Ghost of Tsushima
Released: July 17, 2020
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice came out last year and I was very close to buying it until I began to feel a creeping sense of dread crawling up my spine. I can appreciate FromSoftware and what their games bring to the table; I am just not good at playing them. I was waiting for an Assassin’s Creed game to be set in feudal Japan for years but the franchise has continued to let me down. It is, however, safe to say that when Ghost of Tsushima first appeared on my radar back in 2017 that my excitement levels were through the roof.
In its final year before the release of next gen consoles, the PlayStation 4 has seen some of its finest work yet. Sucker Punch Productions created a beautiful game that has kept me engrossed and entetained from start to finish. Ghost of Tsushima is the first game that I have ever earned a platinum trophy in and I’ve also tried my hand at writing some haikus, so I hope you enjoy!
Beware of spoilers
Should your quest be unfinished
Proceed with caution
Set during the late 13th century, Tsushima Island is attacked by a Mongolian fleet. Led by their jitō, Lord Shimura, the samurai of Tsushima join together to fight back against the Mongols but are dealt a crushing defeat. Lord Shimura is captured by the Mongolian leader, Khotun Khan, while the other samurai have been slaughtered. Jin Sakai, the nephew and ward of Lord Shimura, is severely injured but dragged away from the battlefield by a thief named Yuna who nurses him back to health. As the sole survivor of the battle at Komoda Beach, Jin must enlist the help of unlikely allies, save his uncle and bring down the Mongols before they reach the mainland of Japan.
Now before you think “Well actually” and start the Google search, I am more than aware of the historical inaccuracies. Samurai during this period did not wield katana in the way that is presented in Ghost of Tsushima, one man did not save the island from the Mongols and many of these characters are not real to name a few. In an interview with Game Informer, Nate Fox (director) clarified that while the game is entirely grounded in reality, they did not want to rebuild Tsushima Island. In fact, the reason why they didn’t use historical figures was out of respect and instead opted to create fictional characters. By sacrificing accuracy in places, Sucker Punch delivered an action packed, story driven game with satisfying and varied combat. So even if Jin would not have had access to weapons such as the black powder bomb until a couple centuries later, it didn’t stop me from blasting the invaders with them.
Combat is challenging but rewarding. Initially Jin’s sole weapons are his katana and tanto, the latter being what he uses for stealth assassinations, and players must learn how to parry and dodge incoming attacks before moving in for the kill. Admittedly, this meant that I had to stomp out some bad habits quite quickly as button mashing (through panic usually) will set you up for failure. Enemies will take advantage of your weak points and can also parry and block Jin if you’re not paying attention. Often the best strategy is to hang back and wait for them or chain your attacks mindfully to break their guard. As you progress, Jin will learn new stances that are each more effective against a specific type of enemy, which can then be upgraded by spending technique points earned throughout his journey.
It was a surprise to find that a crutch that I had previously relied on in other games was absent from Ghost of Tsushima. Without an enemy lock on feature, I found myself swinging at air on occasion and this made for a stressful experience at the start but made me focus on my surroundings and forced me to learn how to parry. I distinctly remember that there was a moment where I was surrounded by Mongols, but something clicked during the fray. I felt unstoppable as I switched between stances fluidly, perfectly parried an attack and cut through my foes with ease. The sense of achievement with each fight is gratifying and keeps the combat feeling fresh and exciting.
A storm approaches
The samurai is reborn
Under a new guise
In the process of saving his uncle and Tsushima, Jin learns how to utilise stealth tactics against his enemies but these actions go against the samurai code that he was taught by Lord Shimura. The more that Jin leans into and relies on these abilities, the more he becomes conflicted about his methods and how his uncle will view him. Outwardly we are fighting against the Mongol incursion but Jin is also battling with his teachings each time that the player chooses to become the ‘vengeful spirit’ – the Ghost.
