Game Review: Ghost of Tsushima is Too Much, Too Late
I have been here before. I will be here again. It doesn’t matter if I’m playing as a Greek assassin, an outcast in a world of beastly machines, a spec-ops soldier, a reluctant hero waging a one-man war on a cult in middle America. This is the Ubisoft open world. A cut and paste formula that has been a success as well as a repetitive headache for the last decade. But Ghost of Tsushima isn’t a Ubisoft game; it’s a Sucker Punch game and what’s more it goes to the one place Assassin’s Creed fans have been begging for for years: feudal Japan. But despite the beauty of its setting, the loving homages to Akira Kurosawa and the fluid, frenetic and occasionally frustrating combat Sucker Punch’s latest game feels more like a checklist than the living, breathing world we’ve come to expect from a PS4 Exclusive.
The year is 1274 and the Mongol horde, led by Khotun Khan, have landed on the Japanese island of Tsushima. A paltry force of samurai led by Jin Sakai and his uncle Lord Shimura attempt to hold off the Mongols but the samurai are massacred, Shimura captured and Jin left for dead. Rescued by a thief named Yuna Jin realises he will have to forsake his honour and use underhanded tactics of assassination, espionage and sabotage to defeat the Mongols and free Tsushima from their grip.
Ghost of Tsushima’s story and its gameplay feel separate from each other. Where many other games like Horizon: Zero Dawn or The Last of Us make the two inseparable from each other Ghost of Tsushima feels like its flimsily stapled one to the other. It’s not a case that the story and gameplay aren’t related to one another, after all you play as a samurai in a game about samurai, it’s the case that Ghost of Tsushima’s gameplay is leagues ahead of its story in terms of its content. It follows the 20 second rule of The Witcher 3 – that is the player must discover something new as they traverse the world of the game in order to feel like the world they’re in is a living, breathing one. Of course it’s far from perfect.
Everything Ghost of Tsushima borrows from other games feels like it loses a little something in the transfer. The group throw downs always feel too frenzied to be fun the way Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey’s did. The exploration lifted from The Witcher 3 makes no distinction between what’s an important side quest and what’s a simple skill challenge when its marking out items of interest on the map. Ditto goes for the investigation tactics that, while still slightly forced, gave The Witcher 3’s side quests a little extra personality. It’s a game that wants you to revel in its massive, gorgeous open world but can’t decide which part of that world is most important and that lack of focus isn’t something that made me want to stick around longer than I had to.
With that said, exploring Tsushima is fun and occasionally rewarding. Even just visually the game excels. Deep blues, lush greens, russet reds and golden yellows dominate the game’s colour scheme and each one pops in a way that makes your jaw stay dropped long after discovering it. Vistas of burning villages, waving grasses and stiff bamboo forests all overlooked by a thunderous sky are so easy to get lost in that, once the HUD fades away, it can feel you’re in a hyper-realistic painting. It’s a gift for people who love photo mode although be warned the characters aren’t the most expressive people. Still, actions speak louder than facial expressions ever could in Ghost of Tsushima.
Combat takes two forms in Ghost of Tsushima. The stalk-and-kill tactics of Assassin’s Creed and the Arkham series and the block-dodge-parry-attack playbook of Dark Souls which later found its way into every action game of the last five years. The stealth is robust even if it’s nothing really new. Stalking Mongol warriors and stabbing them with Jin’s tanto is a good way to whittle down a fort’s numbers before you initiate an all-out brawl against spear men, shield-bearers, swordsmen and archers. It’s in these fast-paced, carefully timed fights that Ghost of Tsushima’s combat comes into its own.
While Jin’s katana will do you fine on its own the bevy of options open to you as the titular Ghost cracks the repetitive samurai combat wide open. Rolling out of the way so you can pop that archer that’s been a thorn in your side. Detonating a smoke bomb at your feet so you can back stab your disoriented opponents. Hitting a mace-wielding brute with a poison dart that will turn him against his fellows. Smashing through an opponent’s guard so that you can unleash one of the mythic moves Jin has picked up on his travels.
All of these options and more are open to you but they all require precise timing even if the combat itself is never so challenging as to reach Dark Souls level of frustration. One thing Ghost of Tsushima should have shamelessly borrowed from Dark Souls is a lock-on button. A forced switch to a shield-bearer because the spearman I was focusing on rolled out of the way is an irritating way to disrupt the flow of combat especially when it means switching stances. It breaks the fluidity of a game that is very good at quickly building that fluidity up but even better at breaking it down even quicker.
One thing that never really feels like it flows in Ghost of Tsushima is the story. Jin’s choice to walk the path of an assassin rarely feels like it has actual weight to it. Only in the game’s closing moments do Jin’s choices come back in a meaningful way. It’s not a spoiler to say that – other than the odd comment – very few characters seem to care about Jin sullying his honour in such a way. While it’s good that Ghost of Tsushima allows players to easily switch between the combat modes of samurai and Ghost it would have felt more thematically appropriate if the choices you made between killing as a samurai or the Ghost had an actual impact on the story and Jin himself. Rather, no one seems to question Jin’s methods or his position as a samurai Lord.
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The samurai caste were not the brave defenders of the weak and helpless as Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo or Seven Samurai were so eager to point out. Instead they were closer to the foolish and greedy lords in Akira Kurosawa’s later films Throne of Blood and Ran. They were protectors of an often cruel and back-breaking social order that saw the rich get richer and the poor die at the whims of men trained to live and die by the sword. Of course it stands to reason that few would question such an oppressive regime but in Ghost of Tsushima that regime is effectively wiped out but the only person to question Jin’s relevance and legitimacy is Ryuzo, a Ronin (leaderless samurai) with a chip on his shoulder. Even then all he wants is the same opportunities Jin was granted by birthright. To be frank it’s not the worst reason for throwing in with a ruthless foreign invader.
The main characters of Ghost of Tsushima are often the least interesting. Jin never has more motivation than avenging his fellow samurai and retaking his home, pretty basic as heroes’ journeys go. Others such as Lady Masako who seeks vengeance for her massacred family and Sensei Ishikawa who must stop a former student from aiding the Mongols are far more interesting. In fact a great deal of these Tales of Tsushima, as these side-quests are called, orbit around vengeance and compared to Jin’s story and that of another recent revenge odyssey they feel distinctly personal and often justified. Helping a grandmother slaughter the bandits that slaughtered her family certainly feels better than restoring a social order based on blood and steel.
Ghost of Tsushima is the swansong of the PlayStation 4 era. It ends an age of well produced games with a fixation on hyper-real graphics, meaty combat and climbing. But this kind of game design is beating a dead horse. I have been there and I have done that and just because I finally get to play as a samurai-ninja hybrid in a stunning recreation of 13th Century Japan doesn’t make it a great game. Instead Ghost of Tsushima is merely good. For every blink of inspiration like its samurai stand-offs and one-on-one duels there’s a generic stealth section cut from Assassin’s Creed and bolted onto a far too similar game. Ghost of Tsushima’s awe inspiring world and often satisfying box ticking sensation give it the personality it needs to rise above the glut of recent open world games. So many other games have already done what Ghost of Tsushima is doing and no amount of sakura blossoms, samurai armour or taiko drumming can conceal that.