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Ghost Of Tsushima review – samurai creed


Ghost Of Tsushima – the ultimate samurai simulator? (pic: Sony)

What will probably be the last ever big budget PS4 exclusive is an open world adventure in the world of medieval Japan.

Considering Japan’s enormous influence on the video games industry an outside observer would assume that games based in medieval Japan were commonplace, especially given how well suited it is to a video game setting. But while references to samurai, and the mythology surrounding them, does turn up in many games there are close to zero that offer any kind of non-fantastical take on the era. And oddly the first big budget attempt is by a Western developer.

Although Sony are, obviously, Japanese, Ghost Of Tsushima is the work of Sly Racoon and Infamous developer Sucker Punch, who are based in Washington. Their fascination with the setting, and especially Japanese-made samurai movies, is very clear but it’s interesting how obvious it is that a Western studio is behind the game. Not because of any gross lack of authenticity but simply because the gameplay is so very similar to other established, Western-made, open world games.

There’s always been a lot of talk about PlayStation exclusives being part of the ‘Sony formula’ but Ghost Of Tsushima leans more heavily on the even more ubiquitous Ubisoft formula. For year fans have been saying that one of the Assassin’s Creed games should be set in medieval Japan and this is pretty much that game. It’s notably more refined in terms of production values and combat but whether that excuses the lack of major innovation is open to question…

When we compare the game to Assassin’s Creed we’re talking the pre-Origins games, without any role-playing elements. In Ghost Of Tsushima you can unlock new skills and abilities with earned experience points but it’s nowhere close to being classed as even an action role-player. Instead, it’s an open world adventure in which you seek to liberate the island of Tsushima, off the north west coast of the mainland, from the first Mongol invasion of Japan in the 13th century.

You’re cast as an idealistic young samurai named Jin Sakai, who gives himself the initial goal to rescue his uncle (the only other surviving samurai from the initial assault) from imprisonment. If you’ve ever played an open world Ubisoft game you’ll immediately be able to imagine how that’s achieved, as you liberate Mongol outposts, attack patrols, and take part in missions that range from vital story quests to optional tasks involving either close allies or the ordinary peasantry.

There’s a wide array of smaller tasks, from following foxes to reveal secret shrines – that unlock additional slots for perk-like charms – to some simple puzzle-platforming to retrieve the charms themselves. Although the main story can be beaten in 30 hours or so the game can easily last two or three times that with the amount of content it has.

If you’re currently groaning in dismay at the thought of yet again going through such well-rehearsed motions there are three factors which make Ghost Of Tsushima interesting: the excellent production values, the highly enjoyable combat, and the fact that, to not put too finer word on it, samurai are cool.

We’re sure many tedious YouTube videos will be made about exactly how good the graphics are, including entirely inappropriate comparisons (considering it’s not open world) to The Last Of Us Part 2 but while Ghost Of Tsushima isn’t as good looking as Naughty Dog’s game (or Red Dead Redemption 2) the facial animation is still excellent and the sense of scale and the detailed, constantly moving, foliage is very impressive.

There does seem to be something slightly up with the lighting at times though, which can seem very flat during daylight – to the point where it seems a patch might be in order (predictably, a day one update is already promised). The art design is enough to compensate either way though, and it’s the huge fields of brightly coloured flowers that stick in your mind as much as any technical accomplishment.

Ghost Of Tsushima – the Breath Of The Wild influence is only skin deep (pic: Sony)

There’s no element of Ghost Of Tsushima that doesn’t come with a caveat like that and the one for the combat is that the system lacks depth and by the end of the game feels highly repetitive. And yet it never stops being fun, with a great sense of speed and power that comes from the superb animations and the knowledge that both you and your opponents can usually be killed with just a few blows.

The combat is by no means entirely shallow, as while there’s only a small number of extra moves beyond the basic light and heavy attacks you do have to adopt different stances in order to combat enemies with different weapons. You only ever get to use a sword though and on the default difficulty it’s possible to beat almost every enemy simply by spamming the heavy attack, when you’ve got the right stance, and break the enemy’s guard.

