Image from IGN India (The hero that Tsushima needs but doesn’t deserve.)
The PS4’s reign of victory over its contemporary rivals from Nintendo and more crucially Microsoft ends with a mechanically familiar but aesthetically refreshing open-world recreation of 13th century Japan.
There was an actual battle for the island of Tsushima, situated inbetween the mainland islands and the Korean peninsula. There were actual Mongol invasions of Japan in that time in history. As far as I know, there were never as successful as intended, as Japan as a whole remained free of Khan rule.
This is a fictional story of a burgeoning legend of one samurai’s attempt to forgo Bushido tradition in favor of a stealthier, deceptive and morally uncertain approach to bring his beloved island home peace from the Mongol horde. This is the legend, the myth of Jin Sakai and those that followed him into a new kind of glory.
As I write this, my mind thinks of the score to Hayao Miyazaki’s own old Japan epic, Princess Mononoke, particularly the main theme, “The Legend of Ashitaka”. Have a listen to know what I’m thinking when simply being in the world of old Tsushima.
I also think of “Path of the Wind”, the unofficial theme of another very nature-minded Miyazaki/Studio Ghibli film, My Neighbor Totoro.
The latter track makes even more sense for me, considering that you literally call the wind itself to give you a path to your chosen or given destination in the world of Ghost of Tsushima. The Wind Rises, indeed.
At the same time, I feel a small amount of discomfort in having the works of Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli be in reference to this game, however visually resplendent in honoring natural Japan’s at times unbelievable beauty.
Miyazaki is a noted pacifist with a considerable disdain for war regardless of who practices it and for whatever reason. Being born in the middle of World War 2 and seeing the soul-crushing horror and despair of Japan in its aftermath made many a young Japanese rightfully fear,hate war.
The atomic bombings added further an existential revulsion, perhaps better displayed in the apocalyptic destruction of a non-Miyazaki masterpiece, Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira.
My tangent regarding using music from the Japanese master’s films is to illustrate that Ghost of Tsushima is an experience that is pro-war, at least in the defensive sense. The questioning in the game isn’t so much in committing war itself but how one should practice it.
Miyazaki, based on what he himself has said and what his works say is that it shouldn’t happen, full-stop. Individual, generally violent acts of heroism are still displayed in Castle of Cagliostro, Castle in the Sky and Porco Rosso but as a conflict pitting countless lives against another, that is a wholly other, lesser thing to him.
If I had to guess, Miyazaki would appreciate the amazing craft in recreating and further romanticizing the beauty of Tsushima through the best visuals the PS4 can offer at this point. The range of striking colors demonstrated, particularly.
But at the same time it is a game where likely thousands of enemies, ranging from the Mongol invaders to lowly bandits will die by your blades, bow, bombs and poison darts. I doubt he would appreciate the idea of staining the beauty of this virtual Tsushima with blood, albeit virtual.
Ghost of Tsushima is not meant to be an ode to Miyazaki, not directly anyway. It is a love letter to actual Japanese history, including the period of history it’s based on and the works of another Japanese genius film-maker: Akira Kurosawa.
There are references and inspirations to various Samurai cinema works, known as both “Chanbara” and “Jidai-Geiki“, the latter’s first name being the inspiration for the word “Jedi” in Star Wars. Inspiration came from not just Kurosawa, but Kobayashi(Hara-Kiri), Mizoguchi(Ugetsu) and the Manga/Film/Television sensation that was Lone Wolf and Cub, that has recently inspired Star Wars’ The Mandalorian.
To further cement the Kurosawa connection, the black and white filter for the entire game is named after the director himself, so there is no ambiguity of reference.
Sucker Punch is a Washington state-based American developer whose prior work was in the open-world superpowers series, Infamous. It is always a risk to see a work that is meant to be historically respectful if not always accurate of another’s culture.
I imagine Sucker Punch being under the wing of a Japanese game company like Sony was instrumental in keeping as little lost in translation as possible. An authentic Japanese vocal track for the entire cast of characters further cements this approach to not half-assing or “Westernizing” the setting and tone.
