The story opens with Japan on the brink of war. A small group of samurai has gathered on a Tsushima beachhead to repel an invading Mongol force led by Khotun Khan, a fictional descendant of Genghis and Kublai Khan. While the Mongols attacked Japan on multiple occasions, Ghost of Tsushima liberally combines various historical and cultural artifacts for an entirely new narrative. As was the case in the late 13th century, the samurai find themselves unprepared to deal with the invaders’ overwhelming military tactics and get almost completely annihilated.
Ghost of Tsushima puts you in control of Jin Sakai, one of the island’s last remaining samurai. A half-dead Jin is pulled from the battlefield by a wandering thief named Yuna, only to rush off in an attempt to free his captured uncle. Jin makes it his mission to save his home from the invaders, who have wasted no time in running roughshod over Tsushima as a prelude to their attack on the Japanese mainland. For the player, this would translate to a heck a lot of random battles throughout the countryside and liberation villages occupied by the Mongols. Sometimes this would be done with Jin’s allies but most often than not, you were on your own.
Jin is presented pretty much as an enigma in the early hours of Ghost of Tsushima and only through brief flashbacks to the time he spent with his uncle does the player get an insight into what’s really underneath Jin’s rather gruff façade. As an idealized image of the samurai warrior caste that existed in Japan at the time, he spends a lot of time worrying about the dichotomy of honor and shame. But it soon becomes abundantly clear that Jin must adopt new tactics, even those he views as “dishonorable,” to liberate Tsushima, adding a thin layer of internal strife to the more overt conflict against the Mongols.
The classic Samurai have been extensively mythologized in modern times no doubt, which was why in this reimagination what was essentially the paramilitary arm of a system of feudal land ownership were seen as noble, as superhuman dispensers of justice. Before playing the game, a lot of people had expected that this stereotypical concept might tie into some sort of weird, Mass Effect-Esque morality system by which the main character would vacillate between “honor” and “shame” depending on how he approached every situation.
Thankfully, that was not the case, even if the game’s narrative tunnel-visions on that concept. There’s no penalty for approaching battles in Ghost of Tsushima stealthily, which Jin considers a violation of samurai code. You don’t get locked out of any skill trees or storylines depending on how you decide to fight. While Jin is forced to take a more stealthy approach for both tutorial and narrative reasons early on, there’s also nothing stopping you from proudly walking into an enemy encampment and challenging dozens of Mongols to a straight-up fight. Granted, the best approach would always be a mixture of traditional katana skills and more “underhanded” tools like smoke bombs and firecrackers, but the game never punishes you for living out your own personal version of Seven Samurai.
That enduring image of a lone warrior surrounded by foes becomes a neat gameplay mechanic in Ghost of Tsushima. When approaching a group of enemies, Jin can call out to them with a challenge for a one-on-one combat against their strongest fighter. Here, the game asks you to hold the Triangle button and keep a close eye on your opponent. When they make a move, that’s your cue to release the button, which causes Jin to unsheathe his sword and unleash a deadly, one-hit kill. By the end of the game, a combination of skills and armor made it so you could slice through five enemies in a row before actually starting a battle.
Ghost of Tsushima’s swordplay is basic and engaging, a mixture of light and heavy attacks, parries, and dodges, tied to specific buttons or button combos. The combat system is very easy to grasp if you’ve played any recent video game, perhaps as a way to indicate, through gameplay, that Jin has been learning to fight with a katana since he was a child. As the game goes on, you learn various stances—combat styles that you can shift into at will—by observing and killing Mongol generals. Stances are meant to deal with different types of enemies: The stone stance, for instance, is better suited to taking down swordsmen, whereas the water stance’s flow of bludgeoning strikes is perfect for decimating shields. These stances, much like the rest of Jin’s repertoire, can be improved with skill points earned from defeating enemies and completing missions to unlock more combo strings and increase damage.
The “ghost” in Ghost of Tsushima could refer to Jin’s transformation from a rigid samurai warrior into a guerrilla vigilante willing to do anything to save his home. Where a samurai might focus entirely on his katana and bow, the covert tactics Jin learns over the course of the campaign gives him access to a multitude of more subtle weaponry. This starts out with some basic kunai, which can be thrown to break an opponent’s guard from a distance, but quickly expands to include tools like smoke bombs, explosives, and even wind chimes that draw enemies’ attention. Jin’s most important tool, however, is his tanto, a short blade that allows him to perform quick, violent assassinations from the shadows. It’s rare to enter a fight where you’re not vastly outnumbered, so it’s best to balance the scales as much as possible from the relative comfort of stealth. The only time where stealth really feels required is when the Mongols have taken hostages. If an enemy spots you, they’ll start to cut down prisoners unless you can stop them.
