Ghost of Tsushima Review: Like a Refined, Unbending Blade

Check out our review for the open-world samurai game by Sucker Punch.

The open-world samurai action game is finally here. Did Sucker Punch managed to create an epic adventure, or was it just a bland game?
Find out in our review of Ghost of Tsushima.

You can check the full review of the game with our video.

 

Review & script by: Allen ‘Lentropy’ Silva

Edited by: Chad Ramos

Tested on the PlayStation 4, special features are available for the PlayStation 4 Pro

 

 

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You can read the entire review below as well

 

Intro

Back during college, my professor gave me a definition of what a good design would be, and it went like this: “A good design is when something is not only aesthetically pleasing but also functional for its intended purpose, where adding or subtracting anything from its current form will only lead to making the design worse.” Much like the Katana, which is quickly associated with Japanese swordsmen, it is created through a thorough process of repeated heating, folding, and hammering to do away with bits and pieces it doesn’t need. Gradually leading to a strong and consistent blade, where its quality is unquestionable.

Perhaps these are the metaphors that come to mind because I just finished playing Ghost of Tsushima, and my fascination with Japanese culture isn’t exactly a secret, but the idea of something so focused, clear-cut, and well-crafted matches so well with how I would describe my experience with this title, that nothing else comes to mind. It takes the best ideas from its predecessors and further improves on them to make sure they all tie together well. Delivering to you the amazing journey of one Samurai. Ladies and gentlemen, I present my review for Ghost of Tsushima.

 

Production (5 / 5)

Often, games that are praised for how they look are the ones that have a strong emphasis on getting the details right. One can’t contest the care and thorough work that Naughty Dog had put in for the Last of Us part 2, making even the way that water splashes or how you leave footprints in the snow look as real as possible. Or how in Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption 2, actions are played out in detailed fashion, from taking down a bear to collecting its pelt. In fact, so much is accounted for that even your horse can end up running into trees or having an unfortunate incident with a train. Both of these games even let you take a close look at your weapons as you upgrade them. On a technical level, I don’t think Ghost of Tsushima tops either of these in terms of graphics. What it does instead is focus on making a consistent aesthetic that feels like a scene out of a fantasy movie but is still grounded in reality. There are some occasional issues like loading of texture on clothes taking a little longer than expected, or the frame rate dropping to lower than what I can be comfortable with when there are enough things on the screen, but these don’t happen often enough that I’d say they get in the way of gameplay. This title also has HDR support, which makes the colors more vibrant but my capture card, unfortunately, can’t process it. So if you have the right TV, it can actually look better than this.

Exploring the island just for the sights feels pretty justified as you’ll quickly be finding yourself in scenes and moments you’ll definitely want to take a screenshot of as you run into a picturesque frame every few minutes. The trees and the grass swaying in the wind along with the drifting leaves really drives home the immersion it tries to put you into. So having a Photo Mode that has such an extensive set of options on making sure the scene is just right is an amazing feature to have. Honestly, this is the most use I’ve ever seen myself in photo mode.

The models are detailed enough to a level that they match the aesthetic and the setting, the generic NPCs have understandably lesson them. Major characters however are given very detailed faces that can express rather complex emotions. Sometimes they twitch, which you can either take as a complex emotion or an animation error, for me, I’m more inclined to believe the former.

When it comes to combat, the UI is simple and easy to understand and is quickly out of the way when they’re not needed to give as much of the screen as it can to the world around you. Enemies on the other hand generally fall into similar shapes and silhouettes from each other, making it easy to understand what you’re dealing with even from a distance. You’ll know if the guy behind the tent is wielding swords, or maybe a spear, or even a helmet. The game is designed such that you’ll always see or hear an attack coming, so even if you’re surrounded by enemies it’s still possible to take them on, that is, if you’re paying close attention.

Speaking of hearing, the music of Tsushima doesn’t really stand out. Not because it’s bad, but because it doesn’t need to, it continuously contributes to completing the atmosphere. It does kick it up a notch when it decides that it’s time to do it, particularly during the bigger moments of the story, which I think pulls it off perfectly.

When it comes to the voices in the game, you get to pick between Japanese and English dubbing. Both work perfectly fine but there are a few reasons why I prefer the English dub, the first would be that lines being thrown out during combat can be important information, the other being that the models lip-synch to the English voice. Yes, you heard that right, in a game that plays out like an old Japanese movie, made in the setting of feudal Japan, the Japanese dub doesn’t match the lip movement. What a time to be alive.

