Ghost of Tsushima, in short, is a beautiful blend of cinematic, narrative storytelling and mythic-styled epic poetry. Blending an artful open-world setting with deep character development, Ghost of Tsushima is an IP that will leave a lasting legacy for years to come. With this game, Sucker Punch succeeds by focusing on cinematic immersion, attention to storytelling, and enjoyable mechanics. Their post-modern process of emulating the best of Sony exclusives, synthesizing Western and Eastern story-telling, and conjoining the mythic genre with personal narrative makes Ghost of Tsushima another strong contender for Game of the Year.
An Elegant Cinematic Experience
To put it simply, the game is utterly beautiful. While many narrative games have thoughtfully shot scenes that cause gamers pause, every portion of Ghost creates a sense of aesthetic wonder. From the photo mode, to stylized fights and painting-esque settings, players will feel like they are living in a cinematic masterpiece. Oftentimes, I felt like I was part of a movie. I wasn’t a mere observer of film, I was a living participant in the film. Sucker Punch uses diverse components in order achieve this evocative and dynamic atmosphere. With a constantly churning day/night time, cycle coupled with weather changes that range from clear, foggy, heavy storming, and others, players are greeted with unique sunsets, dawn-breaks, and daylight exposures. Alongside these dynamic environments, players are treated to one of the best soundtracks in gaming.
This combination of score and vivid imagery makes even the most mundane parts of gaming, like traveling and exploring, into a heroic journey; however, these two components reach their apex during some of the one-on-one, boss-like duels. For me, duels were my favorite moments in the gameplay. While some duels were definitely better than others, nothing will make me forget my first duel during an early Mythic Quest. As we fought, crooked spears of lightning ripped through the backdrop. A flurry of ash washed over the shoulders of the two combatants while bolts of light exploded just feet from our deadly dance. Oftentimes, the discharges caused a radiant explosion that almost blinded the player’s vision. Every swing, cross of blades, and bolt of light was brought to glory through crisp and focal audio causing players to feel like they were part of a pinnacle fight scene in a blockbuster film. These moments in gameplay enhanced the mythic ambiance of the impavid story.
Ghost of Tsushima: The Legend, The Story, The Tale
Ghost of Tsushima employs an epic structure to their story while integrating contemporary philosophical themes. This comprehensive strategy to story-telling successfully builds an immersive experience for the spectrum of players. By providing a layering of story-telling and myth-making, players, through the experience of Jin, the main character, will feel like they are a folk-tale hero building a legend that will reverberate through history. This formula reminded me of pan-cultural epic tales, like the Trials of Heracles, the Iliad and the Odyssey, Arthurian legends, or Pueblo tales of the Four Worlds.
This style of storytelling creates an almost symbiotic relationship between personal narratives and mythic legends. Ghost of Tsushima uses four types of quests (or tales as they called in the game), side, mythic, companion, and story. While there is a common pitfall that open-world games often succumb to, frivolous side questions, every mission regardless if it is part of a micro-story (side quests) or macro-story (main quests) is meaningful. Completing companion tales wasn’t just a tactic for gaining allies for the upcoming battles; instead, companion stories were complex, emotional tales that elevated the development of their particular character. Just as Lancelot or Autolycus weren’t merely sidekicks in the legendary stories of Arthur or Heracles, the companions of Jin, while supporting the protagonist, are their own fleshed out characters that, at times, created a stronger emotional reaction for me than moments of the main plot. The mythic structure, surprisingly, did not overshadow the deeply personal immersion of playing as Jin.
Using seemingly banal mechanics, Sucker Punch creates a dissonance between the meta-arch of the story and the intimacy of the protagonist. Already reaching meme status, even the collection component of the game adds to the immersion. Within 10 days, over 8.8 million foxes were petted, according to Sony. With a seasoning of magical realism, players are led by graceful foxes to shrines where players can earn new charms. Normally, as a player, I rarely felt compelled to complete components like this; however, in this game, they added to the rich experience. While I wasn’t forced or rewarded for petting a fox after it led me to a shrine, I felt my characters deep appreciation for the rituals. When I came across a grave marker, I wanted to bow. After a mythic duel, the raptness of the story compelled me to bow over their honorable defeat. Ghost also provides “haiku locations”. After approaching and kneeling at a haiku mat, the game provides a theme like death, hope, adversity, etc. Players are then provided with key viewing locations that will pop up a potential line of a poem. When I found a haiku location, I thoughtfully reflected and constructed a haiku based on the theme provided. My friends and I would even enthusiastically discuss the haikus we made. Some of them were truly beautiful. These mechanics created a deeply personal experience to the overall development of Jin.
While mythic stories can oftentimes seem simplistic or straight-forward, archaic folk-tales actually are founded upon deeper, critical questions of humanity. Ghost of Tsushima makes sure to implement these components into is folksy story. Even though one review I read pleasantly reviewed Ghost as “the simple story we all needed at this moment of time”, I respectively disagree. The reviewer was correct in one sense, but Ghost allows players to experience a more critically driven story. The story isn’t trying to make players grapple with the intensity of our own demonic depths in an existentially filled excavation of the human experience like The Last of Us 2; however, there are important critical themes layered under the epic genre, which is often the case in folklore legends from humanity’s past.
In order to avoid spoilers, I will not elaborate too much in this section, but I will vaguely paint the main themes underneath the story. The persistent conflict between Jin’s uncle and himself can easily be written off as a simple conflict, and, as many of my friends commented, a ‘boomer’ who annoyingly defends a rigid tradition; however, with deep considerations offered by the Haikus, conclusion of companion tales, the emotional reactions of companions, and the development of Jin’s relationship with his uncle, players are saddled with philosophical questions of Ontology versus Deontology, the problematic Conflict of Competing Duties, an introspection of Duty, Utilitarian questions of means vs ends, and the authenticity of virtue. For me the most pressing theme revolves around facing the spiraling consequences of our decisions, regardless of our intent. As one character casually says while traveling on horseback, “Sooner or later, we all go home, and must confront the past.”
