Ghost of Tsushima does what it sets out to do; at every point it feels like another Akira Kurosawa film from the Criterion Collection. It’s constantly beautiful to look at and flows in such a way that your eyes are always pleased, the music adds to every second even when you don’t really notice it there and the silence when it isn’t isn’t a problem because you really are taking in the whole world around you, even the fighting feels choreographed with every button press. The thing it misses most from Kurosawa, even while having a greatly made “Kurosawa” mode for the visuals if you so choose to use it, is the storytelling.
While most of the game goes far and above what you’d expect and, I’d argue, makes it reach up to being one of the “must plays” of the PS4 generation, the storytelling spends 2/3rds of the game being sub-par and the final portion being merely “pretty alright” with very few little peaks at something fantastic. Jin, luckily, is one of those “fantastic” elements – especially in the final chapter. While the side story characters are more of an annoyance most of the game, Jin’s constant battle with himself between the honor that is so well known to define not only the samurai but the Japanese as a whole for a very long time and taking to new more ninja and gorilla style tactics to defeat a new enemy is really well done.
Watching the war of his own soul was far more intriguing than the historical plot of the Mongol invasion, and I think that makes perfect sense in a game that is even titled based on that war within himself. The very last moment of the game is something that I won’t spoil, but want to at least say is really the perfect way to tie this whole thing off as well because it lets you really decide the fate of Jin. Not whether he lives or dies, nor something like where he goes, but something far more important even though – as a video game – it is irrelevant. It lets you decide (and makes it rather hard, actually) whether he still is an honorable samurai at heart or if he’s committed to his new role as the Ghost of Tsushima. It felt like a powerful little moment, which is more than I can say about most games endings or choices, especially given seconds after you decide the credits roll and the game is done so it’s truly a choice that only matters for the player as far as they give a shit about the character and has no impact on literally anything aside the very last 10 seconds or so.
Jin is really what made this game so fantastic for me for a lot of reasons though. On top of what I just went over, Jin is also great in that he is basically the only thing in the game that focuses on the massive impact the Mongol invasion had on Japan. Most people don’t even know this invasion happened, hell, as a massive weeb even I didn’t until the anime Angolmois aired which was all about this (and was pretty good too!). Yet, regardless of it’s quiet moment of history to most of the world, this invasion COMPLETELY changed the samurai code as well as the way the Japanese fought wars. This had basically as much impact as the American Revolutionary War did for tactical advancements for western military; wherein the “let’s stand in straight lines and take turns shooting at each other” was completely thrown away – the samurai pretty much did the same, all becoming much more like “the Ghost” that Jin becomes. Adopting less obsession with honor, creating better large-battle strategies than “RUN DIRECTLY INTO THEM! MUH HONOR!”, and ultimately paving the way for what we all DO know of samurai and Japanese military strategy (at the time) thanks to the always obsessively covered Sengoku era of Japan when the war for unification was going strong.
While the game isn’t entirely historically accurate, and there was no known Jin-like figure in history, there were many samurai and others taking to less honorable tactics and stealing ideas from the mongols to fight back; ultimately in real life winning primarily to a large storm wiping out most of the mongol fleet (hence all the references to a storm in the game, like how killing ghost-style makes the weather worse and how your default sword kit is called the storm of clan Sakai). However, getting to really experience the mindset the real people in history back then, the real samurai mostly, had to go through was really interesting, unique, and just a really great introspective battle that fit perfectly with everything else in a very “Japanese” sort of tone where one gets closer to who they really are and what they must become while writing a haiku sitting and overlooking gorgeous scenery before killing 30 dudes a minute later in extremely cinematic ways.
The rest of the story is…mediocre? Well, the actual plot against the Mongols was alright and I feel the battle with the Khan and a certain old friend were pretty good mostly with various great moments that would pop up sometimes. However, the sub-stories about the other characters were kind of all trash for the first 2 chapters (the vast majority) of the game. Not only were they boring and uninteresting and with mostly annoying people, they also were designed poorly. There are like a billion sub quests and all of them are “go here, talk to a person, ok you finished” and then having to go across the map to talk to the same person again 8 times. Or, for the old lady, follow someone. Follow someone again. Okay, this time, go across the map and talk to her…so you can follow someone. It’s just nonstop like 5 minute quests of nothing over and over for all of them.
