Feel the earth below
Protected from the harsh sun
Growing ever strong
As I sat, unmoving, staring at the idyllic lake before me, I found myself agonizing more over the words I put into my first Haiku than I originally thought I would. This would not be the last time I poured over the words composing a poem in Ghost of Tsushima, nor would it ever be a bad thing to take a moment and reflect on the world around me. Ghost of Tsushima balances calming, reflective moments and brazen action. As a result, taking a moment to breathe in the world around me - or compose a Haiku - never felt at odds with the overarching narrative of driving out the invading Mongols, rather just another aspect along Jin's journey.
Ghost of Tsushima puts you in the center of one of the Mongol invasions of Japan during the 13th century. Kublai Khan, Great Khan of the Mongol Empire, has ordered Japan subjugated under his world empire, and as such the island of Tsushima is feeling the brunt of the assault as the forces under Kublai’s nephew, Khotun Khan, probe their way to the Japanese mainland.
You take the role of Lord Jin Sakai, master of the Sakai clan of Samurai and a loyal retainer of Clan Shimura. Throughout his journey, Jin is constantly put in conflict with himself as he reconciles his own personal code of honor with the realities and horrors of facing an unflinching enemy like the Mongols and what fighting them might require of him.
Surrounding Jin are a cast of pretty memorable characters, from the thief Yuna to the stoic - yet humorous - Sensei Ishikawa. Each character injected their own personality into the world around me, their motivations and stories each feeling personal and rooted in the calamity befalling Tsushima Island.
And what an island Tsushima is to explore. Dense forests of yellow-boughed trees give way to rolling fields of pampas grass. High peaks would loom in the distance, and great mirror-like lakes provided scenic places to pause and take in the views of Tsushima. Different parts of the island in Tsushima look distinct from each other - and the color palette Sucker Punch uses in Ghost reminds me extensively of the Jet Li movie Hero and its exquisite use of color.
Each area feels distinct, purpose built and lovingly crafted to evoke a specific feeling. Standing atop a high hill, the rolling fields of Tsushima below me, I felt a sense of awe - and an urge to use Ghost of Tsushima’s outrageously good photo mode. Walking through the Golden Forest, I felt transported to a new world, one so full of color and wonder I really didn’t want to leave.
This is helped by the rustling of leaves and the particles floating in the air around you. Standing in a grove of trees with red leaves, chances are you’ll start to experience them bustling around you, providing a ton of atmosphere. Stand in a grove at night and chances are you’ll start to see fireflies dance around you, bathing Jin’s armor in an otherworldly glow.
In fact, the world of Ghost of Tsushima is teeming with life, each blade of grass swaying in the wind. This wind plays a pivotal role in Tsushima, acting as your guide of sorts throughout the world. Gone are the compasses and other clutter that litter game UIs nowadays. Instead, the wind itself guides you to your objective - a refreshing way for the world around me to help me get where I need to go as opposed to just having it simply marked on a display ahead of me.
I really enjoy Ghost of Tsushima’s minimalistic UI, and having the guiding wind helps keep it rather clear while adding so much atmosphere to the world itself. It feels rooted in the history of the world too, with talk of a divine wind - a Kamikaze - helping the Japanese during this time of invasion and turmoil. The Kamikaze in Ghost of Tsushima adds so much utility while being so unobtrusive it’s a mechanic I’m hoping other open-world developers pay attention to in future titles actually.
The wind isn’t the only visual cue to help along your journey as well. Steam rising in the distance means you’ll likely find a hot spring to relax and reflect on Jin’s past, giving a boost to your maximum health. Other cues, such as birds giving way to Haiku spots, and foxes leading to Inari shrines litter the landscape if you’ll only go look for them. Exploring Tsushima is a treat - I found myself constantly trying to find the “next thing” on my journey - especially as every side activity, whether it’s composing a poem - something Samurai would do before battle in case they fell oftentimes - or taking on a bamboo chop challenge to boost my resolve feels tied to the main narrative.