I prefer to play more stealthy in games and I’ll try to take out all enemies in an area quietly, or gradually whittle their numbers down to make a frontal assault more managable. This was no different in Ghost of Tsushima but I was conscious of Jin’s diminishing sense of honour even if there wasn’t an actual gauge to keep an eye on in game. Admittedly, a lot of Jin’s Ghost techniques and equipment went unused as I progressed through the world. The sheer number of tools that he had at his disposal were overwhelming and although the option to use them was nice, the scenarios in which I found them useful were few and far between. Smoke bombs have got to be my least favourite tool in any game and the only time that I even looked at them was after I was forced to unlock it once I had levelled up Jin’s legend status and had no other choice.
Ghost of Tsushima does a great job of not holding the player’s hand too much when it comes to its gameplay. Navigation is left entirely up to the player and there are brief tutorials on how to control Jin, use his Ghost weapons and how combat works. That being said, I was in the wrong stance while facing an enemy at one point and instead of letting me work this out for myself or switch once I had realised, the game essentially paused itself to point out my mistake. I don’t mind refreshers when it comes to controls, it is a useful feature for players who have trouble with them or need a reminder after not playing for some time, but it felt like I was being penalised in that moment. It threw off the flow of battle and was more frustrating than simply understanding that I was doing less damage to the enemy because I needed to switch stances.
Riding with the wind
Golden birds lead him away
When talking about Ghost of Tsushima it is diffcult not to mention how incredibly beautiful the scenery is. Sucker Punch have meticulously put together these colourful and diverse environments that can be explored completely at the player’s leisure. To keep you immersed in the sweeping surroundings that the island offers, there is a minimalist HUD so as not to clutter the corners of your screen. The lack of a mini map was concerning at first as I wondered how I would navigate the huge island. After picking which general direction I wanted to travel, a simple swipe up on the controller’s touchpad would invoke the Guiding Wind to show me where to go. This kept me absorbed with Tsushima, out of the pause menu and encouraged my own independent exploration.
I cannot deny that the most tedious part of the game was unfogging the map, especially as it doesn’t make sense to do so. Jin is a character who has lived in Tsushima for his entire life and so not having significant landmarks such as Omi village (his home), the Golden Temple and many more not already marked on the map feels contrived. Optional places of interest that are discoverable not being present on the map is much more understandable. Arguably, this decision was made by Sucker Punch to prevent leading the players to specific destinations and instead left it up to us to pave our own way. I have to admit that I was glad that I didn’t have to reach vantage points to clear up areas of the map because it’s a mechanic that is too often depended on. Instead players can liberate areas of Mongol control to unfog the surrounding area of the map. This may seem like a monotonous task, but it’s a much more involved method as players have a chance to increase their legend, earn points towards learning new stances, find collectibles and essential supplies. This is definitely more rewarding than climbing somewhere high up and saying “I can see my house from here!”.
There are plenty of things to find in Tsushima, each of which provide Jin with a different reward. Visiting hot springs gives the player a chance to take a step back from the action and a permenant increase to Jin’s max health. Following foxes to Inari shrines will increase the number of charm slots that can be equipped for various buffs in attributes like exploration and stealth. Golden birds will also be encountered in the world that will lead you to places like pillars of honour or other sets of vanity gear as well as guide you to side quests. On occasion, side quests can feel like flavouring as opposed to something substantial. Many of them have very bleak endings and the rewards can be minor, especially during the late game sections, but it does make Tsushima feel like an island that is lived in and has a history.
Some of my favourite quests in the game were the duels, Mythic Tales and finding my way to the Shinto Shrines. The charm that I earned from the Shrine of Amaterasu stayed with me until the very end of the game, and I am convinced that the sun goddess saved me on multiple occasions. The Mythic Tales had some of the best storytelling and rewards, as well as being amongst the most fun to complete. I would sometimes forget that I had certain abilities but Heavenly Strike and the Dance of Wrath became a signature of my deadly arsenal. I was also a big fan of the longbow and by extension Tadayori’s armour set, making me an archer to be reckoned with.
