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Ghost of Tsushima review: Finding peace in a violent world

Ghost of Tsushima
MSRP $59.99
“There's a great deal of pain in Ghost of Tsushima, but there's just as much healing.”
  • Stellar storytelling
  • Massively interactive open world
  • Well-executed combat
  • Unique tasks and side quests
  • Awkward movement mechanics

Ghost of Tsushima effortlessly combines solid swordplay with a compelling story.

This new open-world RPG, exclusive to the PlayStation 4, takes samurai Jin Sakai on a daunting quest as he retakes his home island of Tsushima from the Mongols. His story is an interesting one, and it would be easy for developer Sucker Punch to use Ghost’s style as an excuse to phone in the mechanics. Instead, the game offers one of the best sword combat systems in recent memory.

Ghost isn’t quite perfect, but my gripes pale in comparison to the joy I felt while playing the game. It, along with The Last of Us Part II, allows the PlayStation 4 to go out with a bang. Both games exemplify the best of late-generation titles, though in very different ways.

ghost of tsushima screenshot
Photo courtesy of Sony

A world of wonder

The island of Tsushima is an open-world marvel.

The world feels truly open, as you can enter each building, climb rooftops, and explore without fatigue.

The world shows off varying landscapes, from rolling fields to snowcapped mountains. The varied environments feel very reminiscent of Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, but Ghost goes a bit further. The world feels truly open as you can enter each building, climb their rooftops, and explore without fatigue. Every mountain is scalable, and often worth climbing. The game offers supplies and collectibles throughout the landscape, along with small bands of enemies you can take down to improve your standing.

Ghost of Tsushima includes small tasks to improve individual stats, which felt well-incorporated into the game. You can compose haikus or meditate on specific issues, for example. 

All of this made exploration, which some open-world games turn into a chore, into a key pillar of the game. You can experience the game in full without feeling rushed to get on with the main story.

Ghost of Tsushima screenshot
Photo courtesy of Sony

A truly cinematic game

While traversing the world is magical, the game sometimes lacks environmental details. I was surprised to find I could walk straight through fully grown bamboo, giving a new meaning to the “ghost” of Tsushima. I understand that it makes travel less cumbersome, but added details, like bending the foliage away, would have felt more immersive.

Still, Ghost of Tsushima otherwise takes the idea of a “cinematic game” to a new level, drawing specific inspiration from cinematic auteur Akira Kurosawa. You have the option to turn up the contrast, or turn on Kurosawa mode, which aims to replicate the look of black-and-white samurai classics.

This visual setting is special, as it doesn’t just convert the picture to grayscale. The contrast is further heightened. Projectiles and foliage floating in the wind are multiplied. The sound mimics that of an action movie. It’s clear a lot of care was put into this setting.

Unfortunately, it’s not the most useful look for combat and much of gameplay, and I doubt you’d want to play the entire game with Kurosawa mode on (though it’s possible). Luckily, you can switch back and forth as you please, as the mode can be flicked on or off through a simple menu and doesn’t require that you reboot the game.

All of these features, combined with an already impressive world, are easily captured in Photo Mode. This feature is now common in console games with top-tier graphics, but Ghost of Tsushima offers more options than I’ve seen before.

On a more inclusive note, Ghost offers respectable (but not class-leading) accessibility options. The Last of Us Part II sported many choices to make the game playable for gamers of varying abilities. It’s nice to see this kind of consideration again, though Ghost of Tsushima’s options are not as wide-ranging. These controls make it easier to press buttons in succession or tap once instead of holding a button. They also make it easier to see projectiles, for example. However, The Last of Us Part II has specific controls for different actions, and more customizable visual cues.

ghost of tsushima screenshot
Photo courtesy of Sony

Gut-punching combat

I couldn’t spend all my time traveling or taking photos, and the gameplay and combat did not let me down.

Nailing parries, figuring out how to best an opponent in a duel, and pulling off combos all feel immensely rewarding. Most of the combat, especially early on, is of the sword-to-sword variety. Time a block right, and you’ll be able to parry an attack. As you progress in the game and take down Mongol leaders, you’ll unlock new stances that help you battle different enemy types. You will, however, see all types of enemies right from the start, so the beginning of the game is a bit more challenging than you might expect.

There are two main gauges to keep track of, your health meter, and your resolve. You gain resolve through parries and by defeating enemies, and it unlocks special attacks and weapons. Parrying is important, and you’ll likely rely on it more than in other games. Still, you can also roll or run away from an enemy, or get closer to strike the final blow.

Ghost of Tsushima screenshot
Photo courtesy of Sony

It’s possible to customize your gear and accessories to fit your preferred combat style, be it melee, ranged, or stealth. I spent plenty of time looking at upgrade charts to see what my weapons or armor could do, or what new abilities I could learn. I planned out my upgrade order meticulously based on my desires (melee all the way).

You can unlock charms by honoring shrines in the game. Hot springs will increase your maximum health, and performing a series of quick button presses at a bamboo stand will increase your resolve. You’ll unlock new weapons and armor by completing tales, which include the main story and side quests. To upgrade your gear, you’ll need to stock up on resources found in the world.