In addition to those visual cues, Tsushima provides many audio cues as well to speak about the world around you. The wind rushes, being played on the PS4’s DualShock 4 controller as well as your speaker system. Birds chirp, giving you an indication to follow a golden bird to a place of interest nearby.
In fact, the whole soundscape of Ghost of Tsushima is fantastic. Everything from the subtle drops of rainfall to the harsh ringing of steel on steel sounds amazing. The performances of the voice actors as well help really bring the characters they portray alive - whether you’re playing this with the English or Japanese voice tracks. I also really enjoyed those moments where I was simply taking in the scenery around me and the music fluttered into my ears, the subtle tones of shakuhachi flutes mixed with strings adding to the atmosphere as I explored the world for more points of interest or activities to do.
Everything, whether it’s those side activities or even the Tales of Tsushima, side quests found along the way during Jin’s journey, feel as though they are, at their very core, meant to help drive the main story along. Even just exploring and coming across Mongol occupied areas to liberate such as the various forts or farms in Tsushima feel worthwhile, and I found myself seeking out villagers to save along the road as I traveled on my trusty horse, Kage. Many times, though, I would just race through the fields, taking in the sites as Jin would reach down to feel the grass in between his fingers as he rode.
That mix of calming reflection and conflict are at the heart of everything in Ghost of Tsushima. Taking a beat to enjoy reflecting on favorite foods in a hot spring or jumping headlong into a group of Mongols to defend a hostage can both be captivating. Because of this, nothing feels like fluff, which is refreshing for someone like me who typically just mainlines the story, saving side quests for subsequent playthroughs. I don’t mind taking the time to help Sensei Ishikawa with a problem because I know, at the end of the day, it’s related to the main motivations of Jin’s character.
Even moments of quiet reflection, such as writing a Haiku or finding a fox shrine if for no other reason that to pet the cute fox after paying respect, felt rewarding. Taking in the world around me (and getting some sweet headbands and charm slots out of the deal) only helped fuel my desire to see the island rid of the invaders and its inhabitants safe from harm. One way to do this is through completing Tales for the townsfolk around the island.
These individual Tales, Ghost of Tsushima’s quests, are well worth playing for their writing alone. Some can be completed in ten to fifteen minutes, while others are multi-part stories branching across the whole game diving deep into the motivations of many of your companions. Jin can also discover Mythic Tales - special quests which confer epic items such as the armor of a legendary archer, or special sword skills that strike terror into the hearts of Jin’s enemies. Exploration is key here and I love that Tsushima doesn’t simply hand these quests to you on a plate. You’ll need to travel the world and progress through the story to see them all - and they are well worth seeking out should you choose to do so.
The Way of the Warrior
Jin’s primary goal is to rid the island of Tsushima from the Mongol invaders. As a samurai, he’s got zero qualms about getting his hands dirty in order to do so. Armed with the legendary katana of Clan Sakai, Jin’s swordsmanship allows him to take on the invaders mercilessly. Combat in Ghost of Tsushima is pretty straightforward, but rewards patience rather than wild abandon. A samurai never draws his sword recklessly, and that proverb feels at home in Tsushima.
You’ll use a mix of heavy and quick attacks to bring your opponents to heel, but just charging in there swinging your sword isn’t going to get the job done. One of my favorite aspects of combat in Ghost of Tsushima is down to how it prioritizes patience and striking efficiently. Parrying an attack and countering when you have an opening is a more surefire way to victory - especially against large groups - than simply trying to batter down your foe. Using the different stances Jin can learn over time by defeating Mongol leaders helps as well as each stance excels at taking down a different type of enemy, such as the flashy Water stance meant to tackle shielded foes, while the fluttering kicks of Moon stance puts brutish foes off guard.
Jin himself can store up resolve, a resource you’ll use to both power sword skills you learn over time, but also provide much needed health regen when things get hairy. You can increase your pool of resolve by completing bamboo strike challenges throughout the world, and it’s worth having a nice large pool to draw from over time as fights become more and more complex.
