Ghost of Tsushima (2020)

My distaste for Ubisoft style open-world games isn’t a secret. They often feel derivative, repetitive, and soulless. One of the more regrettable trends in modern gaming is how many open-world games have adopted numerous pillars of design from the dreadful Ubisoft games. From Horizon Zero Dawn to even The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, no game is safe from scalable towers and copy-pasted side-content. It should be a surprise then that I actually enjoyed Ghost of Tsushima, a game which adopts many of the trends that I despise. Somehow, Sucker Punch Production’s creation manages to stand out in a sea of soulless open-world games.

 Set in 1274, Ghost of Tsushima takes place when the Mongols invaded the Japanese island of Tsushima. You play as Jin Sakai, an honorable samurai who is highly respected amongst his peers and superiors. The Mongol horde ravages Jin’s homeland, leaving him as one of the few surviving samurai as the invaders pillage and murder their way across the island. While I wouldn’t consider the story itself a literary masterpiece, it does have a few interesting themes and surprising moments.

The most prominent theme of the game is how Jin slowly abandons his samurai code of honor. Fighting honorably and respectfully is critical to the samurai lifestyle, but he realizes that the best way to reclaim his home and save lives is to partake in some unsavory tactics. Jin’s uncle, the governor of the island, is staunchly against Jin’s dishonorable ways. Jin becomes “The Ghost”, using stealth, assassination, poison, and brutal displays of violence to strike terror into the hearts of his Mongol foe. I did enjoy watching Jin’s progression throughout the game. At first, he was determined to live by his code, but over time he realizes that saving lives is more important.

The most impressive aspect of Ghost of Tsushima is its visuals. It may be the prettiest game I’ve ever played. If Ghost of Tsushima was nothing but a walking simulator that lets the player explore the island and soak in the gorgeous landscapes, it would still be a worthwhile journey. The use of color and lighting makes nearly every scene look like a painting. Moreover, the world feels alive. Leaves are falling, grass and foliage sways, petals flow in the wind, and wildlife skitters throughout nature. Many open world games can feel very same-y across their worlds, but Ghost of Tsushima has a variety of visually distinct areas. I legitimately spent time just to stop and look at some of the more scenic landscapes that the game has to offer. But of course, there is an actual game that resides amongst the vibrant forests and lush meadows.

Open-world games are rarely known for their complex combat systems, and Ghost of Tsushima is not much different in that regard. Like most of its peers, Ghost of Tsushima offers two routes to many of its combat encounters: head-on assault or stealthy infiltration. While this certainly isn’t novel, it does fit contextually with the story of the game. You can be an honorable samurai, shouting at the enemies to face-off against you in a duel. Or you can be The Ghost, sneaking into outposts, stealthily assassinating Mongols and whittling down their forces.

The actual combat of Ghost of Tsushima is fairly simple, but I felt it was incredibly satisfying. You are given the classic light/heavy attacks and block/dodge/parry defensive options. Moreover, you unlock a few different stances which are more effective against certain types of enemies. It’s nothing groundbreaking, but the feedback and presentation of the combat is what makes it enjoyable. Enemies have relatively low health, so hitting a parry into counterattack is usually enough to do the job. The animations and audio feedback are absolutely integral to the experience, as they really do give you the feeling that you are a badass samurai. Combat is graceful and smooth, and being a one-man-army reflecting every attack and striking back with deadly precision is just viscerally satisfying.

The feeling of progression during combat is also solid. You can unlock new techniques and attacks, but the more impressive aspect to me was how the enemies evolved. As you progress through the story, enemies also get stronger obviously, but not just by increasing their health. You face enemies who have a wider arsenal of attacks, and who can respond better to your own advances. From ill-equipped bandits, to hulking brutish Mongols, to skilled mercenary ronin, there is plenty of different fighting styles that you will have to adapt to. Furthermore, as Jin concretes himself as The Ghost, enemies often flee in terror as you slaughter their allies. I love that feeling of being a lowly threat at first to becoming a feared, almost mythological, entity that hunts Mongols. 

Aside from the base combat, you also can use some secondary weapons like a bow and “ghost” tools. The tools consist of things like kunai, smoke bombs, distracting chimes, and black powder bombs. Many of these tools are great for stealthy approaches, but they can also be woven into normal combat. I loved using all the tools at my disposal, as it let me play much more aggressively instead of waiting for the enemies to strike me first. Laying down a smoke bomb to quickly assassinate a few enemies, then chucking some black powder to knock a few enemies off their feet while dueling with a more powerful foe was always an enjoyable sight.

