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Ghost of Tsushima - title

In a Nutshell

WHAT I LIKE

  • Demanding sword fights
  • Standoffs and Duels
  • Not compelled to reload if I fail stealth
  • Guiding wind
  • Composing haiku
  • Integrations of Japanese spiritualism into exploration
  • Beautiful environments
  • Large-scale, climactic battles and sieges

WHAT I DON'T LIKE

  • Micro-managing camera during a sword fight
  • Ambient content is too dense and repetitive
  • Stealth is slow and boring compared to open combat
  • Only one mini-map waypoint
  • Lack of player agency in major plot developments

Overall Impression : B+
Assassin's Creed: Japan, if Assassin's Creed
were better and more thoughtful

Ghost of Tsushima - cover

Developer:
Sucker Punch

Publisher:
Sony Interactive Entertainment

Platforms:
PlayStation 4 (via retail disc or PSN digital download)

MSRP: $60 USD

Original release date:
17 July 2020

Genre:
open world sandbox, action

ESRB Rating: M (for Mature 17+) for:
Blood and gore, intense violence, language, partial nudity

Player(s):
single player

Official site:
www.suckerpunch.com/category/ghost-of-tsushima/

I don't recall the last time I played an open world sandbox game through to the end credits prior to writing a review for it. Usually, I've made my decision about the game long before credits roll. If I like the game, I usually stop before it becomes too tedious, finish up my review, move on to something else, and I rarely ever go back to finish these games. That was the case with Assassin's Creed: Black Flag, Shadow of Mordor, and others. Ghost of Tsushima is a rare instance of me actually liking an open world sandbox game enough that I couldn't stop playing.

One of the sad ironies for me, as an amateur critic, is that I usually play a game longer if I don't like it -- sometimes all the way to end credits. As was the case with Assassin's Creed III and Shadow of War. This is because I want to find out if there's anything late in the game that might redeem it -- even if in some small way.

In this regard, Ghost of Tsushima is a rare exception. I was enjoying the heck out of the game and wanted to see how it ends before I commit to a review. It wasn't even a case of me rushing through the main story just to get it over with (as is the case with many bad open world games). In fact, I completed all the side missions (including the mythic missions), liberated a majority of the occupied towns, and found a majority of all collectibles. I might even play some of the epilogue. So I can say without reservation that I like this game! And it all begins with the presentation.

This is not a promotional still! Nor was it taken with the included "photo mode".
This is just what the game looks like!

You have to see it to believe it

Ghost of Tsushima is not necessarily the most technically impressive game that I've played. Games like Red Dead Redemption II and The Last of Us Part II have had better facial animation, lighting, textures, and/or draw distance. But where Tsushima lacks in technical capabilities, it more than makes up for in aesthetics and artistry. The environments are beautiful, and the weather effects (especially wind effects) are second to none. Whether it's fields of vividly-colored flowers swaying in the wind, or ocean waves crashing on a sandy beach, or the plum trees on a rocky mountain dropping their blossoms into the breeze, or a thunderstorm threatening over the horizon, or a shinto temple towering over a forest of golden trees, there is something pretty to look at no matter where you go.

Screenshots do not do the game justice. You have to see it in HD motion to appreciate it.

I'm not normally one to gush over a game's graphics, but Ghost of Tsushima really stands out for its environmental design. Over the crest of every hill, it seemed a majestic screenshot opportunity awaited me. Picking just one or two screenshots (of the more than 20 that I took) to highlight in this review was a real challenge. Even the best screenshots that I could capture do not do the game justice. You really have to see it in high-definition motion (without the compression of an internet stream) to truly appreciate it.

I haven't seen weather effects this good since [maybe] The Witcher III.

This game is perfect as a virtual vacation during the travel-restricted social-distancing of the COVID-19 pandemic. Or at least, it would be, if not for the densely-packed sandbox content making it so that I can't take 10 steps without running into an ambient encounter of some kind. I could be trotting along on my horse through a forest lit with the golden glow of a sunset beaming through the canopy, with the serene ambiance of the wind harmonizing with the background music of Japanese flutes. But I can't enjoy this serenity for more than 5 seconds before a pack of Mongols shows up, the flutes give way to battle drums, and it's back to the swinging of swords and showers of blood.

