Ghost of Tsushima (PS4) Review

Ghost of Tsushima was released back in July but I didn’t actually get it until I collected some money for my Birthday in late September. The extra two months wait only made me look forward to it more as the game racked up more and more praise from critics and fans alike. So did the much touted “last PS4 exclusive” impress me in a similar manor? Let’s find out!

Background:

Both a brutal and beautiful screenshot… the first of many (in both categories!)

Ghost of Tsushima was released worldwide on July 17th 2020, exclusively for the PS4. The game takes place during the Mongol invasion of Tsushima in 1274 and features a lot of Japanese scenery, scripture, culture and mythology, which is impressive given it was written and created by the American company Sucker Punch Productions…

Gameplay:

I THINK I got him… wait… yep, definitely got him.

With just a glancing look Ghost of Tsushima will look like “Assassin’s Creed in Medieval Japan without the modern day bollocks”, which frankly is an exciting enough prospect as it is, but it’s also so much more than that. For starters the combat is fantastic and varied. I enjoyed AC: Origins and Odyssey’s new combat a lot, but this blows it out of the water by having four sword stances you can switch between mid-combat, with each of the stances being more effective against enemy types (one’s good against knocking shields out of the way, one’s good for getting around spears, that sort of thing). You have quick attacks and heavy attacks, plus some combinations you can unlock and even one or two special moves you can learn via side missions, but where the combat really shines is how you can counter. Hold block and you will do just that, unless it’s an unblockable move, when that happens you can hold block, the circle button and then push in a direction to dodge out of the way, dodge at the last second and you can down a parry attack. Lastly if you press block at just the last moment before a strike you do a counterattack, which is often deadly. I can’t tell you how many times I was excited that I’d been surrounded by a variety of deadly foes because I knew I was about to dodge, weave and stance-change my way through the crowd in an extremely impressive-looking and satisfying way.

There are plenty of other sides to combat in the game, mind you. There are two types of bows that come with the now-classic upgradable time-slowing effect so you can get an accurate headshot or two before returning to normal time, plus you have a variety of arrow types. You have stealth skills, including the ability to assassinate people from the bushes or behind doors, plus “chain assassinate” several people in a row, which goes nicely along with the variety of sub-weapons you can have, like black powder bombs, firecrackers (for distraction) and even the old blowpipe complete with both deadly poison and a poison that sends whoever is hit with it into a rage. I’ll admit the latter object was disappointing, that felt far too much like the AC series and didn’t seem to fit, especially the rage dart. You can also attack on horseback and do special attacks as you leap from your horse, which is always satisfying.

That’s what a successful Showdown looks like!

Speaking of “always satisfying”, the “Showdown” mechanic has to be one of the highlights of the game. When you enter an enemy camp you can challenge them to a showdown, letting you square off against an enemy, hold down triangle and then only let the button go when your foe tries to attack you. Sounds simple, but your foe will do several fake outs where it looks like he’s about to lunge forward but doesn’t, just to throw you off. It’s good fun, and as you level up you can chain several one-hit, slow-motion kills one after the other if you successfully win the Showdown and time the strikes correctly. Above your health meter are “Resolve” erm… bubbles? Doing certain unlockable strikes and healing yourself all use up resolve, out of resolve and knocked down due to no health? You’re dead. Successfully parrying, countering, and generally killing opponents will fill the meter back up, so it’s a nice balance, though it did make me use some of the more powerful strikes less because I wanted to make sure I could heal myself, at least until near the end when I had more “Resolve Bubbles” than I knew what to do with. When fighting big “boss” enemies during a story, or coming across them on the map during Act II, you can have duels, which is just the same combat mechanics but with a focused camera and only one-on-one, it’s often very dramatic and very fun.

The last combat mechanic is the “Ghost Stance”, which unlocks about half way through the game. Killing seven people in a row without being hit, or stealth killing an enemy general will unlock this special mode which when activated means you become invincible for a brief time and can kill up to three people with one strike. The whole screen goes red and black, just for effect. There are of course the standard open world map stuff, like taking out enemy forts (which reveals the map around it, meaning this game actually DOESN’T have towers to climb to reveal the map! Shocking, I know!), towns to buy and upgrade gear and armour (of which there are several throughout the game) and collectables to collect, including Inari (fox) shrines to get more charm slots and charms (charms giving you more health, stronger attacks, that sort of thing), hot springs to gain more health, bamboo chopping to gain more resolve and old temples you have to do a climbing puzzle to get to (including the grappling hook you get early on) which give you powerful, one-off charms. You can also compose Haiku as a map activity, though that only nets you a unique headband to wear with your chosen Haiku written as the description…

… Button pressing minigame? …. Yay?

This is all along with the main story missions and side quests, the latter of which is broken into three categories: furthering the storyline of an ally, following the story of a myth or legend you’re told by a musician, and regular “happen upon a screaming villager who needs your help” missions. That being said, my only major gripe with the game comes from some of the story missions being the old fashioned “If you’re spotted once, game over” stealth only types. Those along with some “tail this person along the road and don’t get spotted” missions made me realise how much better the latest Assassin’s Creed games were due to having dropped them completely. As hinted at throughout this section, there is also a levelling up system that nets you points you can put into skills and equipment as you grow stronger. One last thing is that I love the natural way the game points you to new locations and waypoints. If you put a marker on the map or select one the wind calmly blows in the direction you need to go, so no out-of-place sat-nav style waypoints on a map, and if you’re near an undiscovered location and a yellow bird happens to fly by, it will “coincidentally” land on the new area, all you have to do is follow the bird. These systems are great and does away with the mini map HUD altogether.