The most contentious facet of Ghost of Tsushima is the game’s open-world. It’s no secret that this formula has been done to death and many players are sick of the Ubisoft formula. Big open-worlds littered with formulaic points of interest and repetitive side quests. While Ghost of Tsushima does fit into that mold, I believe it does a few things to make it more bearable. First and foremost, the map is divided into three sections that are locked away depending how far along in the story you are. While this isn’t a huge deal, it does prevent players from going to crazy trying to do every single piece of side-content and burning themselves out before tackling the actual main quest.

Moreover, the game isn’t monstrously large and doesn’t contain thousands of side objectives. If you open the map of a modern Assassin’s Creed game, you may get overwhelmed by the scale of it and how much stuff there is to do. Ghost of Tsushima is a little more restrained in that regard. It doesn’t take too long to get around on horseback, and it’s entirely reasonable to do most of the side quests and points of interest. Furthermore, many of the games points of interest feel distinct from its peers. Shrines that foxes lead you to, scenic locations to compose haiku, wandering swordsmen that are aching to duel you, and bamboo slashing stands to sharpen your skills. Everything fits thematically, and they rarely feel like chores.

Ghost of Tsushima has no leveling or grinding to progress, and most of the points of interest and side quests just serve as small boosts. They are definitely not necessary and can be completely ignored if you so choose. What I loved most about the exploration aspect of the game is the novel approach to waypoints. When you mark a location on your map that you want to travel to, the game doesn’t just put a big waypoint in front of you or give you a marker on a compass. Instead, the wind acts as a guide. Whichever way the wind is blowing is the direction to your next objective. Little golden birds may appear when you get close to a point of interest or side quest that will guide you. The wind and birds are a pretty clever way of disposing of a clunky UI element that often times took the players eyes off the game world.

Additionally, every single piece of side content has some visual indicator that can be spotted from a distance. Enemy camps have pillaring towers of black smoke, haikus are swarmed by birds, steam rises from hot springs, and fox dens are under a specific kind of tree. This combined with following the wind and being guided by birds keeps the player constantly engaged with the world. There are no moments of just dully following a marker. Your eyes are drawn to the environment, which as previously mentioned is stunning. Ghost of Tsushima has a magnificent world, and I’m glad it wasn’t cluttered by unnecessary UI elements.

For everything that Ghost of Tsushima does correctly, it still manages to commit the same sins as many of its open-world brethren. While I do appreciate how exploration was handled, I wish there was even more emphasis on natural discovery. It’s far too easy to open the map, mark a waypoint, and follow the wind without much thought. Instead of question marks that appear on the map, the player could’ve relied on the visual cues that every point of interest is marked by. It’s kind of a shame they put so much effort into making everything distinct enough to be spotted from a distance, but most players will probably just follow their maps covered in waypoints anyway.

Even though Ghost of Tsushima is less overwhelming in scope than many other open-world titles, it still contains far too many random side objectives. At some point, finding a point of interest stops feeling like a cool discovery and instead becomes a moment of “here we go again”. The world is gorgeous, and sometimes I’d like to just roam around without being accosted by groups of roaming Mongols or get distracted by coming across a point of interest. Like I previously mentioned, you can entirely ignore these bits. However, I maintain that having less points of interest makes the remaining ones feel more rewarding when you happen to come across them.

Aside from points of interest, Ghost of Tsushima has a similar issue with side quests. The only side quests that I enjoyed were the ones including Jin’s “allies”. These recurring characters were not only key players in the main story, but they had continuing questlines that spanned the course of the game. These quests felt more important and more substantial since you were assisting characters and progressing their plotlines. Unfortunately, most of the other side quests are just repetitive filler content. Most of them consist of going to an area, investigating it, tracking down some mysterious enemy, and then inevitably fighting the bandits or Mongols that you stumble upon. It’s very formulaic and grows old after that first few side quests that you do.

Overall, Ghost of Tsushima is a game that thrives on presentation. The picturesque landscapes, the flashy swordplay, and unique approach to waypoints make the game worth playing. I wouldn’t say that it was innovative, but Ghost of Tsushima polished the formulaic open-world genre to an absurd degree. Still, it has the same pitfalls as many of its contemporaries. It is for these reasons that I give Ghost of Tsushima an 8.5/10. Whether you want to live out your fantasy of being a roaming samurai, or if you just want to play the good version of Assassin’s Creed, then I definitely recommend checking out this game.

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