 

Mechanics (5 / 5)

There are two general systems that intertwine when it comes to how the game works. That would be how the character progresses and how the combat plays out.

Off the bat, I’d have to say that the combat takes heavy inspirations from Sekiro, but making adjustments on the finer ends of it to make it more suitable to the open-world gameplay Ghost of Tsushima provides. The control scheme is fairly similar to Sekiro, but with a number of button functions added to accommodate the much wider arsenal, Jin Sakai eventually comes to own. It honestly feels a little confusing at first, but once accustomed, it slowly feels second nature.

While Fromsoftware’s swordplay rests a lot on skillful reads and well-timed inputs, Ghost of Tsushima eases on the strict timings while keeping gameplay fairly challenging, then layers in choices for the player to make when encountering enemies. I find that the focus of combat shifts between the decision of strategy and precision of execution.

From the get-go, as you approach an encampment, you get to decide whether to go with a frontal attack or sneak around and take them down from the shadows.

If you challenge them upfront, you have the option to do a standoff, making you immediately take down one enemy, given you can time your attack right. Winning the exchange gives you bonus resolve charge, which is your main resource for combat techniques and healing. Slaying enemies and successfully playing well also helps charge resolve further. You can proceed to fight off enemies, as you shuffle through 4 stances you eventually unlock to effectively deal with the matching types of enemies you face. You can also fight defensively by parrying an enemy and counter-attacking right after, given you can time it correctly, it’s already a risk to take as you can only parry if you time pressing the guard button right. Failing to do so will get you hit, and it doesn’t take a lot of those to die.

Like Sekiro, there are also attacks that you can’t block, but a sufficient tell is given should that be the case. Dodging these strikes is feasible but it’s not brain-dead. To dodge or roll, you must be also pressing towards a certain direction on your analog stick, usually to the side, you also use the analog stick to aim your attacks on the enemies around you, so you have to consciously make a choice. Unlike most open-world games, Mashing the attack or dodge button doesn’t work, or at the very least doesn’t get you the desired result.

Now if you went with the stealth option, you’ll have to figure out the lay of the land around you. Which areas are good to hide in, sneak through, or stage an assassination from. It’s possible to get kills easier through arrows and bombs, but do you have enough for the small army you’re dealing with? Is it better to just use the dagger which has unlimited uses but risks getting detected? Is what you know about the enemies around you accurate? Failing to stay hidden and getting detected also presents you with the idea of standing and fighting or retreating until they give up on you.

Is combat as crisp as Sekiro? No. But it’s far more dynamic, and it challenges you on other dimensions of skill that it’s a bit of a beast on its own.

As for progression, you gain technique points by increasing your legend status through completing quests and making achievements across the map. Gaining enough points will change your title, and unlock a new skill or weapon.

There are 3 major trees to spend your technique points on, your warrior techniques, your stances and your ghost weapons.

Learning a new stance requires slaying Mongol leaders, gaining more health means finding more hot springs, getting more charm slots means following foxes to statues. In general, exploring the game and the land of Tsushima is the key to expanding the strength and capabilities of your Samurai.

The game creates a well-crafted positive feedback loop as playing well gets you to get stronger, faster, which encourages you to explore to further see what the game has in store for you, which in turn, gradually further strengthens your character. And the loop repeats.

 

Content (5 / 5)

When it comes to things you can do and experience in the game, there are generally two categories. And those would be quests and challenges.

For quests, it feels pretty close to Red Dead or Assassin’s Creed but done more concisely. There are small quests that you can clear in around 10 minutes, quest chains that have longer story arcs also give you much more substantial rewards, along with a story of either some legend or the side characters you interact with, and then there’s the main campaign quest that can cause a big change in the map after, as well as showcase the big set pieces for the story.

They’re all packaged in smaller episodes that make it easy to take at your own pace, it’s actually possible to switch up what you’re doing for the smaller quests if you suddenly come across something that catches your attention. Like a random collectible or challenge that you chance upon while riding around the land.