That’s about your lot, but it’s plenty, especially alongside great loading times and seamless transition across the map and into cut scenes. It was one of those “never gets old” games where it didn’t matter if I have no reason to fight that caravan of enemies on that road, I did it because combat is so fun!

Graphics and Sound:

Yeah, if you’ve been following this blog you know I HAD to get a screenshot from the top of a mountain at sunset/sunrise. It’s just what I have to do for this section now…

What can I say about the graphics that aren’t blindingly obvious from the screenshots so far? It’s absolutely gorgeous and goes to show how little the next generation consoles are needed, graphics-wise (the faster loading times and fun-sounding feedback triggers on the controller do sound pretty cool though!)

Sound is good, with period-accurate (at least how I image period accurate) music and fantastic soundeffects. The voice acting is good, but my only complaint is despite it being set in vintage Japan and so deeply entrenched in Japanese culture, the lip-syncing is in time with the US Dub, not the Japanese voices… I couldn’t NOT have the Japanese voices on such a Japanesey game (plus One Piece’s Zoro voice actor handled the main role, which is always good fun) so it was mildly annoying to see the voice not match the lips, like some weird reverse of the usual dubbing problems!

Story:

Jin sneaks into a fort via a carriage, but all I can do is look at the amazing moon lighting effect!

You play as Jin Sakai, the nephew of Lord Shimura, the head (or Jito) of the island of Tsushima during the Mongol Invasion. It starts by showing the chaos on Komoda Beach as most of the island’s samurai fall to the harsh and honourless methods of the invading force. Shimura is captured and Jin’s life is spared thanks to being healed by a nearby thief called Yuna. From here you gather allies in order to confront Mongol General Khotun Khan and free your Uncle. Your allies include Lady Masako Adachi, whose whole clan were killed by native Japanese people at the start of the invasion and is on a quest for revenge, Sensei Ishikawa, whose top student and daughter-figure has gone rogue and joined up with the Mongols in order to spare her own life, Ryuzo, your childhood friend and the leader of a band of Ronin called the “Straw Hats”, and jokey con-artist Kenji, who… is a jokey con-artist.

*SPOILERS FOR THE STORY START HERE!*

The end of ACT I sees you free your uncle but get betrayed by Ryuzo. ACT II is all about attacking Khotun Khan directly and retaking your Uncle’s Castle, and focuses on a rift between Jin and Shimura due to the former doing dishonourable things like stabbing enemies in the back and even poison. You’ll also meet a new ally in Norio, a warrior monk who has lost most of his fellow brothers in the turmoil, as well as see the end of Kenji’s story… which is just “he becomes less of a con-artists. Maybe”. During this part of the story your captured and have to see Yuna’s kind-hearted brother Taka get killed in front of your eyes, and it ends with you poisoning the garrison and killing Ryuzo, but finding out the Khan has escaped to the Northern-most shore in order to head to the mainland. This is also when you officially get branded a traitor to the Shogun due to your complete lack of honour and have to go on the run, despite the people of Tsushima being on your side, your legend as “The Ghost” far surpassing Lord Shimura and his Samurai.

This screenshot has nothing to do with the story, I just like it because the way the camera ended framed makes it look like a 2D side-scrolling beat ’em up, and we all know I love those!

ACT III is, as you’d imagine, all about you actually tracking down and killing Khotun Khan. It’s also when you’ll see the natural end of your allies’ questlines, as Makoto finds out her jealous sister arranged the slaughter of her entire clan, Ishikawa’s rogue student Tomoe escapes from the island, her reasoning for betrayal not as cold-hearted as Jin and Ishikawa suspected, and Norio goes batshit crazy and kills a whole camp of Mongols after his brother has his limbs chopped off and was then left for dead. The assault on the harbour takes place and you have your big showdown with Khotun that ends with the Khan’s death (which sadly starts off as a great one-on-one duel, but he then turns into a regular map enemy amongst other generic soldiers, which was … deflating). That’s not all though, as you then confront your Uncle who you eventually have to duel, Lord Shimura having to claim his own would-be-son’s head in order to appease the mainland, and Jin… well, not being willing to die just because he saved the island using non-Samurai means. You either kill Shimura like he wants (an “honourable, warrior’s death”) or leave him wounded, much to his anger. That’s up to the player. Credits roll and that’s your lot!

*SPOILERS FOR THE STORY END HERE!*

It’s a good tale, full of interesting characters and well created cutscenes.

Downloadable Content:

Jin sneaks about like a ninja, but not ACTUALLY like a ninja, because they haven’t been invented yet.

There are no paid DLC for Ghost of Tsushima, I’m very happy to report. Instead a free update brought with it a new multiplayer mode called “Legends”. I admit to have not given it a go, it’s not my sort of thing, but a free anything is always good!

Thoughts Now:

“Oh whoops, sorry. Did I get you?”

Ghost of Tsushima is, frankly, a great game. It’s got a lot of the tropes of an open world game (minus tower climbing to reveal the map!) but fills it with lovingly crafted period piece in both story and jaw-dropping surroundings, and has combat that’s as satisfying and fun as it is varied. One or two “if you’re spotted it’s instant game over” missions aside, I have no issues with Ghost of Tsushima and highly recommend it to anyone who owns as PS4 (or PS5 I guess, due to backwards compatibility!)

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