Differences in armor and gear are clearly marked, and you can easily switch weapons in battle. I was able to mix and match my experience, and I often found myself switching charms or outfits based on the task at hand.

Battle sequences are, for the most part, a highlight, but there’s nothing more frustrating than dodging an enemy blow only to roll away to nowhere because you’re on a slightly elevated platform. Plenty of games are more forgiving, and allow you to switch elevations, but no such luck here.

I did find the game to be rather easy. How easy of course depends on the player, but I personally spent 75% of the game on the hard setting. The game has only three options: Easy, medium, and hard. I started on medium to get through as much as possible, but I quickly found myself unchallenged. There isn’t a new game+ mode to unlock, either, though that could come later, similar the survival addition to Fallout 4.

Open world, closed book

The story is less open than the world it’s in, but I’d argue that’s a good thing. Plenty of open-world games let players take liberties with how they want to go about things, but don’t back up their free-form aspirations with appropriate consequences. Ghost of Tsushima gives players smaller choices, so their relatively small impact feels appropriate. 

Still, I found myself trying to maximize my choices. When I learned it was against samurai code to assassinate an enemy rather than giving them a chance to fight back, I attempted to avoid using stealth. However, the game still chastised me for breaking code. Each opportunity I had, I took it as a chance to do what I thought was good or right, and I felt like I should be rewarded for it.

But Ghost of Tsushima had a different story to tell. I was initially frustrated, but once I realized I didn’t have control, I relaxed. I played based on whatever worked in the moment rather than what I thought the game wanted me to do.

Again, this linearity isn’t a fault. I found it made the story more impactful. Ghost of Tsushima is focused. It tells one story, and tells it well.

You’ll find plenty of side quests, however, many of which are character-driven. I often find side quests tedious. Games like Fallout 4 and Death Strandingwith their unending load of tasks, left me especially jaded about straying from the main story for too long.

However, Ghost of Tsushima has finite side quests, and each is its own self-contained story. The missions feel unique rather than repetitive, and they helped shape the world around me. Non-player characters, regardless of how heavily featured they were in the main story, didn’t feel like pawns in the hero’s journey. It was easy to become invested in their stories.

The biggest letdown in Ghost of Tsushima is its facial animations. In a game so reliant on emotional scenes and a character-driven plot, these should have been polished. Instead, the facial animation work comes across as merely functional. 

ghost of tsushima screenshot
Photo courtesy of Sony

A philosophy lesson disguised as a game

Throughout these stories, Ghost of Tsushima asks the player a question. “What’s the right way to win a war?” It’s not about using your katana or your bow. How do you kill, and maintain honor?

Jin grew up learning the ways of the samurai, to kill with honor by looking your foe in the eyes rather than stabbing him in the back, literally and figuratively. But the old methods aren’t working, and Jin starts to question whether it’s more honorable to uphold traditions or forgo them if fewer people die.

There’s a crucial moment where Jin asks one of his allies if they’ve crossed a line. The answer is ambiguous but hopeful: “If we have, we’re on the right side of it.”

Ghost of Tsushima does little to glamorize war. Reminders of death and loss loom in every corner, and corpses dot the land. No one comes out unscathed. The invasion brings out the best in some but the worst in others.

It makes sense that you’re forced into introspection as you draft haikus and meditate in hot springs. You can’t decide how Jin’s story unravels, but you can choose how you view loss, destruction, and rebirth. You also get to determine how the haikus end, at the very least.

Jin asks one of his allies if he crossed a line. “If we have, we’re on the right side of it,” his ally answers.

The problems you run into aren’t always solved in a single side quest, and sometimes they’re not solved at all. There is a great deal of pain in Ghost of Tsushima, but there’s as much healing. After an area is liberated, for example, people start coming back to rebuild it. It feels great to see people return to normal everyday life after so much tragedy has occurred. 

I saw characters who felt in their hearts that they could be good but didn’t know how yet. I saw others overcome by revenge, but pulled back from the brink. Ultimately, I saw the community of Tsushima come together. Simple farmers took up arms or used their unique skills to help in any way they could. 

These things point to the dual nature of the game. On the one hand, it’s extremely violent. On the other hand, it’s mediative and thoughtful. That combination isn’t easy to pull off, and it’s what makes Ghost of Tsushima worth playing.

Our take

Ghost of Tsushima is one of the best games I’ve played this year — it might’ve been my favorite, if not for The Last Of Us Part II.  Jin Sakai’s story is violent but thoughtful, delivering an experience that feels unique on the PlayStation 4 despite the fact 2020 is the console’s last year before the PlayStation 5 makes it obsolete.

Is there a better alternative?

There’s nothing quite like Ghost of Tsushima. There are a few new elements, but the game is more than just the sum of its parts. If you’re looking for other open-world games, the Fallout series or Breath of the Wild are good bets. But you can only get this story here.

How long will it last?

I finished Ghost of Tsushima at just under 60 hours. In that time, I completed the entire main story, each side quest, and got most of the collectibles. I expect it’d take about 10 hours to find the rest of the game’s collectibles.

Should you buy it?

Yes. Thereare several big new titles to round out this generation, like Cyberpunk 2077, but this is one PlayStation fans will surely keep in their back pockets as evidence of Sony’s dominance.

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