Ghost of Tsushima

The TL;DR version of this review: Ghost of Tsushima is now my second-favorite video console game, after Horizon: Zero Dawn.

The (fictional) island of Tsushima is part of the shogunate of Japan. The Mongols have invaded, led by Khotun Khan. At the start of the game, an army of samurai is defeated by Khotun.

You are Jin Sakai, one of the few samurai who survive. The only reason you’re still alive is that your wounded body was rescued by Yuna, a peasant and thief. She enables you to escape from her conquered village. You’re left with the task of gathering what resources and allies you can in order to take Tsushima back from the Mongols.

Along the way, you learn that the path of the samurai will not be sufficient for you to defeat the enemy. You must adopt the tactics of stealth and fighting with weapons other than the sword. You gradually become the Ghost, striking the enemy unseen from the darkness. You can see that a choice lies ahead of you: To stick with the path of the samurai, which though honorable costs lives and failed before, or embrace the path of the Ghost and dishonor your upbringing.

Superficially, this is an open-world game in the same vein as Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla. Why do I like Ghost of Tsushima more?

  • The story. Setting aside the problems I had with the framing story of Valhalla, the game has no real character arc for Eivor as she conquers England. Jin has real character development in relationships with family, teachers, and his own attitude towards the code of the samurai.

    I don’t want to give the wrong impression: Neither game is a narrative storytelling game in the vein of Life is Strange: True Colors. There are no choices you can make that will affect your ultimate destiny. In Tsushima, you get the sense of tragedy as Jin is forced along a path to free his people. I felt for him in a way that I did not feel for Eivor.

  • The graphics. I played Tsushima on a PS5. I understand the game’s graphics are very similar to the graphics on the PS4. If so, they must have managed every cycle of the graphics processor to render the details of the environment. In particular, almost every outdoor scene (and many indoor ones) have some kind of drifting particle elements: leaves, flower petals, seeds, smoke, sparks; all drift about you as you travel.

    This is especially evident in the way the game guides you to a destination you’ve selected on the game map. Instead of simply outlining a path on the ground (typical of most such games), you’re told the direction by the wind. For example, as you wander through the bamboo forest, you observe the path of the falling leaves to know where to go. It’s beautiful and effective.

  • The game controller. The PS5’s controller has more sophisticated vibration feedback than the PS4’s. Tsushima takes full advantage of it. You feel the *snick* every time your put your sword back into its sheathe, or each time your horse’s hooves strike the ground. I’ve not yet played a game in which the feel of the controller played so important a role in the game.
  • The voice work. Tsushima lets you play the game as if you were watching a Japanese movie. You can have the characters speak English, or you can have them speak Japanese (with or without English subtitles). You can even choose “Kurosawa mode” which turns off the color palette so it’s like watching a black-and-white movie.

    When I watch a foreign-language movie, I normally watch it in the original language with subtitles so I can hear how the original actors emoted their lines. I tried the Japanese + subtitle mode in Tsushima, but I couldn’t keep it up for more than a few hours because, if I ever glanced away from the screen or had to handle a phone call, I’d lose track of what was going on. I had to settle for having the characters speak English.

    As the game continued (I played it for over 80 hours), I became more and more impressed with the volume of voice work required for the game. Every single line had to be recorded by the actors in both English and Japanese. There are many long, emotional conversations during the course of the game. Voice performance for massive games of this sort is difficult enough in one language, and these actors had to do it all twice. (There’s one character whose English-language voice appears to change during the game; given the demands of the voice work I’m not surprised.)

The general game-play of Tsushima is similar to most games of this genre: You earn points (here called “technique”) to improve your skills. As in Valhalla, there are three general areas you can improve: melee combat (acting like a samurai), ranged combat, and stealth combat (including “Ghost weapons” like smoke bombs).

You only have one pair of blades that you use: your sword and a dagger; the latter is for assassinations and such. However, you receive several sets of armor, each with its own characteristics and favoring a different play style. All of this gear can be improved with resources that you find around the island (supplies, linens, iron, etc.) through craftsmen who are found in the larger villages.

As usual for me, I played on the easiest difficulty setting. By the end of the game, I’d purchased all the available skills and upgraded my blades and all my armor (at least the ones I used) to their maximum levels.

That leads into why Tsushima is only my second-favorite game:

  • Not only did I play at the easiest difficulty setting, but I also turned on an additional option that increased the time window for various keypresses such as parry. It did me no good. I simply could not master the timing for many of the more advanced skills.

    In particular, there are all sorts of skills that can become available if you can execute a “Perfect Parry” or a “Perfect Dodge”. I didn’t bother to put any technique points in those skills until the end of the game, when there were no other skills in which I could put any points. If I couldn’t execute a Perfect Parry, what was the point of a skill that would allow you an extra strike after a Perfect Parry? I found this to be frustrating.

  • Other skills require remembering complex series of keypresses to activate. For example, one of the skills required a long press of triangle, followed by three quick presses; another skill required a quick press of the triangle followed by a long press. How long was long? How short was short? It seemed that I never had enough control over the timing of the keypresses to activate any of these skills.

    To be fair to the game, I did manage to get the timing right for an activity called “Standoff”: I could call out the enemy, and they’d attack me one-by-one. If I could press the triangle key at just the right time, the enemy would instantly fall. With the right additional skills and fully-upgraded Clan Sakai armor, I could quickly defeat five enemies (and terrify others) without getting hit once. Sometimes.

    I’ll be fair to the game again: There’s a challenge called “the Bamboo Strike” that involves hitting a sequence of controller keys rapidly in the correct sequence in a time window similar to the combat skills I could not invoke. I was eventually able to perform all the Bamboo Strikes available in the game. However, this was not in the middle of combat, and you get as many attempts as you wish without penalty.

  • As I mentioned, you acquire many sets of armor, each with its own properties. For example, the Clan Sakai armor is good for standoffs, the Gosaku armor is good for melee, the Traveller’s Outfit is good for exploration, the Ronin Attire is good for stealth, and so on. The game even allows you to switch armors in the middle of any task, including combat, without penalty.

    This is generous on the part of the designers (I’m switching from cloth to plate in a second in the middle of combat!) but it comes at a penalty: switching between armors requires many keypresses. Eventually I became good at the sequence needed for armor switching, but given that it was a available I wish there was a quicker way to do it.

I purchased the “Director’s Cut” edition of Ghost of Tsushima for the PS5, which includes the Iki Island expansion. I’ll go so far as to say that this expansion is mandatory if you’re interested in the full arc of Jin Sakai’s story. You can play the expansion any time you’ve passed the mid-point of the main game, but I suggest waiting until you complete the main story before traveling to Iki.

From a game-play perspective, the expansion adds new mechanics (including being able to trample enemies with your horse). From a story perspective, Jin faces a new type of emotional challenge that forces him to deal with his relationship with his father. It’s well worth the extra cost.

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