At the Paris Games Week event in 2017, Sucker Punch Productions unveiled their next original game following Infamous: First Light to audiences for the first time. Their announcement trailer unveiled a feudal Japan being invaded and burned by Mongol raiders, with the leader of the Mongols asking a samurai to surrender. The featured samurai is then shown in a black mask and dark clothing standing alone in a graveyard—the eponymous Ghost of Tsushima.
Sucker Punch had wanted to create another open-world environment as they felt that the players’ choices had an impact on gameplay. Toying with different themes and locations for their next title, they finally settled on setting the story in Japan during the first Mongol invasion on the island of Tsushima in 1274. Taking inspiration from samurai cinema, as well as researching the natural landscapes of Tsushima and historical sites from that period in Japan, the developers were able to create a story that focused on the internal struggle of a Japanese samurai, who desires to save his people at any price, even if its costs him his honor.
Violence: In this brutal period of Japanese history, violence permeates through much of the game, from katana stab wounds, to limb dismemberment and decapitation. Several characters are directly immolated on screen throughout the story. Jin comes across many dead NPCs throughout his travels who are killed in a number of ways, from being shot with arrows, to being burned and charred, to being hung, and more. Poison is also used and shown in brutal fashion, with characters vomiting blood and convulsing onscreen.
Language: Characters will occasionally have curse words sprinkled in their dialogue, such as s**t, d**n and b****ard, but language otherwise is surprisingly tame for a mature title and is not pervasive.
Drug/Alcohol Use: Sake is mentioned several times, and several characters are shown to drink it occasionally. One scene features two characters drinking numerous sake bottles while sharing their pasts with each other, and are shown to be a little drunk. A character mentions that her mother was an alcoholic who abused her children when drunk.
Sexual Content: Jin is shown entering and leaving hot springs in cutscenes naked, though only from the back with nothing showing. Jin can also reflect on his desire to caress a woman while in one of the hot springs. One character strongly hints that she and her brother were both molested when they were both young. A couple of characters are revealed to be LGBT in passing mention, but play no focus beyond their respective side missions.
Spiritual Content: Many of the inhabitants and characters are polytheistic, with numerous comments mentioning prayer to the gods to ask for their blessing. One character openly practices Buddhism and can be found at several points praying before a large Buddha statue. Bowing before shrines is a feature players can utilize to find charms to strengthen their equipment.
Positive Content: The protagonists are flawed but want more than anything to help the oppressed people of Tsushima and improve their lives. Revenge is frowned upon and seen as damaging and does not resolve problems. Bandits and characters who wish to reform are given grace and second chances.
Ghost of Tsushima begins with you playing as Jin Sakai riding into battle with the rest of the island of Tsushima’s samurai, eighty in total. Despite their skills and courage to defend their homeland, they are vastly outnumbered by the thousands of Mongol invaders that plague their home, and Jin notes that their battle will essentially be a suicide. Riding fearlessly into battle, the samurai are cut down quickly and violently, with only Jin and his uncle Lord Shimura escaping death, despite the former being severely injured and the latter being captured by the Mongol’s leader, Khotun Khan. Jin recovers from certain death thanks to a thief named Yuna who finds him and nurses him back to health. Helping him escape capture from one of the raided villages, they plot to rebuild a resistance army, with the goal of freeing Lord Shimura and then driving the Mongols away from Tsushima, once and for all.
On the surface, Ghost of Tsushima appears to be a visually stunning game that tells a simple story about a samurai who must fend his country from Mongol invaders. That is the main goal for the entirety of the story, and yet circumstances for Jin gradually become more complex when he finds that he cannot achieve this goal if he obediently follows the samurai code of honor drilled into him since childhood. In a flashback, Lord Shimura teaches him that a samurai must always look their opponent in the eye, as only a coward would stab someone from the shadows. The Mongols are brutal, however, and possess no such code of honor. If Jin attacks the Mongols head-on while trying to rescue captive villagers, there is a chance the Mongols will kill one of the victims before he is able to reach them. He soon learns that in order to defeat the monstrous Mongols, he will have to become more monstrous himself. In order to do that, he gradually sheds his role as a samurai, and embraces the identity of “The Ghost” who will strike from shadows and take down his enemies using fear as well as with the sword.
The open world of Tsushima is colorful and dynamic, with the regions morphing and coming alive as you explore fields and small villages. The weather and elements constantly shift and change, which is reflective of the mood of the story and the consequences of Jin’s actions. The more often Jin acts as the Ghost when attacking the Mongols and using dishonorable methods to win his battles, the stormier and darker the skies will become. The music, composed by Ilan Eshkeri and Shigeru Umebayashi, never overpowers the experience of Tsushima but is another element that helps bring the story to life, creating an authentic Japanese atmosphere while powerfully hitting all the right emotional notes.