**Heavy plot spoilers inbound**
My fellow comrades
I hope to see you again
May you all know peace
Each ally that Jin meets are unique, flawed, capable and I love them all. Lady Masako’s desire for vengeance at any cost feels heartbreakingly real, Norio’s struggle to live up to his brother’s example is admirable and Kenji’s hilariously opportunistic attitude is a refreshing break from the violence. I was glad to have the chance to play through individual quests for these characters as it provided an excuse to get to know them and also made moments like Ryuzo’s betrayal and Taka’s execution that much more intense. My personal favourites were the tales of Yuna, Sensei Ishikawa and Yuriko. I enjoyed the moments of quiet with these characters because I felt more connected to them than I originally thought I would be. Writing a haiku with Yuriko before her passing will remain a cherished moment and knowing that many of them were by my side during battle was a comfort. However, I will never forgive Sucker Punch for ushering in Act 3 of the campaign with the death of my horse, Sora. The grief is only too near.
As a villain, Khotun Khan was intelligent and intimidating. Learning more about him through the artefacts that can be collected in Mongol camps set him out to be a multi-layered character that was extremely perceptive. After being thrown off the bridge at Castle Kaneda at the start of the game, I was dreading the thought of having to fight him again. By the time I got to the fight I was ready to go and the duel format was well known to me at this point, though I wasn’t expecting him to fight fairly. I had hoped to defeat Khotun Khan in a duel, but what I didn’t anticipate was that he would retreat to a ship and have his men fight in his place while he caught his breath. I’m not sure if it was because I had built it up in my head over time, but as a boss fight it felt underwhelming. I understand that the gameplay mechanic reason for sending in regular enemies would be so the player has an opportunity to regain resolve (which are used to perform legendary actions and to heal), but this could have been done within the duel format to throw Jin, and by extension the player, off.
I had an interesting time with Lord Shimura as I understood why he held the code of honour in such high regard. Bushidō is in essence the samurai version of knightly chivalry, and I recognised how important this way of life was to Lord Shimura and why he would go to such lengths to uphold it. But having played as Jin and witnessed what he represents, I found myself viewing Lord Shimura indignantly. He wasn’t necessarily wrong, but his refusal to accept change or show a willingness to learn was infuriating and relatable on a level that I felt so viscerally. I think it’s because of these reasons why I found the ending so powerful and it was the true final boss that I was looking for. Despite his failings, I didn’t want to fight Lord Shimura because he was still Jin’s uncle. I chose to spare him at the end and at first I thought I did this because I didn’t want to dignify Lord Shimura with a warrior’s death and instead have him live with the shame that even he couldn’t stop the Ghost. In reality I let him live because he was Jin’s only remaining family, even if it meant walking the dishonourable path and living in exile.
Once a samurai
A ghost rising from shadows
The mythic hero
There are plenty of things that I haven’t even mentioned in this game, like the various armour sets or upgrading weapons but it feels redundant because those are just the aspects that make it a game. Ghost of Tsushima is an epic hero’s journey and wears its influences on its sleeves. There is even a Kurosawa mode that allows players to experience the game in black and white, as if it were one of the films directed by him. The music is exciting during combat and subdued when you’re taking in the sights, sometimes you’re just left with the sounds of nature and that is equally as beautiful. My only real gripe with the entire thing was that they didn’t animate the characters to lip sync with the Japanese audio, and because there were no subtitles for background dialogue I felt as though I was missing out. The English voice actors did an excellent job but I wish I could’ve experienced it in Japanese without it looking like it was dubbed.
A moment that will stick with me, and I believe it’s unscripted as it definitely wasn’t a side quest, was when I was getting the last trophy for the platinum right at the end of the game. I was riding with Kaze (whom I love but can never replace Sora) when Jin commented on the charred body of a man. I investigated and found that the man was holding a flower and a note addressed to his late wife. A little further up the way was a small cemetery that was thankfully still standing despite the surrounding devastation. I took the flower and note, placed them at the wife’s grave and paid my respects. A small event but held a huge impact. Throughout the bloodshed and acts of violence, innocent lives were lost in the process but demonstrates the weight of Jin’s actions and his sense of duty. After earning that platinum trophy I was shown a message that I think perfectly rounds off how incredible this journey has been:
“You are one of Tsushima’s greatest heroes. You know this island better than anyone, and you spared nothing to defend its people.”