Ghost of Tsushima represents a shift for developer Sucker Punch Productions. Its last game, 2014’s Infamous: Second Son, was a superhero simulator that took place in an approximation of Seattle. Tsushima on the other hand is an open-world ode to samurai cinema set in feudal Japan. It’s nothing like the studio’s previous output and is the team’s biggest left turn to date. While Ghost delivers in lots of ways, the experiment isn’t without its share of problems.
Players take the role of Jin Sakai, a young samurai striving to save Tsushima Island from the invading Mongols. Along the way, Jin meets a variety of samurai cinema archetypes, including monks, ronin, past friends, and many more. All share a common goal: defeating Mongolian general Khotun Khan and restoring justice in Japan by any means necessary.
Ghost’s story may not be the most ambitious, but the attention Sucker Punch paid to Jin’s character is rivaled only by the breadth of the game itself. At the outset, Jin is extremely adherent to the way of the samurai and tries to be as honorable as possible. Unfortunately, more often than not it’s to the detriment of himself and those around him. After Jin is rescued from the beaches of a battle against the Mongols, he is wholly against doing anything that would betray the code. This even extends to dishonoring enemies, who he would previously stubbornly challenge to a fight, no matter the odds.
The first act is primarily a series of flashbacks to Jin’s formative years where see him form bonds that shape his worldview. Moments with Lord Shimura, his uncle, reveal the inception point for his samurai training and ethos. It’s these glimpses that best illustrate Jin’s struggle between saving his homeland and honoring his code.
As the plot progresses, Jin learns that to free the island from invading Mongols, he’ll have to break the code to survive and liberate his people. That means assassinating enemies instead of challenging them to a duel head-on, and using poison darts from a distance versus a samurai sword to the clavicle. With every stealth kill, Jin slowly becomes the titular “Ghost of Tsushima.”
Tsushima Island has a ton for you to see and do and just as many characters to meet — all of which you can recruit to help Jin’s cause. While some of Jin’s other interactions with allies and side characters offer additional meat for the narrative, they don’t do much beyond advancing the main story. It’s disappointing that despite how well written these conversations are, they don’t serve a deeper purpose.
Yuna, a thief who keeps Jin Alive after his first Mongol encounter, is the exception to this. She serves as the catalyst for Jin shedding his adherence to the samurai way and teaches him how to sneak around and take down enemies stealthily. She also serves as Jin’s moral compass. Yuna forms a believable, evolving relationship with Jin, pushing him to question his beliefs in the samurai code as the game progresses. Not everything in Ghost of Tsushima deals with Jin’s struggle to break his moral code, though.
Aside from the main story, Ghost of Tsushima is also filled with a ton of extra activities. Side missions, dubbed “Tales” here, sees Jin tending to various needs of the suddenly entrapped residents of Tsushima Island. Tales range from liberating homes for villagers to unraveling the true mystery of a “ghost story.” These all offer a solid look at everyday life on Tsushima Island under Mongol control.
Outside of normal tales, Ghost features “Mythic Tales,” which often has Jin chasing after a legendary item located somewhere on the island. More than that, as I completed the various Tales, residents of Tsushima ranging from displaced villagers to random passers-by, slowly began recognizing Jin for my prior actions. Although the world can feel a bit empty after completing so many quests, it did make Jin’s exploits feel as if they actually made an impact on the world around him. This also helped make Tsushima feel even more alive as the game progressed.
Similar to the many side quests you’ll tackle, Tsushima is also home to a ton of activities for improving your samurai skills. Sliceable bamboo poles (via a series of timed button presses) dole out upgrades, while Tsushima’s wildlife will guide you to hidden surprises. Foxes lead to charm-filled shrines, and yellow birds always fly toward hidden areas and side missions, for example.
There are even places where Jin can reflect and compose a haiku as another means of unlocking new gear. As it turns out, finding new gear and upgrading existing weaponry is a large part of becoming the best samurai you can be. Thankfully it’s not too tough as upgrade materials are plentiful throughout the island.
Riding across Ghost’s recreation of the real-world Tsushima Island is nothing short of breathtaking. From random fog rolling in after night falls to photorealistic sunsets, it’s clear that Sucker Punch wanted to make the game as pretty as possible. While it doesn’t stack up to The Last of Us Part II, which likely maximizes the seven-year-old PlayStation 4’s potential, Ghost is an incredibly good looking game. Unfortunately, its vast openness highlights one of its biggest problems: the world often feels far too empty, far too often.
