Developer: Sucker Punch
Genre: Action Adventure, RPG
Release: July 17th, 2020
It has been a hot minute since I’ve sat down to review a game. Life can often get in the way of things, but it is also a rare treat to come across a game that so completely and utterly consumes you, that you intended to have this finished and out the door weeks ago. As I write this, I am just at the end of Act 2... and have been playing almost daily since launch. I’ve never wanted to take my time so much in a video-game, like that guilty conflicted feeling you get when you’ve accomplished many things in the world just not the one you actually exist in. Sure, the Mongols were pushed back AND you unlocked more Inari charms and techniques, but you probably should have at least got dressed today.
The reason I highlight this is because I have not finished this game yet but have played enough to argue against only scratching the surface or only having a slight impression of it's offerings. Ghosts of Tsushima is dense in the best kind of way and has commanded my attention since launch, I can’t stop and won’t stop until every fox den is found, every shrine is worshiped and every single Mongol has been exorcised from this Island and peace can once again be secured, this is my review so let’s dive right into it!
Found Love in an Honorable Place
Set in 1274, during the historical Mongol Invasion of Japan - Ghosts of Tsushima tells the tale of fictional samurai Jin Sakai and his fight to take back his island from the brutal Khotun Khan and restore his families honor. A somewhat by the numbers revenge story – that still effectively – sets up the hours and hours of adventures to come and summer time daylight to be robbed.
The very first thing, that must be mentioned here is the Art Direction. I’ve played some lovely games in my time, we all have, in this year alone. Some graphically impressive games that challenged my PS4 fans very existence. Yet, none have come close to what Sucker Punch has put together here for my money. Beautiful sweeping vistas, an incredibly impressive draw distance and one of the most robust photo modes in gaming ever, the bar has been raised folks.
Yes, I took enough photos to deliberately make a collage and I'm not sorry
This game is proof positive that pixel count isn’t everything, no it’s not technically as graphically detailed as every minute detail seen on Ellie’s face in The Last of us Part 2, it’s a large open world game and on this hardware that would be impossible. BUT, what it lacks in graphical fidelity (which isn’t much) it more than makes up for in sheer beauty. The design of this open world is phenomenal, vibrant colors help mark locations like Fox Dens and Hot Springs for the curious, while burnt out fields and mangled bodies scatter landscapes ravaged by the invading forces that let you know how dangerous your enemy is.
My jaw has yet to leave the floor since I climbed my first shrine and the sheer scope and breath of the wi.. I mean world opened up for the first time.
To say nothing of navigation, I’ve never willingly taken my time wandering about so much in an open world like this. At least not in an awfully long while and consistently come back for more. Sucker Punch should be commended for going all out and creating something so beautiful, that loads within seconds regardless of whether you first boot up the game or die and have to re-spawn. You’re not waiting long going back into the world and its mind boggling.
Jin Sakai of the Valley of the Wind
Just before we get to the meat and potatoes, I wanted to talk about a much-touted feature that, until I got my hands on it, looked a bit goofy in the previews and that is the UI. Instead of your standard cluttered HUD and UI elements taking up valuable screen space, the focus is always on Jins environment so there is none to speak of. Everything within the world feeds back into itself and it is never more apparent than in its waypoint system. Instead of having a garish blip on screen showing you where to go, or a mini map in the bottom right hand corner at all times, you simply follow the wind. Open up the equally pleasing map, select a mission and watch as the wind literally shows you the way.
It adds to the immersion in such a way that it deserves to be a default setting in open world games from now on. Now, I do know that the option to turn off these elements has been added to the likes of Assassin’s Creed, The Witcher 3 and similar open world games in the past but none have had the brass balls to drop it altogether and trust that the player will find their way around. In fact, plenty of games will tout “player choice” on the back of the box but few actually commit to it for fear you might miss something. I never feel pressured about what I’m doing, unless emotionally invested in the current story beat and that is immensely satisfying.
Trailing off the beaten path is a common occurrence, sometimes it’s just because I want to follow the river and other times its because a bird or fox shows up and beckons me to follow them to other points of interest. The game constantly wants to show you something but isn’t so ham-fisted in its approach that it becomes off putting. I want to explore just to experience it, not to collect something or open up the map more (which happens anyway, there's always a good reason to go off the beaten path), I just want to because it seems like a good idea and that feeling of freedom is just 👌.
