‘Ghost of Tsushima’ Review: An Epic, Cinematic Samurai Experience Like No Other

     July 14, 2020

[Editor’s Note: Some minor spoilers ahead for the upcoming video game Ghost of Tsushima, though the intent is to keep this early review as spoiler-free as possible.]

What are you expecting from Ghost of Tsushima? If you’re looking for another “Souls-like” title or a supernaturally infused samurai / ninja story akin to the Nioh franchise or Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, you might want to check those expectations. However, if you’re hoping for a grounded, historically realistic, and compelling story of a young samurai battling against all odds to repel an overwhelming invading force from across the sea and find his own path on that journey, this might just be your Game of the Year.

Sony and Sucker Punch Productions were kind enough to give us an early copy of Ghost of Tsushima so that we might share our impressions with you today. It’s our aim to share those general impressions of the game in a non-spoilery way so that you can get a sense of what works about Ghost of Tsushima, what doesn’t, and if it’s got that extra special something that makes it worth your time, attention, and hard-earned dollars. (It’s also worth mentioning that my own personal playthrough was done on a PS4 Pro on Easy mode — yeah, I know — with English audio, and, as of this writing, I’ve played up through the end of the first act; your mileage may vary.)

I’ll break down the merits of Ghost of Tsushima below, but overall, I absolutely loved my experience with the game so far. It’s a near-perfect single-player experience that delivers an engaging story, intense action sequences, a variety of quests that spring up in an organic way, and a customization system that keeps delivering hits alongside surprising twists. And it’s absolutely gorgeous. From the many and varied settings throughout the game, to the Akira Kurosawa-inspired cinematic perspectives, Ghost of Tsushima is probably as close as any of us will ever get to forging our own Kurosawa-style samurai legend. Despite some finicky camera movement and a some quality differences in character model renders (whether in cinematic scenes or gameplay sequences), it’s solid across the board. So let’s break it down bit by bit.

Dennis and Dorian review Ghost of Tsushima with SPOILERS and discuss whether Sucker Punch’s latest PS4 exclusive is one of the best games of the year and includes discussion about the story, combat, graphics, voice acting, characters, music and more.

Story

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Image via Sucker Punch Productions, Sony Interactive Entertainment

Here’s the official synopsis for Ghost of Tsushima:

The year is 1274. Samurai warriors are the legendary defenders of Japan—until the fearsome Mongol Empire invades the island of Tsushima, wreaking havoc and conquering the local population. As one of the last surviving samurai, you rise from the ashes to fight back. But honorable tactics won’t lead you to victory. You must move beyond your samurai traditions to forge a new way of fighting—the way of the Ghost—as you wage an unconventional war for the freedom of Japan.

There are a couple important notes in that synopsis: The first deals with the historically based Mongol invasion of Japan, which plays out on the real-world island in great detail throughout this game’s hyperspecific focus on the first wave of invaders. The second, and more philosophically important note, focuses on the internal struggle between being a samurai who may die honorably or a non-traditional warrior who might not just survive but save your people in the process. That’s a rich setting to place Ghost of Tsushima‘s narrative in, and the Sucker Punch team mines every inch of it. It’s somewhere in the same conversation with Red Dead Redemption 2‘s vast and mostly untamed Wild West, and the rough-and-tumble resistance story of, believe it or not, Far Cry 5 and its protagonist’s proud defense of their home territory against invaders.

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Image via Sucker Punch Productions, Sony Interactive Entertainment

Not mentioned as much in the synopsis but clearly present, both in the game’s experience options itself and in marketing material for it, is the influence of Kurosawa’s seminal samurai films felt throughout Ghost of Tsushima. For starters, there’s Kurosawa Mode, a gaming experience that not only applies a grainy, black-and-white film filter to your screen, but also features a gradation of black and white tones, film quality, and even period-appropriate audio that the creative team went to great pains to recreate. It’s definitely worth a playthrough for that alone. But Kurosawa’s influence really shines when the game takes a moment to go full-on cinematic: Storming a castle, engaging in a one-on-one duel with a Mongol leader or rival samurai, or calling out your foes in an honorable stand-off; more on all of that in a moment.