Had the quests been combined into fewer longer parts that flowed better, I do think that would make the game as a whole a lot better and their stories something you could find yourself caring about a little bit more. The way it was done just had no flow at all and simply felt annoying. In the final chapter some of them had a bit of an acceptable payoff but even then it didn’t really make up for the ages of bullshit you have to go through up to that point and so it was hard to give a shit about any of their conclusions because you get more of a feeling of being glad each one is done with more than caring how they end.
Another big thing I hate about the sub stories is the old lady, Lady Masako I think. So, her entire fucking story is about getting revenge as her family was slaughtered by a traitor, not even a mongol, but someone close and trusted. You spend ages, a billion fucking tailing missions, trying to discern who this person is all – again – for revenge because she loved her family so much and they meant everything to her. Her poor husband who was the only reason she felt life was worth living, her children she had with him. It’s all about family.
Then you find out, in an almost throwaway moment that never comes up again and nobody seems to care about, that for years of that relationship she’s been cheating on her husband with a woman they allowed to live with them. So they not only shove in the lesbian aspect for the lefties, but they make this woman – WHOSE ENTIRE STORYLINE IS ABOUT “MUH HUSBAND” “MUH FAMILY” – a cheating whore and nobody seems to care in the game. I don’t care if she’s a fucking pointlessly shoved in lesbian to meet diversity quotas and please the progressives, whatever, it was a like 10 second moment. But this COMPLETELY eradicates her entire storyline. She cannot be this devastated and this revenge-obsessed over a man and family she was completely betraying for years. She is by far the absolute worst element of this entire game and I advise constantly trying to kill her even though you can’t even harm her – shoot arrows in her head, they’ll stick for awhile at least.
On the other end of things, my favorite side character and story had to be Nobuo the warrior monk. Nobuo goes through essentially the same arc as Jin does but to an even further extreme and in a shorter span of time. As a warrior monk he’s only supposed to fight to protect and as a last measure even then, but his rage starts overtaking that ideology the more the story progresses and culminates in a pretty cool surprising way that I felt was pretty impactful and made the character feel more real while showcasing how broken someone can become in a situation like this.
On the technical side of things, this is an absolutely gorgeous game. There is never a single moment that doesn’t look beautiful. They did a near unbelievable job with the looks of this game – but more importantly they managed to do it without any impact on game performance. I still am awestruck by how not only beautiful it is, but by how many particle systems are going on, how many physics systems are running, real time lighting, post processing, how much action can be going on with all that going on too…and it never stops running with a perfectly smooth framerate. Even beyond that, it loads fast, faster than MOST PS4 games in fact. They really went beyond what almost anyone else has done for the console and it doesn’t get mentioned nearly enough.
The biggest exception to all that is the horrific day-night cycle, the transition between night and day/day and night is just godawful. Everything in-between looks great and smoothly transitions through the times of the day or night…but then the actual swap from day TO night or night TO day is this extreme jarring clunky thing that looks like shit. Honestly, it might legitimately be the absolute worst day night cycle transition I’ve seen this generation. I can’t really describe it even…it just HAPPENS. Suddenly the world locks up for a moment and the world is illuminated completely differently in the most jarring sudden out of nowhere way possible.
The second exception, shown below pretty well, is that a lot of the times it’s very “style over substance”, or perhaps more accurately, “style over usability”. The colors and lighting throughout this game but especially in the browner areas make it near impossible to see fucking anything especially when the leaves are filling the screen too. Everything blends together and it’s just dark black and orange with nothing else. You can’t see enemies, you can’t see objects, you can’t see where the fuck you’re going. It’s a little ridiculous. Another annoying issue relating somewhat is following footprints in some side stories which faces the same problem.
Back to the endless praise; the way this handles Japan and it’s history and traditions is fantastic, it’s nearly impossible to tell this was made by an American studio (let alone one who has only made mediocre action games) and not some high end Japanese one. Everything about this looks and oozes “Japanese” rather than weeaboos trying to pull off Japanese. Hell, a lot of people DO assume it’s made by a Japanese studio. The amount of accuracy to even smaller things the west would usually not even know about (including the Mongol invasion at all) is crazy, even down to never calling a sword a katana and usually not referring to sword wielding warriors as “samurai” with few but correct exceptions. Things people in the west wouldn’t know or wouldn’t notice.
