Over the past ten years, few genres have taken grip of the games industry quite like open-world games. A big contributor to this boom is Ubisoft and their popularization of the checkbox open-world formula, which is a style of open-world game structured around a checklist of quests and open-world activities to 100% complete. Many open-world games (including many of Ubisoft’s games) are structured in this way, and Ghost of Tsushima is certainly no exception. But while this game may not win in the unique category, I think this is the best one of those to-date.
After a bloody battle on the beaches of Tsushima, the Mongols have taken over the island near the coast of Japan in the year 1274. Many of the samurai have been killed, captured, or scattered. You play as Jin Sakai, nephew to samurai army leader Lord Shimura and one of the samurai who fought on the beach. After fighting and nearly dying, he is nursed back to health by a thief named Yuna and gets to work on trying to free his uncle from imprisonment in hopes of liberating the island. Along the way, he picks up other allies to help him retake the island, and he is forced to challenge his more “honorable” fighting tactics in favor of effectiveness.
I have used the term “one-of-those” for a while now, but this game takes it to another level. If you have played any Ubisoft open-world game in the past ten years, then you likely know what this experience is going to be like. An open island to liberate, outposts to capture and caged animals to unleash in said outposts, a story based around liberating the island, the option to play stealthy or loud, tall grass to hide in, various collectibles and activities to complete around the island, a grappling hook, basic climbing, stalking missions, hunter vision, and many more. I have a fondness for this style of game, but even I have grown tired of it because of how often it pops up. While it may not be fresh, I think there is merit to delivering a high-quality one-of-those, and I believe this game is the pinnacle of this style.
A key component to an open-world game is, well, the open world, and this game’s portrayal of Tsushima is both stunning and a joy to explore. The island is split up into three districts, with each being a different biome and difficulty. The starting woodsy area of Izuhara funnels into the swamp lands of Toyotama, and going further north puts you into the snowy mountains of Kamiagata. All areas are beautiful in a way that makes each square inch feel hand-crafted, which in turns makes exploring all of it more fun. Vibrant colors, lush scenery, the constant wind that blows through the trees and picks up the leaves, the different times of day that give a beautiful sky box and beautiful shades to the world, and more shows Tsushima’s true beauty. Its beauty goes beyond aesthetic too, as the wind is actually used as a guide to locations, smoke in the sky leads to new points of interest, and the weather can be changed with music from the flute. Not all of it is perfect, as the time-of-day is strangely static and some of the world can feel artificially beautiful, but neither of those two things stops Tsushima from being stunning. Whether it be the intro segment where Jin runs his hand through a field of white flowers or simply just using the winds as a guide on where to go next, this game is incredible to explore for its beauty.
This game is stunning like no other.
Going beyond the beauty of this world, Ghost of Tsushima is also filled with open world activities I enjoyed quite a bit. Like any checkbox open-world game, the island is littered with outposts to take over big and small, but I still enjoy outposts so no complaints there. A lot of the other world activities, however, are unique and a cut above the rest. Bamboo strikes, which involves trying to hit a button sequence with speed and accuracy to cut bamboo, and Fox Dens, which are about following a fox around as it leads to a shrine, are two notable activities I had a great time interacting with, but my absolute favorite are haikus. This activity is about sitting down and using the environment around you to create a haiku. I found this activity to be a surprisingly powerful and quiet moment in the game, and it felt like a great add-on to the game’s stunning world. Outside of activities, the world is also filled with roaming enemies, and often time fights with these guys as well as a lot of encounters in general starts with a standoffs. A standoff is what I would best describe as a samurai duel, in which you hold a button and wait for an attacker to charge you. They try to fake you out in hopes that you miss, but if you let go of the button as they are attacking, you can get a free kill. Standoffs happen all the time in this game, and each one is just as fun as the last.
No open world game would be complete without side quests, and this game has plenty of them. The side quests can be broken down into three parts: random quests you get from NPCs, storyline side quests from side characters, and mythic tales. The random quests are nothing worth talking about, but they aren’t bad either. The storyline quests, however, are solid. Each side character has their own line of quests that you promise you would help them with in return for their assistance. While the activities done in these side quests aren’t all that different from normal side quests, they do have their own little storylines that dives further into each character. For example, Masako Adachi’s storyline involves solving the mystery of who killed off her entire family, and it was both intriguing and tragic to see her in various stages of grief. Finally, mythic tales are smaller questlines centered around famous warriors and reward special gear and movesets. These quests are often the prettiest, the coolest, and the most rewarding. While some were disappointed that they weren’t centered around Japanese mythology, I actually found these stories being more urban legend than mythology welcoming because of how many mythological games have popped up over the past few years. Overall, side quests in this game are fun diversions to the main story with their own stories and style.
