“Wouldn’t it be cool to be a samurai, and do samurai stuff?” That was pretty much the kernel of an idea that led to Sucker Punch’s extraordinary Ghost of Tsushima.
Having previously impressed with the Infamous games, especially on PS3, the studio had been silent for some six years. Now we know why, as the effort put into Ghost of Tsushima oozes from every frame.
It’s hard to talk about Ghost of Tsushima without first addressing the visuals. Put simply, they’re breathtaking. Spectacular. Especially with the addition of HDR, we spent much longer playing this game to completion than we could have, simply as we kept stopping to take happy snaps (which, incidentally, are super-easily accessible from the D-pad). Virtual photographers are going to go gaga over this, and that’s before entering the officially sanctioned Kurosawa mode, which sends everything into classic, grainy black and white (with appropriately crackly soundtrack).
Ultimately though, you can have all the looks in the world, but no game to back it up. Thankfully, Sucker Punch are up to the task here. With a setting based on the feudal era invasion of Japan’s Tsushima Island by the Mongols, there’s a lot of scope for action and depth, and Ghost of Tsushima delivers.
“It also has a feeling of being alive…”
You are Jin Sakai, one of few surviving samurai after the Mongol invasion. Commencing your quest to liberate the island of Tsushima with little in the way of protection other than feeble gear and a whole lot of will, progression rewards in numerous ways. This comes from battles – either random encounters or specific missions – and myriad collectibles. From vanity gear to getting naked in a hot spring to constructing multiple-choice haikus, almost everything that you happen upon in your travels has some use beyond just looking cool, be it adding extra health, protection or firepower.
In actuality, the island of Tsushima, divided into three parts, all up measures some 70 x 15km. We can’t declare that every inch is recreated here perfectly, but everywhere you go, from the warmer south to the frozen north delivers variety and challenge. It also has a feeling of being alive – from random citizens going about their business, to animals roaming freely (some are friendly, some are not) right down to insect life like the odd butterfly that you’ll encounter. Plus, you get great just-the-right-side-of-soap-opera acting, and killer probably-not-genuine-samurai dialogue like our favourite line, “You sake-swilling piece of monkey dung!”.
With such a large area to navigate, some help is given in finding those collectibles, be it navigating to inari shrines via the guidance of helpful foxes (which you can even pat afterwards!), golden birds giving a guiding wing, or the main means of assistance, your friend the wind. With a quick swipe of the DualShock’s touchpad, visible gusts will blow in the direction that you’ve set on the map towards whatever you’ve marked for attention at the time. Without giving too much away, we were missing one peaceful spot after clearing the map of ‘?’s, only to randomly discover somebody helpful sitting on a rock in the middle of nowhere. Talk to everybody…
Less specific collectibles are dotted about in the form of trees, flowers and various goods that can be traded for upgrades at friendly shrines, survivor camps and monasteries. Mercifully you can hold a LOT of items before your TARDIS-like satchel gets full, too. A handy tip here? Always pick any flowers that you come across, or you’ll be hunting all over for them later.
“There’s a lot to learn, but it’s all introduced at an absorbable pace.”
Ultimately though combat is the key draw here, and while sometimes rather tumultuous when you feel that half the Mongol army is attacking you all at once, patience – and good strategy – rewards. Mongol groups generally contain several types of warrior, all of which you gradually become better equipped to deal with via numerous technique (including mythical ghost powers) and weapon upgrades (sticky bombs, which are pretty self-explanatory, rock – and firing a hallucinogenic dart that makes an enemy lose their nut and turn on their brothers in arms is a joy to behold), along with specific upgradeable stances to counter various types of foe. There’s a lot to learn, but it’s all introduced at an absorbable pace. Quick tip: We found it handy to take out the easy-kill archers in battles as soon as practicable, as having an arrow FT-OONG! into your back – especially a poisoned one – gets old really quickly when another massive brute is busily trying to end you.
Speaking of, Ghost of Tsushima can be – as you’d expect – phenomenally brutal at times. With regular gore running the gamut up to vivid beheadings, being a samurai is not for the squeamish.
There are three mission types – Jin’s Journey (the main event), plus side quests ‘Tales of Tsushima’, where you help out various key characters in the game, and ‘Mythic Quests’, which lead to special technique rewards. You can hit them all in any order – even once completing Jin’s story, you have the option to continue on your slashing way cleaning up whatever else is left to do.
Things are changed up occasionally via some neat little pieces of variety. These may be one-on-one duels (complete with classic samurai movie-styled introductions), protection quests, barraging a fleet of Mongol ships with fireballs, shadowing dodgy types to garner information and even challenges of a more puzzle-based bent. The most frequently encountered form of puzzle comes via Shinto shrines, which require all manner of searching, clambering across rocks and crawling through tiny gaps in order to complete. At least they have an easy get-to-the-bottom function once they’re done.
“…what makes Ghost of Tsushima such an utter joy to play is its refinement.”
Beyond those breathtaking graphics and a wealth of gameplay to revel in, what makes Ghost of Tsushima such an utter joy to play is its refinement. From hurtling along through a forest by foot or horse and not getting stuck on every second tree – smaller ones brushing aside deftly, larger ones just navigated around automatically – to not having to stop and prop in order to pick every collectible up – just stab R2 in vague vicinity and it will almost always be snapped up, without messing with your flow – it’s just eminently player-friendly. Plus, “fast travel” (great for triangulating locations on the map) that’s almost always actually fast – wow! Finding the experience a bit too tough in battle? Drop the difficulty (there are three levels) and enjoy the story, but still get some combat challenge. Stuck finding something? There’ll usually be ways to gently prod you in the right direction.
Sure, there are few completely original gameplay elements here, as pretty much every mechanism encountered has been seen before. As you progress, you’ll taste familiar flavours – Uncharted, Red Dead Redemption, Horizon: Zero Dawn, Assassin’s Creed, the last God of War, Days Gone – all with their own samurai spin. Yet nothing that we’ve played in too many years of gaming to mention has put it all together so slickly, so completely.
PlayStation may be set to unleash a whole new beast in the PS5, but Ghost of Tsushima is proof that there’s plenty of inspirational life in the PS4 yet. We’ll say it again: breathtaking.
Ghost of Tsushima is available now, exclusively for PS4.