It’s always invigorating to see a developer step outside their comfort zone. When Guerrilla moved away from the Killzone franchise and developed Horizon Zero Dawn, people were pleasantly surprised to see a fantastic new franchise blossom. Developer Sucker Punch Productions is best known for the Sly Cooper and inFAMOUS franchises, but now this talented team has branched out on their newest IP: Ghost of Tsushima. While it shares the open world concept and traversal options of the inFAMOUS series, that’s where the similarities end. What it brings to the table is exactly why the game stands out as a fantastic swan song for the PlayStation 4.
Ghost of Tsushima takes place on the island of Tsushima during the historical Mongol invasion of Japan. While the story roots itself in history, it tells a fictional tale that pulls heavy inspiration from Japanese samurai films. You’ll play as the noble samurai Jin Sakai, one of the last of the mighty warriors, and a survivor of the initial invasion. His land suddenly full of ruthless invaders, he does whatever it takes to rid Tsushima of the enemy. Eventually, this pushes him to betray his honor code to do whatever is necessary to save as many people as possible. Taking this path will build his legend, and will spread his influence throughout all of Tsushima.
The story does a good job of pushing you through Jin’s journey, though this is mostly due to the many fantastic side quests. While the main quest has its moments, it sadly struggles with predictability. Without spoiling anything, there was one particular event in the game that was hardly subtle with the foreshadowing. At least the side quests do well to tell excellent tales that can be both gripping and surprising. It also helps that the game has several great characters to drive the plot.
As an open world game, Ghost of Tsushima separates the large island into three sections. Each section represents a different main act of the plot, and they each have their own diverse look. The island as a whole is larger than any other Sucker Punch title to date, but it does well to fill the world with plenty to explore. Enemies will constantly patrol, camps and villages will have valuable resources to collect, and there’s tons to discover. Exploration is one of the best features of the game, and not since The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild have I been so invested in uncovering as much as possible. This is mostly due to all the various secrets and points of interest across the island.
Players will come across pillars of honor or haiku spots to obtain style kits, headgear and vanity skins. Coming across a hot spring will allow you to reflect on Jin’s thoughts and increase his maximum health. Bamboo strikes will provide a challenging memory minigame where you’ll slice your sword through bamboo with a combination of buttons, earning resolve (which we’ll get to in a moment). You’ll uncover Shinto shrines, challenging you to traverse obstacles to reach powerful charm upgrades for your sword. Players will even come across fox dens, where a fox will lead them to Inari shrines for charm upgrades. All this while riding horses, climbing cliffs, swinging across gaps with a grappling hook, and more to traverse Tsushima.
The exploration is highlighted by a couple useful navigation features as well. Players can use the wind to follow their objective, swiping up on the touch pad to take note of the direction. Not only does it come in handy, but it’s also a very serene way to approach this feature. You’ll still have access to a map, but using the wind as your compass feels much more immersive. As you get closer to points of interest, a small yellow bird will lead you to them. While uncovering the map, seeing this bird will practically always become a priority, leading you to new discoveries. It also helps that Tsushima is so visually stunning, making it a joy to wander the land.
Of course, exploration is only a part of the formula. Combat for Ghost of Tsushima is both deep and straightforward. While it’s not as challenging as Sekiro, the game rewards players with sharp reflexes and an eye for opportunity. Swordplay will provide light and heavy attacks, and blocking at just the right moment will parry. As you progress and Jin’s legend grows, he’ll have access to other weapons like bows, kunai, and bombs. When you defeat enemies and do well in combat, you’ll gain energy for your resolve meter, granting access to healing and special techniques. These special techniques will usually come from completing “Mythic Tales”, side quests that teach Jin powerful new abilities. While these abilities give the upper hand in regular combat, they can completely annihilate your opponents in duels.
Duels cut out all the extra tools at Jin’s disposal, making him stick to his honor code and fight fairly with a sword. These moments are much more cinematic and epic, taking full advantage of the spectacle of the scenery. When fighting here, you’ll only have access to your swordplay, including your special “mythic” abilities and stances. These stances essentially provide different combat styles for different enemy weapon match-ups. In most duels, you’ll be up against swords, but there are a couple exceptions. Stone is effective against swords, water against shields, wind against spears, and moon against brutes. Being able to seamlessly switch stances as you unlock them makes for a fairly diverse skill set. They’ll also come in handy during regular combat where you’ll come across a variety of enemy weapons.
