You are not prepared for Ghost of Tsushima. Your eyeballs aren't ready, your life isn't ready, your soul isn't ready. No matter how much of a Sucker Punch fan you are, no amount of playing the Infamous series could have prepared you for this epic game. It's Assassin's Creed Japan with a Red Dead Redemption 2 sized world and an entire library's worth of Akira Kurosawa movies melted and shot directly into its veins. After days and days spent wandering forests, decapitating warlords, and stopping every now and again for a little toot of my flute, I still wanted more when the breathtaking finale signaled the end of Jin Sakai's story.
Release date: July 17, 2020
Developer: Sucker Punch
Publisher: Sony Interactive
As with many powerful drugs, the effects of the game didn't hit me until a few hours in. The prologue is beefy and a little slow, introducing samurai Jin, the survivor of a terrible battle with the invading Mongols, now desperate to rescue his uncle Lord Shimura from captivity. At first, Jin seemed like just another stony-faced video game hero, and one I felt zero chemistry with. By the final scene, I had to wipe away a tear. Jin never really got my heart racing, but the stories of the people around him did. Lady Masako, the matriarch of clan Adachi who is full of anger and secrets, thief Yuna and her brother Taka, the warrior monk Norio whose grief threatens to swallow him whole. As their tales develop, one chapter at a time, you fall deeper and deeper into the world. Quests come in various flavors, the main quest to save your uncle, those that revolve around a cast of allies, smaller side quests, and Mythical quests to learn special combat techniques. The stories are delivered in punchy chapters, which helps them feel more organic, less of a linear chore, and the performances really drive the stakes home. The horrors of the Mongol invasion hit differently when it's your friends' necks on the line.
Swords, smoke bombs and stances
The game starts you off gently with combat, which is all about mastering your katana. Bows and bombs will play a part, but the real satisfaction comes from a perfectly timed parry or a flashy special power that slices through your enemies like they're made of butter. As you dodge and strike and parry, you build Resolve, which can then be used to perform special attacks and heal in the middle of battle. And you're going to need to heal, a lot.
In the opening hours of Ghost of Tsushima, I was hacking away like a butcher at any Mongols that got too close and paying the price for my clumsy mistakes. Soon, I learned the art of timing, how to use stances (easily swapped with the R2 and face buttons, and essential to make it easier to break through different enemy type's defences) and when to just get out of the way of an unblockable attack. By the end, the combat flowed like a dance, knew just when to throw out a kunai or ignite my sword to deliver fiery death, and learned to dodge attacks like I'd developed Spidey sense. I am not traditionally a fan of nuanced combat, approaching everything like a tank with PMT, but with Ghost of Tsushima, it just flowed and felt right. Not that it was ever easy, true to Sucker Punch's promise that a few mistakes can leave you crushed by a brute enemy even late in the game, so even random encounters require your full attention.
As well as large battles there are more nuanced duels, where your smoke bombs and bow are stripped away, and you face an enemy with just your sword. These usually mark a key moment in the story. Framed like a movie scene, you'll be torn between survival and grabbing a perfect screenshot.
The real star of Ghost of Tsushima isn't its hero Jin Sakai, it's the island that unfurls around you. Sucker Punch has delivered on its promise of using the natural world as a guide, with the wind's direction leading you to waypoints, golden birds showing the way to hidden secrets like bamboo strikes and hot springs, and foxes shepherding you to Inari shrines. With fields of pampas grass, bamboo forests, lakes, and mountains, it's like running through a painting - and with a few exceptions - everything is so colorful, so vivid, that running between quests is like a pharmaceutical strength ASMR video. You can fast travel, but you'll find you don't want to.
Somehow, between the adventures and enemy bases and Mongol patrols, the world finds space for moments of quiet. There are places to stop and compose a haiku, hot springs where, after a flash of butt, you're asked to reflect on your relationship with your uncle or a recent event. There are other shrines that sit atop mountains and require a steady foot and a grappling hook to get to, and banners hidden away just begging to be collected. It's more than just set-dressing too, everything has a purpose. You'll get a new item, like a headband, or a saddle, or your Resolve will increase, or your maximum health. Even playing your flute - for which you can earn new melodies by seeking out singing crickets - changes the weather. It's like the world of Ghost of Tsushima has its own language that you learn to recognize, making flipping to the world map almost entirely redundant.
The only complaint, which is just highlighted by the richness of the world elsewhere, is that occasionally you'll find an area that feels like there should be more there, an empty village or Mongol camp, where the story will almost certainly take you later. You can still search for supplies and secrets in the empty buildings, but it feels like wandering onto an empty stage. In the third act - no spoilers - you're suddenly in an area that feels bleak compared to the riots of color and activity in the first and second act, and it's like being plunged into a cold bath. Yes, it marks a twist in the tale but... it's just not as much fun.
PS4's swan song
These are minor complaints in a game that gave me packed days and nights of adventure and storytelling, made me shed a tear and Google grief support groups, and gave me a new love for the history and traditions of feudal Japan. There's so much to do, such fervent, visible love for the subject matter - from the ink brush artwork that appears in cutscenes when you're hearing a mythical tale, to the Kurosawa Mode filter that paints the world in a cinematic monochrome and was given the blessing of Akira Kurosawa’s estate. It would be understandable for developer Sucker Punch to feel nervous about releasing a game so close to the critically-acclaimed The Last of Us 2, and as PS5 glimmers on the horizon, but it shouldn't. This is a worthy swan song for the PS4, and a tribute to the Japanese culture it so clearly reveres.
We reviewed Ghost of Tsushima on a PS4 Pro.