Ghost of Tsushima Review
Although it wasn’t until recently that Ghost of Tsushima became a “day one” title for me, I’ve had my eye on it for what feels like four years now. Ah, okay. Looks like it actually was four years. Here’s the headline — worth it.
Ghost of Tsushima puts the player in the shoes of Jin Sakai, the last samurai left standing after the Battle at Komoda Beach, marking the beginning of the Mongol invasion of Japan. The fictional Khoutun Khan, cousin of Kublai Khan, sails 8,000 Mongols to Tsushima in November of 1274. His forces decimate the samurai, killing all 80 of them in minutes and leaving only Jin and his uncle, the Jito, alive. Ghost of Tsushima is pretty explicitly historical fiction, but if you’re interested in seeing what really happened I’ve made a cool video about just that! Nevertheless, the fiction of Ghost of Tsushima places Jin in a very perilous position — he is the last one that can protect his home island of Tsushima, and by extension all of Japan, from becoming part of the Mongol Empire.
The open world of Ghost of Tsushima is, in the most non-memey way possible, breathtaking. I will state with confidence that it is the best open world map I’ve seen since The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. There are occasionally open world games that lean on being open world as a buzzword, and not due to the design of the game necessitating it (Sucker Punch’s own Infamous: Second Son immediately comes to mind) but Ghost of Tsushima could not possibly exist in another state. The flowing winds, the blooming flowers, the herds of wild animals, the quiet stare of the sunset over the marshes… it is the apex of beauty.
I do not say this lightly: Ghost of Tsushima is the most beautiful video game ever made. I don’t mean that it has the best graphics, or the most powerful lighting engine, or the most realistic faces — it has none of those things. Instead, the artists at Sucker Punch have stumbled onto the perfect balance of contrast, saturation and variety in their coloring to provide a more wondrous landscape than I’ve ever seen put to screen. The piercing moonlight reflects over the quiet black ponds. The stoic stone monuments to ancestors long forgotten. The hum of a shakuhachi flute from around the bend, the clacking of wooden sandals clacking against a stone path. The sights, sounds, and feelings of Tsushima come together to make the most gorgeous map in video games to date. Take a close look at a field of flowers, the skeletons of the sakura trees, the vivid greens of the hills and the ardent blues of the sky. The foxes scurry to their hidden shrines and the songbirds flee to secret gardens constantly enticing the player to just explore. I can do nothing to describe the beauty of the music except to entice you to listen to the soundtrack. It will speak for itself as the unquestioned best score of 2020. Ghost of Tsushima is beautiful beyond compare.
I want to avoid spoilers, but I found the main story to be enthralling. Jin’s struggle externally is with both his uncle, Lord Shimura, and Khoutun Khan. These external struggles are the b-plot — the real story is Jin’s fight against himself. The struggle for who Jin was vs. who he must become is engaging enough to keep you going right up until the end, even when tired tropes are used to drive the external conflicts. Honor takes front and center stage here, as Jin fights to balance the mandates of the Bushido code with the ever-looming truth — the only way to defeat the Mongols is to follow the way of the ninja.
Jin is accompanied by his faithful partner in crime, Yuna, an archer who saves him from the Mongols and helps him build his legend as the Ghost. After seemingly rising from the dead on the beach where the samurai were eradicated, she helps turn Jin into a living legend. Serfs whisper stories round the campfire of the 10-foot tall demon-faced Ghost who can cut down Mongols with a glance, who walks from the fire and cuts down armies unharmed. Yuna’s place in building the morale for the Japanese and creating a deity out of a man cannot be understated, and besides being moral support (and Jin’s only real friend through this), her blunt and forceful nature serves as a perfect juxtaposition to Jin’s calm, calculative nature. Jin and Yuna are well-supported by a cast of other colorful characters, including but not limited to Taka (your #1 fan), Norio the Warrior Monk, Masako the Killer Grandma, Ishekawa the Grumpy Grandpa and Kenji the Drunken Idiot.
