Review: Ghost of Tsushima – A Visually Breathtaking Tale

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Stunning

Visually unique and accompanied by a great combat system, Ghost of Tsushima manages to tick all the right boxes but still left me wanting something more.

Built upon a robust combat system, an engaging story, beautifully unique visuals and some of the industry’s best sound design, Ghost of Tsushima is an unmatched and a wholly worthwhile PlayStation experience. However, despite everything that Ghost of Tsushima seems to do flawlessly, I couldn’t help a feeling of unfulfillment as I pondered what was missing. Leading up to release, I found my anticipation growing at an unsettling rate, and a need to get my hands on the game quickly. It was the first game I had decided to purchase a collector’s edition of (and it’s a magnificent collector’s edition at that), and my heart and soul was behind Sucker Punch Productions to pull off one of this generation’s greatest games. While it admittedly falls short in comparison to some other PlayStation exclusives (nothing will ever beat the phenomenal Horizon Zero Dawn), that doesn’t mean it’s not an accomplished game. In fact, Ghost of Tsushima is still remarkable and stands out among other PlayStation exclusives for the fact that it takes risks and tries to shake up the format and expectations that have been adhered to by previous games. For any faults I found with Ghost of Tsushima, I never saw it as generic and often enjoyed aspects like its lack of mini-map or the use of a “guiding wind” to prompt you in the direction of where you need to go. These little innovations helped establish Ghost of Tsushima as feeling distinctive in its trying to do something new – which I sadly failed to recognise at first. In the build-up to the game and its opening hours, I made the fatal mistake of trying to force it into a Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice mould and then feeling disappointed when it played and unfolded as fundamentally different, but that was a problem with my preconception of the game. When I finally managed to separate these katana-wielding games from one another and focus on Ghost of Tsushima as a separate entity, that’s when I found real enjoyment with the game and finally began to love it. Set in the year 1274, Ghost of Tsushima tells the story of Jin Sakai, one of the last surviving Samurais on the island of Tsushima. It follows Sakai’s quest to liberate the island from the invading Mongols and their leader, Khotun Kahn; the game is segmented into three distinct areas which mark Sakai’s progress in pushing back the Kahn’s forces. However, Jin’s story has added dimensions to it as he deals with his need to adopt the more dishonourable tactics of the “ghost” against those of his lineage and honour as a samurai. As Ghost of Tsushima unfolds, it becomes clear that the game is about personal dilemmas just as much as it is an epic story of liberation. Fans of Japanese cinema or the legendary Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa will find distinct parallels between the narrative of Ghost of Tsushima and these films which inspired it. While the story of the game borders on feeling relatively run-of-the-mill, its underpinning of themes of redemption, loss, honour, etc. helps it rise above its generic trappings. Even though you assume the role of the game’s protagonist, who becomes a conduit through which events pass, the game isn’t necessarily about Jin as an individual but the island as a whole. Enhanced by the supplementation and use of great side characters who tell the bulk of the game’s narrative, I often found these characters and their multi-part side quests as containing the most engaging story beats and moments. From Masako’s story of grief and revenge to Ishikawa’s tale of arrogance and betrayal, the scale of these stories often felt more substantial than the game’s main primary narrative because of the way they expand Jin’s and the island’s tale. They helped in creating a growing sense of life within the world of Tsushima and grounded the main tale’s focus on the liberation of the island. These side characters must exist within Ghost of Tsushima, though, because Jin Sakai is a blank slate onto which events of the game are mapped. At times this characterisation leads him feeling void of personality or character. That’s not to say Sakai is a dull protagonist or that Daisuke Tsuji, the actor who plays him, gives a weak performance. The issue with Jin is that the core of his emotional story affords less urgency than the game’s side narratives. In Act I, his drive is to rescue his uncle, while Act II and III see a battle of liberation as well as the internal struggle between his duty as a samurai against becoming the revered “ghost”. In a sense, Jin’s tale lacks the emotional depth of engagement than those of Masako and Ishikawa.
What hounds the narrative further is that no matter how the player tackles the in-game situations, the outcome fails to recognise the choices you were given. The story follows a preset path that fails to consider the fact that some players will favour the game’s more head-on approach rather than a stealthy one. You can play the majority of the game as an honourable samurai, yet you’ll find the narrative following a strict tale of Jin becoming the titular ghost of Tsushima which creates a feeling of ludonarrative dissonance for players – your playstyle may fail to match the ramifications of the story. While this may seem like a small issue, the longevity of the problem hounds the narrative for one particular reason: Ghost of Tsushima is fundamentally more enjoyable when playing as a samurai. What helps give the story and its Kurosawa elements some added traction though is the game’s distinct visual identity. While the game’s narrative grounds itself in realism, the visuals take creative liberty in creating a mesmerising world for its story to inhabit. From floating leaves