To tell the truth, the Japanese audio that I played the entire game with occasionally fooled me into thinking this was actually a Japanese-made game. The beautiful score was Japanese composed, though. Considering that there is a considerable number of Japanese developed game franchises with a non-Japanese perspective(Resident Evil, Mario,etc), it makes sense to return the favor with an American recreation of a Japanese perspective.
Image from PlayStation
Jin Sakai is one of the very few survivors of a disastrous battle against the Mongols making beach-head.
In a scene meant to set the tone of exploring and utilizing unconventional/ethically questionable tactics of war, a samurai lord heads down to meet the Mongol leader, Khotun Khan, before the lop-sided battle begins.
Lord Adachi demands to face Khan in open combat, one on one. Khotun obliges, but not in the expected or honorable manner. With a grail of Mongol liquor, he splashes it all over the lord, throws a torch at him, lighting him on fire and then takes a bladed spear and decapitates him, to the horror of Jin and his commander/ Uncle, Lord Shimura.
The following cavalry charge does little to stop the enemy, especially with their deadly accurate siege weapons. Jin barely escapes while Lord Shimura is personally captured by the Khan,the latter denying him death, honorable or otherwise. The rules have changed and in time, Jin will learn his own set of rules to put the Mongol invaders off-balance.
In spite of my review’s title suggesting Jin is entirely alone, he’s not. A female thief named Yuna rescues him from his injuries and helps him escape Mongol imprisonment. Her tactics of sneaking around or quietly slaying their foes initially shocks Jin’s deeply held sentiments about combat, coming from his adoptive Uncle and deceased father.
Overtime, Jin comes around to “fighting in the shade” so to speak, because it’s working where the honorable options more often than not fail. Over his journey to liberate Tsushima from Khotun’s control, he befriends Yuna’s blacksmith brother Taka, Sensei Ishikawa, the best bowman on the island, sake merchant Kenji who is less amoral than it first appears and warrior Buddhist monk Norio, suffering a severe crisis of faith due to the invasion.
He reunites with old friends in his pursuit of victory like Lady Masako, last of Clan Adachi following a betrayal from within and Ryuzo, a childhood friend who has become the leader of a band of Ronin following the disastrous first battle.
Jin’s evolving methods of fighting bring him into conflict with more than a few of his allies, some more severe than others, but the efficacy of his approach as well as an unyielding motivation on behalf of the island’s innocent civilians keeps them more or less closer to Jin in loyalty than his increasingly dismayed Uncle.
Through both captivity and later freedom through Jin’s help, he becomes more and more isolated from the closest thing the Samurai lord has to a son.
The details of what Jin does in the shadows involve a lot that should be very familiar to anyone who has played an open-world stealth game in the past decade like the Batman-Arkham series, Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry.
In most instances, there is an outpost, fortress or encampment of Mongols for Jin to infiltrate and take over. He can stealthily pick them off through stealth kills from behind or from a distance with two types of bow and arrows.
There is the kunai( small little daggers meant for throwing in close quarters) and poison darts through a blow tube. You can also blow a different poison that drives one target crazy and starts attacking other enemies.
You can throw explosives from a hidden place or toss wind chimes and firecrackers to drive targets to a place of your choosing, either to sneak past or make it easier to get your sights on them. In time, you can chain your targets in a row up to three, in a manner identical to a similar system in Batman: Arkham Knight.
All in all, your suites of options in becoming the “Ghost of Tsushima” are many and they are wisely distributed to you gradually over the course of taking back the three distinct regions of the island. Sadly, the game’s biggest weakness is showcased when living up to the game’s title.
The intelligence of your opponents when engaging them stealthily can be remarkably stupid. Quite often, enemies nearby will go about their business with not a care in the world even when you have been spotted and have to finish the job loudly.
Once the enemies that did spot you are taken care of, you might find one foe not ten feet away just chilling or patrolling normally, completely unaware and easy to take down. This happens in a variety of ways that can make being the “Ghost” a little too easy and by that extension less rewarding.
Ironically, for a game that is about exploring a young samurai’s gradual moving away from his combat traditions, the best mechanical system in Ghost of Tsushima remains open combat with opponents. There is considerable and for the game as a whole redemptive depth in the implementation and mastering in fighting like a samurai.
