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‘Ghost of Tsushima’ is a triumph in video game storytelling: Review

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I was not prepared for the emotional power of Ghost of Tsushima, nor for it’s lushness and hyper-visual, dreamlike fantasy. “Affecting” is a word I used a lot to describe it to my colleagues, because the journey of Jin Sakai did affect me. Tsushima draws on the legacy of samurai movies to create a game that translates that genre to its own medium, thriving in the tense silences before a standoff and the violent beauty of revenge. I enjoyed it for reasons I don’t normally enjoy games, and consider its ability to make me notice elements of game design I’ve never blinked an eye at a unique triumph. 

As I played I thought it was fitting that Ghost of Tsushima will be the last exclusive to be released in the Playstation 4’s lifetime, a coda to everything developers have achieved with this console before its power is eclipsed by the Playstation 5. It is not perfect, but it is in a lot of ways a summation of what gameplay and storytelling can look like now, as unfathomable as it may have seemed five, ten, twenty years ago. 

So let’s go. The year is 1274. The Mongols are invading Japan. The only thing standing between a total invasion of the mainland and a miracle is you…

Oh and for clarity, I have only played the English language, full color version of Ghost of Tsushima. This was for reasons of personal accessibility, and as such I have no professional opinions on its black-and-white Kurosawa mode or its Japanese voice cast.  

Heart of a Samurai

Jin Sakai is the GOAT of Tsushima.

Jin Sakai is the GOAT of Tsushima.

Ghost of Tsushima is an action-adventure/stealth title and not an RPG, and while the game gestures at allowing the player to select conversation choices, those choices have no impact on the game’s characters or plot. As such, Tsushima lives or dies on the likability of its fully written samurai lead Jin Sakai — the Ghost of the title — and the immutable telling of Jin’s story. 

Luckily, Ghost of Tsushima has a franchise-starting character in Jin Sakai. He is a warrior, he is a poet, he is a terrifying one-man assassination squad, and he’s…kind of a Disney prince, complete with friendly woodland spirit friends. He is also one of the best performed video game protagonists I’ve ever played. 

Jin is the star of the game. Daisuke Tsuji is a star, period.

Most of the work in making us root for the man on the box is borne by actor Daisuke Tsuji, the voice, motion capture, and facial model for Jin in the English language version of the game. The filmic ideal of a samurai easily lends itself to stereotype, but Tsuji’s deep-voiced range transcends trope to breathe believability into Jin’s quiet dignity, justified rage, and boundless compassion for the people of Tsushima. Jin is the star of the game. Daisuke Tsuji is a star, period. 

There are several points in Ghost of Tsushima where I was blown away by the quality and emotion of the voice and capture performances of the actors involved. Glee’s Patrick Gallagher plays the fictional Mongol villain Khotun Khan with eerie humor, layering Khotun’s focused and violent attempt to bring “peace” to Tsushima with the horror of a righteous maniac. Sumalee Montano’s performance as Jin’s mysterious right-hand woman Yuna gets deeper as the story progresses, creating a character arc that keeps pace with the game’s central themes. 

Tsushima’s acting excellence continues beyond these three characters, and it’s to the game’s credit that its filmic value extends beyond them as well. 

A Tale of Tsushima

By the way, Jin's  flute controls the weather.

By the way, Jin’s  flute controls the weather.

I began this review hyping up Tsushima’s acting cast knowing it’s an odd angle to approach game critique. I did so because much of my enjoyment playing the game stemmed from Ghost of Tsushima’s commitment to replicating a cinematic experience for its players. For all its eventual stumbles in mechanics or gameplay (I’m getting there), Tsushima’s greatest triumph is its story, direction, and its success in making the player feel like the star of an emotionally compelling, action-packed, and great looking samurai film. 

The story of Ghost of Tsushima unfolds through its three quest types: Jin’s Journey, Tales of Tsushima, and Mythic Tales. Jin’s Journey is the main quest of the game and is split into three acts, each of which ends with an extra-long “finale” questline. I won’t spoil the main quest here, just as I wouldn’t spoil the climax of a movie in a review, but all three of the finales are showstoppers.