Other things you can do are sprinkled around the map to break up the general flow of each quest, which is mostly going to location A, talking to NPC B, or slaying enemy C. The activities you find also contribute to building up Sakai so it’s mostly worthwhile to do. Bamboo Strikes are button coordination exercises, Fox Dens play up as follow-the-leader, Shrines serve as platforming puzzles, Haikus, which I think is the least attractive of the bunch, are for admiring the scenery and writing poetry, and hot springs are basically bonus locations you get to find and gain more health from as well as getting mooned by Jin Sakai.

There are also random encounters that you find down the road, which is really more par for the course for games on this genre, but they also double up as ways of flagging bases of bandits or invaders if the random people you rescue decide to point it out to you. Bonus points if you end up saving the exact same NPC several times.

Finally, thanks to the combat system, Ghost of Tsushima makes it possible to have duels and other creative ways of producing special encounters or boss battles. If you look closely, they actually don’t vary that much, it’s going to be this one of the four generic enemy types with more special moves or some unique spin to it. But thanks to the stories and other events that lead up to these duels, they still feel meaningful to play. They add the additional challenge of limiting what abilities you can use to give you no easy way out of them.

For this game, I wouldn’t say there’s a building variety to follow in terms of skills and techniques since it’s possible to learn all of them if you’re patient. But you can swap out your stats by changing the armor and charms you are wearing. For example, you’ll want to wear samurai armor if you’re going into a fight that you can’t avoid, and ronin attire if you’re trying to stay hidden. Charms can also buff your health, damage, or add some sort of special property to the way you play, like being able to prolong debuffs or gain more resolve charges. You can freely swap your gear out in your menu, and this is where it gets a little tedious. You can be traveling to uncover the map when you suddenly run into a wandering patrol of Mongols, where you say ‘excuse me but let me just get the proper clothes and charms on for the job.’ And then you proceed to swap them back out when you’re done. I eventually got to a point that I was so used to the game that swapping out to combat gear didn’t seem necessary but still, I would’ve wanted that to be more convenient.

 

Features (4 / 5)

Ghost of Tsushima restrains how far you can customize your character, this is probably due to the nature of the story and how they don’t want to make Jin Sakai look too out of place, particularly during the bigger story cutscenes. You can approach merchants and other special NPCs on the island to give you an alternate color scheme for each armor you have. The appearance of each armor also changes as you upgrade them, where you’re free to pick which look you like the best. Personally, I really enjoyed looking like Samurai Jack.

There’s also a collection gallery where you can view records and artifacts you’ve collected, and review how much of the game is there left for you to explore. It’s not particularly impressive but is really meant for those who are into learning more about the lore of the game.

One thing I highly applaud is how fast travel is immediately available from the get-go, it also helps that load times don’t take that long, at least after the initial loading of the game.

I believe that Ghost of Tsushima missed an opportunity to make switching equipment, particularly charms. While it’s easy to do freely, once you have enough of them, navigating through the long list gets pretty inconvenient. I hope they patch in a way to make this easier, or simply bind charm presets to armor. I believe that’s the easiest fix in there.

Finally, this is probably the one big misstep I find with this title. The post-game will allow you to roam the island freely to either clear whatever quest or Mongol camp you haven’t yet. It would be so fun if it allowed us to replay at least the big story missions after clearing the game.

 

Conclusion

Despite my few reservations with this title, I recognize that Ghost of Tsushima has an unimpeded focus on delivering an immersive journey in the shoes of Jin Sakai. A man who endures a humiliating loss to the Mongol invasion, and witnesses how an island is changed thanks to the war, and how it transforms him and the people around him.

This is reinforced by how you develop through the game, by exploring, helping and learning more about people and how they deal with the unfortunate cards they’ve been dealt, you grow stronger and expand on your abilities as a character in the story, as a warrior, and ultimately as the ghost that people look up to.

Whenever I found time to start up the game, I found it difficult to stop, as doing one thing quickly leads to a new undiscovered location, or a new quest to follow. The combat is engaging, allowing me to think on my feet, and rewarding me for making correct decisions and playing well, it further drives me to see how far I can take it.

I want to see if I’ve mastered parrying against certain enemies, or I want to find out what the new technique I can learn is like, or I simply want to know what happens next for Jin Sakai and his friends. They all tie together beautifully into an experience that makes it difficult to put the controller down. Sucker Punch has done nothing less than impress me with this memorable game.

Ghost of Tsushima is a game I highly recommend people to play, I expect this to be one of the favorites for Game of the Year.

GAME RATING: 4.8 / 5

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