These two aspects of Jin’s arsenal combine to make every battle in Ghost of Tsushima fluid, ever-evolving affair. While you might initially sneak into a Mongol encampment, one wrong move can turn the mission into an all-out brawl against the camp’s entire garrison. I usually found myself picking off high-priority targets like bruisers with medieval shotguns and explosive-throwing support troops with my bow before wading into battle, where smart usage of my stances was key to surviving. Eventually, the Mongols begin to employ the services of animals like hunting dogs and hawks, which can sniff you out or spot you from above. I never found myself tiring of the basic flow of combat, but I quickly got so strong that stealthy approaches were just a waste of time when there weren’t any hostages to protect. Why assassinate Mongols when I could just walk up, challenge them to a duel, and mop up the stragglers?
Besides combat, much of the game is dedicated to exploring the island’s lush environments. Jin strides across vast fields of flowers, the muck and mire of swamplands, and even the icy northern reaches of Tsushima during his adventure. At one point, he dropped his hand to feel the foliage as I raced along on a horse, mimicking my exact desire at that moment. Tsushima also features a weather system that, while not offering much apart from rainstorms and rolling fog, gives the beautiful scenery an additional coat of aesthetic flair. Over the course of the game, Jin can learn songs on his flute that change the weather at will.
Ghost of Tsushima has an almost insatiable desire to remind you of its influences through its visuals. Each mission opens with a title card that draws inspiration from old samurai films. An optional black-and-white visual filter is literally named after legendary director Akira Kurosawa. Important duels are preceded by a lengthy, tension-building cutscene that ultimately functioned as a minute or so to check my phone while waiting for it to playout for the tenth time. Every attempt at infusing Tsushima with these cribbed details feels like a wink and a nudge for recognition rather than true homage.
Ghost of Tsushima fills its expanses with multiple diversions. Tall, white flags indicate the presence of a bamboo strike mini-game, which asks you to quickly tap out increasingly difficult button sequences to increase Jin’s resolve meter.
In combat, this meter allows you to heal, use special techniques like a series of devastating slashes that homes in on opponents, and even revive yourself. Hot springs can be found beneath trees with orange blossoms, giving Jin a chance to decompress and extending his health bar. Swarms of fireflies mean a fox den is nearby, the denizen of which will lead you to a special shrine that lets you carry more charms, accessories with bonuses that range from simple stat boosts to more interesting mechanics like regaining arrows on a headshot.
While it’s fun to listen to Jin’s internal thoughts while at the hot spring and to pet the foxes after their guidance, I never found myself excited to see one of these landmarks on the horizon. They were merely there to complete for a reward, a far cry from the dynamic intensity of battle.
Spilling the tea on what I think about the game
Although some people may argue that It feels very weird having to save a peasant from a group of Mongol soldiers, only to have them turn around and reward Jin with whatever meager possessions they were able to hide away. This and also the fact that game had no problem with allowing you to raid homesteads for materials like iron and leather which could then be used to upgrade his gear, this in my take ran a little bit counter to who Jin was and what he was trying to do for the people.
According to the game’s narrative, Jin Sakai is the head of his clan, an aristocratic warrior who never lusted for anything in his life, so why then was he so eager to squeeze out every last bit of resources from the people he was supposed to be protecting?
Life was hard before the Mongols arrived, and now villages and farms are burning. People argued that those supplies would be much more useful in attending to refugees rather than a man whose sole ambition is reinstating the power structure that enforced these hardships in the first place.
I guess the underlying message there could be that Jin was just secretly another imperialist all along who was fighting under the guise of mass liberation to bring back the old world order which had favored him, wouldn’t that be a plot twist? This probably could be one of the reasons why he had no problem looting from the very people he claimed to be protecting. A sense of entitlement, I guess.
Jin was also shown to be somewhat unsympathetic to the plight of the locals, any growth he shows over the course of the game usually deals entirely with his approach to warfare, rather than the imbalances within the society he seeks to protect or even his own responsibility for maintaining them.
This lack of empathy was also evident when a childhood friend betrays him, Jin did very little personal inventory on his part on how he might have contributed to his friend being motivated to betraying him, rather he went on a “holy” quest for revenge. All of this could have been entirely prevented if only he had been a little bit more compassionate.
“Another open-world game” has been my problem this generation. With more and more games coming out all the time, it’s become more of a problem picking out what games to play and when. This generation has been rife with open worlds and live games that are only getting bigger and demanding more and more of our time, helping to fuel our video game addiction.
I quickly got tired of open-world games as soon as they truly became a thing (I believe this was around grand theft auto 3) I noticed early on that these games sacrificed tight narrative, which was what really stuck to the mind long after a game has been finished. But when the game begins to get elaborate for the freedom to do anything in the world, You start to see inconsistencies and holes in the plot as a result, with some missions or quests seeming all too repetitive.
Ghost of Tsushima
BACK OF THE BOX QUOTE
“Press R2 to compose haiku.”
TYPE OF GAME
Open-world samurai simulator
Fluid combat, gorgeous landscapes, charming side characters
Tedious missions, uninspired protagonist
Sucker Punch Productions
July 17, 2020
55+ hours to finish the story and 100% the map
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