While Ghost of Tsushima certainly folds in some of the more famous aspects of samurai cinema, it never feels tropey or piecemeal or too precious in its homage to Kurosawa. Instead, it’s a very focused tale about a young samurai finding his place in this violent, uncertain world while learning who to trust, when to take his mentors’ advice to heart, and when to forge his own path. The strength of that story comes from both the writing itself as well as the fantastic performances of Daisuke Tsuji as playable protagonist Jin Sakai and Patrick Gallagher as the imposing antagonist Khotun Khan, among others who have yet to be revealed. (I do hope Jin gets to spark some kind of romance along the way though.) And there are quite a few characters peppered in throughout the telling, all of whom have a bigger part to play than you might realize at first blush. The first act, in what’s certainly a three-act structure, is perfectly told if a bit predictably so, but I can’t wait to see where this story takes me next.

Gameplay

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Image via Sucker Punch Productions, Sony Interactive Entertainment

I was honestly expecting big things from the team behind the inFamous franchise. I’m happy to say they’ve delivered. Ghost of Tsushima gives you plenty of opportunity to walk, run, fight, swim, climb, fight, ride your horse, take a dip in the hot springs, and fight some more, and it’s fluid and smooth whenever you do so, even if you’re transitioning from one mode to the next. It is the most accessible game I’ve played in a long time, meaning that Sucker Punch’s mantra of “If you can see it, you can get to it,” holds true with very few exceptions.

Want to scope out that improbably high mountain peak to get a better view of your surroundings? You can most likely climb it, or take a running / riding path up to it. Does that shrine look inaccessible thanks to a poorly maintained path? Maybe a combination of your samurai skills, ingenuity, and craftsmanship is needed to reach your goal. Want to swim out to those waiting Mongol ships? Well, you can certainly try! Ghost of Tsushima does a fantastic job of removing most obstructions from the path of your very athletically gifted samurai, and it adds some verticality to what’s all too often a very one-dimensional genre of action-adventure games.

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Image via Sucker Punch Productions, Sony Interactive Entertainment

As far as mission / quest variety goes, there’s quite a bit to keep you busy. If you’re the type who likes to check things off your list, you’ll be in heaven. If you’re worried that a checklist will be too in-your-face, don’t be; quests are doled out in interesting ways via lore drops, rumors, and even some cheeky gossip among the country’s rescued citizens. You have the option of just mainlining core story missions to move the plot along, but you can also pop over to a number of side quests to explore more areas, meet more people, and deal more damage to invading Mongols; I’d highly recommend doing as many of these as you can before moving on to the second act. Those two quest categories get an additional flavor that really ups the immersive feel of being in a cinematic samurai story: Mythic tales that are steeped in lore and legend; these are as close as Ghost of Tsushima gets to going supernatural, with a few fun twists thrown in.

While you’re busy questing and polishing your samurai skills — which include honorable martial arts practices and the less honorable ways of the thief and assassin — you’ll of course have the opportunity to collect items and experience, upgrade your gear, and even learn a bit about your fellow citizens’ and the invaders’ culture along the way, which is a nice touch. It’s up to you how much of this exploration you want to do, but Ghost of Tsushima makes it incredibly easy to do so. Not only is it rewarding, not only is it downright fun to zip across the countryside to see what you might find, but even the game’s map / compass system is a breeze to use. Literally. It’s a literal “guiding wind” that you can summon at the touch of the PS4’s central controller pad to get you pointed in the right direction. It’s so clever, but it’s just one of many such clever little additions that make it clear how much “plussing” the Sucker Punch team has done in order to improve every facet of the gamer’s experience.

