HIGH It’s staggeringly beautiful.
LOW I never want to hear the word “honor” ever again.
WTF The absolute stockpile of headbands I’ve accumulated.
There was probably no scenario in which a game as generic as Ghost of Tsushima lit my world on fire, but the developer’s constant claims that it’s an homage to Akira Kurosawa – conservatively, one of the three greatest filmmakers of all time – probably didn’t do it any favors.
Much fuss has been made about Tsushima’s “Kurosawa Mode,” which is an optional filter that reduces the sound quality, covers the screen in hideous artifacts, and makes everything black-and-white (rendering missions in which we’re supposed to be identifying flowers of a certain color impossible). It’s silly, and its inclusion underlines Sucker Punch’s focus on only the most surface-level qualities of Kurosawa’s work, as if they were stylistic choices and not simply restrictions of film technology at the time.
I mean, call me crazy, but I’d think that the best way to pay homage to one of the greatest storytellers of the twentieth century is to, I don’t know, tell a good story? Where did people get the idea that Kurosawa’s films are dry and funereal?
Ghost of Tsushima is a third-person open-world adventure set against the backdrop of a true-life Mongol invasion in the late thirteenth century, albeit in an alternate timeline where humor hadn’t been invented yet. Our protagonist, Jin Sakai, is one of the only samurai who isn’t killed in the initial battle, and spends the remainder of the campaign rallying forces, mounting a rescue effort for his uncle, and generally being sad and wistful about everything.
Tsushima’s big dramatic conflict is that the samurai believe only thieves and cowards hide in shadows, stabbing their foes in the back. However, Jin soon realizes that he’s in a modern triple-A game, and that stealth elements – preferably featuring patches of tall grass as hiding places – are therefore mandatory.
The Mongols are so one-dimensionally evil that it’s never in question that they must be defeated, but the manner in which Jin fights them – adopting the “Ghost” moniker because he’s largely invisible to his enemies – invites scorn from his uncle, who believes that no matter how little honor the Mongols have, Jin must never stoop to their level. He believes this because, evidently, he’s a moron who wants to lose the war.
We see too little of the relationship between Jin and his uncle for it to be tragic when a wedge is driven between them, and we feel no guilt ourselves because he’s scolding us for the exact same tactics we use in so many other games, i.e. quietly picking off enemies one-by-one until direct confrontation is unavoidable. If we’re gonna spend so much time being mopey about how wicked the Mongols are, let’s not feel conflicted about tipping the scales in our favor.
Still, I might have felt invested in these characters if they showed an ounce of humanity, but Tsushima’s cast consists almost entirely of blank slates delivering functional dialogue in dry monotones. The only moment of levity in the entire campaign is when two characters kill time by sharing a bottle of sake and it inexplicably cuts to the end of the scene as the two laugh about whatever they were just talking about. This situation perfectly illustrates that Tsushima doesn’t put in the work. It just shows two characters laughing, assumes that’s enough to establish that they’re friends with real emotions, and moves on to the morbid business at hand.
Said business involves the same sort of checklist busywork we see in pretty much every modern open-world game. Reclaim a village from the Mongols to map out the surrounding area. Pray to a fox den to get an equippable charm. Write a haiku to get a headband. My favorite Kurosawa film is the one where Toshiro Mifune kills seven leaders to unlock Wind Stance. Expect to spend a lot of time gathering crafting materials, one of which is called “supplies” – not any specific supplies, mind you, just general all-purpose bags of stuff.
Anyone who’s played games in the modern era likely knows whether or not they’re in the mood for a title like this. I still find something relaxing about wandering a massive landscape and ticking boxes while no serious concentration is being asked of me. However, Tsushima lacks a unique hook. Games like Horizon: Zero Dawn and Insomniac’s Spider-Man had generic open-world structures but were so mechanically brilliant that I was actively looking for excuses to engage with their systems. All that Tsushima offers are rudimentary versions of things I’ve seen in countless other games.
