* FULL GAME SPOILERS AHEAD *
Finally we have been given the gift of an open world, action adventure game that focuses on the samurai, and even allows you to play as one. The samurai are truly the most under utilized historical warriors in gaming up to this point. There have been very few games created that do the samurai justice and Ghost of Tsushima nails it. Sucker Punch has delivered a beautiful and immersive world that really captures the natural beauties offered by Japan as well as demonstrating what it may have been like to live through the premodern Japan samurai noble system. Although, Ghost of Tsushima may be an original fiction created by Sucker Punch and filled with fictional characters, it takes place during the real Mongolian invasion of Japan that began on the island of Tsushima in the year 1274.
A Dark Narrative Makes for an Emotional Journey
During the game you will play as the noble birthed samurai Jin Sakai as he wrestles with the internal battle of whether or not he should do whatever it takes to repel the Mongol invaders even if it goes against the samurai honor code that he was raised to live by. Throughout the game you can see Jin struggle at every turn because of what he is forced to do in order to save his people. I say this knowing that he may not be the most mesmerizing or charismatic protagonist we have seen in a game. He tends to shine in the smaller moments and really gets players to feel the darkness of the situation and the toll the entire journey takes on the people of the island as well as himself in particular. The Mongols are a brutal enemy and you will see first hand the lengths they’re willing to go in order to bend the wills of Tsushima’s citizens.
“… the game is exceptional at getting across the overwhelming dark tone of the situation”
It doesn’t take long for you to witness what drives the cruelty, because in the opening battle on the beach we are introduced to one of the better villains that I can remember in a game and the true charismatic pinnacle of the voice acting in Ghost of Tsushima, Khotun Khan. In game he is said to be a descendant of the well know Genghis Khan, and desires to remove himself from that shadow and be remembered for his own triumphs. He quickly makes his mark in the opening battle on the beach as we see Khotun Khan for the first time. By request he struts forward to greet the samurai negotiator as was a common practice in many ancient battles. He then, very calmly, without saying a word, pours what appears to be wine from his own chalice, grabs a torch out of the hand of a near ally and proceeds to light the samurai negotiator on fire. Only then to effortlessly pull out his weapon and slice off the mans head. In a single moment players are presented with the coming savagery and apathy towards the people of the island. There couldn’t have been a better introduction to the Khan and the overall tone for the pending invasion.
As beautiful of a game that Ghost of Tsushima is visually, and it is absolutely unmatched by any game this generation that allows the similar open world freedoms offered, the game is exceptional at getting across the overwhelming dark tone of the situation. So much so that it is my favorite part of the game’s narrative aspects. If not by just the visual representation that you can see roaming the world with people hung from trees, or charred corpses driven through pikes, it coveys it through the most menial of tasks that Jin completes. For example, nearly every one of the one-off side quests that you are sent off to find a lost loved one for somebody you either finally find them and they’ve been cut down by Mongols or bandits and you must bring back the bad news, or you find them and bring them back only to find that the NPC who started the quest has been killed or killed themselves out of grief. Additionally, many of the victims end up being innocent women and children. There is never any restraint shown to the people of the island of Tsushima. These small easily overlooked moments go a long way in conveying the mountainous, unwinnable situation that Jin Sakai is thrown into. As the story progresses this mood improves for your many allies and people of the island, but the toll it takes on Jin is always present, and you can feel it break him in the moment he is forced to duel his uncle.
Always Something to Do
From the very beginning of the game players are surrounded by endless amounts of things to do and pathways to take. This game if nothing else is a collectors dream. If you are the person that thrives on collectibles in a game and loves the journey to explore and find every last collectible item than Ghost of Tsushima will be this year’s godsend for you. Additionally, you have the ability to search for hidden locations that will strengthen your player by adding health, passive combat abilities, etc. If that doesn’t sound like something you enjoy it doesn’t matter because there are countless quests for you to take up, or outposts to clear instead.
Sucker Punch does a good job with this game in the way that they made the side quests actually mean something and matter in the greater scheme of things. The side quests in Ghost of Tsushima aren’t just some generic, menial 10 minute tasks that you find to be fairly common a lot of times in open world RPG games. That is not to say that this game doesn’t have a few of those one-off side quests, but even those don’t feel menial, because as I said earlier they continue to expand on the dark tone of the game.