There are four full-blown stances to master and utilize. The “Stone” stance is the default one, for fighting enemies with swords and is most useful during the dramatic, one on one duels to be elaborated one later. There is the “Water” stance for engaging and breaking the defense of enemies with shields.
The “Wind” stance is for fighting those with spears and is the hardest to master due to the annoyingly unclear tells from those opponents. The “Moon” stance is for the heavy types: big, highly armored goons with weapons just as big. In most cases, it is best to break their defenses with a certain button before you can expertly slash away.
It is through the act of “parrying” where you can best win, such as blocking at just the right time to break through and if you’re lucky score a fatal hit, often with that iconic Japanese swordsman flourish.
Duels are the best example of testing what you learn overtime, as these one on one challenges have tougher than usual opponents and demand that you understand what you’re doing as they leave little room for error, like in an actual duel.
Image from Samurai Gamers
These duels begin with Jin and his opponent unsheathing their swords and the manner is very reminiscent of cocking and drawing pistols in a Western. Hence why Kurosawa was so inspired by Westerns from John Ford and Western film-makers like Sergio Leone were so inspired by him back. Sometimes, a world of difference is not so different.
When it comes to exploring Tsushima, it is a double-edged sword in its own respect. It is a beautiful, obsessively detailed recreation of a real place, with plenty of intentional, game related fabrications included.
The general shape of the real island is the same as the game world’s, though despite taking place 800 or so years in the past, there are certainly elements to this Tsushima that I doubt either still or ever existed in the island’s topographical or floral makeup.
Less an accurate recreation of the island in its interior locale but essentially a microcosm of most the sights you can expect from Japan as a whole.
Fields of Japanese high grass, both for sneaking or gracefully riding through on horseback. Deep, shaded forests, some in the form of thickly bundled bamboo swaying in the wind. Gorgeous trees with petals of many distinct colors flowing down from the branches, such as the world renowned cherry blossoms.
Breath-taking flowers and leaves for gold, white, orange, red, purple and more await your perusal and sometimes half the fun of the game is just riding and walking through it all on horseback, letting either the ambient score or your own reflective thoughts be your companion.
Image from Attack of the Fanboy
Like many contemporary open world games, for better and for worse, they often amount to glorified check-boxes in the end.
“Oh, you have X amount of this left for you to find and do. Turns out you have found half of the bamboo striking challenges. Good luck on scouring the map and happening upon them.”
Often, it depends on how enjoyable each particular activity is to can make or break the “check-box” nature of these games. Ghost of Tsushima gets away with from being too much of a slog due to how in tune these actions are with the setting and the atmosphere that embodies a bygone era of Japanese life, let alone for the Samurai.
The aforementioned bamboo strikes are a series of button combinations to press correctly and in quick order to increase Jin’s “resolve”, which give him more opportunities for him to heal and execute certain moves, often refilled by parrying in fights.
There are many different customizable items for Jin to find and clothe himself in, many with purely aesthetic purpose, like the “pillars of honor”, which have a different colored and stylized sword and sheath to acquire. There are Shinto shrines, located through a natural obstacle course which often offer the best views in the entire game and reward you with “charms” that give special rewards to how you can fight in combat.
The “Inari” shrines involve finding fox dens and following the cute animals to a hidden shrine where upon honoring it you receive its own set of charms to unlock. Overtime, I came to do this activity less for the reward and more for the possibility of getting to pet the foxes themselves.
I could go on, but I’ll skip to my favorite being the “hot springs”, which has Jin strip naked, walk into the spring and take the time to just stop and reflect on matters, with two options giving to you for him to think about. Once he’s done, you gain a small amount of health as bonus.
When one considers the amount of content, Ghost of Tsushima is massive and at times, almost if not indeed too much. Some of the side content, especially in side story missions can drag from the sense of momentum in Jin’s quest to forcing the Mongols back to the sea.
It’s not only a considerable number of side missions could be cut to improve the pacing, what you do in most of those missions become very repetitive, with little uniqueness to make them stand out.
