Ever since a much younger me clapped eyes on an Amiga game called Lords of the Rising Sun, I’ve been a samurai guy. As time rolled on, I misspent my youth on titles like Bushido Blade, Kengo, the Way of the Warrior series and about a hundred ninja games to boot. Getting one’s Miyamoto Mushashi on in modern gaming has become quite a rare thing if you don’t want the supernatural embellishments.
Like giant enemy crabs.
You can imagine how excited I was when Sucker Punch Productions announced Ghost of Tsushima, the kind of grounded Japanese odyssey that I’ve been wanting Ubisoft to throw assassins at for, oh… about 11 years.
Sucker Punch wins big points straight out of the gate for simply filling that void, but can Ghost of Tsushima go toe-to-toe with the competition. Does this fresh-faced ronin upstart successfully cross swords with the old veteran in rusting armour? Is there room in 2020 to have multiple Lords of the Historically-themed open-world action-adventure?
Ghost of Tsushima Review
At the very least, what we’ve got here is the sort of dramatic sword-lock that occurs when two equally-skilled opponents meet. That said, in its quest to compete, Ghost of Tsushima’s form is haunted by technical errors – bad habits transposed from observing AC’s technique from afar. There’s also the matter of squandering some unique opportunities, and a strange reluctance to weave in more of Sucker Punch’s established DNA.
Clearly this game is the home of the nice slice, combat-wise, but what the heck is it about? Mongols. Filthy, invading Mongols. In the mid-1200s a bunch of them decide to get their Genghis on and invade the small, mainland bridging island of Tsushima. Using a ‘thousands against hundreds’ host of warriors – a technique historians now retroactively call ‘Mongolian spam’ – these bastards dominate with their superior pyrotechnics and a complete disregard for the bushido code.
You’ll be slipping into the sandals of Jin Sakai, a venerable warrior in the charge of his uncle, Lord of Tsushima. He’s old school, very much tied up in the ancient honourable ways, and as a result, he’s soon outclassed and literally tied up by Khotun, a cunning warlord and a worthy antagonist. Basically, there’s nothing more dangerous than a conqueror who’s learned everything about your culture – like some sort of proto-Weeaboo – with the aim to use it against you.
More or less alone and hideously outnumbered, Jin is forced to take stock on his war-waging abilities. One solution could be to branch out into a more unconventional style that favours guerilla tactics, underhanded weaponry, kidney abuse and just scaring six shades of sake out of the mongols by any means necessary. Remarketing oneself as a poltergeist might have a certain appeal as well…
Mind you, a brand shift like that will bring dishonour on himself, his lord and possibly result in expulsion from the shogun. It will also bring nagging mini flashback cutscenes that moralise and finger-wag at Jin about being “super mean to people.” Not to mention the odd mid-story cutaway to the Khan as he taunts Lord Sakai about having corrupted his favourite nephew into taking up the thug life.
This is the basic gist and central theme of Ghost of Tsushima, and it’s presented to you in either well-voiced English, well-voiced but slightly badly lip-synched Japanese or in a kick-ass black and white mode with a language of your choosing. Weave in half a dozen endearing support characters, each with their own complex pasts to unfold, like some sort of reverse origami, and you’ve got a yarn on par with a Kurosawa flick.
That said, this tale misses a chance at greater things due to an unwillingness to be non-linear. And this is a design decision that’s actually heavily entwined with the game’s combat system, so let’s leap into that next…
95% of the time, you can approach an encounter however you’d like – brawling, sniping, shanking from behind or doing a curious mix of everything. Personally, for my first playthrough on Hard difficulty, I dedicated myself to an honourable, look-your-enemies-in-the-eyes kind of Jin.
While the swordplay on offer isn’t quite what I’d call bleeding edge – an award I’d give to Ubisoft’s For Honor – what’s here is mostly on point. Sucker Punch forgoes a dedicated lock-on system to instead favour a subtle auto one that intuitively responds to target suggestions made through your left stick. Heavy/light combos flow into each other nicely (thanks to no stamina bar). And dodging incoming “red unblockable” warnings or creating opportunities to punish with “blue parry” sparks become paramount. Friggin’ best of luck picking which of those are which in that fancy monochrome mode of yours.
As the hours roll on, combat deepens to include new enemy types who are essentially tied to four switchable stances that you’ll need to learn and develop as they have their own modestly sized skill lines. If you’re in a pinch, killing a foe with the wrong stance is totally possible, but they’ll become a damage sponge.
To be truly effective is to read the group trying to gank you. Then you’ll hold R2 to engage a slight bullet time, press a face button to switch to their kryptonite, hew through them, target someone else, rinse and repeat. I think it’s both simple and elegant solution to the way AC is heading – power levels, insultingly low damage numbers popping out of big hits, etc.
I also want to give special attention to the Standoff mechanic. You can just waltz into a group of enemies and tap dpad up to sign everybody up to a quickdraw competition. Having the fastest katana in the East, never, ever gets old.
You should never underestimate a group of men with moustaches however, because as you grow in standoff ability, the Mongols start getting wise. They try to fake you out, sometimes up to three times. And the window of releasing your finger for that opening strike gets very, very short. Screw it up, and you’re on your arse with bugger all life.
Speaking of things that got me down during combat. I sometimes couldn’t figure out the means of making the Standoff prompt appear – sometimes Jin just isn’t into it. I also had to deliberately stop engaging mobs indoors, because a lack of dedicated lock-on can cause minor havoc with scenery getting between Jin and the camera. Our hero also has this weird burning urge to prioritise the destruction of sliding doors versus humans – too many times I went installing new windows instead of opening up windpipes.