Similar to other contemporary open-world games, Ghost has a vast map, and early on, traveling across it is a true spectacle. It feels like there’s just so much to experience. However, the wonder faded toward the end and the world felt perpetually smaller with every collectible collected and side mission completed. Once I’d grabbed most of the collectibles, I often found myself fast-traveling from place to place rather than making the five-to-ten minute ride on horseback. With no cinematic mode or autopilot, once you’ve found almost everything, trips around the island can feel a bit long.
Instead of forcing a hyper-realistic experience — think: The Last of Us Part II or Red Dead Redemption 2 – Ghost instead feels far more arcadey, much to its benefit. Rather than having to dismount my horse or slow down on foot to pick up individual items, I could simply run (or ride) past and collect them with the press of a button. It’s a welcome change of pace from its contemporaries not named Assassin’s Creed and makes the game flow a lot better. That’s especially true when it comes to exploration or slinking from place to place in a stealth situation.
Stealth in Ghost operates similarly to that of a modern Assassin’s Creed. Enemies go through different phases of noticing you, and you’ll have a chance to either fall back or simply attack and start a larger conflict. While the options for stealth are certainly there, the real fun comes from the surprisingly deep sword fighting.
Combat manages to be at once simple and surprisingly difficult. Unlike something in the Fromsoftware catalog, players aren’t punished too harshly for messing up. However, enemies are more difficult than they seem. Different enemies show up as you progress, including those with shields, dual swords, or spears, each of which requires a different combat stance.
There are four main stances in Ghost of Tsushima. Each is suited to a particular enemy type, and choosing the right one for a particular enemy will help you take them down much faster. Wind Stance is best against shielded enemies, normal enemies are weak to Water Stance, etc. Picking the appropriate stance is as simple as identifying the enemy in front of you and adjusting accordingly.
Thankfully, cycling through stances is extremely easy: hold the R2 button, press a corresponding face button and voila. Changing stances doesn’t break the flow or pace of any particular fight and combat feels fluid throughout the entirety of an encounter as a result.
One of Sucker Punch’s biggest goals was emulating classic samurai films. Ghost doesn’t always feel like one, but it does deliver on a ton of great samurai cliches, especially dueling. It isn’t often that Jin has a one-on-one duel with someone, but when he does, the fights are given the weight you’d expect a samurai duel to hold in a film. The camera shifts to a lower perspective, and the frame goes from full screen to letterbox. Duels are slower-paced than standard fights as well. Each swing feels consequential and like one wrong strike could be the difference between victory and defeat.
I love samurai movies, so I was eager to play through the game with both Japanese dialogue and English subtitles turned on. Unfortunately, while the main Japanese dialogue is extremely well done, it falls short elsewhere. Side conversations among villagers found throughout the game are just as important as the main dialogue. Unfortunately, the English subtitles don’t extend into some of those. Be they secondary conversations that townsfolk had as I walk past or the comments Jin makes to himself or his horse, I never knew what was said. It’s a shame because the Japanese audio track otherwise did a great job immersing me further and making it feel even more like I was playing through a samurai film.
Ghost of Tsushima also features a visual filter literally called “Kurosawa Mode.” It’s the result of a collaboration between Sucker Punch and legendary Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa’s estate. Flip it on and the world of Tsushima turns a grainy black and white. The audio is affected as well, lowering the volume across the entire game, with even dialogue and ambient noise acquiring a more grainy tone to them. It legitimately makes the game feel like it was shot on vintage celluloid. Not only does Kurosawa Mode look striking, but it also sets Ghost apart from everything else of its ilk. That it’s an official collaboration with Kurosawa’s estate only elevates the authenticity.
Sucker Punch is no stranger to leaps of faith. Infamous couldn’t have been more different from Sly Cooper’s cel-shaded world. And even then, Infamous: Second Son dramatically expanded upon the franchise’s previous two games. With Ghost of Tsushima Sucker Punch once again took a big step, delivering a cinematic samurai experience to consoles while also giving themselves a great foundation for a franchise moving forward. Sucker Punch took a big step outside its comfort zone — again — and delivered a convincingly authentic samurai movie experience. Ghost of Tsushima isn’t without its share of problems, but neither were the early games in its other franchises. As the console generation comes to a close, Sucker Punch stands poised for the dawn of something new.