Vengeance Over Honor
Ghost of Tsushima, the latest entry by Infamous developers Sucker Punch Productions has captivated the Samurai fandom. This has been a long-awaited title, following in the footsteps of the highly acclaimed The Last of Us Part 2. PlayStation wanted to finish the current generation of gaming on a strong note, and it has. Ghost of Tsushima is a fantastic open-world game taking place on an island of Japan, named Tsushima (of course). Taking up the mantel of his father, Jin Sakai sets out on a journey of conflict and bloodshed against the invading Mongols. Ghost of Tsushima is loosely based on true events when the Mongol Empire was at its strongest. Notably this was when it was looking to expand its territory heavily into the Japanese kingdom.
In factual history, the Mongolian Empire attempted to invade Japan twice – during the year 1274 and 1281. During the year 1274 was the invasion of the island of Tsushima, and Japan’s first encounter with the Mongols. This is also one of the earliest instances in recorded history where black powder was used outside of China for warfare purposes. Grenades such as the ones you see in Ghost of Tsushima are accurate for the time. Even though in the game the main villain of the Mongols is named Khotun Khan, the persona he’s truly portraying is that of Kublai Khan. Yes, that Kublai Khan.
Fiction With Non-Fiction
It’s not important to know the actual history of these invasions in order to enjoy Ghost of Tsushima. But it has been great to see where Sucker Punch took facts from history and weaved them to create Ghost of Tsushima. The journey of Jin Sakai, the devastation of Tsushima, and the tyranny of the Mongols have been one of the most memorable gaming experiences to come out of this generation. It is not a small feat to try and create a fictional story from non-fictional elements.
This is especially true when it is a western studio focusing on a time in history from the east that is very rarely touched upon but highly regarded. The plot itself in Ghost of Tsushima is not a top tier one. But it’s the combination of storytelling through the main character Jin, the people of Tsushima, and the land itself that creates an incredibly memorable experience.
The story of Jin Sakai is an interesting one. His story is one of sadness, death, anger, honor, vengeance, and conflict. It starts off on an absolutely devastating note. Jin and 80 other samurai rushed a beach named Komodo to defend from the Mongol invaders, only to be slaughtered like sheep. His journey starts here. Being one of the few survivors of that attack, his presumed death on the beach created the man that he would embody through the rest of his journey: the Ghost.
A warrior – risen from the grave. Silent, deadly, and seeking out vengeance across the land against his people’s murderers. His Uncle, Lord Shimura, was one of the few other survivors of the attack on Komodo beach. Khotun Khan took advantage and made him his hostage to negotiate the submission of the island of Tsushima. Well, that didn’t exactly work out too well in Khotun Khan’s favor by the end of the story. Jin, with his reincarnated legend of “The Ghost” taking over the land, weaved fear through his vengeance against the Mongols.
The Ghost of Tsushima
This is the basis of the plot that eventually expands into a worthy story for the game. The internal conflict of doing combat the honorable way of the samurai vs. the way of the thief is a constant plague to Jin. It’s great to see a unique theme and story in the video game world. Though the main story itself isn’t exactly outstanding. There are some nice plot twists and an absolutely solid foundation but it felt short. There were not enough main missions to truly fill out the experience. This meant relying on character side quests and the people of Tsushima as filler.
This is a great way to tell the story of the land and the people that inhabit it, to an extent. When most of your story is part of three acts, and those acts have five missions each – for someone that wants to play mostly just the story it will have a feeling of being incomplete.
Albeit that is not what the game is about – burning through just the main missions to complete the game – but it would have been great to see the main story expanded a little. Given the horrific setting, the lack of an emotional impact left me feeling disappointed, like the developer didn’t fully take advantage of the situation they created. The story is more of a legendary superhero seeking revenge. It could have instead been a focus on the atrocities of the Mongols and the conflict of the island. These ideas should have been more highlighted during the main story. Understandably, the focus is of Jin becoming that vengeful “Ghost” character that rids Tsushima of the Mongols, and not just a regular person who is trying to unite his people.
The Mythic Tales are easily some of the most enjoyable moments to be had. This was some wonderful storytelling of myths, and the journey of going out to uncover the truth of them. These are like those quests chains in games such as Assassin’s Creed, where the best items in the game are at the end of them. A mythical cursed bow, legendary sword strikes, and armor are some examples of highly coveted items that the people of Tsushima hear only whispers of.
Again, this is where it felt like there were too few. Once they were all done, I was left wanting more! Adding in some solid side character story chains and minor civilian “help me!” quests pads the story aspect of Tsushima out substantially. The side character chain quests add up to be more than what the actual main story is. This helps give the main storyline a substantial support boost.
Unfortunately, those minor quests ended up being predictable for the outcome and are quite short. People ask for help, you kill some Mongols, come back and either find them dead or someone else is dead. Either way, someone’s going to die! They are only a quick three-step story process that gives you some minor rewards and legend increase in the span of maybe five or so minutes. I do appreciate that SuckerPunch is doing what they can to provide a means for the people of Tsushima to tell their side of the story. But adding a bit more depth to these would have been very beneficial.
A Land Worth Fighting For
Act One started off strong story-wise, with Act Two being an ok building point for the story and Act Three being the inevitable conclusion. Understandably this is where a lot of the exploration, side quests, and mythic stories are supposed to fill in the gaps. Which absolutely happens in a great way. Ghost Of Tsushima’s story is an enjoyable one but just a little short. The facial animations of the characters also looked a little off. It was almost something you would expect to see from a game made in 2013. With this being a AAA product I was kind of surprised by this.
But hey, some find this enjoyable, especially in Kurosawa mode! Which is a graphical option that makes the whole game look and sound like a classic black and white samurai movie. A throwback to a time where the English dub lip-syncing was way off and was actually half the fun of those movies! So maybe in this regard, some not so great facial animations and lip-syncing are beneficial.