Ever since I played Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, my thoughts on numbers-based combat has soured significantly. Fortunately, this game doesn’t have any of that. Enemies scale based on location, and while your katana can be upgraded for better damage, there are no other weapons, weapon levels, or enemy levels to deal with. Swordplay is relatively simple, which includes a light and heavy attack, dodge, block, parry if attacks are blocked at the right time, and counter attacks. The complexities of combat, however, get into the enemy variety. In this game, there are four stances, and each are effective against certain enemies. Damage is the same among all stances, but breaking stances and staggering enemies isn’t, and each stance also has some basic combo moves. I was concerned at first with stances and combos because I’m not a fan of trying to memorize all of that stuff, but I actually found its implementation quite enjoyable. Stances and combos are light enough to where you can mostly ignore them if you want, but juggling stances while fighting a group of enemies was a blast, and a lot of the combos use similar button sequences, making them easy to remember and a blast to execute.
Enemies boil down to a few archetypes, but upgraded and alternate forms of each archetype can be seen in different parts of the island.
The katana isn’t the only weapon in Jin’s arsenal though. Like any other open-world game set in the past, he also has a bow-and-arrow. It’s functions are pretty basic, but there are some neat upgrades and abilities around it like the ability to slow-mo shoot, the ability to shoot beehives to distract enemies with bees, and more. There is also a blowgun for poison darts, but I didn’t find myself using that weapon as much. The most important consumables, however, are the quickfire weapons, which range from throwing knives to sticky bombs and more. Not only are these weapons simple to use, but a few of them are multi-purpose and can help with both combat and stealth. My personal favorite were the smoke bombs, as its smoke can be used to either run away and hide to return to stealth or, if upgraded enough, can be used in combat as a way to get up-to three quick kills while the enemies are dazed. Outside of these consumables, there is also resolve, which is charged up while fighting enemies and is used to either heal or perform special movesets. I didn’t use the special movesets all that much, but healing in this game is great because it’s fast, instant, and can be done at any time. It is a little comical to see Jin just kinda grunt and suddenly be healed, but it’s convenience far outweighs its absurdity.
While combat is in-large part very enjoyable, it isn’t perfect. The biggest issue plaguing it is that Jin cannot lock onto enemies. Over time, I got used to this, and I could see a lock on camera getting a bit hectic when fighting large groups, but not being able to lock onto enemies felt weird for a game like this. Speaking of the camera, that too wasn’t great, as it either felt floaty or would lock up while in combat. It especially had issues while fighting enemies indoors, as it would struggle to move around walls. Outside of the camera, the only other combat issue I can think of is with boss fights, because while they are a lot of fun to fight, it didn’t take long for me to see different bosses reusing attack patterns. Despite these setbacks, combat overall is very enjoyable.
Right alongside combat is the stealth, though there isn’t as much to say here. The stealth in this game is recognizable to anyone who has played a game with stealth elements. Hiding in tall grass, hunter vision, some consumable items to help with distracting or stunning enemies, some stealth abilities learned along the way, and more. One addition to this game that works well with stealth is the inclusion of a grappling hook, as I found it a lot of fun to swing around camps and above enemy heads trying to find the next enemy to safely kill. One stealth mechanic that surprisingly isn’t here, however, is the ability to move bodies. While I didn’t run into as many issues as I thought I would have with not being able to move bodies, I still think it not being here is baffling. Stealth here is nothing to write home about, but it’s functional and fun if you are wanting to take a break from the action.
Striking from behind is considered dishonorable, and yet it works oh so well.
