The dust has finally settled, the fog of war has cleared and my katana and tanto have been put away to rest. So a little more than a month on, and following a fleet of strong reviews is Ghost of Tsushima actually all that, or is it merely style over substance?
Well, to start with I have to address the elephant in the room. Is this basically Assassin’s Creed Japan? To be honest it’s a bit of yes and no.
There are very obvious similarities that are hard to ignore. Ghost of Tsushima is a historical fiction game and while Assassin’s Creed doesn’t necessarily own that genre, they are one of the biggest proponents of teaching us about the classics. Similarly, Ghost’s story is inspired by rather than faithfully reflecting actual events.
Tsushima is a real-world place and an invasion by the Mongol Empire did actually happen, however there has been some liberty taken with historical events. The attempt by eighty samurai to defend Tsushima from a Mongol invasion is historical fact, unlike the game however there were no survivors of the attack and the actual governor of Tsushima who led the charge, Sō Sukekuni died during the battle.
There are also other minor anachronisms as certain weapons and fighting styles from later eras feature in the plot. So as far as accuracy goes, maybe don’t use this as reference material for 13th-century Japanese history. However, one thing that did please me was that unlike the Creed games you thankfully don’t coincidently bump into every notable figure of the period.
Assassin’s Creed combat and parkour mechanics.
The next big parallels for me with the Assassin’s Creed games are the parkour mechanics and combat. Climbing your way around Tsushima is very familiar as you look around for the tell-tale highlights of colour or decorated grappling points that mark out the route you need to take. Again this is not entirely specific to the Creed franchise and many other RPGs use the same design (Tomb Raider, Far Cry, Horizon Zero Dawn etc). Jin was actually much easier to steer than Altair and Ezio and didn’t habitually decide to jump in the opposite way you were pointing.
The combat for me felt very early Assassin’s Creed and quite old fashioned compared to more recent games. Yes the Standoffs are brilliant, especially when you maximise a specific armour set and skill tree which lets you chain attacks and slice through fools like Iron Chef. Stealth combat is equally rewarding as you learn how to chain assassinate and, my personal favourite, skewer someone through a shoji door.
Fighting up close and personal with a group of baddies is however a bit on the clunky side. Sword combat is very much attack and look for the signal to parry or dodge if the attack is “unblockable”. As you progress through the game you learn combo moves which add a little more flair and interest to your attacks, and similar to the Nioh games you also learn different stances which have their advantages over different enemy types. The one-on-one duels are also a nice touch but combat never really amounts to anything much more than attack, counter, dodge.
Chain attacks are brilliant when they work.
This didn’t necessarily dampen my enjoyment and when you manage to chain attacks and blocks the fights are enjoyable to play and watch. The biggest problem I did have was around the enemy targeting and the camera. While the fighting tutorial insists you can target and switch enemies, in reality it’s very flaky. There isn’t a specific targeting button as you might have in Souls-like and other RPGs, instead you have to wave your sword around generally in the direction of the person you want to hit. When this works it’s brilliant, but for the most part you end up barrelling off in completely the wrong direction like a short-sighted wasp.
For a beautifully cinematic game it’s also a shame that on occasion, and mostly in the heat of battle, the camera absolutely hates you and orientates itself at weird angles which either meant that walls, trees and other scenery completely blocked my view, or made Jin do a weird sideways crab run when trying to dodge attacks.
As the hero of the tale, Jin is every inch the honourable Jedi having learned to master his emotions and not give in to fear or anger. His feelings toward sand is currently unknown. The problem is that in order to take down the nasty Mongols he will have to embrace the dark side and fight from the shadows. This internal struggle, and going against the Samurai code he has spent his life trying to live by, causes some turmoil early on.
The backstory is delivered through the good old medium of flashbacks and we find out more about our cast of players through cut scenes and conversations. Your rogue’s gallery of allies from badass thief Yuna to conflicted warrior monk Norio and of course comedy relief Kenji the sake seller, are all brilliantly rendered and portrayed. These characters and their personalities help to make what is quite a predictable story engaging and occasionally heart-breaking.
Criticism has been levelled at the main story and the open-world activities and side quests. I can understand why as Ghost isn’t especially ground-breaking here. Main story missions, side missions for your allies, and other missions you pick up can generally be defined as follow a trail and kill some baddies. There might be a few Jin the Master Detective moments where you can examine some clues scattered around, but you will inevitably end up following footprints or some other track which will culminate in a standoff or stealth take-down.
This does make Ghost quite repetitive, and even though the shrine climbs are a fun parkour puzzle distraction, and I am a slave to cuteness and petting animals, even I will admit there are a lot of bloody Fox Dens!
Having said all that, and yes here it comes, I absolutely cannot deny the insane, devastating beauty of this game. It is ludicrously stunning and there is a lot of pleasure to be had just exploring the island of Tsushima and gallivanting through fields of red spider lilies. This visual feast has led to many calling this game the swan song of the PS4 as we’re all getting amped up for the release of the Xbox Series X mini fridge and the PS5 Azimo in disguise consoles. Tsushima has also become the fastest ever selling new IP on the PS Store with 1.9 million units sold in July breaking digital sale records.
But does its complex beauty make up for its simple plot, and do the characters who look so much like their actors that it’s faintly disconcerting make up for the old school controls?
I have to say yes.
Because even though Jin does drunkenly attack someone a mile away instead of the Mongol I was pointing him at, and there’s a high chance he’s contracted some sort of Leptospirosis from all the fox petting, I did still furiously love this game and there’s more to come.
As someone who absolutely despises online multiplayer, I’m not as excited by this development, but Sucker Punch have recently announced Ghost of Tsushima: Legends, a new co-op multiplayer mode coming later this Autumn/Fall.
This is a story completely separate from Jin’s journey as you play as one of four other legendary characters from Tsushima’s history; an unknown Samurai, Hunter, Ronin, or Assassin. The details released so far cover a series of co-op story missions that require careful synchronisation with your partner, wave-based survival missions, and four-player raids where you and your buddies take on a brutal, terrifying enemy.
Will it tempt me back? Maybe, but I think that Ghost of Tsushima will be a game that I’m likely to revisit again as despite its quirks it was still hugely satisfying and fun.
Ghost of Tsushima is eye-wateringly stunning but a little lacking in gameplay and story. The gameplay time of 20–30 hours does help it feel more compact, so even though it can get a little repetitive it never feels oppressively monotonous. Better target locking would definitely improve combat but it’s still thoroughly enjoyable. While Tsushima is a complete story, there was a second Mongol invasion in 1281 so it would be interesting to revisit an older Jin, perhaps passing on the legend of the Ghost to a protégé. Fingers crossed!
Release Date: 17/07/2020
No. of Players: 1
Category: Action, Adventure
Developer: Sucker Punch Productions
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Download link: PSN