and a vibrant autumn colour palette to intricate particle effects and brilliant flashes of crimson blood, everything with in the world of Tsushima has an artistic flare. At times I found myself taking a moment to become lost in visual fidelity; everything within Ghost of Tsushima is breathtakingly vivid and awe-inspiring. I could become lost in describing how beautiful the world is. I loved summoning the guiding wind and watching the gusts of air suddenly dredge leaves towards my destination or seeing a yellow songbird appear above to lead me to a hidden spot. In a way, while the visuals and colour serve the purpose to make the game look remarkable, they also became an integral part of the game’s storytelling as the colour and visuals help to navigate the game world. Many times quests favoured using the natural landscape as a way to find map markers as NPCs tell you to follow the lilac flowers or look to the skies for the smoke of campfires. They’re small aspects which may not seem to have much gravitas, but in a game built upon exploration and visual freedom, they have such presence that it embroiders personality to the world in a unique way. It goes without saying that the team at Sucker Punch Productions know to make its world something worthwhile and I have never experienced anything quite like it before. It becomes a shame, then, when poor-quality moments and haphazard cover-ups let down great visuals in a painfully obtrusive way. For starters, the game has a noticeable lip-sync problem. Many times will you stumble across characters’ lips following the nuance of a conversation but their lip movement lagging behind their dialogue. Surprisingly an issue during motion-captured sequences, I often found great moments (for example, whenever Patrick Gallagher’s Khotun Khan was in a scene) ruined by the niggling annoyance of poor audio layering. Another issue that crops up with the most frequency is poor character models and animations. Jin and the main supporting cast have a level of detail which is respectable but nowhere near as remarkable as the game’s other visuals. The other NPCs sadly have quite basic character models that look like wax figures with a lick of detail to help give them a more humanised appearance. Something that extends to all characters in the game, though, is the fact that they’re all very stationary. You’ll rarely find NPCs other than enemies moving about the game world in Tsushima and when Jin converses with any character in a non-motion-captured scene the camera pulls out obnoxiously far to confound the player in a charade of visual stimuli. Everyone stands still, but rather than trying to give loose animations to help everything feel more alive, Sucker Punch prefer the visual trickery as a form of distraction which feels a little too dishonest for my liking. While these drawbacks didn’t prevent me from enjoying my time with Ghost of Tsushima, they did help limit my intimacy with the game’s story, which sometimes left me feeling at odds with characters. For Jin and all the supporting characters, the voice acting is particularly great. It’s sometimes hard to appreciate because of the lack of facial expressions or animations that characters have, but if you take a moment to listen to the voice work (especially Lauren Tom’s turn as Masako), it sets the bar at a nicely high level. As well as this, the game’s score and sound design are practically faultless. When traversing the world, the soft stylings of traditional instruments such as shakuhachis, sanshins, and biwas will often accompany your journey and lend an extra sense of authenticity to Sucker Punch’s world. It’s just as captivating to listen to the world of Tsushima as it is to look upon it. It very quickly became one of the only games where I genuinely enjoyed jumping onto the back of my horse and traversing the world because of how sound and visuals worked in perfect harmony.  However, the excellent score is only one part of the flawless sound that backs Ghost of Tsushima. From the thundering crack of lighting and the unique chime of a songbird when exploring to the definitive crunch in a stealth kill or a fatal slice of the katana, every little sound is expertly chosen and integrated into the game. It may seem quite small, but even from the rustle of leaves shaking in the wind, everything felt familiar in a frighteningly realistic way and made me wonder; does a knife plunging in someone really sound like that? Every sound is an accomplishment and brings life in the form of audio to Ghost of Tsushima that pushes it into another dimension entirely. The gameplay in Ghost of Tsushima is split into three separate aspects: stealth, combat, and miscellaneous; each offering a barrage of positives and issues as well. The strongest element of the gameplay is its combat when playing as a samurai. I admittedly never felt as skilful as I did when playing Sekiro, but that lies in the fact that Ghost of Tsushima’s combat is far more forgiving than the Soulsborne spin-off. Sucker Punch doesn’t narrow the parry window to fractions of a second and instead offera four options of either a dodge, block, parry and perfect parry. While these work as you expect (the perfect parry being an expertly timed raising of the Katana that opens the enemy up for a devastating blow), these four defence options are diversified by a fleshed-out attack system. When in combat, you’ll have the typical light and strong attacks, alongside a stance system. The stance system works in allowing Jin to change his attack patterns to suit different enemy types – effectively become a unique twist on “rock, paper, scissors”. While at first, these may seem quite daunting to master, the game feeds you the stances at a pace which allows a competent mastery over them pretty early on – perhaps even too early. I had access to all three stances before Act I had finished, and while it made combat easier, I would have liked for these to be drip-fed to the player at a slower