Oftentimes you can thin the herd before battle even really starts thanks to the Standoff - a challenge Jin will issue to his enemies before engaging them. These one on one fights are simple - yet I found myself struggling with them later in the game as they got more and more difficult. You’ll hold triangle, readying your blade to strike. Your opponent feints, eventually attacking you fully. If you release the button in time, you’ll strike them down with one blow. It feels reminiscent of those one strike, one kill duels we see in samurai films and anime all the time (and I have to be honest, it reminded me a bit of Samurai Kirby from the SNES’ Kirby Superstar - and that’s not a complaint).
Some fights, especially boss fights in many of the different Tales in Tsushima, have you dueling your enemy head on. These one on one fights feel epic, the camera angles during the set up feeling right out of a samurai movie, and once you’re in the fight proper, the action is squarely on you and your foe. You can still change stances and do most of your skills you’ve honed over the years, but these fights more or less come down to patience and skill. The fights where I felt myself rushing or poking around for an opening were often the ones I was restarting. Ghost of Tsushima rewards patience and reacting to your opponent, and these duels are no different.
Combat isn’t without its fair share of flaws, though. The lack of a meaningful enemy lock on means the combat at times can feel floaty, especially with multiple enemies bearing down on me. An unwieldy camera doesn’t help this, and sometimes I found myself with an odd camera angle obscuring the action, forcing me to fight the game as much as the Mongol in front of me.
The framerate doesn’t help here either, as Ghost of Tsushima is locked at 30fps on the PlayStation 4. The Pro model does have an unlocked framerate mode, but in my testing it doesn’t offer a better experience, oftentimes I couldn’t even tell a difference. And performance, while mostly solid, does suffer in some of the more hectic fights.
Fighting enemies with the sword head on isn’t the only way to liberate Tsushima. Sometimes you’ll need to lean into stealth to get the job done. Over the course of the story, Jin’s arsenal of weapons expands, from using the deadly Japanese bow to fell enemies at a distance, to smoke bombs to quickly escape a tricky situation, Jin is equipped to handle seemingly any situation. Sealth in Ghost of Tsushima is decent - I usually avoid stealth in games, mostly because I’m terrible at it, but I found it fun to slink around a camp, avoiding detection until I wanted to be found.
However, it’s here I found myself at odds with even myself. Jin’s inner conflict over his own personal code as a warrior and the realities of what might be required to truly fight the Mongols with any hope of winning is a struggle I found myself dealing with as well early on. How much did I want to invest in stealth versus the Samurai skills? Did I want to assassinate Mongols or face them head on in Standoffs whenever I could? I was actually roleplaying as Jin - something I don’t typically do in games, yet I found myself doing absent mindedly here.
As a result, I felt myself being sucked more and more into the story of Tsushima, feeling as though each of my own actions were being weighed by the characters themselves. Because of this, it made Ghost of Tsushima feels very immersive. I truly felt I was controlling the destiny of Jin Sakai himself and not just filling a role.
Indeed, Tales in Ghost of Tsushima feel intertwined with characters referencing other storylines you might be working on while on a different quest entirely. This feeds into that feeling that almost everything you do in Tsushima is intrinsically important and rooted in the overall story of the island. It’s something that I was constantly reminded of while playing Ghost, and it’s definitely the most lasting effect of the experience - I don’t feel any of my time was truly wasted here in my more than 40 hours traveling Tsushima.
Completing tales and helping the residents of Tsushima will grow your legend as well, unlocking technique points which can be used to enhance and unlock abilities, such as a powerful perfect parry that can stagger a foe and provide an opportunity for a devastating counter attack. The more you complete these tasks, as well as Tales throughout Tsushima, the more your legend will grow throughout the island, giving you more and more tools in your already stacked arsenal.