Eventually, you’ll gain access to “ghost” techniques, which show a darker side of Jin. This will include assassination techniques similar to what one might come across in the earlier Assassin’s Creed games. Kills from above, stealth kills and more will be at Jin’s fingertips, despite the lack of honor in using them. Interestingly enough, unlike the inFAMOUS series, there is no morality in Ghost of Tsushima. Even though the story makes sure to remind you of the differences of samurai and ghost combat, the player has the freedom to play however they wish. There isn’t a consequence to primarily use ghost abilities, nor is there a reward for using only samurai combat. That might make it lack some purpose, but it’s pretty nice not having to choose one or the other.
As mentioned earlier, the game is an eye-pleasing triumph. While characters and animation don’t reach the same level as The Last of Us Part II, the environment is the true star here. The way the wind blows every blade of grass, flower or tree sets the mood, even when just roaming across the countryside. The game offers a “Kurosawa” mode, inspired by the renowned films of director Akira Kurosawa. This makes everything in black and white and even alters the audio to closely match the quality in those films. While it’s an amazing feature, I played the majority of the game with it off simply because I couldn’t rob myself of all this amazing color. The red-orange sunsets, the desaturated greens in the fog, and fields of flowers in a variety of colors bring so much life to the game.
Sucker Punch put so much effort into the visuals of the game that they absolutely had to have a photo mode, and what a robust photo mode it is. I haven’t spent nearly this much time taking photos in any other game. The options available give players a ton of creative tools to get the perfect shots. The filters can make certain colors pop while particle effects like fireflies or leaves can add flair to the scene. Players can change the weather and even the time of day to get the lighting just right. It helps that the game lets players animate the environment during these segments, truly able to tell a story with their shot. They can even utilize music in the scene, making for a virtual diorama of their own design. For the record, every screenshot in this review was taken from my own game using photo mode.
Speaking of music, the game has a fantastic soundtrack that takes advantage of the setting perfectly. Flutes and string instruments set tones of tranquility and feel very zen during the quieter moments. When in combat, the beats of loud drums kick in and add a violent rhythm to the action. It goes perfectly with the brutal violence that can suddenly be on display. There’s even a beautiful Japanese vocal track that evokes all kinds of emotions. Music even makes its way into the gameplay with Jin’s flute, which can change the weather. You’ll even listen to musical tales from performers when learning of the mythic tales. Overall, the score is magnificent, fully complimented by a terrific sound design.
When it comes to the voice acting, the game comes with both an English and Japanese voice track. I played primarily in English, but I did try the Japanese voices as well. Both are excellent, including great performances from Daisuke Tsuji as Jin and Sumalee Montano as Yuna. It’s great to see that the team went out of their way to have a primarily Asian cast for this, as it should be. With that being said, it does come with the drawback of sounding a little stereotypical sometimes. Of course, this isn’t the case with the Japanese voice actors, but it’s still very noticeable with certain characters. It can sometimes be a bit hard to judge because of this, but in the long run, since all the actors portray the proper emotions necessary in their voice, it’s definitely successful.
Being an open world game, it does often come with the side effect of having a few bugs here and there. Despite this, the game is pretty polished, even coming with lightning fast load times, which is surprising for a game like this. During my few dozen hours in the game, I didn’t come across anything truly game breaking. The collision detection for the environment can be a bit off at times, but it seems the team put extra measures to solve for potential issues. Jump somewhere you’re not supposed to? After a few seconds, the game will push you back out in the opposite direction. The biggest bug I found was actually pretty funny, and it didn’t do any real harm that I could see. Combat can sometimes feel a bit repetitive, but it’s mostly because I went all in for the Platinum trophy.
Overall, Ghost of Tsushima offers a beautiful and engaging experience, taking full advantage of its serene setting and gorgeous set pieces. Combat offers plenty of freedom and can be both intense and incredibly violent in some moments. It’s definitely outside of the box for Sucker Punch, but the gamble seems to have paid off. With great characters, solid exploration, and a brilliant photo mode, the team definitely stepped up to the plate here. The presentation is top notch, and the amount of polish the team put into the game shows with every step. If this is how a new franchise starts, I can’t wait to see how it continues.