Surrounding combat and stealth as well as the gameplay in general are the various upgrades you can make to Jin, which there are many. Weapon upgrades, armor upgrades, equipment upgrades, armor charms, skill trees, and even some world activities boost Jin and his fighting abilities. The katana and the hidden blade are straight forward upgrades, but there are a lot of skins for the katana that can be found around the island. As for armor, there are a lot of armor sets with their own upgrades and abilities. Not only does this help with personalizing to people’s playstyles, but they are also visually distinct, and each upgrade to armor changes it both visually and statistically. Towards the end of the game, I didn’t find armor as useful because my stats and abilities outpaced the importance of the armor’s stats, but figuring out what armor set you want early on is still vital, and there are some sets that are good for other purposes like exploration. Charms, which are equippable stat boosts, also helps with personalization, though I wish the charms menu was better organized. Finally, the skill tree is full of various upgrades to stance, stealth, exploration, and abilities. I can’t think of any that are particularly unique compared to other game’s skill trees, but at the very least each upgrade is significant and not just small boosts to stats. The upgrades in this game are like many others, but I can’t think of any that hinder the experience.
While its gameplay is fantastic, Ghost of Tsushima’s story is a bit of a mixed bag. At its most basic, this game tells a ‘liberate the island’ tale seen in many other games, but diving deeper into the characters and conflicts gets a lot more interesting. At its core, this game’s story is about a conflict of old versus new. As the game progresses, Jin begins to embrace a more sneaky and dishonorable form of combat to defeat the Mongolians, and seeing his character become more cold and ruthless in his tactics is quite interesting. His uncle Lord Shimura, however, is very much into the traditional, action-heavy form of samurai combat, which he deems honorable yet is way more dangerous. The slow decay of their relationship because of the different paths they walk down is heartbreaking to see, and the final confrontation between the two and how they know they must fight each other despite their love and care for each other is tragic.
Even outside of the Jin and his uncle, however, there is still a lot of great parts to the story. The music in this game isn’t heard often, but when it hits, it maked every story moment unforgettable. Turning the tides of battle in Ghost of Yarikawa or Ryuzo’s betrayal are some of the best story moments of all time for me, and the music can be thanked for that. I actually quite like the main antagonist Khotun Khan, as he feels like a smarter villain than most by studying Japanese culture and using that to his advantage. Finally, I like the themes of honor throughout the story and how this theme is constantly challenged throughout by Jin.
Despite fighting dishonorably, it is helping to liberate the island faster, making it more justifiable in Jin’s head.
While I do love this game’s honor, it’s also where the story’s biggest flaw can be seen. Jin has two opposing people in his life: his uncle, who believes in the honor and rules of combat, and Yuna, who leans towards effectiveness and stealthiness. It’s a very interesting balance, but it’s one that the game gives no control over. No matter how honorably or dishonorably you play, your actions have no effect on the story or the way your uncle treats you. Jin ultimately goes down a dishonorable path, but even if you play honorably and the only stealth kills done are in cutscenes, it doesn’t matter. Before I met Shimura for the first time, I remember really starting to feel Jin’s moral conflict, but after meeting Shimura and realizing none of it mattered, I remember the illusion shattering before my eyes and feeling quite disappointed. Just like Bioshock, this game sets up the story in a way where your actions affect your standing with others, but this game goes nowhere with it, leaving this feeling of ludonarrative dissonance and thus making it hard to attach to the Jin or his plight
One last thing worth mentioning in regards to this game are some of the technical aspects. For starters, this game has one of the best photo modes I have ever seen, as it not only allows a ton of customization but also even includes the ability to create a tracking shot. Another thing I found quite impressive with this game is how fast its load times are. Just about every completed outpost, activity, and more can be fast-traveled too, and having it take only a few seconds to load on a base PS4 made travel a lot easier. While its load times are spectacular, its framerate isn’t. If too many things were happening at once on screen, especially in the ending area, the framerate would dip low enough to be noticeable. Also, on a side note, some of the dialogue doesn’t match the lips that well. Even for a base PS4, some of the technical aspects are impressive, but it also has a few shortcomings.
In conclusion, Ghost of Tsushima is one of the best one-of-those I’ve ever played. This game took a well-worn formula and polished it to perfection, and while it isn’t anything new, I believe there is merit in perfecting something already done. While its story struggles with ludonarrative dissonance and I would’ve liked to have seen this game depart from some older gameplay clichés like stalking missions, I think the game’s beauty, world, activities, combat, and characters shine well above its flaws. This game is a great departure to the PS4 generation, and anyone looking for an open-world experience should definitely check this game out.
P.S. You can find a whopping 179 Ghost of Tsushima screenshots here.