My Thoughts on Ghost of Tsushima

Japanese history has produced two of the most mythologized archetypes in popular culture- the ninja and the samurai. Both of them have served as an endless source of fascination the world over, and are instantly recognizable as the twin ambassadors of Japanese culture- much like the cowboy for the United States of America. What’s interesting to me is that these two icons are not only equally prominent, but that they’re diametric opposites to one another. One is celebrated for their strict adherence to a code of honor, and the other for their cunning.

Ghost of Tsushima explores both of these archetypes and how they contrast. And that’s why it is the definitive game for lovers of Japanese history. Not the best game; a term like “best game” is so hard to quantify and doesn’t really tell you anything other than the personal tastes of the one making the claim. But it’s hard to deny that Ghost of Tsushima is the definitive– the most complete– Japanese history game, given the broad scope of references, activities, and aesthetic choices.

Aside from being both a samurai game and a ninja game, it seems like the developers have squeezed every possible element of Japanese history into the little island of Tsushima, which exists as a kind of microcosm of Japan as a whole. It doesn’t seek to capture a specific time period with historical accuracy, but instead to serve as an amalgamation of Japanese history. That’s why the game is stuffed with iconography that Western audiences expect from a historical Japanese setting, but which are drawn from different eras. The samurai better resemble those from the Sengoku Jidai and the romanticized tales written thereafter. The concept of bushidō, which is central to the narrative, was also not present during the game’s chosen setting (the late 13th century). Other features in the game pulled from much later centuries include haiku writing and large-scale saké-brewing. But these inconsistencies aren’t a case of a foreign developer (Sucker Punch are American) misunderstanding native history. In fact, Sucker Punch have acknowledged that the game isn’t historically-accurate. The game is less concerned with the historicity of the samurai than it is the legend. Ghost of Tsushima isn’t here to debunk the tall tales of the Edo period, but rather to celebrate them- to dress them up in their brightest colors and ramp up the romantic escapism to the absolute max.

At its core, the game is a samurai fantasy. You can do some ninja stuff too, but the main source of inspiration for the game is the work of legendary filmmaker Akira Kurosawa- a fact the developers aren’t shy about. I interpreted the game as a love letter to the samurai movies of Kurosawa. This is most evident in the cinematography of the cutscenes that precede the duels. The game seeks to evoke the style and tropes of those samurai movies in every facet of its design- the music, the narrative beats, the fighting animations, and the landscape. It wants to put you in those movies so that you can live out your samurai fantasy. So the historical inaccuracy of the game is a conscious decision- not the byproduct of ignorance. I get the feeling the developers actually did a lot of research for this game, and then made the artistic choice to rearrange those historical details according to their vision.

The detachment from reality is further reflected by the visuals, which are unconcerned with retaining any fidelity to the landscape of the real Tsushima, but instead with emulating fantastical paintings of a mythical Japan. Everything is rendered in bombastic, highly-saturated colors that don’t overlap. At any moment you could be faced with a forest composed entirely of red-leafed trees, with nothing to break its otherworldly uniformity. There will be little isles covered solely in purple flowers, or forest floors covered in a carpet of far-too-perfect golden leaves. It’s almost as if the island is divided into color-coded sections. There are no blemishes or irregularities. Every part of Tsushima seems to be posing for a photograph.

I didn’t mind this as an aesthetic choice. The game is beautiful to look at- but only if you don’t look too closely. Ghost of Tsushima reminded me of Jedi: Fallen Order in that the visuals, from a broad perspective, were stunning, but seemed to get progressively uglier the more you looked at them. The best example of this phenomenon was my first visit to the Golden Temple, right after I beat the game’s tutorial. At first, I was blown away by the sheer brightness of its yellow leaves. Whenever you discover a new area, vista, or angle, you’re always overwhelmed by the colors thrown at you. At the Golden Temple, I decided I had to take a few screenshots. It was only when looking at the screenshots that the game looked less impressive, as though it were a game much older than it was. None of my screenshots could capture the way I perceived the game at a glance. I went back to playing, and sure enough, the longer you stayed in a location, the more it seemed to lose its initial grandeur. When you stood still and focused on it, the world seemed to be lacking in texture and definition. At first, I figured it was because I was playing on a vanilla PS4, and this game was perhaps built with the PS4 Pro in mind. We are at the end of a console generation after all. But I checked my Ghost of Tsushima screenshots against the ones I took in Red Dead Redemption 2 and The Last of Us Part 2, and there was a noticeable gulf in quality. The images from the latter two games were much more crisp. Everything was sharper, the details more intricate. I figured it was because those two games came from bigger developers and were heavily invested in appearing as realistic as possible. 