Attempts to chase after golden birds or foxes often leads me into another quest or encounter or random ambient event, which causes me to lose track of the bird or fox. I'm not sure if the developers deliberately put the secrets near other content as a way of trying to distract the player or making finding the secrets more "challenging", or if it's just an accidental emergent property of the density of the map. Either way, it was pretty annoying. I'd much rather have seen the animals lead me through some kind of puzzle, or navigational challenge, or a tracking mini-game that gates off secret locations, rather than just following a wild animal and hoping that the animal doesn't run me right into a Mongolian camp or patrol.

In one case, a Mongol patrol was visible while composing a haiku.

More generally, I found that side content kept pushing up against the triggers for other side content. While some may argue that this is good game design because the player doesn't have to wait long before being given something new to do, I found it irritating to be constantly derailed from what I wanted to do, and being lured so far away from my intended destination. This was especially true in the early hours of the game, in which following the bread crumbs of ambient events lead me into a part of the map that I assume I wasn't intended to be in quite yet. It was populated with very difficult Mongolian patrols consisting of armored Mongolians wearing full body armor and carrying large, metal shields, surrounded by satellite mobs of armored spearmen and archers taking pot shots from behind boulders. I ended up dying a whole bunch of times while trying to simply navigate back to the region of the map where my current story quests were because there were just so many damned patrols to wade through.

The little things make all the difference

Early side content dragged me into
a part of the map that I wasn't ready for yet.

Ghost of Tsushima definitely falls victim to the Ubisoft sandbox design philosophy. The map is loaded to the brim with time-wasting filler content. In addition to the ambient Mongol patrols and bandits, you have occupied villages to liberate, Mongol bases to clear, random NPCs who give you fetch quest errands, collectible-hunting, a couple variation of tower-climbing, and so forth.

The saving grace is the dedication that Sucker Punch gave to the game's theme. Secrets aren't simply marked on the map for you to mindlessly check off one by one, nor are the secrets simply locked chests or collectible notes. Instead, locations of interest will show up as question marks on your map if you get near. The aforementioned golden birds and foxes will also lead you to a number of secrets tucked away in obscure corners of the map or off the beaten path. It isn't just a case of "climb the tower to reveal all secret locations, then walk around and pick them up." I appreciate the little touch of incorporating Shinto animism into otherwise mundane secret-hunting, and it really does make the process of discovery feel more player-driven.

Japanese spirituality is also incorporated into the "guiding wind" mechanic, which is probably this game's most noteworthy gimmick. There's no mini-map, which is a bold choice for an open world game. Instead, you can mark a quest or location and the wind will guide you to your destination. The wind always blows in the direction of your current objective or map waypoint, and you can run your finger across the touchpad to trigger a gust to make the path more obvious. This wind is supposed to be the spirit of Jin's dead father guiding him on his quest to liberate his homeland.

The spirit of Jin's dead father takes the form of the wind to guide Jin on his quest.

It's a neat and clever way of designing the game so that the player is actually watching the action on the screen, instead of just following dots or lines on a mini-map. Of course, there's nothing stopping you from simply opening the pause menu map anytime in order to check your bearings. As an added bonus, anytime you want, you can simply use the touchpad to trigger a gust of wind and watch the beautiful vegetation dance for you. Sadly, the fact that the wind is almost always at your back means that you rarely, if ever, get any good cape action.

The downside is that you can never have more than one objective or waypoint active at a time. Since the wind can only blow in one direction at any given time, you can't mark multiple quests as your active quest simultaneously. Worse yet, if you pass by a location that you want to circle back to explore, there is no way to mark its location on the map. There's a lot of little huts, cabins, and other natural structures that are not marked on the map as points of interest, making it very hard to remember where certain things are.

Shinto "Animal spirits" guide you to hidden secrets.

Once you get to a secret location, there's often some tiny thematic content or mini-game for you to play. There's the simple button-mashing bamboo strikes that allows Jin to practice his swordsmanship to upgrade his combat abilities. Nothing too special there. However, other scenic locations will give you an opportunity to take a break from the killing to admire the scenery and compose a haiku using a permutation of landscape-inspired lines. You'll be rewarded with headbands representing each haiku you compose. As far as I can tell, these headbands are only cosmetic, and do not confer any particular bonuses. But the attachment to a haiku that you composed gives a sense of ownership to this cosmetic item.

You can also find hot springs that you can soak in to restore your health and resolve. Resting in each hot spring for the first time allows the player to chose one of two recent events for Jin to meditate on. Doing so increases your maximum health and also provides a brief moment of quiet contemplation and character development. To top it all off, my girlfriend was rewarded with some naked samurai booty while watching me play.