The combat is fine, I guess? It has some Arkham DNA in the way that Jin can quickly dispatch large groups of enemies, and how colored cues clue the player in to whether they should be dodging or countering. The unlockable skills do a solid job of morphing the flow of combat and increasingly turning Jin into a superhuman badass. However, the strange omission of a targeting system means the camera requires far more babysitting than it should, and it’s an annoyance that rears its face any time Jin is up against a wall.
The stealth, meanwhile, is the usual deal – hide in tall grass, spot enemies using X-ray vision, throw distractions that said enemies will investigate, and so forth. We’ve done this many, many times before.
Absent a unique hook, the main appeal of exploring this world is to actually see it, and that’s a bigger draw than it sounds like. Tsushima is quite possibly the most beautiful game I’ve ever played, and the fact that this is Sucker Punch’s first release in six years fills me with hope that they didn’t grind their teams into paste to get it looking like this.
Tsushima is colorful to the point of being almost otherworldly, and it’s got the best foliage in gaming history – a fact that Sucker Punch is eager to show off, since the wind will actually blow in the direction of the player’s objective. That’s probably a lot of work for something a simple waypoint could have accomplished, but I appreciated having an excuse to actually look at the world itself, rather than a mini-map in the corner of the screen.
While it may be jaw-dropping, I’d have more respect for the world if Tsushima had the courage to truly set players loose in it. Instead, we’re constantly being funneled. Players are encouraged to clear out enemy strongholds, but if they stumble too close to one of the towns or fortresses that Sucker Punch is saving for a big setpiece later on, they’ll be stun-locked and effectively insta-killed by what I can only describe as “machinegun fire from space.”
Meanwhile, certain optional missions in Tsushima have us tracking down mythical pieces of equipment. On more than one occasion, I’d follow the trail of clues only to discover that the item’s supposedly well-hidden resting place was an area I’d already discovered just by exploring, but the prize in question wouldn’t materialize out of thin air until I’d completed the preceding steps. Sucker Punch will alter the laws of space and physics to keep me in my lane.
The story missions themselves are almost uniformly dire. They generally consist of the same combat and stealth that we can find in near-infinite supply elsewhere, except that they often rob us of the agency to choose between one or the other — and being forced to stay hidden sucks. I can’t believe that we’re still being subjected to stealth sequences in which it’s an instant game-over when we’re spotted. A late-game stretch that put me through three such missions in quick succession is where I very nearly quit.
There are also… wait… this can’t be right… tailing missions? Seriously? In 2020? I remember being fed up with those in Assassin’s Creed IV, a whole generation ago.
As appropriate as it would be to knock Tsushima for being the same sort of boilerplate open-worlder that Ubisoft tosses out every few months, the truth is that I still got some entertainment out of roaming the pretty landscape and engaging in repetitive tasks at my own pace. That said, every time Tsushima subjected me to its dreadful story and the tedious critical path missions, my patience wore thin.
Ghost of Tsushima is positioned as PlayStation 4’s last hurrah, and while it’s an underwhelming note to end on, perhaps a game that pushes technological boundaries while taking zero creative risks is a fitting bookend for this generation.
Disclosures: This game is developed by Sucker Punch Productions and published by Sony Interactive Entertainment. It is currently available on PlayStation 4. This copy of the game was obtained via paid download and reviewed on the PlayStation 4. Approximately 40 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated Mature and contains Blood and Gore, Intense Violence and Partial Nudity. The violence is extremely grisly. Blood sprays every which way as characters are slashed, impaled and beheaded, and the landscape is littered with burned and mutilated corpses. There’s also a bit of mild profanity here and there, sake is occasionally consumed, and Jin is seen naked from behind whenever he bathes in a hot spring.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: Subtitles are available for all dialogue. The only notable instance in which sound plays an important role is when dealing with archers who shout when they’re about to fire, and players can turn on an optional visual cue to accompany these attacks. Otherwise, I played long stretches without sound and never had any trouble. I’d say this is fully accessible.
Remappable Controls: No, this game’s controls are not remappable. The Y-axis can be inverted.
See also: FREE PS4 Controller Charging Dock Station