – following foxes and golden birds to various points of interest, like Shinto Shrines that provide Tomb Raider-esque traversal challenges and quiet spots where you can sit, meditate, and compose a haiku. Swiping up on the touchpad activates a Guiding Wind that sends a gale in the direction of where you want to go (eliminating any need for an obtrusive mini-map), but simply enjoying the vibrancy, colour and life in Tsushima's world is its own reward. Swirling autumnal red and yellow leaves, falling cherry blossom, dancing fireflies, and misty mountain tops give Ghost a magical, almost fairy tale quality, making Tsushima a place you're more than happy to spend countless hours immersed in. Being able to fast travel between any discovered point on the map, with a mercifully short loading screen, also makes the act of wandering across Tsushima effortless and free of frustration, although sometimes it's nice to saddle up on your trusty horse and simply take in the scenery.
Jin's allies also provide ample interest outside the confines of the game's central narrative, side threads involving legendary archer Sensei Ishikawa's search for his errant student, headstrong Lady Masako's quest for vengeance, or wandering monk Norio's battle to save his monastery from being desecrated by the Mongols, offering engaging and enjoyable tales to pursue. Mythic Tales imbue the game with even more intrigue, gifting special abilities and armours as reward for seeing them through. There's nothing in Ghost of Tsushima that feels like filler, although the pace does slow somewhat as you enter the game's last of the island's three fogged locations.
Duels and Standoffs inject drama and deliver memorably atmospheric moments, while the process of systematically clearing Mongol encampments to liberate each region of Tsushima remains consistently enjoyable throughout the game's generous runtime. This is quite simply Sucker Punch's best game, then, eclipsing anything the studio has made to date – there's a depth and maturity here that's impossible not to notice, its characterisation and beautifully realised world combining to great effect. Ghost of Tsushima is nothing short of breathtaking, and yet another first-party feather in Sony's increasingly enviable cap. The ultimate samurai fantasy.
The game's soaring score never fails to elicit goosebumps, while the voice performances are uniformly excellent, whether you opt for the default English language track or the superb Japanese voice option with accompanying subtitles.
In no other game have I spent as much time messing around with a Photo Mode. Every few minutes you'll be struck by a breathtaking scene or vista, and have to stop to take it all in. Ghost of Tsushima is not only colourful and beautiful, but also ludicrously stylish. A real stunner.
Sword-based combat has been done better elsewhere, but few games manage to make it feel as immediate or as deadly. Sprint at an enemy and swipe across them to leave an arc of blood splatter on the floor, or skewer someone through a shoji door, and then tell me it's not the coolest thing you've ever done in a video game. Go on. You can't.
A vast and gorgeous world bursting at the seams with Tales to experience, Shinto Shrines to traverse, Mongol territory to liberate, and other incredible sights to discover. Not only is Tsushima Island stunning to behold, but it's an unbridled pleasure to exist and role-play in, too. This is far and away Sucker Punch's grandest open world to date.
A trophy list that rewards exploration and combat prowess, as well as a devotion to completing all of the game's main points of interest and various Tales. This is a selection of tasks with excellent spread and plenty of variety. A lot of the trophies cover tasks you'd actually want to pursue anyway, and also invite you to uncover an array of secrets and easter eggs.
Don't worry, Ubisoft – you don't need to make an Assassin's Creed game set in Japan anymore. Sucker Punch has pipped you to the post, creating a genuinely stunning open-world samurai epic that's compelling, memorable, and never anything less than a blast to play. Ghost of Tsushima is yet another reason to hug your PS4 – it's a sensational game.