In general, the world of Ghost of Tsushima felt less immersive, especially when compared to RDR2. A lot of assets were reused- inns, hot springs, fox dens, and other features seemed to have been copy-pasted across the map. This is a wider trend in open world games that I don’t particularly like, because I feel like it detracts from the immersion and sense of discovery. It makes me think of Mass Effect: Andromeda and the newer Assassin’s Creed titles, which represent a shift in open world game design toward resembling MMORPGs. The skyboxes and dynamic weather systems weren’t as polished as RDR2 and the transition from day to night was a lot less smooth. Sometimes the light or the weather changed quite abruptly, and the process gave the game a janky look. But none of these quibbles are deal-breakers of course, and while they were noticeable, they didn’t affect my experience too much. I would say that while the graphics aren’t amazing, Ghost of Tsushima’s beauty comes from its artistic design. It’s beautiful for its arrangement of colors, rather than how they are rendered.

As for the history being similarly lacking in detail, I have mixed feelings. I would never go so far as to say that the historical liberties ruin the experience, but when I think back to why I wanted this game in the first place, I realize that it came from my love of history rather than my love of open world busywork games. So it really depends on what you want from the game. When the initial marketing for Ghost of Tsushima was teased a few years ago, I was attracted to the idea of exploring a lesser-known part of history. I liked the idea of a clash of cultures; the Japanese- isolated from the world, their mountainous islands divided between feuding daimyos, and the Mongols- a unified, ever-expanding empire hell-bent on bringing the world under the rule of the Khan. A sedentary, decentralized, and homogenous people versus a pastoral, nomadic, and multi-cultural conglomerate. The attempt by Kublai Khan to annex the Japanese archipelago is fascinating for its raw ambition. Although the numbers are fiercely-contested by historians, it is speculated that the Mongol invasion was the largest amphibious assault prior to D-Day. For sure it was a massive undertaking relative to the time, and it speaks to the restless ambition of Kublai Khan, who wanted more and more no matter the cost in lives or resources. The Japanese weren’t a geopolitical threat at the time. They were just there, quietly going about their business on the very fringes of the Known World. But they were there nonetheless. And therefore the Khan wanted them. He didn’t care that his state had no naval experience. He commanded his Korean and Chinese vassals to essentially build a navy from scratch, to carry tens of thousands of warriors, horses, and siege craft across the sea. Isn’t that interesting? While I didn’t want a hyper-realistic experience, I was hoping for more details from what was undoubtedly a fascinating event in human history.

The best opportunity for this was the battle at the very beginning. The game begins with the Mongols already set up on the beach, the Japanese apparently letting them disembark unmolested. Personally, I wish we could have seen the Japanese reaction to spotting the Mongol fleet on the horizon. Watching them approach would have been a great way to build dramatic tension, the host growing larger and larger as it breaks through the fog, in direction proportion to the panic of the islanders. This would have been an existential threat the likes of which the natives of Tsushima had never before experienced, so I was a little disappointed not to get the human reaction to this arrival. This would have been unprecedented, but that aspect of the event is lost by starting the narrative in medias res. One would assume that this sort of invasion happened all the time. During the real battle, the island’s defenders fought tooth and nail to stop the Mongol advance, not giving them any time to disembark their ships and form into lines. The Mongols sent their Korean and Chinese conscripts out first to buy time for their famed horse-archers to mount up. Once they did, the samurai had no chance. Don’t get me wrong- I’m not saying I wanted the game to follow the real history exactly. Nor am I saying it’s objectively worse for not doing so. I’m just saying that personally I wish that scene had followed history more than it did, especially since there are few purely-historical AAA games out there. I wanted that one scene to be a nod to the real history before going into the realm of imagination afterward.