Lastly, and this is an issue I found in my recent Assassin’s Creed Valhalla hands-on: when fights go multi-level — possibly because projectile enemies have chucked an Obi-Wan by taking the high ground – a new battle starts between the game’s combat and traversal systems. Trying to ascend and eliminate anybody who has overwatch on you can be, well, an uphill battle.
When it comes to the stealth approach, I only really embraced it in the post-story mop up (and for me there was hours and hours and hours of that). For anybody who’s played Sucker Punch’s previous works – think: the Sly Raccoon and Infamous series – the rooftop skulking that goes on here will feel eerily familiar. Jin flits across complex castle roof tiles, along slacklines and over thatched roofs like an Azuma ninja.
It’s rare to get snagged on things when transitioning between these. Even better, you eventually gain access to a nifty grapple hook that works well once you’ve yanked the camera around to peer at one of the rare hitching points available. That said, you won’t lean on it anywhere near as much as that best-in-class one we got in Sekiro. Indeed, a lot of your stealth will take place out in the open – that old, “long grass makes you invisible” approach.
Long chains of assassinations are very much hit, disperse and engage from a new vector kind of affairs. And it has to be said, coming from the next-level AI reactions experienced in The Last of Us Part II (both tactically and in terms of raw emotion), yeah, the stealth in Ghost feels like it’s got one foot in the past already.
Things improve when you factor in some era-specific support weapons and abilities. Sucker Punch skirts a bit too close to “ninpo magic” in spots, and for a wet behind the ears ninja, Jin sure hits the ground ninja sprinting as a preternatural killer. For example, tapping R1 will quickfire knives into up to three foes, insta-stunning them. Tugging L2 will engage your projectile weapons like a poison dispensing blowdart and your trusty fire and broadhead spewing bow (quick note: there is a grass-based fire propagation system here).
Otherwise, you have sticky bombs, smoke bombs and while there’s no weapon loot to speak of, you can improve your effectiveness by perking Jin up or equipping him with stat-enhancing wearables, like new armour and charms. Ghost of Tsushima is very big on cosmetic options and dyes, too, and I love that some of them are awarded to you, inscribed with a haiku you’ve just composed.
When it comes to earning and spending perks, practically everything you do feeds into a “legend” meter that steadily dispenses technique points. These can be spent on absolutely anything at all. You can hone your swordsmanship mastery of deflection or evasion via seven perks apiece. You can invest in Exploration perks, to make certain collectables and side content more “reveal-able” in the overworld. There are also perks to make your stances better and or to improve your Mongol-inspired arsenal of Ghost weapons.
Lastly, we have Mythic combat techniques that need to be earned by tracking down and defeating a master of said bad-arse move. Using these requires the sacrifice of one of your precious focus circles, but they’re absolute game-changers. For the love of God, take the time to get the Heavenly Strike unblockable attack. It’ll save your arse during the largely unfair one on one duels that are sprinkled in the game.
As you can clearly see, Sucker Punch “gets it” when it comes to nailing not only the look of classic Samurai cinema, but also the sheer beauty of Japan. I’m not going to spend too much time pointing out how beautiful it looks – your eyes can figure that out on their own. What I will say is that the engine rarely skips a beat. I love the super saturated colouring of it all, and the dedication to keeping this more HUDless than most – in particular the summonable touchpad wind that guides you to your map set objective.
By now you’ve probably got the impression that I quite enjoyed my time with Ghost. I did. A lot. But there was also a bit of disappointment to be felt. Sucker Punch is well known for its Infamous series which, much more often than not, featured karma is an integral focus. Your benevolent or nefarious deeds would morph everything — your appearance, how your powers developed, the successive chain of events within the story, how people and major characters reacted to you, and the very ending of the game. Ghost of Tsushima is perfectly set up to accommodate such a thing but has none of it.
Instead of being able to choose the path of “samurai honour” versus “ninja ruthlessness”, Jin is locked on course to whatever Sucker Punch wants for him. I mean there’s a limp-wristed “choose your own ending” moment, but it’s a pretty transparent as a token offering. The Casper of what Ghost could have been. And, as I mentioned before, salt is rubbed in by these mini flashbacks where the game moralises at you and wags its finger whenever you do nasty stuff. I found all that kinda mystifying.
Sucker Punch insists it abandoned the karma system because it got in the way of storytelling. I respect its right to make the game it wants to make, but it still feels like an excuse to avoid creating two sets of every cutscene. In my mind, a clunky honour decision in the third act of your game kinda runs counter to the elegant “do things organically and seamlessly” design philosophy that’s championed elsewhere in the production.
Not including a karma system certainly isn’t a deal-breaker for me – I mention it because I think a great many of you will note its absence. I honestly had very little time to get my topknot in a bunch over it, because I was happily up to my obi in a challenging 20 hour main story, followed by just as many hours worth of side missions and then maybe a further 15 hours of ticking stuff off. This game is packed.
When the rising sun set on Ghost of Tsushima, I thought it was a great first effort to launch a full franchise assault from. The sort of bold, beachhead landing that’d impress Genghis himself. Ghost of Tsushima feels fully-stocked without suffering from the bloat and RPG-lite wank that has crept into the Assassin’s Creed series. More importantly, the combat has depth while also feeling fluid and fun. Plus, this has the feel of a fresh engine – one that’s been reforged and polished to serve a razor-sharp purpose. It’s not some ageing Animus that’s a slave to decades of iteration and expectation.
Ghost of Tsushima isn’t perfect but, like a summoned objective on your touchpad, it’s a breath of fresh air that’ll send a warm chill down the spine of any Samurai aficionado. It has hit the ground running and has way more than a Ghost of a chance against Ubisoft’s well-entrenched AAA behemoth genre king. That in itself is a pretty damn impressive feat. The 2020 battle for your hard-earned yen just got interesting.
Ghost of Tsushima was reviewed using a digital copy provided by PlayStation Australia.