A lot involves riding to a certain area, tracking a target through footprints, encountering someone and maybe/maybe not a fight breaking out. What makes most of these missions feel even more superfluous is that the rewards you earn become themselves redundant.
You’ll receive exact copies of charms you acquired earlier and sooner rather than later the materials you use to upgrade your weapons and equipment will no longer be needed. Aside from resolving some small, tertiary story, you get nothing.
The game can on occasion surprise you with some curve-balls in its imagination though it often relies too heavily on your investment in enjoying and mastering its hybridization of sword and stealth combat. There is one side story that acts as possible reference to a funny scene in Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. The scene in question involves Jin hiding in a sake barrel to get past enemy lines with help from merchant Kenji.
Ultimately, outside of the story missions which vary in terms of encompassing the epic feel of its narrative intentions, succeeding more than not thankfully, the best side content of the entire game involves “mythic tales of Tsushima”.
A storytelling monk regales Jin, the player and his audience with several stories regarding heroes and villains from the island’s colorful past. Told in black and white drawings with the monk as narrator, he tells of these folk legends and the items they carried into legend.
Items like samurai armor which makes you much tougher or a bowman’s armor which is for when you want to become truly a Japanese Hawkeye. You can acquire the Longbow and explosive arrows, two cool and super-deadly blade moves that often win skirmishes on their own and finally, the ability to set your katana on fire.
It doesn’t hurt that Ghost of Tsushima’s best mission design is showcased with these missions, involving a healthy mixture of mystery and adventure while also involving some small Aesops to learn in the process. Aside from the rewards being, well, very rewarding, it also involves the best mixture of the game’s elements overall and best encapsulates the sense of Ghost of Tsushima being both a period piece and an exploration into actual Japanese folklore.
This is especially potent considering that Jin Sakai himself is forging himself into a mythic figure himself through his unorthodox, controversial approach to taking the fight to the Khan. Most of that thematic exploration comes to a head near the end of the second act after you recover your family armor and especially once you enter the third act.
What is most rewarding about Ghost of Tsushima on a narrative level is that it doesn’t force you to feel one way or the other about Jin’s forsaking of the traditional Samurai way. It lets you make up your own mind and treats neither opinion as being entirely right or wrong.
It’s ultimately not so much about darker methods corrupting a person but whether there is a way to balance the old and the new. Is Jin Sakai leaving his honor at the wayside or is he through his gradual influence on the people of Tsushima creating a new kind of honor?
Best of all, the game all but creates a fictional yet oddly credible origin story to a real albeit in truth exaggerated form of stealth warfare from Japan. It does it without stating what it is because in Jin’s time, that word hasn’t been invented yet. If you can’t guess what I’m inferring to, here’s a helpful visual aid.
Image from BBC (Everything’s better with….)
So, yeah, I don’t know when ninjas originated in Japan’s history, but Ghost of Tsushima is set far enough back in time that the lay person could believe that was a good, probable time for the shadow warriors to be born. Sometimes, a work’s qualities can just a little bit sweeter when it doesn’t have to write it all out for you.
For all of Ghost of Tsushima’s faults: Occasionally wonky enemy artificial intelligence, the game’s graphical reach sometimes exceeding the PS4’s processing grasp and a lot of content that could have been cut to make a still expansive but no less rewarding experience, it still works as an appropriate swan song for its generation of hardware.
In terms of overall consistent performance and presentation, The Last of Us part II is far more emblematic as an end of an era encapsulation of the PlayStation 4’s strengths and potential. Last of Us 2 is a semi-linear experience which likely helps along it’s game’s performance while Ghost of Tsushima is a huge open-world to explore.
In terms of huge open-world experiences with a generally solid performance and presentation, Red Dead Redemption II remains unmatched, and that’s a multi-platform title also played on Xbox One and PC. Ghost of Tsushima is, for the time being, a PS4 experience and perhaps me playing a version of the system built in 2014 is partially responsible for the lapses in the game’s visual mastery.
Give it a go if you have the money, the time and the tolerance for samurai/ninja violence that I do and you’ll have yet another reason why the PS4 was this generation’s console of popular choice.
It’s also a treat for those who want a bloody yet brilliant virtual Japanese vacation.