Way of the Open World RPG
Ghost of Tsushima is the latest in the long and storied list of Open World RPGs, a genre that has inundated the market to the point of bursting. At this point you could reach into a grab bag of games and pull out a handful of the suckers.
“Oh I got a Lovecraftian Open world and one where I’m a shark… Neato”
At this point they’re getting a little too big for their britches (both figuratively and literally), and some can take upward of one hundred hours to fully complete. So, I wouldn’t fault you for seeing Ghost of Tsushima and being like “Meh, I’ll get to it later” or “Yeah, maybe when it’s on sale.” Those are both perfectly reasonable reactions.
However, if you’re a fan of open world games, or samurai, or both, this is a game you should already own. In fact, the idea that you aren’t currently playing it is somewhat astounding, and honestly a little offensive.
Let’s start with a little taste of the opening.
The game starts with eighty samurai staring down the entire Mongolian army as it begins its invasion of the Island of Tsushima. You play as Jin (who, if you’re using Japanese audio, is voiced by Kazuya Nakai, aka Roronoa Zoro from One Piece) , samurai warrior and nephew to the Jito of Tsushima island. Your uncle sends his greatest warrior (not you) to issue a challenge to the Mongols greatest warrior in the hopes that a sound trouncing will demoralize the horde.
This does not go as planned, and the Mongol leader, Khotun Khan, in one of the finest displays of not giving a fuck I’ve ever seen, simply lights the samurai on fire and walks off like a boss.
This snub in the face of honor spurs the samurai to attack. However, if you can do any kind of math you already know 80 < The Entire Mongolian Army.
Despite the fact that you are doomed to failure, this is where you actually take control of Jin. You cut your way into the enemy line, steadily losing your fellow samurai, until it’s just you and your uncle remaining. Undeterred, you both resolve to deliver a blow to the Mongols before you die by killing their leader, Khotun Khan.
This also does not go as planned, and you are forced to watch as Jin is impaled by arrows and left for dead as his uncle is taken prisoner by the khan. Of course, Jin survives (there wouldn’t be much of a game otherwise) and returns to liberate Tsushima from the mongol horde.
Now that I’ve set the stage, let’s take a look at what makes this game stand above the rest of its ilk.
To Stray From One’s Path
One of the best aspects of this game is Jin’s internal struggle as someone who grew up following The Way of the Samurai.
We are shown, multiple times, that Jin was taught the samurai tenants from an early age and, because of trauma during those formative years, adheres to them strongly. He doesn’t just follow the code: He embodies it.
However, he is now facing an overwhelming force that has shown how brutal and ruthless it can be. In order to face that foe and be victorious, he will have to abandon his honor and do whatever it takes to save Tsushima.
What makes this an amazing narrative decision is how methodical it is in its approach.
Jin doesn’t just wake up, put on a ghost-faced-killer mask, go to town on the Mongolians, and have everyone praise his actions. There are times when his companions actively call him out for abandoning the way of the samurai and call his honor into question.
It’s a slow progression that spans the game’s story and is all the better for it.
A Tale to Tell
Tales, within the realm of the game, are basically side quests that span large chunks of the game.
Instead of hundreds of little sidequests that mean absolutely nothing, Ghost of Tsushima has opted to use larger side-quests that are broken into smaller pieces. These tales not only introduce other characters to the story, but also provide exposition and breathe life into the island of Tsushima.
There are, of course, an endless cavalcade of collectables, challenges, and small side-quests as dictated by open-world law.
However, the tales provide a much-needed infusion of story to otherwise droll tasks. Even the smaller tales, which function more akin to standard side-quests, are diverse and add to the narrative function of the island.
Bushido: Way of the Sword (Combat)
In order to defeat the Mongol Horde, Jin has many tools at his disposal. The most important is his sword, which is why it is nice that Sucker Punch made sure that this aspect of the game was nearly flawless. That’s not to say that combat doesn’t have its quirks and glitches, but it is well executed and never left me feeling like I’d died unjustly.
It was totally just. I’d died because always going for the perfect parry can leave you full of swords.
Combat in Ghost of Tsushima functions much like combat from any number of open world games. For me, however, the stand-out feature was the showdown.
Showdowns let you challenge a group of enemies before you engage in a fight. They will send forth a single warrior and the two of you will face off in a duel where one slash determines the victor.
Once you add in your quick throw weapons, bow and arrow, and the ability to switch sword
stances on the fly, you find yourself fighting battles worthy of the Kurosawa films on which the game was based.
Ninjutsu: Way of the Ninja (Stealth)
The flip side to the samurai style of combat is, of course, stealth.
Unfortunately, for a game that has the word “ghost” in the title, the stealth mechanics feel a little underdeveloped. I’m not saying that I don’t enjoy ghosting an entire camp of Mongolians. I just wish I’d seen something new.
You hide in the specific grass type, use something to lure your enemy close, stab them in the neck, and then rinse and repeat. I’ve done it a thousand times, and I’m sure I’ll do it a thousand more.
The enemy AI is also not great in this respect. They rarely give chase if you opt to climb on top of a building, choosing instead to back up to throw shuriken and lob arrows at you. They give up incredibly easily and can’t seem to figure out if you ever existed once you break line of sight. Fortunately, once you’ve broken stealth you can simply draw your sword and swing with reckless abandon.
While Ghost of Tsushima did nothing new for stealth gameplay, it didn’t screw anything up too badly either.
One With Your Surroundings
What really ties the whole game together is the amazing visual style developed by Sucker Punch.
The deep reds and yellows of leaves in autumn, the intense white tufts of pampas grass, and the striking violets of the mountain flowers all give Tsushima an otherworldly feel. Outside of Naughty Dog, I’ve never seen scenery that really took my breath away, but Ghost is able to do this on the regular.
It happens when night falls and the fireflies come out to dance in the light fog that blankets the ground. It happens when you crest a hill and see a single tree swaying in a windswept field. And it happens when you draw your sword in a darkened glade and see a glint of moonlight reflected in it.
I mean, the character models and animations don’t always stand up to the environments, and most of the buildings look exactly the same, but the command of color, light, and design demonstrated in this game is astounding.
If Ghost of Tsushima seems like a game that took all of the elements that made other open worlds great and then crammed them all together, that’s because that’s exactly what it is…
And it paid off. I’m giving it 8.5/10.
It is a stellar game made from the very solid foundation laid by those that came before it. I won’t say that it broke the mold, but it improved upon it in a way that others should take note of.