This is less a criticism and more an expression of my personal taste. I found the opening sequence somewhat underwhelming and this kind of punctured the two-to-three years of built-up excitement I had for the game. I think because this game came out at the end of the console generation, I was hoping for a visceral, next-gen experience in terms of its attention-to-detail, sound design, and ability to render a high number of NPCs. Instead, it felt very old-fashioned; the epic battle consisting of about 10 blokes, the Khan teleported from the spot he was standing in just seconds prior in the cutscene, the strategic explosion of undetermined origin that causes the protagonist to black out at the key moment. This will all sound pretty harsh- and I admit it kind of is- but my experience with Ghost of Tsushima did get better after that. For starters, I really enjoyed the combat. The sword-fighting animations were fantastic, and there was a real sense of weight to each attack. The feedback in terms of sound was also satisfying, and each of Jin’s moves were well-choreographed and interesting to watch. In this sense the game succeeds at its primary mission, which is to fulfill the player’s samurai fantasy. You really do feel like a badass and the game achieves this with a multitude of meticulously-crafted design components that it gets just right. The slow-motion effect that comes with getting a perfect parry is immensely satisfying. The only real drawbacks of the combat were the lack of a target lock-on feature and the way the camera sometimes leaves you behind if you enter a building.

My favorite part of the whole game was the 1-v-1 dueling. The camera becomes fixed and you lock on to the target in these moments as well, which allows you to focus on parrying the enemy in front of you. I liked the intensity that comes with the medium-range, claustrophobic fixed camera, the dramatic music, and the slow-motion finish. The visuals are at their most expressive in these scenes, and each duel will often see you placed in the eye of a storm, surrounded by thousands of falling leaves, crashing surf, or screaming winds. I liked that a lot, and always relished every time I came across one of these encounters. When I’d completed all of the duels, I felt sad that I couldn’t access that part of the game anymore. But I wonder if they would have lost their appeal if they weren’t finite.

Before the game I was set on playing as a ninja rather than a samurai. A lot had been made of the freedom of gameplay choice in the marketing. But once I got to grips with the combat and unlocked a good deal of the stances and moves, I found I just didn’t have the patience or inclination to play as a ninja. Usually, I always pick stealth in a game if the option is available, but the more I progressed through Ghost of Tsushima the less I used it. The sword-fighting is done so well that the stealthy options feel comparatively quite bland. It’s pretty much the same stale routine you’ll find in Assassin’s CreedMafia 3Horizon: Zero Dawn, et cetera. When I felt comfortable enough with my ability to play samurai, I didn’t see the point in spending all that time picking off enemies one by one when I knew I could probably wipe out the whole camp in just a few minutes. By the latter half of the game you feel pretty dang powerful, and the idea of Jin playing grandmother’s footsteps with a spear-wielding bandit in rags whilst in full Clan Sakai armor just felt like overkill to me. But the truth about the game’s samurai-ninja dichotomy is that you don’t really have to choose at all. The game’s story missions railroad you into using each style at various points, so no one playing this game will be missing out. It’s not an RPG where you commit to a certain playthrough and then replay the game to try out a different gameplay style. This is very much an action game in the Ubisoft tradition. There are abilities to be unlocked, but you don’t unlock them at the expense of others, so you can switch up your weapons, special attacks, fighting stance, outfit, buffs, et cetera on the fly. So in that sense I wouldn’t even call it an action-RPG; it’s just a pure action-adventure game in which your arsenal and abilities are broken up into unlockables in order to motivate you to explore the game world.

The only real choice afforded the player is in how they approach the game’s optional bandit camps, but whatever option you pick has no bearing on the game’s story. The effect of all this is that the player is left feeling disconnected from Jin and lacking in any real agency. The ninja-samurai choice is a superficial one, tantamount to choosing what dress to wear to the ball. This is not to say the game isn’t fun. It is. But on the whole I don’t think Ghost of Tsushima is very ambitious. A big deal was made about choosing your gameplay style- staying true to the samurai code or breaking with it- but this isn’t a decision the player gets to make. It’s one that Jin makes in a few cutscenes, and as such the gameplay is disconnected from the narrative. The player being a passive observer is not necessarily a bad thing in video games- and some games use this to great effect- but I think that in the open world genre, the player’s ability to affect the world around them is part of the appeal. And Ghost of Tsushima definitely sold itself on this appeal. It would have been a nice way to tie the themes of the game to the gameplay itself, the macro experience to the moment-to-moment one. When other games do this, they give feedback to the player’s choices in some way. The physical world might look different (think Megaton in Fallout 3), the player character’s appearance might change (as in KOTOR 2), new abilities and quests might become available (see: Mass Effect). The most common feedback is usually in the form of unique dialogue from NPCs- be it major characters or mere extras.