Of course not everything is story driven - sometimes you’ll be exploring and just find a cosmetic item to change the look of your sword, or maybe you found a new straw hat to show off in the next cutscene. You’ll also unlock various weapons and armor throughout the game which you can also customize the look of using flowers to dye them at a merchant. Additionally, scattered around the world are supplies and other items you can use to upgrade your equipment at various vendors in major settlements. Upgrading armor also has the distinction of upgrading the experience, such as making simple samurai armor more elaborate. As someone who loves costuming systems in MMOs, finding the right look for me was paramount and something I found myself constantly striving for whenever a merchant nearby had new dyes available.
Armor isn’t just for show or protection either. Different armors enhance certain abilities of Jin and can be useful in some situations. Samurai Clan armor, for example, boosts your health the more you upgrade it while Ronin armor helps you excel at stealth, especially coming out of pampas grass nearby an awaiting enemy. Over time I found the armor that best complimented my own personal gameplay style, but there were moments I found myself hotswapping armor in the middle of combat to gain an advantage over a situation if the armor allowed for that. To further augment your stats and abilities, charms can be acquired through quests or finding Shinto shrines across Tsushima. These charms can be incredibly useful, especially a few late game that really make stealth easier to manage for someone like myself who is historically bad at going unseen.
Ghost of Tsushima is clearly heavily inspired by samurai films, most notably those of Akira Kurosawa, so much so that Sucker Punch has actually added a Kurosawa mode in the game. This transforms the regular experience to that of an old black and white movie, adding film grain and even tweaking the audio to sound like the movies of yesteryear. It’s a cool concept and definitely unique, but I actually found it difficult to play in sometimes.
By and large, Kurosawa mode isn’t going to really affect the game itself. However, there are a few quests that rely on color cues, such as following a trail of blue flowers to a specific location, which are all but absent in Kurosawa mode. It made identifying these visual cues that would be plain as day much harder as a result of the black and white filter.
It actually makes me wonder if Kurosawa mode was always in the design from the beginning or if it’s a more recent addition to the game leading up to launch - it just feels like a gross oversight to have so many quests rely on visual color cues, yet have a gameplay mode that strips those cues from your vision completely.
The story feels like something that could easily fit in a classic Kurosawa movie as well. The conflict Jin feels within himself is mirrored by the world around him - a war torn landscape fighting for its life. While many story beats as the game went on felt predictable, Ghost of Tsushima is one of the first games in a while that kept me thoroughly entertained the whole way through. Nothing felt like a needless grind and the story felt compelling and rewarding throughout - so much so that I’ve already started another full playthrough using the Japanese language track this time.
Ghost of Tsushima is definitely one of those games I feel I’ve wanted for years - a true samurai epic. The setting - Tsushima during the Mongol invasion - is one of the more unique settings in RPGs on the market and it provides such a cool backdrop for a compelling Kurosawa-esque samurai tale set in the period.
It’s helped on its way thanks to unique mechanics and features such as the guiding wind which brings such life and energy to each moment I’m in the world. The Kurosawa mode allows for fans of samurai flicks to feel like the star of their very own samurai movie epic.
It’s not without faults though. Combat, while mostly excellent, can be a hassle to control sometimes thanks to an unwieldy camera and the lack of a meaningful way to lock onto enemies around you. And while Kurosawa mode is novel and adds a ton of atmosphere to an already incredibly atmospheric game, the fact that so many quests rely on visual cues - especially ones having to do with certain colors - feels like a massive oversight for those using the game mode.
At the end of the day, though, Ghost of Tsushima is an excellent experience from the first moment you confront the Mongol invaders to the last moments of Sucker Punch’s samurai epic. As far as send-offs go, this is definitely not a bad one for Sony to usher in the PlayStation 5 era with as another swan song to the PS4.
Ghost of Tsushima is the samurai game I’ve personally always wanted, and it’s one I can find myself diving into just to explore the world and take in the sights as I play, helping Jin find some small measure of peace along the way, assuming the wind guides us there.