After the gameplay reveal back in May, I’d say there’s been plenty of buzz around Ghost of Tsushima. How could there not be? It looked absolutely gorgeous, with much hype over the work done to keep the game based in history, while still spinning a tale of a samurai’s journey to banish the invaders from his home. The island of Tsushima is quite a large one, steeped in Japanese history. For the rest of you folks, the game will be launching 17 July; we’ve kept this review spoiler-free, but if you’d rather just head into Tsushima yourself, you’ll have a few days yet to wait.
For further reading, do check out our interview with Nate Fox, creative director here, and another with Brian Fleming and Chris Zimmerman here. We’ve also got our own Malaysians who’ve worked on the game; check out their names here!
SETTING THE STAGE
Ghost of Tsushima‘s foundation is based on the first Mongol invasion of Japan in 1274. Historically, the Mongols were to pass through Tsushima Island from Korea to head to the Japanese mainland. As Sakai Jin, you will need to face down the thousand odd troops from Mongolia making landfall on your home island. With the Mongol Empire’s army utilizing weapons and military tactics as yet unknown to the Japanese, they’ve conquered, devastated and annexed many a territory on their way here. Taking over Tsushima will be the next step in their grand plans to conquer the mainland proper.
In their attempts to hold back the invasion, Jin ends up being one of the few survivors of the valiant defense against overwhelming odds. With his world now shattered by the invading Mongol hordes, he will need to dust himself off to protect his homeland, even if it means he will have to set aside the samurai’s honour that has been drilled into him. He’ll get the head of Khotun Khan one way or another, treading the path of the Ghost so that he can fight back. Tradition’s gotten him so far, which he’ll now have to break away from with old friends and unlikely allies by his side to reclaim Tsushima.
This is Jin Sakai’s journey, and Sucker Punch’s piece of historical fiction.
UNSHEATHE YOUR BLADE
You play as a samurai, gradually picking up more “ghost weapons” as you go further on your journey to liberate Tsushima. Being a samurai will see you use the katana, with either a half bow or the long bow as your ranged options. Challenge enemies in the open as per your creed.
Otherwise, take the more “stealthy” option, with wind chimes, firecrackers as distractions, or more flashy bombs and kunai at your disposal to tip the odds in your favour. These are the so-called ghost weapons, that you can use at any point in the game. So even as you’re marching up to the faces of your enemy, you can whip out the kunai at them. It’s a testament to how flexible the combat system is in this game, even if calling them ghost weapons might be a bit of a misnomer. Must be the whole honour thing.
There are four that you can switch out at will to best match your enemy:
- Stone: versus Swordsmen
- Water: versus Shieldbearers
- Wind: versus Pikemen
- Moon: versus brutes
Stances will in turn have different animations to them, so you’ll need to get used to the movements and controls. Learning these stances will need you to either observe then kill enemy leaders, as you only start out with the Stone Stance. You’ll find yourself contending not just with Mongols, but also aggressive animals, and the Ronin who have turned their back on their country. It’ll make it all the more satisfying to land the final blows, which itself are already really, really cool to see in action.
Using the appropriate stance against enemies will fill up their Stagger bar faster, which in turn will let you unleash your attacks on them without any reaction. Otherwise, they have similar abilities to you in that they can dodge and parry your strikes. Dodging works more like a sidestep, later unlocking a dodge roll. There will be times you’d prefer one or the other, depending on how much further you want to get away from the foe. Incidentally, kunai and bombs can immediately break an enemy’s guard – and are appropriately limited by your ammo – but you tend to be able to pick them up off enemies or scattered supplies so take advantage!
There are both blockable and unblockable attacks, the latter flashing red to warn you to back off, or even jump to avoid them.
In battle, you can use Resolve to heal yourself, or to use Abilities. You can gain Resolve from performing parries, or from eliminating enemies. This makes prone enemies “free” Resolve, as you drive your blade into their back to end their suffering, and you obtain more power.
One on one duels will start off with a cinematic, pretty much like a dramatic scene you watch play out. It’s pretty cool – for the first few times. It feels dragged out later on so settle in. Sounds like a speedrunner’s nightmare.
There will be on screen UI to show the enemy’s alert level, starting out coloured white, moving to yellow, then finally red. The switch from yellow to red is quite drastic, at which point you were more than likely botching your stealth attempts anyway. There is a listening function you can use to make things a little easier to pick out enemies.
There will be on screen UI to show the enemy’s alert level, starting out coloured white, moving to yellow, then finally red. The switch from yellow to red is quite drastic, at which point you were more than likely botching your stealth attempts anyway. There is a listening function you can use to make things a little easier to pick out enemies. Plan your path by listening through objects to learn patrol paths and number of enemies.
The fun thing about being able to use the ghost weapons at any time is that you can use a smoke bomb to catch a few enemies – or even an entire swarm – off guard, then you can execute a chain assassination and take ’em all down in one fell swoop, or escape, if you have to. You can also perform “death from above” assassinations to kick off the whole chain reaction of bloodshed. Surprise!