Tales of Tsushima are further split into two categories. Some revolve around other named characters like Sensei Ishikawa (a grumpy and talented archery master), Lady Masako (the matriarch of a samurai clan whom I happily nicknamed “Murder Granny”), Norio the monk (adorable, we love him), and Kenji (a human dumpster fire, we also love him), and develop alongside Jin’s Journey. They are best played in conjunction with the central questline to maintain the plot’s emotional integrity. 

Other Tales are shorter side quests not connected to a specific character. These have less impact on the plot, but many of them have their own three-act structure that puts some weight behind what could be a long list of fetching, tracking, and mob-clearing quests. Some of the Tales are heartbreaking, as Jin’s best efforts cannot shelter everyone from the devastation of war. Others muddy the moral waters of the game by conscripting Jin into dubious activities. Completing them is key to growing Jin’s legend on the island — literally, completing them adds to a buildable legend meter that awards attribute points — and makes casual, short-term play more rewarding.

Finally, there are the Mythic Tales of Tsushima, quests that go beyond saving villagers and bestow rewards beyond a technique point or two. These quests begin by listening to musicians in the game who describe legendary heroes whose secrets have been lost to history. Lost, that is, until Jin Sakai decides to seek them out. 

The Mythic Tales have a special place in Ghost of Tsushima, since they each have a beautifully animated introductory cutscene that draws on Japanese ink wash painting for dramatic effect, and they lead to the game’s best gear, slickest combat moves, and most memorable non-story quest experiences. 

A Living Island

Stop and smell the flowers, then follow the birds, then pet the foxes, and oh — is that a lighthouse?

Stop and smell the flowers, then follow the birds, then pet the foxes, and oh — is that a lighthouse?

In case anyone couldn’t tell from the trailers or screenshots, Ghost of Tsushima is a breathtakingly beautiful game. Its shining autumnal forests, misty swamps, and soaring snow capped mountains are so arresting I often found myself stopping mid-mission to pause and admire the scenery. Or, as my colleague Adam Rosenberg put it, “I don’t ever want to see another meadow in a video game if it’s not as beautiful as Tsushima’s.” 

The game uses its stunning setting to create a living island rife with secrets, collectibles, and randomly generated enemy encounters. Discovering these secrets is a matter of pure exploration, where it’s as easy to stumble upon a vanity item hidden atop a pagoda as it is to leap sword-first into battle to save a peasant from bandits. 

Tsushima does away with action game standards like on-screen maps and heads up displays, which makes for a soothingly clear and uncluttered playing screen. Instead of relying on waypoints and directional prompts, the player navigates towards its destinations with the lovely and inventive Guiding Wind mechanic, which a player activates by stroking the controller’s touch pad to hear and see a breeze flowing towards their target location. 

Concurrent with straightforward navigation is the welcome distraction of golden birds, helpful avian guides whose presence indicates that something of interest is near, though whatever it is may be off the beaten path. Jin can follow the birds towards fox dens, where friendly foxes lead him towards Inari shrines that grant combat charms (and yes, Jin can pet the foxes, I told you he was a Disney prince). The birds also can lead him to larger Shinto shrines that operate as climbing puzzles reminiscent of the tomb puzzles in Assassin’s Creed II. These shrines award more powerful charms with game-changing effects.

A whole game mechanic dedicated to getting the protagonist’s butt out, whew. We live in the future

The island also hides Pillars of Honor, monuments to fallen samurai with collectible katana skins, bamboo strikes with quick-hit prompts that give combat rewards, exceptionally scenic locations that inspire Jin to write and recite haiku, and hot springs where he recovers health while lounging sultrily in sulfurous waters (the brilliance of putting a repeatable interpretation of The Witcher III’s infamous bathtub scene in this game is not lost on me. A whole game mechanic dedicated to getting the protagonist’s butt out, whew. We live in the future). 

Holistically these elements, combined with random combat encounters and scattered Tales of Tsushima, make the game’s map feel alive with discovery and exploration. In the later game, some of the locations can feel repetitive (so…many…foxes), but only if you’re hunting them down for completion as opposed to finding them naturally. 