Even though the overall design is ripped straight from Assassin's Creed, the little bits of nuance added to each activity really puts Ubisoft's lack of effort to shame.

Hot springs allow the character to reflect on recent events and developments in the story.

Go there; kill them

Despite the extra polish, the repetitiveness of the content did still start to weigh on me. By the end of Act I, I was already starting to grow weary of random Mongolian encounters and chasing random foxes, and was starting to wonder if this repetitive content could hold my interest for another 20 hours.

The biggest problem is that the mission design is even less varied than the side content. I got excited when I saw a "Tale of ..." title card at the start of story missions. I thought these would be little episodic vignettes telling a self-contained little story like the quests of The Witcher III. Quest in The Witcher III were generally well-written, immersive little stories that ran for an hour or two and acted like little episodes of a TV show or a series of feature films. Each told a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end, with little character arcs, and plenty of opportunity for the player to role play with Geralt. Some would be straight-forward "beat up the bandits" vignettes. Others would little mysteries about uncovering what un-Godly monster is terrorizing some small town. The best quests were the ones that posed ethical, moral, or philosophical conundrums for the player to contemplate before having to make a decision to resolve the scenario. It's all damn good stuff with top-notch writing (for the standards of a video game).

Don't let the mission title cards fool you. The missions aren't that great.

Not so in Ghost of Tsushima. This is just another example of how The Witcher III has spoiled me for all other video games. Ghost of Tsushima isn't an RPG about contemplating ethics or making moral choices that affect NPCs in different ways, even though the ethics of war are a huge part of the game's story. Ghost of Tsushima is a sandbox action game. As such, almost every mission is a 10 or 30-minute exercise in "go to place, and kill everyone there." There's no dialogue trees, and no real mysteries or intrigue. It's not as cleverly written as The Witcher III, the characters are pretty bland, and the plot twists (both the large story ones, and the small quest ones) are telegraphed way too hard to be surprising when they happen.

Many smaller quests (if you can call it a "quest") involves a quest-giver not being entirely honest with Jin, but Jin never bothers to question the quest-giver's motives before going out and killing whoever the quest-giver tells him to. The player doesn't get to make any choices on how to resolve the quest. There was one quest in which I specifically recall the objective saying that killing all the bandits is "optional", but choosing to not kill them doesn't seem to alter the quest or future of the game in any way, and since not killing them didn't seem worth the extra time and trouble, it felt like a false choice anyway. Besides, I'd been killing bandits without a second thought for the past 20-plus hours, simply because they are bandits. Why stop now?

The only times the mission structure changes up is for certain story missions in which you have to rescue hostages or prisoners. In these cases, it's often impractical to go in swords-a-blazing because the Mongols will kill the hostages before you can get to them. This forces you into using the game's stealth mechanics, which are serviceable, but nothing special. Besides, Jin and other characters really want you to fight your enemies face-to-face as an honorable samurai. The game practically shames you for using the included stealth mechanics, which are often more time consuming and less rewarding than a direct sword fight anyway.

Hostage situations usually require stealth.

Clashing swords

The reason that stealth feels less rewarding is because the swordplay in Ghost of Tsushima is really good! The sword fights, more than anything, are what kept me playing the game. The fatigue that was building up over the back half of Act 1 was almost eliminated once I started unlocking and using more samurai stances and other combat techniques. I suddenly had tools to battle the enemies that had seemed so formidable during my early wanderings.

Each stance is useful against enemies with certain types of weapons. One stance is good against swords, one is for breaking shields, another is good against spears, and yet another works against the heavy enemies with battle axes and maces. As you unlock these stances, combat becomes less of a tedious exercise in parrying easy attacks and dodging harder attacks, and becomes more about switching to the right stance at the right time to manage the variety of threats, and using the right tools to keep the enemies from swarming you. And these enemies will swarm you! They won't wait patiently for you to finish attacking before they try stabbing you in the back. You need to be constantly on your toes, avoiding button-mashing at all costs so that you don't get a spear to the back that breaks your current combo or kill streak.

In most cases, I feel willing (and excited) to simply walk up to the front gates of a Mongol camp and challenge their best warriors to honorable combat. I'll resort to stealth or ranged combat if I'm completely outnumbered and need to thin out the enemy numbers. Or I'll use it if I find that the enemy force composition is varied, and I want to eliminate certain types of enemies.

