I’m aware that the review title is a line that Keanu Reeves as character Johnny Silverhands says in Cyberpunk 2077 (another highly anticipated game by us here at DEE CORe), but given the nature of Ghost of Tsushima and what it adds to samurai gaming as well as the open world genre, it feels oddly fitting. Ghost is a game brought to us by Sucker Punch studios, made famous with the Sly Cooper and Infamous series of games that graced the PlayStation in its earlier iterations. Infamous: Second Son was available during the early launch period of the PlayStation 4, and it is only fitting that Sucker Punch deliver the ultimate swan song for the system with one of the greatest games ever made.
“This is the way…” (of the Samurai)
In Ghost of Tsushima, you are Jin Sakai, an honorable samurai honed and trained by the Lord of Tsushima himself, Shimura. In the opening moments of the game, the Mongol Empire’s fleet storms the beaches and Tsushima’s forces are defeated, leaving Jin and Shimura as some of the last remaining samurai on the island. Wanting revenge and to defeat the Mongols at any cost, Jin embarks on a journey that tests everything he believes in, balancing the honorable ways of the samurai with the less than noble Way of the Ghost, a ninja-like Batman vigilante type figure that employs techniques some would frown upon. Unlike Sucker Punch’s previous series, the honor system isn’t at play here surprisingly. Rather, as you explore the island and begin your path of revenge against Khotun Khan (a fictional take on Kubai Khan who historically led the Mongols during the real invasion and went on to become emperor of China), your actions determine how the NPCs perceive you. If you stay on the honorable samurai path, there is an air of respect and nobility when you go into liberated villages and the like. Walk into town as the Ghost however, and the fear and uncertainty of what you are doing there permeates through their dialogue and how they interact with you. The isle of Tsushima is vast and large and exploration can be done on foot or via horse. Utilizing the wind and embracing nature itself will assist you on traversal. As you head to your objective in whatever manner you choose to, a fox or bird will pass by letting you know something is nearby should you for a moment decide to check it out. These side quests can lead to new techniques, armor and even armor colors to style Jin in any way you see fit. The armor you wear impacts your katana styles also, so there is a lot of freedom in how you choose to play alongside where you decide to go within the game.
Taking on an entire army alone is suicide, and thankfully the game is aware of this too. On your journey you’ll meet characters you can ally yourself with. Early on for example, you’ll meet Misako who is an archer attempting to find a monk. As Jin you’re protecting this monk, however Misako wishes to enact revenge upon him. The two fight as the army of Mongols approaches and their alliance is tested further throughout the story. On top of the narrative direction that the game goes in with Misako and the other NPCs you may befriend in the game, your decision to stay on the path of noble samurai or the vengeful Ghost also affects how these NPCs perceive you. Some will stay with you as your actions remain inline with the code of a samurai, and some will abandon their loyalty if you stick too closely to the ghost’s brutal methods. This makes for some incredibly amazing moments in the characterization of Jin and how you choose to develop him over the course of the game. The degree of freedom to become your very own samurai is incredibly high, not just in look but how you wish to be responded to and how you handle the missions and undertakings throughout the game are just so perfectly done. Many open world games miss this mark wide, but thankfully Ghost of Tsushima hits it on the bullseye.