Ghost of Tsushima’s gameplay is smooth and variable all at once. There are two fighting styles — samurai and ghost (ninja). One thing that Ghost of Tsushima might have been more upfront about is that you are required to use a combination of those two styles, rather than focusing on which way you want to play, to fight. This keeps the combat from getting stale. One moment you’re having a 1v1 Kurosawa-style samurai showdown and the next you’re throwing sticky bombs and shooting poison darts at Mongols. Flipping between sneaking around and honorable duels does cause some dissonance in continuity, but it’s meant to work in tandem with Jin’s own dissonance with his dual identities as a samurai and as the Ghost. There are four stances available, each made to fight against a different weapon type, so during combat with groups you’ll be constantly firing arrows, switching stances, throwing kunai, dodging and parrying all at once. It is, in a word, electrifying.
Jin will rely on his trusty steed (who you pick out and name at the beginning) to traverse the gorgeous terrain, as well as grappling, climbing and parkour straight out of the newer Assassin’s Creed games. This may not be as hot a take as I’d like, but Ghost of Tsushima is the best Assassin’s Creed game by a mile. The overworld is not overloaded with icons, the UI when battling is minimal (I suggest you turn it off entirely) and every element of the menus is designed specifically to get you through them quickly and back into the world as quickly as possible. There are several skill trees accompanied by gear and sword upgrades from crafting, so Jin will constantly be learning new skills and combos.
There are four types of quests; main quests that advance the story, character quests that develop the supporting cast, side quests that usually involve tracking down and killing mongols, and Mythic quests to retrieve legendary weapons and armor. One of my only negatives about Ghost of Tsushima is a big one — the side quests are mostly uninspired “go here, kill this, come back”, although they’re occasionally broken up with something really interesting. The character quests, while much more interesting, mostly lead to anticlimactic endings. The Mythic quests are essentially parkour courses, and I highly recommend getting into them. This leaves the main story, which is excellently written and provides just the right amount of urgency to motivate while allowing for side quests. I will mention that one of the character quests left me in actual tears.
The free Legends mode is a full RPG all on its own, boasting a co-op story mode focused on a witch named Iyo who has harnessed the power of demons, a four-person co-op survival horde mode that is more fun than it has any right to be, and weekly raids that continue the story of Iyo’s nightmare on a grand scale. Playing Legends with friends is unbelievably fun, and getting reward for performance in the way of better weapons, armor, skins, emotes and skill trees is perfectly balanced to progress with the story. There are also four distinct classes: Hunter (archer), Samurai, Assassin, and Ronin (healer) that come with different abilities and distinct, upgradeable skill trees. Each map in Legends is a slightly altered piece of the open world map, but with the changes in coloration, foliage, weather and corruption vines you’ll barely ever recognize one as a place you’ve already been. It has the addicting fun of a live online game as a service without a single micro-transaction, and since everything is PvE fighting with your friends to pull off awesome combos and coordinating strategies to fight off the waves is rewarding for everyone involved. This update should not have been free and packs in more high quality content than most $20 DLCs in other titles.
This is all to say that the best way to play this game is simply by walking in a direction and doing things you come upon. Don’t keep checking the map to unfog areas and check off boxes. Turn off the HUD. Use the ridiculously robust photo mode (with which I took all of the above pictures) and make your own samurai story. Sucker Punch has magnificently crafted a set of variable tools. Do not be afraid to use them. Find the freedom that Ghost of Tsushima offers; it’s in that freedom that the heart of the game lies. Simply ride your horse through the plains, the forest, over the hills, wherever you desire — the world is your sandbox. Somewhere along the way, Ghost of Tsushima became my second favorite Playstation exclusive ever, falling only behind Persona 5, and will almost certainly be my 2020 Game of the Year.
Final Verdict: 9.5/10 — The Best Assassin’s Creed Game
Ghost of Tsushima harnesses the true strength of its open world in encouraging traversal, freedom and a wide variety of tools and weapons. The entire game is built to encourage the player to explore. The main story is well-written and engaging; Khoutun Khan provides a charismatic and compelling antagonist while Lord Shimura represents the dying age of the samurai in contrast to Jin’s determination to do whatever it takes. Supporting characters provide compelling quest lines, albeit with ultimately anticlimactic endings. The Legends update adds co-op story, horde and raids that are way too fun to be free.
There’s only one word for the feeling evoked by fighting 1v1 Kurosawa-style duels in black and white with the ronin, getting the kill, and then wiping and sheathing your blade: badass. Find your fighting style, hone it to mastery, defeat the Mongol hordes and save Japan from the threat of certain destruction. Forsake honor and fight for peace. There is no place left in Tsushima for a samurai — this island belongs to The Ghost.