It’s not just weebs who love this either, Japan completely adores it – it even is getting perfect scores including from places like Famitsu who rate everything like 38 no matter how bad or good it is but always avoid a full perfect 40, let alone the normal consumer in Japan who all seem to adore this game.
I won’t get into it much because fuck ’em, but apparently western reviewers/critics are super pissed that Japan likes this game. Also fake American-Asians are offended by the ‘cultural appropriation’, romanticizing of samurai, Mongols looking bad (mostly Chinese for that one, as they like to claim all the successes, and thus failures, of the Mongols were their own for some reason), and other stupid things. Sorry, but you don’t get to override Japan’s opinions on it because of being “asian”, especially when you say asian and not Japanese. So many ‘asian’ weebs, especially progressive ones, think being any asian makes them Japanese. No, you’re a fucking chinamen or a korean or a pinoy – you are not a fucking Japanese person, you are not some master of anime, you are not a cultural connection to Japan, you are not “more Japanese than white people”, you are not a samurai and your lineage ties to charlies in trees more than samurai defending the shogun.
Not to mention you’re likely American/Canadian-Chinese, American/Canadian-Korean, or American/Canadian-Filipino – not even a genuine one, so shut the fuck up, nobody likes you. You make everyone that actually cares or enjoys Japan and its culture look like shit because you think eating endangered species or making mukbang videos or listening to BTS makes you some Honorary Samurai somehow even though historically and even in modern times the Japanese outright hate the Chinese and even moreso the Koreans. They hate you. I hate you. Fuck off and take your eyeglasses with you if you think being “Asian” counts as being “Japanese” or having a more relevant voice than a White guy about Japanese things. You are annoying enough as it is when you try to talk about anime and it has never not grated on me severely ever since Todd Haberkorn claimed he’s basically Japanese because he’s Vietnamese-American and it makes him a “better pick” for a voice actor than others, please don’t start spreading it into games too.
While this is far from a perfect game and Japan loves it maybe a little too much, it is a phenomenal and gorgeous one. It’s also FUN so it covers all bases. The gameplay is great, every time you’re in combat it just feels so fluid and is so cinematic and cool to watch play out even while you’re literally playing it. Encounters never feel bland or shitty and the impact of the attacks has great heavy feedback for the player instead of feeling weightless. Another element of the enemy encounters I love is that this is one of the only games I’ve seen that encourages you to be brash and attack enemies head on with a warning. Not to sneak around and squeeze through a hole in a fence and cut throats, but it tells you to run up to the front door yelling out how cowardly your enemies are and facing them head on. While the stealth gameplay does end up taking place of this because it’s easier and the combat can get pretty challenging, the story and feeling of the game continue to encourage doing this and it’s the only game where that really makes sense; only a samurai would choose a pointlessly dangerous frontal attack when they could just go around to the side unnoticed.
As far as other elements of the gameplay go, I would have loved if they could have managed even just half of what Witcher 3 did with you making decisions and having them be less apparent and more difficult to decide between and impacting the world in a meaningful way that are impossible to see coming. I know Sucker Punch is not the studio to pull that off, but they could have tried. Instead you don’t choose anything and nothing you do ever changes a thing. The only moment it happens is one I went over earlier in the very last 10 seconds or so of the game, but prior to that there’s just no player choice at all in a game all about this character’s fall from grace. I get it, and in many ways I support that decision, but making it open world and also practically berating the player for not being honorable makes it misleading and feel like there SHOULD be some kind of system there, yet your playstyle has no impact on anything either. Don’t have a game yell at me about how I’m playing it when nothing changes based on how I play it.
Overall, Ghost of Tsushima reached my expectations for the most part; some aspects exceeded them, but many – while not “falling short” – landed right where I figured they would. The problem is those expectations that it did just “only” reach were ones that I had tempered in the first place; I mostly mean the storytelling and overall “things to do”. If you really look at this and piece it apart, the gameplay is styled in a very generic open-world way and the side stories really lack early on which makes even their better portions near the finale just not that amazing.
Even so, it’s kind of one of the very best OF those “generic open world” games and the stuff on top of it makes it something fantastic; the strife within Jin’s heart and soul, the unbelievably beautiful visuals, the Japanese culture and tradition shining throughout, and even the combat which showcases just how cinematic this game can be. While I doubt it’ll be my game of the year it’ll probably be in the top 5 and it is absolutely something you should play.