Many people will find nostalgic value with Kurosawa mode, and that is pretty damn cool. Though it would have been nice to see more time invested in making sure those facial animations properly expressed the emotion of the character. As well as having a proper lip-sync to both the English and Japanese dub. Though I guess if you are truly going after that nostalgic feel in Kurosawa mode, it’s perfect!
The only other area that had some odd little issues was the audio. Overall, like the story, the audio is great except for a handful of instances where the character dialogue sounded raw and very loud. As if the direct studio recording was just tossed in without any balancing or tweaking.
One moment all the characters would be talking normally, the next moment one line sounds as if they suddenly moved super close to the microphone. Breaks the immersion a little, and gives some chuckles, but that is the extent of what was experienced for issues. Outside of that the music and voice acting is fantastic. The environmental sounds really make the world feel alive when combined with its beautiful landscape.
Where Ghost of Tsushima somewhat lacks in overall storytelling, it makes up for in all other aspects. The gameplay is incredible and addicting. I cannot stress enough how fun it is to get the timing of your attacks down and see the fluid combat animations and executions. When you start off, you are a samurai but it almost feels like you are a new student just starting to figure things out. You are nowhere near what your full potential will be.
The journey of growth in combat is very rewarding. By learning new techniques, stances, throwable items, and distractions, you become a fearsome foe. It even gets to the point where at the end of the game it can almost be too easy. You have so many options on how you can eliminate an enemy, it’s easy to diversify your combat style on the fly. I’ve seen a lot of people make the comparisons of Ghost of Tsushima to Assassin’s Creed because of the combat. Indeed the combat is very similar, though it’s not an exact replica – However, it does present many of the same options when confronting an enemy.
If you want to charge in and take out the whole base with open sword combat, you can. Sneak in and eliminate them through deception and assassinations? You can. If you want to take them all out with a bow and useable items, you can. Want to do any combination of the three at the same time? You can. Regardless of your approach, Ghost of Tsushima has an incredible combat loop.
Death Disguised As Beauty
Combat stances are added in and actually work meaningfully. Knowing which stance to switch to with certain enemy types helps create the fluid motion of combat. The combat animations change with each stance which adds another great layer to the combat. Not too many combat attack chain animations end up being the same. They also don’t feel out of place when you drastically switch them up.
There are no weird body movements to compensate for an odd combo, it’s always smooth. The two areas where combat is most effectively highlighted, is when you take over a Mongol camp or stronghold, and when you encounter a duel. The duels are easily one of the biggest highlights of the game. It feels like diving into a movie duel between the main hero and villain each time. The duel arena setting each time you have a duel is always set beautifully.
The music brings the mood in a big way, the cinematic camera view is on point, and of course, the combat itself is absolutely fitting. This adds a nice new emphasis on a story point that we haven’t exactly seen much in video games before.
Though there is one area that I did not really enjoy having these minor cinematic story moments. Did we really have to add them to most of the civilian “Help me!” quests? For the 10-15 second dialogue, it feels unnecessary. The moments in between where the camera changes angles to initiate the minor cinematic cutscene is just wasted time. I know a lot of the focus of Ghost of Tsushima is to be “Cinematic” but not every little detail in a game has to be like that.
Now, the one area that excelled in being cinematic without being outright obvious is the free-roaming of the environment of Tsushima. What an incredibly beautiful world. There is a vast richness of color, as well as constant motion to make the world feel alive. It’s proof that you don’t need high res photo-realistic assets to create an incredible environment or game. What really sets Ghost of Tsushima apart in the graphical department, is the use of the sun.
It’s our natural light source, so why not make sure that’s the primary source of light in the game? Many games already do this, but Ghost of Tsushima easily has some of the best natural looking lighting I’ve seen in a game that has a day and night cycle. With a dynamic weather system that covers literally all weather types, the lighting gets even more of a boost.
Overall, it’s just beautifully done. Having this video game be set in Japan and with so much work invested in such a beautiful environment, it’s hard to not stop and take a look around. The island of Tsushima feels mystical, almost fairytale-like. It’s a land that many people have romanticized. Now, you can finally fulfill that fantasy of running around feudal Japan. The landscape has a beautiful flow to it where the different biomes blend together fairly well. Everywhere you look the island is dotted with broken buildings, temples, shrines, massacres, burnt corpses, everything that is needed to weave a tale of the land.
A large amount of time was also spent in photo mode for Ghost of Tsushima. It’s actually difficult playing a good portion of the game without being distracted by the beauty of the horizon. The photo mode itself is one of the best I’ve ever used. Being able to set the time of day, weather, the addition of animated particles, being able to record a moving image on top of the standard features really allows for some incredible screenshots. One of the best things about Ghost of Tsushima as a game is how consistent it is in all categories. Not a single one falters in a major way, which does not happen often with a brand new IP.
The story is good, unique, but not outstanding and a tad bit short. The environment, landscape, visuals, and gameplay are firing on all cylinders! Ghost of Tsushima is one of the best new IP’s to come out this generation. They have outdone themselves in creating a video game set in a time that is rarely touched upon. To be a western studio that’s bold enough to delve into this side of history, and pull it off in a meaningful and respectful way deserves a lot of respect. Creating the “Assassin’s Creed of Japan” was the smartest move they could have done.
This is a foundational beginning of a new franchise going forward that I would love to see supported in an immense way. This is the most fun I’ve had in an open world in a very long time. Ghost of Tsushima is easily worth every dollar spent. Aside from a somewhat short story, there is very little to pick apart about the game. Its landscape is a living beauty that is masked by death. Ghost of Tsushima is not an experience to be missed.