Sensory Experience: Sights, Sounds, and Haptic Feels

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Image via Sucker Punch Productions, Sony Interactive Entertainment

So much of that experience comes down to sensory input. The visuals are gorgeous, but the sounds and (literal) feels are just as important. Visually, Ghost of Tsushima is striking for a number of reasons. There’s the very real feel to this land, which comes from its real-world counterpart; the Sucker Punch team spent a good amount of time there looking (and listening) for inspiration. It’s impossible to miss the waving fields of pampas grass or the falling red maple leaves throughout your travels. It’s equally unlikely you’ll make your way around Tsushima without visiting the various steamy hot springs, bucolic farmlands, or iconic Japanese structures. There’s a dark side to the visuals as well, as the Mongols have left their mark upon the island through fire and violence, making a strong contrast against the land’s natural beauty.

The environment of Ghost of Tsushima is but one visual delight; there’s also the fantastic array of customizable cosmetic gear you can discover along the way. Much attention to detail went into every costume / outfit, weapon, and armor in the game, for your character and others; it’s simply gorgeous to watch them all come to life as you, say, walk a winding path through a bamboo forest or race your horse along the shore against a fiery backdrop. But the visuals pack a major punch in the cinematic department, too. Ghost of Tsushima occasionally shifts between widescreen and “fullscreen” format, depending on if a cinematic sequence is playing out or if you’re in control of Jin once again. The best uses of this change in camera lenses and direction play out in the game’s version of duels, either stand-offs that Jin can trigger by approaching Mongols in general gameplay, or in the truly cinematic, one-on-one battles against worthy opponents, which usually take place in a stormy setting. These are epic, intense, and truly a great addition to the game.

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Image via Sucker Punch Productions, Sony Interactive Entertainment

But keep those ears open, because in case you miss a visual cue or clue, there might just be a sound that pulls your attention back to it. A bird tittering close to you, a chorus of crickets nearby, the yip of an excited fox or the warning growl of a bear, the threatening twang of an enemy archer’s bow … paying attention to the world around you might help do more than complete your collection, it might just save your life. And even when things in the natural world aren’t vying for your attention, there’s the fantastic soundscape that the team has put together in order to guide your journey. Why, there’s even a subtle side story about Jin and his flute, which you can play for a variety of reasons during your journey, even if it’s just to add a musical flare to a given scene.

And speaking of scenes, you will absolutely love Photo Mode. I was not expecting to either enjoy this normally extraneous addition as much as I did or discover just how versatile it really was. Photo Mode in this game feels like it was made for an actual director, cinematographer, or at least a very particular Instagram artist. There are filters, particulate gradient sliders, a variety of expressions, and on and on. And when every frame in Ghost of Tsushima is worthy of a picture, if not a painting, Photo Mode is an absolute necessity.

Technical

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Image via Sucker Punch Productions, Sony Interactive Entertainment

If Ghost of Tsushima has a rough patch, it’s on the technical side of things. That’s not a bad mark, just a realistic one. It’s pre-launch filesize was a modest and surprisingly underweight ~30-35 GB. That was honestly shocking to me and I’d love to know how and where the Sucker Punch team trimmed the fat because, like I mentioned above, the visuals are gorgeous, the landscapes are diverse and stunning, and the cinematic sequences are truly worthy of the big screen. There is, however, an obvious difference in the scale or extent of character rendering quality whether we’re talking about those cinematic story moments or the in-game conversations between characters; not glaring differences, but noticeable. You’ll also notice some reuse of models throughout — enemies of certain types, horses and other animals, general collectibles, and buildings mostly — but again, it’s a minor observation. Even the open world itself is actually mostly open and able to be traversed with only a few pinch points restricting story progress. Ghost of Tsushima doesn’t skimp on the dialogue or story moments between characters either, so it’s an impressive amount of content packed into very little relative space.

