In this instalment of our regular Away From Keyboard feature, Johnathan takes a look at Ghost of Tsushima, an exclusive for the PlayStation 4.
Romance of the Samurai
Iím a huge fan of world history - and if Iím being entirely honest - almost to a fault. Our modern world is often so chaotic that itís easy for me to get lost in both the fiction and non-fiction of times long in our past. Human history is a bloody one, but its also so inspiring that itís hard not to romanticize certain periods in time. For me one of those time periods is known as the Age of the Samurai. From the late 1100s through the late 1860s, these warriors that we now look at as almost mythologic in nature were a staple in the entire makeup of Japanís workings. In reality, they were as human as you or me, but their impact on both history and pop culture has been felt long after their age ended.
Strangely enough though, and maybe Iím just looking in all the wrong places, it feels like games related to samurai are in incredibly short supply. Whether itís more mythologic in nature or leaning more into the reality of their existence, I can only think of maybe fifteen games Iíve experienced in my lifetime that fit the criteria and the majority of them were in the early 2000s. So when Sucker Punch Productions announced Ghost of Tsushima, revealing it was to be a game about a samurai in the delicate balancing act of honoring his position as a warrior and protecting his homeland, I was immediately on board with the idea. Now that the game is finally here, how does it shape up? Lets dive in.
A Man Against An Empire
Jin Sakai is the last of his clan. Raised under the guidance of his uncle Lord Shimura, Jin has trained since childhood to bring honor to his family name and to do his part to uphold the peace and prosperity of the island of Tsushima, the first and last line of defense between the mainlands of the Asian continent and the island of Japan itself. Eventually the threat of invasion sails across the waters in the form of the Mongol Empire. In the gameís first five minutes we see the clash of honor-bound Samurai versus an enemy that cares only about winning by any means necessary. Lord Shimura sends a samurai down to challenge the Mongol leader to honorable combat. Khotan Khan responds by casually splashing his alcoholic drink on the man, and then setting him ablaze using the concoction as the fuel. The stakes are set then and there, and while Iím going to avoid any further story spoilers I thought the context was important enough to go over.
The game wants to make it clear, honor will only take you so far when youíre up against an enemy so ruthless. The Mongols are pillaging and murdering their way across the little island of Tsushima, there is no such thing as a non-combatant to them. The islandís inhabitants will either kneel in subservience, or they will die painfully. Jin and his ragtag group of allies arenít about to take that laying down, and over the course of the game the samurai will launch an insurrection against an occupying force and the more you play, the more and more youíre likely to set Ďhonorí aside yourself in favor of decisive victories. Gameplay in Ghost of Tsushima is catered to the player, allowing you to indulge in your wildest samurai fantasies but also encouraging you to adapt to the situation. You may start the game playing things very by the book, but as you unlock more Ghost abilities (abilities frowned upon by the samurai code, deemed dishonorable) your bag of tricks becomes substantially more loaded.
Sure you can fight a group of five to ten men honorably, but why not even the playing field by throwing down a smoke bomb and using the ensuing chaos to chain together an assassination? As the dust clears men fall dead, causing a handful of combatants to flee for their lives while the others foolishly stick around to challenge you. Swordplay is where this game shines the most with a balance of skill-based fighting and unlockable techniques paving the way to make the player feel like the ultimate swordsman. Timing is key as you block, dodge, and parry your way through the fray and once you get the timing down after a moderate learning curve youíre treated to easily the most satisfying melee combat in a game this generation. Iíve seen some compare it to the Batman Arkham games, but I have to disagree there.
The Arkham series wants you to feel like a superhero from the get-go, and while the combat is satisfying it also feels very guided. There are similarities within Ghost of Tsushima such as visual queues of when to block or dodge, but timing is far more important and follow-throughs - with attacks and various different stances - make it more in depth and skill based. Ghost of Tsushima gives more agency to the user, and thatís absolutely a good thing. This is amplified during the gameís many boss battles that put Jin in intimate one-on-one battles where stance shuffles and defense mechanics treat players to a blade ballet you wonít find anywhere else. I could talk for hours and hours about the combat in Ghost of Tsushima and just how satisfying it is, but I think itís time we talk about something just as important as the gameplay.
The Beauty of Nature, the Beasts of Men
A bland setting makes a bland game, while a memorable one becomes something talked about years after the fact. People talk frequently of Vice City, of Velen, of the Capital Wasteland and many more. After playing Ghost of Tsushima, I think the little island of Tsushima is going to get a lot of love in years to come when players think about some of their best gaming experiences. From rolling grasslands to high mountain peaks, from forests of golden leaves to fields stained in the blood and bodies of fallen samurai, the massive island itself is just as much a character as the cast that of major, minor, and inconsequential characters that inhabit it. This is further amplified by the wind and weather mechanics within the game making sure there is never a moment where things feel too still, or too quiet.
Traveling through different townships and homesteads you can see the people of the island trying to live life as normally as they can despite the encroaching threat of invaders. Fields are full of laborers, inns full of casual conversation and drinking, and those who take the time to soak it all in may be rewarded with rumors of things happening or located in different locations. People will often point you towards a place thatís in trouble, or tall tales of legendary artifacts, and while you wonít be stopping and talking to every single person you meet the island truly feels incredibly alive. Youíll see assorted wildlife, roaming bands of bandits and mongols, and even find yourself under the guidance of special birds and foxes that will lead you towards points of interest. You never have to go far to find something to do in Tsushima, and it speaks to Sucker Punchís talents that even the assorted collection quests are actually enjoyable to experience, disguising its place as filler content when most other games make me dread collection objectives.
I have gotten very little sleep since getting my hands on the game last week, and the first area alone took me 33 hours to fully liberate and several hours more to complete all the content there. If youíre purely in it for the story, the game will run you about 20 hours. But if you find yourself hooked on the journey, engrossed with the setting, and find your completionist mode flipped on you can burn well over a hundred hours if not more in this game.
Itís a perfect setting for a game whose plot is shaped to be a modern take on the various samurai legends. The plot makes sure to hit all the points one would expect including unexpected allies and betrayals, a clear cut enemy, and Jinís personal struggle with varying degrees of survivors guilt that go from being a detriment to shaping him into a person that is simultaneously stronger but also more compassionate for those around him. The wild ride from south to north ends on a note so strong that youíll either want to linger in Tsushima a while longer and complete what you have left, or youíll want to re-experience Jinís journey again. Itís that good, although the current lack of a New Game Plus option does make starting over less appealing even with multiple save slots.
With Sucker Punchís pedigree, I expected Ghost of Tsushima to be a good game. What I didnít expect it was to rival the experiences Iíve had in games like The Witcher 3 or the Red Dead Redemption games. I didnít expect it to completely push my hype for Cyberpunk 2077, one of my most anticipated games of the last several years, almost entirely out of my mind. Sucker Punch has delivered a legendary game, a proper sendoff for the PlayStation 4 before we welcome in a new generation of consoles later this year. Developers and publishers should be paying attention because a new bar has been set for the open-world experience.
Pros: Tsushima is one of the richest open worlds in a game to date, Jinís journey from a samurai to the ďGhostĒ is surprisingly compelling, incredible combat systems that allow players to enjoy the game their way and encourages variety.
Cons: No New Game Plus at this time.
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