Mechanics of Ghost of Tsushima
Technically, there aren’t any truly original mechanics within this game. Players experienced in contemporary adventure games or open world games will immediately notice the inspirations from God of War, Red Dead, Horizon Zero Dawn, and Fallen Jedi. There isn’t necessarily anything wrong with that by the way. The jumping puzzles, tracking of enemies, focus modes, and dodging and parrying are important and strong staples of this genre. The trap usually comes in when there isn’t a varying of context or application. Ghosts of Tsushima avoids this pitfall through fun variations of the puzzles, deep customization of playstyle, and new environmental contexts.
Out of six of my friends playing this game, all of us had a different preference in playstyles. Even throughout my play-through, I created a variety of specialized styles through gear and charms. Legendary charms help players create niche playstyles. I had a terror based build, poison build, overwhelming force, stealth, and archery based builds. As I perused my different armor and charms, I was able to conceptualize at least ten other builds. Alongside the ability to fluidly change combat stances within the middle of combat, each combat experience is dynamic. By also incorporating bonus objectives into side quests and exploration markers, there is an incentive to experiment with a gamut of builds. This facet of the game implores players to explore the entirety of the map searching for “collectible” locations.
I am rarely a player who feels the need to search out all of the collectibles, which have become a mainstay of modern games; however, Ghost of Tsushima offers both experiential and practical incentives for every inch of exploration and collection. There are at least twelve unique categories of collectibles, all of which serve different rewards. If players love paratextual components of games, like actual history and lore, they can seek out Mongol artifacts or records. If players want to increase certain stats, they can seek out hot springs that also allow you to reflect on memories and themes while increasing maximum health. Players can also play a button sequence mini game at bamboo cutting sites. Pillars of Honor, vanity sites, and Haikus, offer players new aesthetic gear. Shrine locations offer fun jumping puzzles and reward players with playstyle defining legendary charms. Beyond just customizing your central characters, Ghost of Tsushima offers other individual experiences.
As mentioned before, the cinematic experience is a core value to this game, and yet, Sucker Punch doesn’t fully control how the players encounter this experience. There are a variety of ways the player can customize this cinematic experience to their preference. Players can have an English dubbed version, or they can experience a more authentic Japanese dub with English subtitles. Players can choose a vivid-full color experience, or they can choose a Kurosawa inspired film mode. In the Kurosawa mode, the game uses a more black and white color scheme with a salting of authentic degradation static to video and audio. These choices are not permanent. Players can change the difficulty, visual modes, and language dubs at any time. Personally, I would alter the experience throughout the play-through. When I started particular tales, I would change to the Kurosawa mode to engage in a more “classic movie” experience. When I went on adventures of exploration, I would change back to a colorful experience, so I could appreciate the vivid world. Regardless of how it is played, it captures a cinematic quality tailored to the player.
Unlike in most games, the photo-mode has to be included in any review of this game. I am not a player that finds photo more particularly appealing. In past games, I may play around with it once or twice, but Ghost of Tsushima has the most exciting photo mode I have ever used. Normally, I find this mechanic tangential and frivolous to the gaming experience. In this game, one only needs to peer at Twitter for a few minutes to see the appeal. I spent more time on this mode than all of the other games with photo mode combined. With the largest amount of customization of any past integration of this mode conjoined with the stunning beauty of the game, players will spend a good portion of time playing around with it.
No game is perfect, so there are some components that could enhance the gaming experience within Ghosts of Tsushima. I am hesitant to highlight these aspects, because these are, in no way, critical drawbacks to the game. There are moments where camera positions can complicate a fight and annoy players. The “end of platform” mobility mechanics can be hesitant. By that, I mean that there are moments where your character, meaning to simply step from a ledge, will launch themselves like Thor down a mountain. So, there are some odd mobility quirks, but they are by no means constant or large distractions in the game.
There are also some well-needed additions to this game that could greatly enhance the experience. As I mentioned before, there is an enrichened versatility to playstyles; however, the game lacks a “gear-set” mechanic. Since I enjoyed changing up my playstyle to fit the environmental pressures, I would sometimes change my character’s gear and charm set-up multiple times within quick succession. In fact, sometimes the changing of gear would take longer than what I was even using it for. The addition to gear sets would increase the fluidity of experience.
My other constructive criticism is aimed at difficulty. Difficulty in games is a deeply individual preference, so I can understand other gamers who disagree with me. Some gamers desire a more easy-going, story driven experience. For others, like me, we desire a more masochist pleasure. I want to feel the pain of a game. *I completed this game before the recent update, so it seems like Sucker Punch may have already met this criticism with their new ‘Lethal’ difficulty for players like me, and their new ‘low-intensity’ mode for more fun-loving players.*
After playing through The Last of Us 2, I thought there probably wouldn’t be much competition for Game of the Year; however, Ghost of Tsushima surprised me. By implementing a complexity of strong game components, we may have some intense competition for the coveted award of Game of the Year. This game contains fun, accessible, and customizable mechanics. The story, through a multiplicity of structures, will be enjoyed by players of all types. Finally, players will enjoy one of the most aesthetically pleasing games ever released on console. It seems that Sony’s Playstation 4 is filling its final year with swan song after swan song. It would be a shame for any gaming enthusiast to miss out on one of the best, all-round games in console history.
*All images displayed came from Ghost of Tsushima Photo Mode.*
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