There’s no such unique dialogue in Ghost of Tsushima. However, the world is full of reactions to Jin’s deeds in the main story. I liked the way Jin capitalized on fear and superstition by embracing the “Ghost” moniker. Yuna was basically his spin doctor, striking fear into the Mongols and uplifting the desperate islanders. It was fun to see Jin’s legend grow throughout the game and have people ascribe his feats to demonic powers. Even though this reaction wasn’t a result of player choice, it still made you feel powerful, and descending on Mongol camps in the late game, in the context of the widespread Ghost-PR, really added to the thrill- especially when enemies started to scatter before you. On the flip side, I didn’t really like it when characters such as Lord Shimura or Sensei Ishikawa would have the balls to criticize Jin for using underhanded tactics when he’s pretty much doing all the work as far as liberating the island. The criticisms felt somewhat contrived. Jin himself only really utilizes the stealthy option when he has no choice. He’s one man against an army after all. So getting chewed out for being realistic about the scenario and solving it the only way possible was a little annoying. It was like the game really wanted to have this honor-vs-cunning conflict but didn’t quite know how to implement it organically into the plot. 

Spoilers ahead. 

With the exception of Yuna and Taka, I found the side characters bland at best and infuriating at worst. They felt like lazy imitations of tropes I’d seen before. The haunted and stubborn mentor, the grizzled warrior, the clumsy comic relief character with nine lives, the jealous rival that betrays you with a tissue-thin justification, the noble father-figure, the evil villain armed with the “we’re the same” speech. Most of the quest-giving companions come across as equal parts needy and ungrateful, constantly making bad decisions and asking Jin to solve their problems. Jin goes out of his way to do everything for them like a passive-aggressive dad assembling his kids’ playhouse, and then gets criticized regardless, leaving you to meekly shuffle off wondering why you bothered. But while Norio, Ishikawa, Masako, and Yuriko were all somewhat annoying, the character that bothered me the most was Kenji, whose every spoken line might as well have been “I am the designated comic relief character.”

The more time I spent in its world, the more Ghost of Tsushima felt rather cookie-cutter, like one of those inoffensive, apolitical, sexless Hollywood blockbusters that dazzles for a couple hours with its high production value action sequences, but ultimately leaves its audience with nothing to take with them from the experience. The story and its characters seem to be going through the motions, touching on well-established beats without putting in the creative legwork to make them feel organic. I had the feeling that I was watching people acting, rather than real people.

That said, the game does have its moments. The best for me was the Siege of Yarikawa, where you first use Ghost Mode. It’s such a superbly well-crafted scene, using the perfect blend of color, music, and context to make you feel powerful. It’s a huge adrenaline-rush for the player and I’d even go as far to say that it’s the apex of the game. In that moment I didn’t feel like I was watching people acting. I felt like I was in the world. There were other great moments too- I loved all of the Mythic Tales, the relaxing Shinto Shrine parkour challenges, and I especially liked the ending- but nothing came quite as close to activating Ghost Mode in the Yarikawa siege. That was the height of my immersion. My interest for the game petered out in the final third, and I think that’s mainly to do with the fact that this particular style of open world game just isn’t my jam. Finding a fox for the first time was great- they’re cute as hell- but several foxes later they just stopped being special. You no longer feel like you’re discovering something unique, because they’re copy-pasted around the map ad nauseum at fixed locations. They’re kind of a microcosm of what I don’t like about this genre- they make themselves and the world around them feel unreal, another box to be ticked on the list. They don’t enrich the world and they don’t offer anything on the gameplay front either. At least with the bamboo stands there was a nice challenge to be had.

As I said, I did like the ending scene, and that’s the side of the game I wanted to see more of. The breakdown of Shimura and Jin’s relationship was probably the most impactful aspect of the game for me, and despite the contrivances along the way, it did culminate in something genuinely tragic. I do wish that there wasn’t a choice given at the end though. I think whether Jin kills him or not, it would have been more powerful to have a single, fixed ending. A fixed ending is the result of an artistic vision, and tells you that the creator has an arc that they want to convey. The choice here doesn’t really do anything to empower or benefit the player in any way. But the overall concept of these two people that don’t want to fight each other being forced to by differences in their beliefs is compelling. 

In conclusion, I thought that Ghost of Tsushima was a good game with some great moments, and is definitely in the upper echelon of the open world genre. Although my review focused on a lot of the negatives, my experience playing it was mostly a fun one and I’m glad I did. 

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