Ghost of Tsushima gives players different cosmetic options to help create a unique playing experience. One of these is choosing which language to play throughout the game, English or Japanese, with the option of switching between the two at any time. The cast for both languages perform admirably and successfully bring depth to their characters, and it’s up to personal preference to determine which is the best to use while playing. The only criticism I have is that the Japanese audio is not synched up to the characters’ lips like its English-language counterpart. It wasn’t a turnoff for myself while playing, but I did find it distracting at times during cutscenes with a lot of dialogue.
Another option that players can utilize in their gameplay is Kurosawa Mode, which turns on a grainy black-and-white filter in an homage to classic Japanese cinema, such as those created by Akira Kurosawa. The developers researched how to best accurately replicate the sound and visual quality of those films, and were even able to receive the Kurosawa estate’s blessing in naming it after the influential director. While it doesn’t significantly alter gameplay, its inclusion to use at the player’s enjoyment reveals how much passion Sucker Punch had to create a captivating game inspired by classic samurai cinema. Players wanting to commemorate a specific location that they may come across or capture an exciting pose in the midst of a battle can pause the game with Photo Mode, which also allows players to manipulate details of the scene to fit to their liking, such as changing the time of day or Jin’s expression, among many others.
Freedom is a theme in the story, with Jin and the villagers of Tsushima longing to be liberated from the tyranny of the Mongols, yet it’s also something the player can experience while immersing themselves in the game itself. There are numerous activities and locations to discover that can help build Jin’s strength and resolve to better equip him in battle. They are not necessary to complete, but it’s well worth the effort to do so. They include—but are not limited to—locating and claiming legendary weapons and abilities, writing haiku to create more headbands for Jin to wear, and soaking in hot springs to earn more health.
The battle system also allows a lot of flexibility as you unlock more of Jin’s abilities. By the third act of the story, I felt powerful as I switched between different combat stances and overpowered enemies. It’s up to the player to determine how they want to deal with an army of Mongols, from silently assassinating them with arrows from a distance, to stabbing from behind, to engaging in close-combat. More experience points are even offered to players if they’re able to take down enemies in specific ways. Experience points will earn the player techniques which the player can then use to unlock more of Jin’s skills as either the Ghost or as a samurai. The main criticism I have regarding the battle system is its poor enemy AI, as I would be hiding virtually in plain sight many times and not be spotted by them. While this did work to my advantage in completing an objective, I found it disappointing to find such a flaw in what is otherwise a very well-developed game.
Jin can also engage in one-on-one duels, which are cinematic fight sequences against other skilled swordsmen. Depending on the character dueled, the fight itself may be optional and may not always be against an enemy trying to hunt Jin down. I found that not every duel is exactly the same, as some opponents are harder than others to defeat. I felt as if there was a lot more on the line during duels than against large groups of enemies, as Jin’s duels often felt intense and personal. Jin can even learn a new skill during certain duels that he can then use to carry out against his enemies, making him an even more powerful warrior.
The first act of Ghost felt slow after an action-filled prologue introduced me to the characters and conflict at hand, and the plot didn’t entirely hook me until I began the second act. However, I’m glad I took the time during the first act to explore most of the area I was in and complete side quests. I got to familiarize myself with the gameplay mechanics, such as following the wind as a guide to my next destination, or finding a bamboo blade stand to complete and increase my resolve. Although I was only at the beginning of the story, there was so much to see and do, and I enjoyed the experience of immersing myself deeper and deeper as I played.
The more the Jin overpowers Mongols throughout the story, the more his legend as the Ghost will grow, and enemies will begin cowering and running away after engaging with him. However, this backfires at Jin as his enemies slander his actions as the Ghost, claiming that he also murders innocent people. While he attempts to deny these accusations, he begins to question his actions and wonder if his role as the Ghost will end up doing more harm than good. The peasants Jin meets range from revering him—both as a samurai lord and as their savior—to fearing him as he uses violent methods to take down his enemies.
The themes of honor and right and wrong are present from the very beginning of the game, and are explored all the way through to its conclusion. Both Lord Shimura and Jin have opposing views on how to save their people from the Mongols, and this gradually creates a wedge in their relationship. Regardless of their differing views and the tension between them, I enjoyed every scene where they were both together. I loved seeing their relationship as an adoptive father and son, and the genuine love they have for each other.
As the last major first-party exclusive title for the PlayStation 4, Ghost of Tsushima easily shows the best of what gaming is capable of. I couldn’t help but be captivated from beginning to end by its visuals, an engaging battle system, and a story that becomes more emotional with each successive act. Although its AI could be stronger, it was never too boring or too frustrating for me, and by its conclusion I only wanted more adventures as the Ghost and to continue to act as the savior of Tsushima.
The Bottom Line
The final exclusive title for the PlayStation 4, Ghost of Tsushima, invites players to explore a rich and immersive world while also treating them to an engaging story and a dynamic battle system that is sure to entertain for many an hour.