At times Ghost Of Tsushima almost feels like a Streets Of Rage style brawler, especially when there’s computer-controlled allies fighting alongside you, hinting at how much fun a co-op version would be. This is not that type of game though and that’s unfortunate because despite the huge range of things to see and do there’s not much real variety to any of it. There are no puzzles, the rare bouts of platforming are very simplistic, and there’s only half a dozen dialogue choices in the whole game.

What there is instead though is stealth, with the central premise of the game’s story being Jin’s choice between following the strict samurai code or engaging in more underhand strategies. This is the entire thrust of the game’s interpersonal conflict but it’s not set up at all well, with the game making strangely little attempt to establish what the samurai code actually is (concepts such as bushidō and seppuku were not standardised until centuries later).

Like most recent historical games, Ghost Of Tushima takes place in an alternate history where sexism never existed and everyone seems to have suspiciously modern ideas about equality, and yet it makes little attempt to critique the samurai as an institution. Rather than an overbearing aristocracy, the game would have you believe that most genuinely were eager public servants, ready to sacrifice all for the common folk, and that seems purposefully naïve.

The game eventually makes it clear that any kind of subterfuge, or attempt to destroy the enemy through anything other than direct combat, is frowned upon. Although this is couched in distractingly modern terms, with talk of ‘acts of terror’ and how Jin shouldn’t stoop to using the tactics of the enemy. Although the central premise, of illustrating how the ethics of warfare are not merely a modern consideration, is interesting.

The cost of victory, and what you’re willing to sacrifice in order to succeed, is the main theme of the game, but the problem is that, unlike The Last Of Us, these are not questions you wrestle with during gameplay. Only the Mongol leader gets any characterisation and since all he wants to do is invade Japan he’s not exactly sympathetic. So really, the only decision you struggle with as a player is whether you want to make things more difficult for yourself by not employing stealth tactics.

Not only did bushidō not exist in the 13th century but neither did the concept of ninja, which increasingly makes you wonder whether Sucker Punch just picked the wrong time period to set their game in. You do get a lot of ninja style gear to make use of, such as kunai and smoke bombs, but the stealth gameplay itself is absolutely bog standard and no different to Uncharted or The Last Of Us, including the inability to move bodies. It’s still fun, but unlike the combat there’s really nothing unique about it.

No matter how many times Sucker Punch pay homage to the ending of Sanjuro, or Akira Kurosawa’s very particular way of filming rain, it can’t stop Ghost Of Tsushima feeling like just another open world game with a different hat on. We enjoyed it more than Days Gone, but not by much and your your mileage will vary largely based on how interesting you find the setting.

We’re sure nobody expected another Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice but Ghost Of Tsushima is so predictable, in terms of gameplay and plotting, that it begins to spoil the fun. As we enjoyed the lushly detailed landscapes we couldn’t help but wish the game had either been set further forward in history or perhaps had a supernatural element that took advantage of Japan’s fascinatingly unique mythology. Having some yōkai wandering around would certainly have spiced things up, but the game is far too strait-laced for that.

In the end, like most games that follow the Ubisoft formula, it just ends up feeling like a patchwork of ideas from other games, some implemented well and some less so. We certainly enjoyed it more than most Assassin’s Creed games but we’d consider that a fairly modest achievement in its own right. Ghost Of Tsushima is a competent, enjoyable action adventure but it’s never any more than that. If it does end up being the last major first party exclusive on the PlayStation 4 it’s a fairly forgettable ending.



Ghost Of Tsushima review summary

In Short: A competent but shallow and overfamiliar attempt to replicate Assassin’s Creed style open world adventure in the world of 13th century samurai.

Pros: The period atmosphere is excellent, with a beautiful open world and lots of attention to detail. Highly enjoyable combat, that feels authentic without being overcomplicated.

Cons: None of the gameplay elements, including the combat, have any real depth and they fail to properly support the main themes of the story. Very formulaic structure and mission design.

Score: 7/10

Formats: PlayStation 4
Price: £54.99
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Developer: Sucker Punch
Release Date: 17th July 2020
Age Rating: 18

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