Ghost of Tsushima is a beautiful samurai tale buried under a familiar open-world game
July 14, 2020
Ghost of Tsushima is at its best when it’s quiet.
The latest PS4 game from developer Sucker Punch is an attempt to merge the structure of a conventional open-world game with the setting of a classic samurai film. Think of it as Assassin’s Creed by way of Akira Kurosawa. When things click, it’s amazing; Ghost is a beautiful game, one full of focused, contemplative moments, from tense, one-on-one sword duels to peaceful retreats to compose haiku under a tree. Ghost doesn’t hit the same highs as its cinematic inspirations, but it apes their themes and style in a way that at least feels unique for a video game.
The problem is that it so often isn’t quiet. Open-world games are big and busy, and those elements — the gigantic battles, the sprawling map, the copious sidequests, the repetitive mission structure — drown out what makes Ghost feel special. The two sides of the game feel constantly at odds. When it works, it’s incredible. The rest of the time, it’s yet another open-world action game.
Ghost of Tsushima takes place in 13th century Japan, when a Mongolian army has invaded the titular island. You play as Jin Sakai, one of the only remaining samurai on Tsushima following a large-scale attack that wiped out much of the warrior population. Initially, Jin’s goal is relatively small: he wants to rescue his uncle, leader of the Tsushima samurai, who has been captured by the Mongol leader. Eventually, as these things so often do, the stakes get higher. Jin becomes the de facto leader of a resistance force trying to thwart the invasion and keep it from spreading to the Japanese mainland.
This process isn’t straightforward. The conflict at the core of the game isn’t just between two opposing armies; it’s also inside Jin himself. At the outset, he’s a traditional samurai who faces his foes head-on and values honor above all else. But that doesn’t necessarily win you wars. In order to successfully fight off the ruthless invading force — which makes use of siege weapons and tactics designed to terrorize the enemy — he’s forced to try different tactics.
This plays out in a few different ways. The most important is the way Jin changes. He slowly sheds his samurai upbringing to become something else, making use of stealth tactics, morally questionable weapons like poison darts, and more to become what the residents of Tsushima call simply “the ghost.” By the end, he’s basically a samurai Batman, armed with a huge array of combat skills and useful gadgets.
But Jin can’t do it alone, which feeds into the structure of the game. A bulk of the quests in Ghost of Tsushima are about preparing to fight the Mongols and kill their leader. That means drumming up support from the residents of the island — including a core group of four allies, among them a warrior monk and a disgraced bow master — seeking out new skills and weapons, and clearing out camps, towns, and farmland to set up safe zones.
It sounds cool, but for the most part, it plays out much like any other game in the genre. The missions — in particular, the sidequests — can be painfully generic. They almost all involve going to an area, clearing it of enemies, and possibly collecting an important item along the way. Some require stealth, others climbing or tracking, and almost every one forces you to walk or ride alongside another character while they tell you something seemingly important. Ghost of Tsushima is a well-made game, but it often betrays a serious lack of imagination. You may feel like you’ve been transported to 13th century Japan, but that doesn’t mean you can get away from explosive red barrels or the ubiquitous turret sequence.
These elements aren’t bad, per se. It’s just they’ve been seen so many times before, whether it’s in Assassin’s Creed, Shadow of Mordor, The Witcher, or virtually any other open-world game from the last 10 years. What makes this particularly frustrating is that the new elements Ghost does bring to the genre are interesting and fit so well with the game’s themes and setting. But they get lost inside a paint-by-numbers structure.
A great example of this is the combat. Jin is a samurai master, and he controls like one. Over the course of the game, you’ll learn different stances, each of which works particularly well against a specific type of enemy and has slightly different controls to match. The result is that combat feels different depending on whether you’re up against a big, hulking brute or a skilled swordsman with a shield. Likewise, the game encourages exploration and pushes you toward goals in often subtle ways. There’s a feature called “guiding wind” which is exactly what it sounds like: you’ll see a gust of wind pointing in the direction of your current objective. It’s mostly a gentle reminder, as opposed to the firm push games typically give the player. When it comes to exploration, there’s a similar light touch; you might see a golden bird or brown fox, nudging you to follow them toward something interesting.
The issue is that these ideas are frequently buried underneath or undermined by traditional open-world elements. Fighting against small groups of enemies is a lot of fun, for instance; you have to think about your stance, and you can mix things up with weapons like hidden throwing blades. But often, the game throws waves and waves of enemy soldiers at you, and it turns into a button-mashing frenzy. Likewise, the act of spontaneous discovery and exploration isn’t so fun when the roads are filled with enemy soldiers and other dangers. The idea of getting into yet another battle discouraged me from venturing off in any direction to see what I could find; as much as I love horseback riding in games and taking in the scenery, I often resorted to the fast travel option instead.
My absolute favorite moments in Ghost of Tsushima are when things are stripped down to their very core. For key battles, the game utilizes a dueling format that is incredibly pared down. There are no stances or special weapons. It’s just you and a sword, using timing and quick reflexes to defeat your opponent. There are also more contemplative moments that are completely devoid of violence. If you find a restorative hot spring, you can sit and reflect on things that happened during your journey to that point. There are quiet spots where you can sit and compose a haiku from prewritten lines; Jin will scan the world around for inspiration, and you choose what he writes down. It’s rare that a blockbuster action game asks you to do anything so calm and meditative, but it’s a wonderful reprieve from the blood-soaked action.
These moments often feel hidden. If you want Ghost to be more than a standard action game, you need to search out these elements. Thankfully, unlike, say, Days Gone, the world and story are at least interesting. While I skipped a number of the sidequests, I made sure to play through the storylines for each of Jin’s close allies who have their own narrative threads that kept me away from the main storyline; characters range from a disgraced sensei seeking out his top pupil who defected to the Mongol army to a reformed thief trying to make a better life. Learning more about these people was enough to push me through some of the more tedious sidequests. It’s a testament to the acting and writing that, even though I saw most of the major story beats coming, I was still caught up in what was happening.
Ghost of Tsushima also tries to weave its gameplay and narrative together in an interesting way that ultimately doesn’t quite work. Essentially, the game wants you to feel guilty for Jin’s transformation. Often, when you do something not particularly honorable, like use a dart to poison an unsuspecting soldier, you’re greeted with a flashback sequence in which a young Jin is told by his sensei that “when we take their life, we look them in the eye.” In the present day, Jin is forced to constantly admit that “I did what I had to do.” The problem is you pretty much have to play as a ghost; the game is both more difficult and less fun to play as a rule-abiding samurai, and certain missions force a stealth approach. Having the game admonish you for playing with the new toy it just gave you never actually made me feel guilty at all. It didn’t help that I felt like Jin was actually doing the right thing, despite going against his code, by sacrificing himself and his reputation to help his people.
Perhaps Ghost is suffering from unrealistic expectations. After all, it is a well-crafted, if not particularly imaginative, adventure that evokes some of the most important films of all time. But it’s also the last big PS4 exclusive. And after a string of creative and daring hits, including Death Stranding, The Last of Us Part II, and Final Fantasy VII Remake, Ghost of Tsushima is something of a letdown. We’ve also seen that it’s entirely possible to take the well-worn open-world structure and twist it in some way to keep it fresh, whether that’s Horizon Zero Dawn’s imaginative setting or Spider-Man’s web-slinging, but Ghost plays things too safe.
Ghost of Tsushima just doesn’t dig far enough into what makes it unique. It’s big and beautiful — but you have to have the patience of a samurai to discover what makes it special.
Ghost of Tsushima launches on July 17th on the PS4.