Perhaps some of that fat was trimmed away through the use of a serviceable but not super robust upgrading and crafting system. There is no hunger or thirst mechanic, thankfully. There aren’t any consumables at all, though the health system is a clever one that uses your character’s Resolve as a way to regenerate health as Jin pumps himself up with a few quick punches to his own midsection (and this comes from what I’m sure is a Toshiro Mifune character moment, but I can’t for the life of me remember which one.) No, you don’t get to craft new arrows, throwables, or other weapons as needed; you have to collect them fully made in the world, normally through exploration and combat looting. “Supplies” are your currency, which is a little funny in how general it is, while specific crafting materials like different types of wood, metal, and fabric are needed for various craftspeople to do their thing and upgrade your gear. You’ll also have to go to a different specialist for just about everything; luckily the excellent mapping system and time-saving fast travel mechanics make upgrading super easy to manage.

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Image via Sucker Punch Productions, Sony Interactive Entertainment

One thing you won’t need NPCs for is beefing up your personal stats. And there are a lot of choices on what you spend your experience-based Technique Points on, and in what order you’d like to spend them. Want to walk the straight and narrow path as an honorable samurai? Put those points into your various Stances and skill trees. Is stealth and silent kills more your speed (like it is mine)? Perhaps the Ghost tree is more your style, once it opens up. Or maybe you’re just happy to explore the world and find everything there is to find. If so, be sure to put points into the Guiding Wind tree earlier than later since it’ll help you locate places you might have missed otherwise. Honestly, working towards that next stat boost or upgrade was one of the most rewarding parts of my playthrough so far, so I can easily overlook a rather simplified crafting, healing, and customizing system. There are some aspects that can’t be ignored, however.

Let’s talk Quality of Life stuff: The Camera Boss drives me nuts in this game. It’s honestly the one thing that takes me out of otherwise epic battles and confrontations, or casts a pall over what would have been a cool moment. Imagine mule-kicking a big ol’ spear boy out of his attack animation and into a roaring fire, only to have the camera spin around and show me the close-up of a nice green clump of grass… Or imagine being surrounded by a dozen very angry Mongols but having to wait for the secondary camera control to spin around fast enough to see them all, just in time to take an axe to the face. And no, since you asked, there’s no camera speed or even FOV slider to be found in a very stripped down control scheme for the fine-tuning of the gaming experience. I wish there was as much control over the gameplay itself as there was over Photo Mode.

While I’m complaining about QoL matters, here are a few more: Along with the finicky camera, the third-person POV for horse-riding can be bumpy to the point of being nauseating at times. And while I do appreciate the ability to pause just before a fight or even mid-combat to switch my gear out, I would give you my entire fictional kingdom for a customizable preset shortcut option that allows me to change gear — say between Explorer, Melee, or Archer loadouts — on the fly or even more quickly in menu. Also, and this goes to all Devs out there, please give me an alternative to killing dogs; it doesn’t even have to make sense, like, let me throw them a Sleepy Treat or something. Anyway… these are minor gripes for what is mostly a solid game. So how does it all stack up?

Overall

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Image via Sucker Punch Productions, Sony Interactive Entertainment

Ghost of Tsushima is a shining example of what single-player open-world games should aspire to be. There’s a compelling character story at the heart of an action-packed overall narrative with plenty of thrilling combat that’s reasonably flexible enough to accommodate a wide variety of playstyles. It has a solid system of fighting mechanics that are easy to pick up but take some skill to master, especially as the difficulty ramps up. The cast of well-developed characters who live in this fully realized world add a ton of nuance to the tale rather than simply being stand-in tropes; they’re more than mere homages to the late, great Kurosawa, just as Ghost of Tsushima is more than just an attempt to game-ify those stories. Instead, it’s destined to become the next great samurai tale itself.

Rating: B+*

*Stay tuned for much more on Ghost of Tsushima throughout this week and next, including a follow-up to this post once I’ve finished the main story to see how it impacts my rating.

Dave Trumbore is Collider’s Senior Editor overseeing Games, Animation, and all those weird Saturday-morning cartoons no one else remembers. Test his trivia IQ on Twitter @DrClawMD

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