Even as the late-game plot developments and mission design encouraged me to use stealth more, I never felt punished if I happened to screw up the stealth. Getting spotted in the middle of an enemy camp did not result in me being stuck behind enemy lines, completely surrounded, outnumbered, and out-gunned, as is the case with many action-stealth hybrids (like the recent sequel to The Last of Us). So I didn't feel pressured to reload a checkpoint if I goofed up the stealth. I just drew the sword and stood my ground, If I died and had to redo the encounter, I didn't feel too bad because at least I died in a brilliant blaze of glory! And despite the challenging nature of the combat, I rarely (if ever) had to repeat a segment more than once.

As the game progresses into Act II, the battles also start to scale up in size and spectacle. You go from solo infiltration of small Mongol war camps and eventually graduate to sieges of walled cities and castles with a small army at your side. Those cities will even change after the siege is over. Buildings will be ruined or set ablaze, gaps will have been broken into the walls, and there will be more homeless and wounded camping around in the streets.

Battles increase in size and scale as you progress through the game.

If anything comes close to ruining the combat, it is the camera. The damned camera just refuses to focus on the things I wanted it to focus on. Blocking an enemy attack would often spin the enemy around to be off-camera, where I can't tell if I have an opening to counter attack or not. Attacks routinely come from off-screen. The camera gets hung up on obstacles in the environment, which sometimes even block your view of the action. I quickly learned to try to avoid indoor combat because the camera will often fly out a window or doorway and settle itself outside of the room or building so that the fight is happening blind behind a wall.

Micro-managing the camera never stopped being annoying, and I took a lot of cheap hits (and more than a few deaths) because I had to take my thumb away from the dodge button to put it on the right stick. But I eventually did get used to it, and it became a manageable nuisance later in the game.

Balancing ranged threats can also be tough. There's no indicator of where arrows are coming from unless you're lucky enough to see the arrow flying through the air before it hits you. Because of this, archers were usually my top priority whenever I got into a fight. This problem is significantly mitigated once you learn a combat technique that allows you to deflect arrows while blocking.

Does every duel opponent
in the game know the Heavenly Strike?

The real highlight of the combat mechanics is the one-on-one boss duels. The first few that I fought were disappointingly easy, and I got by perfectly fine by recklessly mashing attack and dodging whenever their weapon flashed red. Once I hit Act II, the challenge ramped up considerably, and I had to really hunker down, lean forward in my seat, and grip the controller with white knuckles.

Not only are the duels exciting and intense to play, but they are also gorgeous to watch. Every duel has a unique backdrop, and most of them have some unique spectacle going on in the background. Whether it's a lightning storm raging overhead, or an all-out siege in the background, every duel looks different.

I will say that I found it very annoying that the Heavenly Strike mythic attack is supposed to be this extremely rare, difficult to master technique that supposedly nobody knows. But once I learned it, it seemed like every duel opponent in the game from then on out knew how to use the technique as well, and I suffered many cheap deaths at the hands of it. It made me wonder if I could have saved myself some trouble by just never doing the quest to learn the attack. Maybe then the enemies wouldn't have had it either?

One-on-one duels are the highlight of the game, and most have spectacular back-drops.

An impressive coat of paint on the otherwise stale open world sandbox sub-genre

There's other little nuances that help separate Ghost of Tsushima from the lazier open world sandboxes. The long, narrow islands means that there's a nice linear progression from south to north as the story progresses. You aren't just constantly fast-traveling back and forth between camps and a central hub location. After hitting certain story thresholds, the Mongols will even re-occupy villages in the earlier regions of the map. This gives a sense that there is an actual war going on, and that the Mongols are actually fighting back. It also acts as a bit of a deterrent to back-tracking. Backtracking to do unfinished side quests or to 100% the game will be met with resistance. If you don't want to grind, you're better off just continuing on with the campaign.

The Mongols re-take liberated settlements between acts.

Sadly, despite all of the game's production quality, the actual story is a bit lacking. Despite the tension between the honorable samurai code and the stealth assassination techniques being at the core of the story, the player is never given any agency at all in how major plot developments unfold. You can play as honorable as possible, but the few missions that force you to use stealth tactics will drive the narrative in the opposite direction of how you are playing the vast majority of the game.

Despite totally hitting all of the superficial elements of design out of the park, I could never shake the recognition that Ghost of Tsushima is still just another Assassin's Creed clone. All the tedious, copy-pasted filler content is still there. It's just propped up by excellent core mechanics along with visual and thematic polish. Ghost of Tsushima is not a transcendantly good game like Breath of the Wild or Death Stranding, but as far as "Assassin's Creed clones" go, Ghost of Tsushima is about as good as it gets.

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