You’ll need skill points to upgrade what the ones you have. There will also be Mythic Quests, that unlock the associated Mythic Skills as you can see in the image. Mythic Quests will grant you these skills on completion. I wouldn’t say these skills are mandatory to complete the game, but there isn’t any reason not to, especially if you’re a completionist. There are skills that will make your life much easier, so see how you’d like to challenge yourself. There’s one that allows you to both break an enemy’s guard and deal some damage, so you can imagine how useful that will be when it comes to bosses who can have multiple phases with their separate break bars.
HOME OF A LEGEND
The story has three distinct acts. Once you reach the third, the first and second will no longer be accessible.
The map itself is stylized in ink, but there isn’t mini-map, so you’ll be spending quite a bit of time opening up the map if you need to find your way and you have a horrible sense of direction (me).
Tsushima is an open world for you to explore, with a vast country side and expansive terrain in which you can encounter anywhere between NPCs with their own characters to ancient landmarks somehow hidden away. Tsushima itself has a large variety of regions: billowing fields, tranquil shrines to stark mountainscapes with villages tucked away, so you could just ride your horse and enjoy the scenery in between the fighting.
You can place markers on the map, and have the wind guide you there. You won’t be seeing the pin displayed directly on the screen, so if you see something on the way there as the breeze gently moves you along, then feel free to move off your planned track together with your horse, or get off for a closer look. You get access to the horse at the beginning of the game as well as name it, but if you feel like it, you can also find any of the ones along the land to ride.
Find the foxes to let them lead you to the Inari shrines, which will get you the charm slots so that you can equip more of these passive buffs, later for upgrading them. These charms will gradually require more and more visits to upgrade, but the power that some charms have will make it worth your while. Besides that tangible benefit, it really is just another opportunity to thank your fuzzy friends for great photo ops with the in-game photo mode. Follow all the animal companions you can see; encountering a golden bird and following one will lead you to an area you have yet to explore.
If you find any wildflowers, you can use them to dye your equipment and have Jin go styling around. Additional colours can be obtained from Monuments you stumble on. Make your way up the hills for the photo opportunities, or to write some haiku. While Jin may be cutting a bloody swathe through the Mongol invaders, he’s also very cultured.
With plenty of armour selections, it’s the samurai catwalk for Jin. Going on a bloody rampage doesn’t mean you can’t stop for a while to dress up smartly for the occasion. I mean, even if it doesn’t have any obvious effect, why not show up in some polished armour? Armours will have passives attached to them, which can be upgraded accordingly with the materials you can gather throughout your journey to be better. The upgrades themselves come with style changes, but you can change it back if you prefer.
Why not greet the NPCs in some snazzy gear (for no other reason than because you can)? There’s a lot of story attached even to these characters whom you probably won’t see again, making no two side quests the same. Help out the regular townsfolk, and you might obtain some gear or supplies.
Some of these quests may require you to be fully stealthy especially if it’s in regards to a prisoner, who enemies will attempt to kill should they notice your presence. If they’re on a ship, you might find, say, a caged bear, or as the gameplay reveal had, flammable objects. You can set the bear free to gleefully watch it maul your enemies, or watch the festivities of the explosion from afar. On that note, there will also be environmental items that you can interact with – explosive barrels, it’s time to meet cute with flaming arrows – to help with thinning the numbers.
JOURNEY OF A THOUSAND STEPS
While I’m not Japanese and can’t attest to the actual degree of authenticity of the setting, the sheer passion and work that’s gone into Ghost of Tsushima feels like it tells me enough that they have worked really hard to deliver such a game for everyone. It’s hard to put into exact words the feelings and experiences going through one’s mind playing this almost painfully beautiful game: it’s as though, in its sheer quality of presentation, that the next generation is already here.
The staggering amount of details put into the game, from the Mongol army’s settlements and their hunting companions, are all in here. The general army speaks Mongolian, leaving the Japanese to the higher-ranking leaders. They’re shown as not simply being just enemies to add to your body count: their hunting companions like their eagles or hounds are active elements to seek you out and break your cover, forcing you to fight your way through as you can’t go back into hiding. As the story continues, much like their real life counterparts, the Mongols also adapt techniques or customs they know, or have learnt from the locals, so encounters feel more dynamic.
While singing praises of the visuals, it’s only further enhanced thanks to the score, composed by Mei Linmao and Zhang Yimou. I’d spend hours simply wandering, just to drink in the sights, or maybe just leave the game on for some reflection of my own beside Jin for a moment of quiet in the midst of this war. Some of the Japanese voice work feature actors anime fans would recognize: Kazuya Nakai – Roronoa Zorro of ONE PIECE – is Jin himself.
It’s not really “Souls-like” in its combat, feeling closer to a “traditional” hack and slash action game. They’ve played it a little safe in this area, without too overly reinventing the wheel. The combat system is one of the draws for this game; a solid implementation for sure, just nothing ground-breaking.
Ghost of Tsushima is an incredibly beautiful work of historical fiction, a slice of a tumultuous era you can play through. It has its few moments that detract from making it a truly perfect game, but it is, nonetheless, a masterpiece.
If you’re sold on getting the game, you can check out the standard and collector’s editions here.
|Exploration of Tsushima is a great joy||Can be easy to get stuck on terrain|
|Engaging story of historical fiction||Camera can be awkward to control|