A Flash of Cold Steel
If you’ve stuck with me this far, we’ve made it. Combat. The combat in ghosts is incredibly satisfying, a word that will be and has been repeated already. That feeling of inter-connectivity that we’ve discussed so far permeates throughout all aspects of the game-play. Encounters are frequent, as you'd imagine a full-scale invasion would be, but there is a plethora of gadgets at your disposal to deal with enemies and indeed enemy encampments in whatever manner you see fit.
From stealthy take-downs and striking from the shadows, evoking memories of Tenchu's past to out and out sword fights, you are rarely locked into one system over the other (outside of one or two very specific story instances). I never felt like there was a “right way” to approach an encounter, just my way.
My favorite combat feature however, has to be the Standoffs. With these, you can press the up arrow when prompted to challenge nearby foes to a duel whereby the victor is decided not by who strikes first but by who is more patient. Unabashedly eschewing classic samurai cinema standoffs strike a nice balance of being ridiculously cool looking and tactically viable when done right. Towards the latter part of the game, after becoming more invested in the samurai skill tree and mastering the four stances on offer, standoffs have allowed me to become the arrogant yet skillful swordsman I've always assumed I could be but am of course too busy to actually physically put in the time to do so.
Oh and how you approach enemies does in fact have an affect on the environment, did you know that? Strike from the shadows consistently and prepare to be enveloped in a storm for dramatic affect. Brazenly stare down your enemies in the open and bask in the warm glow of the sun. Little details like this make for epic moments and while the sudden change in weather is weird, you’re so caught up in the moment it doesn’t really matter.
For skill tree enthusiasts, there is plenty to like here too. Between the 4 stances that you can switch between depending on enemy type, the additional combos and blade skills, to the plethora of gadgets for the stealth inclined there is something for everyone. What is more, you are never tied to one play-style over the other. Sure, you can spend all your points on never being seen, but if you want to stand off against an enemy for clicks and giggles work away! Not to mention the additional upgrades available to your armor, katana and long-range weapons and your shrine charms that add extra buffs to your stats. Player choice again is something proudly on display here and I never feel like I’m “missing out” on a mechanic by prioritizing one tree over the other.
The Good, The Bad and The Shiny
Despite the sheer amount of content and the very clear attention to the little things, there are some niggling issues here. In combat for one, there is no ability to lock-on to a specific enemy, instead the game decides that with a “soft lock” for you and because you’ll often be surrounded by Mongols that means getting trounced by the very spear man (it’s always a spear man) you were trying to hit but couldn’t face because Jin was locked on the archer who got a lucky shot in, who’s much too far away to be an immediate threat.
The camera compounds this issue by being much too…. free for my liking. It becomes unnecessarily off putting because you can’t focus in on an enemy, and since the camera is designed to take in all the pretty, it feels like close quarter situations or areas with lots of geometry were an afterthought. I’ve had whole exchanges and standoffs take place with the camera stuck behind a bush and a fair share of game overs resulting from that.
What may turn off people more though is the collect-a-thon of it all. There are a LOT of things to pick up and find in the world. What I like about it personally is that everything you can collect offers some kind of meaningful reward. Follow that fox from its den to the kami shrine and it works towards unlocking a new charm slot. Slashing bamboo stacks improve Jins blade skills and unlocks more resolve, that’s used to power your special attacks in combat. Then there are lore pick-ups, Mongol artifacts that add more historical context to the world, Sashimono banners dropped by fallen samurai of the island, mythic tales of heroes and villains that yield legendary gear and weapons. If you're not a fan of it then the frequency by which birds will fly at you to try and get your attention might become grating.
So, what’s the verdict?
Shockingly enough, I adore this game. Sucker Punch has created something so beautiful and so thoughtful in every detail that it is hard to put down. I have had to leave out other aspects such as the side story content and other collectible things, there isn’t enough time in one day (or perhaps one sitting of a blog article) to describe in detail what Ghosts of Tsushima offers. But another aspect of that is because I believe this is a game that needs to be experienced properly. So, all I can say is, if any bit of the trailers and previews or thousands of other reviews (including yours truly's) have piqued your interest than you would be a fool not to bite the bullet on this one.
Play this game if…
You’ve enjoyed literally any other Sony exclusive this generation
You’re looking for that Samurai game you’ve always wanted that Ubisoft never created
You know someone who’s looking for that Samurai game they’ve always wanted
You just want to experience something truly fresh in the Triple A gaming sphere before next-gen rolls around…
Editor's Note: As I wrote this review news broke of a 4 player Co-Op "Legends" mode... the game that keeps on giving, check out the trailer here!
First image taken from the official press kit found here.
All other images captured by me on PS4 Pro.
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