Fight for Your Life 

Ten Duel Commandments: Samurai Style.

Ten Duel Commandments: Samurai Style.

Combat in Ghost of Tsushima is stylish and brutal. Its primary improvement on the typical block-parry-dodge format is the inclusion of Stances, move sets that have an advantage over certain weapon types— one for swords, one for shields, one for spears, and one for mace-wielding brutes. Half the fun of melee comes from mastering the rhythm it takes to switch between these advantages until Jin can stun a swordsman with an overhead Stone Stance attack, swap to kick a spearman in the face with Wind Stance, and finish off a brute with a lightning-fast Moon Stance spin in a matter of seconds.

Tsushima also wins points for its Standoff system, which can clear up to five enemies out of an encounter by having them face Jin one-by-one in a quicktime release event. Standoffs are very dramatic, and nailing all five events in a “one hit, one kill” victory streak feels glorious. 

When I first started playing Tsushima, I thought the combat was simple, if a bit unforgiving. I was very, very wrong. While Jin’s upgradable katana remains his go-to weapons throughout the game, there are a number of advantageous smaller weapons the player can learn to keep combat interesting as the game progresses. Kunai, small throwing knives, are the earliest introduced and are crucial in maintaining crowd control, but melee encounters later in the game can become a violent orgy of bombs, knives, Mythic sword tactics, fire, and poison if you assign your technique points right. 

Throw in the satisfying clang of a perfect parry and the slow motion victory of a dodge well rolled, and you’ve got an idea of how epic Tsushima’s battles can get. 

A Man Without Honor

Who's afraid of the big, bad Ghost?

Who’s afraid of the big, bad Ghost?

As fun as slicing a dozen bandits into fork-sized chunks can be, the other half of Ghost of Tsushima’s combat is of the sneaky variety. Unfortunately, its stealth mechanics are not as successful as its combat. 

Part of the reason the stealth feels listless is the lack of enemy intelligence — Jin can roll up to an enemy camp and loudly kill half the men in there without disturbing enemies on the other side of a wall, and later upgrades to his stealth gear make the possibility of being caught a distant nuisance as opposed to a constant danger. 

The second failure of stealth is a certain untrustworthiness in Tsushima’s movement mechanics, particularly when it comes to grappling and jumping. It’s possible that I was being too cautious in my early game, but by the time I got to missions that require Jin to hop from the top of a yurt to a tightrope, I felt like I didn’t have total control over his success. The transitional animations from crouching, jumping, and grappling are choppy and unclear, so Jin could either hit the tightrope and continue on his merry way or faceplant in the middle of a bonfire. You can see how this quickly became a stealth issue.

There is also a plethora of instant fail stealth and following missions that knock you back to the start if anyone spots you. In 2020. Come on games, we talked about this.  

However, as long as I stuck to the ground (and I mostly did, despite many enemy camps having enticing yet forbidden-for-me grapple points), the stealth experience of Tsushima was…not bad. Just easy. Easy can be enjoyable, though. For all of Jin Sakai’s equivocating over killing men with honor vs. the shame of knocking them off like it’s free knife night at the bandit camp, he makes a damn fun coward. 

Now that I think about it, I may have been predisposed to love this game because I'm really into Batman.

Now that I think about it, I may have been predisposed to love this game because I’m really into Batman.

Without the benefit of being part of an extant franchise, Ghost of Tsushima shines as a carefully crafted, excellent standalone game that made me notice things about games I rarely pick up on — the way the protagonist breathes, the colors of dawns and dusks, the subtle animations of love and hatred. When I think about Tsushima, I think of something gemlike and precious, faceted without being showy and ultimately more valuable than it looks. When I finished my first playthrough, my heart broke until I remembered I could simply play again. 

I also remembered, as the credits rolled and my history nerd brain processed the finale, that there were two attempted Mongol invasions of Japan. The first of which is fictionalized in Ghost of Tsushima’s presumed year 1274. The second was in 1281, seven short years later. Perhaps that fact will be enough for the wind to guide us towards Jin Sakai’s next adventure. I’m sure I won’t be the only one waiting for the Ghost to return. 

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