“Sharp like an edge of a samurai sword”
The freedom of discovery and characterization isn’t the only thing that Sucker Punch lets you have fun with. The gameplay allows you to approach any situation however you see fit. As a samurai, you’re able to home in on stances depending on the type of armor you have equipped, and certain stances are better suited for your preferred way to play. Want to be a patient samurai warrior, keen on utilizing counterattacks to take apart your foes? Then a set of armor geared towards that is what you’ll look to build. Do you wish to rush into battle and just slice away? The game might penalize you for it with some difficult encounters, but the option to play that way is there as well and you can find armors and items that play to that path as well. Jin also has access to a grappling hook that allows you to swing into the fray and out of danger at the press of a button. The only strict style of play is when it comes to the Ghost. The Ghost is all about stealth and brutal takedowns and fast mobility. Whereas the other styles are built around playing as a samurai, the Ghost is more akin to a ninja with its arsenal and move sets. The game has moments where you’re forced to do one or the other because the story heads in those directions, but a good majority of the game is meant for you to freely express your character however you see fit. You can play it almost entirely as a samurai or entirely as the Ghost or even a mix of the two. Do note that your actions as either do affect the NPCs you come across and how they interact with you. You could play this game straight for a dozen hours at a time and still not see every character interaction or dialogue piece that is found within the game’s 30+ hour campaign. Fast travel does make exploration a tad easy, but aside from story direction, the entire island of Tsushima is yours to explore from the outset and completion players will find their playtime extended exponentially
High praise must be given to the design team of Tsushima. Every single nook and cranny of this game is given exquisite and minute detail. From the waterlilies in ponds to the stones used in the architecture of various temples, Tsushima is a world full of beauty and grandeur. A billowing smokestack in the distance becomes a full-fledged village as you approach it, and a snowy mountaintop can eventually be climbed. I’ve said this time and time again and it bears repeating: the best open world games are the ones that stay true to the, “go anywhere, do anything,” adage that I look for in any game that bills itself as such. Ghost of Tsushima rewards that unending exploration with graphical fidelity like no other, showcasing a team that has grown and learned with each iteration of the PlayStation platform they’ve worked on. Sly Cooper showed they had the animation and gameplay chops to tackle video games, and the Infamous series of games showed how they had learned to take that animation pedigree and open it up into adventure gaming and the open world genre. In terms of design and how they present it, Sucker Punch has firmly planted a flag in the open world genre and raised the bar previously set by games like Horizon: Zero Dawn and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Said presentation goes hand in hand with the games orchestral score as well. Composed by Ilan Eshkeri (who himself is no stranger to movies or samurai films) and Shigeru Umebayashi of House of Flying Daggers fame, the score utilizes traditional Japanese instruments such as the shakuhachi, biwa and koto (flute, short-necked fretted lute, and stringed musical instruments respectively) to deliver grandiose spectacle and whimsical curiosity all the same. The main theme, the battle music, the simple sounds of exploratory ambiance are all done with fervor and taste befitting the operatic adventure that is Ghost of Tsushima.
I’ve stayed away from discussing the narrative events in Ghost of Tsushima and with good reason. I went into the game blind regarding the story and was treated to a tale as good as the Kurosawa films it is inspired by. If you’re a fan of the classic movies like Seven Samurai, Rashomon or Yojimbo, this game will warm your heart in its many homages to the late director’s filmography. The game also includes a mode where you can play the game entirely in black and white (again, clearly inspired by Kurosawa) and it even cuts certain cinematics in the way Kurosawa made his films. You’ll be reminded of greats like Shogun Assassin, Harakiri and the Zatoichi films at many points during the game. It is very obvious that Sucker Punch are Kurosawa fans as much as they are cinephiles, and much like those films, you will care for every villager and townsfolk, every partner character you interact with and most of all, Jin’s journey from fallen samurai to…well, you’ll see. Alongside the twists and turns the game offers an ending that will become a talk of the industry like no other. The last time an ending had me this emotionally wrecked was in Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater’s ending and how painstakingly numb that one left me. If you remember how choked you were when Naked Snake (now named Big Boss) salutes his mentor’s gravesite, then you will feel that gut wrench a thousand-fold by Tsushima’s climax. I cannot wait to see where a sequel goes. While Tsushima probably won’t need one, the game’s story and ending leave you wanting to come back to the world and results of the events of this game.
“They are all….perfect.”
Ghost of Tsushima is the definitive mic drop for the PlayStation 4. Sony has made it a penchant for a majority of their first party titles to embrace narratively driven, single-player adventures in all their franchises. We’ve seen it in at launch with Killzone: Shadow Fall and saw it grow from games like The Order: 1886 through Horizon, God of War, Uncharted 4, Days Gone, The Last of Us, Death Stranding and now Sucker Punch has taken what they learned from Infamous: Second Son and raised the roof on this ideology. It’s as if Sony was content to deliver us giant a heaping of food with each franchise release and iteration. I’ve always championed that the open world genre needs to stick with its promise and just deliver exploration to the max; a veritable buffet of play, art and music all in one. In this regard, Ghost of Tsushima is a Breath of the Wild-sized chicken nugget, dipped in a sauce that combines Tenchu and Sekiro flavoring to mark one of the best releases this year.