rate. Despite this, before I knew it, I was fighting enemies of different types and switching seamlessly between stances with efficiency, lending the game to a feeling of exhilaration and fluidity that was refreshing to play. While I found the parry system too forgiving to a fault, it became a vital characteristic that helped me navigate crowded battles. These battles are helped by the way the game balances difficulty by avoiding having all the enemies attack simultaneously – a greater difficulty means more enemies to juggle, rather than a weaker katana or smaller health pool. How the player navigates these battles is by paying attention to the types of enemies you face off against and their ability to switch stance quickly and adapt. The combat side of the game perfectly mirrors the story elements and helps give the whole project a sense of a cohesive whole which feels rather ingenious while playing. Tricky camera controls trip up the combat, though, with no lock-on functionality. Now, this is a design choice rather than an oversight on Sucker Punch’s behalf, but one that makes the game more finicky and frustrating at times. The lack of lock-on enhances the fact that Jin rarely has only one enemy to face and that the player must be aware of all those that surround Jin. Sucker Punch convey this by preventing the camera from being too direct and limiting the player’s awareness of their surroundings. It also does this by sometimes have Jin slicing his katana in a completely different direction than you intend him to go. I often found it fiddly trying to pivot Jin and the camera at the same time. On multiple occasions, I felt cheated by death because of the overwhelming amount of simultaneous commands I tried to pull off but failed because my hands weren’t dexterous enough to handle. It’s one of the times that the game managed to infuriate me more than I care to admit because it didn’t feel like I was dying because I wasn’t good enough but because Jin was facing the wrong direction during an attack the whole time. Luckily, this issue only exists in large omnidirectional battles with many enemies and is non-existent in the duels that dot the game. In 1v1s the camera expertly navigates the arenas, once again creating a cinematic experience that feels just as good to play as it is to watch. They genuinely gave me chills at times, and it’s these tense moments that feel plucked straight from a Kurosawa movie. Stealth, on the other hand, has drawn criticised parallels with the Assassins Creed franchise which is both earned and not. Put simply; stealth feels deeper than Assassins Creed‘s, but less rewarding. The level of deepness comes from the tools you unlock throughout the game, which set up more viable stealth strategies than simple hit and run sneak tactics. With firecrackers, wind chimes, smoke bombs and bows, there are many possible ways to draw an enemy’s attention or quickly dispatch them. The game never offered anything more satisfying than dropping onto an enemy from a height and watching Jin use his katana with deadly precision to cause a waterfall of gratuitous blood. It enhanced the feeling of how dangerous the protagonist is and became one of the moments that made me want to play stealthy so that I could experience it. However, it often felt too easy to go on a stealth rampage. In encampments where you’re most likely to use stealth, the enemy layout patterns are relatively distanced from one another as well as being particularly stationary. This makes the stakes never feel particularly high, and why I often preferred fighting head-on. Ghost of Tsushima also offers many other activities different from combat to help create a more voluptuous and full world. To prevent you from moving place to place in a mechanical pattern and to discourage fast travel, Sucker Punch pack the world with side activities found through exploration. Songbirds in the game are the primary way in which you are lead to side activities, and they’re beautifully built to appear near a point of interest, flying above your head with their distinct song to try and grab your attention. From bamboo strikes to help boost Jin’s resolve, fox dens offering charms which buff armour, and hot springs which provide Jin internal reflection and a small increase to his health pool, the world has many different small activities to help pass the time. My personal favourite though has to be when Jin sits and stares out on picturesque landscapes to compose a Haiku and earn a new piece of cosmetic armour. While the Haikus you produce may seem shallow, they did enough to excite the English student in me and allowed for interesting reflections on events happening within the narrative that many games often neglect to do. It’s small moments like these that help Ghost of Tsushima feel less artificial and more of a living world. It made exploration and travel worthwhile rather than dread-inducing. The completionist in me was relieved not to have to follow a bunch of map markers on the way to a quest and instead enjoy the game at a rate I was capable of doing. Ghost of Tsushima is a vast world and one that I’ve frequently enjoyed. From its combat system to its unique visual identity, there’s a lot to stop and become engrossed with when playing the game. Deserving many more hours to sink into in the future, I can wholeheartedly say I find unmatched enjoyment in playing it, and I look forward to its online expansion in the future. However, one cannot ignore its faults, and while I hope for a sequel, I also hope that Sucker Punch take the time to iron out the issues and move Tsushima past its current limitations.

Ghost of Tsushima is out now on PlayStation 4. You can watch the launch trailer below.

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News Editor 20-21. A second-year English student with a passion for absolutely everything (but especially literature and drama) apart from his degree.

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