Ghost of Tsushima marks poetic swan song for PlayStation 4

Neil Haeems/Staff
Sucker Punch Productions

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Grade: 4.5/5.0

Ghost of Tsushima is an open-world adventure game dealing with honor, loyalty and tradition, set against the historical backdrop of the 1274 Mongol invasion of Japan. The game opens with a real event, a bloody battle at Komoda beach in which scores of invading Mongols were met by 80 samurai. The player controls Jin Sakai, a young samurai charging into the ill-fated battle, ready to die for the people of Tsushima.

Though based in a fascinating historical context, the game remains wonderfully dramatized and unrestricted by pointless accuracy or realism. The menacing villain imposing his rule on the game’s heightened version of Tsushima is Khotun Khan, a ruthless, fictional cousin to Kublai Khan. Having studied the Japanese language and examined the samurai code of honor to exploit the samurai’s weaknesses, Khotun swiftly wipes out the defenders and begins a full-scale invasion. The sole survivor, Jin, is rescued by a peasant thief named Yuna and soon finds his “honorable” form of warfare outmatched by Khotun. Coached by Yuna, Jin resorts to new and vicious means in order to counteract Khotun’s conquest, donning the mantle of the Ghost.

Early in the Ghost of Tsushima, the player is trained to approach every enemy encounter using the “standoff” mechanic, in which Jin openly challenges enemies and attacks them head-on. Although Jin’s primary weapons are the traditional samurai katana and bow, the player eventually learns to use disgraceful yet effective “Ghost weapons,” such as smoke bombs, explosives and poison darts. The efficiency and expediency of the Ghost’s stealth-based combat leads Jin, through the player’s decisions, to stray away from his ancestral teachings.

The sword-fighting gameplay is most enjoyable when Jin faces small enemy groups. The variety of enemy types forces the player to remain on guard, quickly shifting to the most effective combat stance for each attacking Mongol. By avoiding damage and stringing together successful blocks, parries and combos, the player unleashes powerful Ghost attacks that can send nearby foes fleeing in fear. Early on, these moments are scarce and well earned.

Later in the game, however, when the player has leveled up enough to carve through waves of enemies like a machine, Jin begins to resemble a feudal Japanese version of Batman. Combining powerful melee and ranged attacks with an arsenal of gadgets and unlockable special moves, the combat system feels like an evolution of the Freeflow Combat system made popular by Batman: Arkham Asylum from 2009. The action may begin to feel familiar, but it is never dull; combat remains fun throughout Ghost of Tsushima.

The chaotic large-scale battles also strike an odd contrast to the relatively pared-down boss fights, one-on-one duels in which Jin forsakes all weapons except his katana. Forced to focus solely on the swordplay, the difficulty rightfully spikes in these encounters and the player must carefully strategize each move in order to make it out alive. Some of Ghost of Tsushima’s most rewarding moments come from boss battles that feel like chess games between two skilled warriors.

The engaging combat is embedded into a detailed world that teems with breathtaking vistas. While exploring Tsushima, Jin can write haiku, soak in hot springs or follow the fauna to various artifacts of Japanese culture. Ghost of Tsushima’s world is as graphically impressive as one might expect from the last major PlayStation 4 exclusive.

These assets are aided by immersive game design. Instead of a mini map, for example, Ghost of Tsushima uses the “guiding wind,” a strong breeze that ushers Jin toward his destination. For players who really want to feel like they’re in a classic samurai movie, developers from Sucker Punch Productions have created “Kurosawa mode,” which enables the excellent Japanese audio track and adds a black-and-white film stock filter.

Ghost of Tsushima’s compelling story and characters prevent it from being just another open-world adventure game. Jin’s companions, ranging from a Buddhist warrior monk to a dishonored sensei, each have “tales,” a series of quests that develop their rich histories and personalities alongside the central invasion story. Though much of Ghost of Tsushima offers thrills familiar to the open-world framework, it is a well-crafted experience and a strong end to the PS4 generation.

Contact Neil Haeems at [email protected].