In the game there are 4 types of quests that can be completed. They are the on-off generic side quests that I just talked about, mythic quests, tales, and the main story quests. They pretty much progress upwards in importance in that order as well. The mythic side quests are where players can learn new abilities to use in combat and find new armors to wear. These to me are the most interesting because they all begin by listening to a musician and hearing a very traditional folklore story focusing on a past great warrior of the island that had used their special abilities or armor to great success landing themselves as the star of their own legend. This is the goal of many samurai and it is touched on a couple times throughout the story. Many wish to be such great, memorable warriors, so much so that they will have songs sang about them, or legends like these created and passed down through the generations. The mythic side quests are just an extension of the traditional lore that was common during these times historically. Whether these tales are fictional or not is irrelevant because it keeps the player immersed in the time period.
The tales are a multi-step form of side quest that focus on the backgrounds of your closest allies in the game. They help to develop these characters into something that you can feel for. At first the tales could be seen as quite underwhelming because they seem very generic. However, as you progress through each ally’s individual tale they do become more interesting and shed some light on each characters backgrounds and what drives them emotionally through the story. I find that not all of the characters are exceedingly interesting, but by the end of the tales each character is given a sense of emotional importance even though some obviously outshine others.
The main story quests are of course what drive the overall narrative to the game. During these quests we get to experience the large scale battles and assaults of the main strong holds as well as the major character development moments that will directly affect Jin Sakai. Ghost of Tsushima does MOSTLY a really good job in demonstrating the scale and chaos that takes places during these battles. I say mostly because there were a couple times that they are over pretty quickly and the player is left wondering, “Is that all?”. However, overall these moments were a lot of fun to be a part of and one of my favorite parts of the game.
The far and away best part of Ghost of Tsushima is the combat. You can tell it is where the most time and polishing was spent during development. At first glance the combat is pretty simple, you have a quick light attack in addition to a standard heavy attack. What makes the combat special, in addition to being always fun and engaging to the very end of the game, is the implementation of the four stances. Each stance is specialized to deal with specific enemy types that you will go up against. Players can quickly switch back and forth between stances even while surrounded by multiple enemies. The system works fluently and you never feel overwhelmed by trying to do too much, it is effortless.
Sucker Punch also added in unique combat features like standoffs and duels. Standoffs can be used to instantly kill multiple enemies at the beginning of a fight. It does not come without risk though, because if you mess up the timing your health is taken down to nearly zero and are now surrounded by all of the enemies you were trying to take out. For me this feature never got old, and near the end of the game I had gained the ability to take out five enemies at the start of every encounter.
Duels are dramatic, one on one, more or less boss fights. You can find yourself in one of these throughout various story points, or when clearing the larger outposts. I found every duel to be a waiting game. If you think you can overpower or quickly take down an opponent you are mistaken and will surely fail. Keeping true to the samurai concept, patience is your ally. If you wait for your opponent to attack first and parry their attacks you will find it easy to take down any one you go up against.
Every aspect of the combat system in Ghost of Tsushima is aesthetically pleasing and you always feel like a badass samurai. I’ve never experienced pleasure like what is given to me when I walk into an outpost through the front gate after instantly taking out five enemies through a standoff, and continue to effortlessly cut down enemies while switching back and forth through the four stances, each one playing off of the enemy’s weaknesses. You think sex is good? Have you ever tried that? Pure bliss, and I don’t have to deal with a sore jaw afterwards either. The combat just does right by the samurai and how truly great of warriors that they were historically.
Ghost of Tsushima for me is one of the most memorable games of this generation. Would I put it into the top five? Not quite, but that is not to say that Sucker Punch doesn’t deserve acknowledgement for setting the standard in what players expect to see visually when it comes to large open world games. They clearly understand the technology available to them and were able to utilize it to its maximum capabilities because this game is visually stunning. The game’s narrative isn’t exactly remarkable in any way, but carried the heavy, dark tone very well, and it kept me emotionally invested. The combat system that Sucker Punch has developed is the heart and soul of this game. It is fluent, engaging, and never gets old. Ghost of Tsushima may have ended up being a better experience then it was a game if that makes sense, but it was the best experience of this generation. To deliver on the samurai experience is a tall ask, but hats off to Sucker Punch because they nailed it.