A ghostly compelling tale
Beautiful. Stunning. Breathtaking. The Japanese countryside of Tsushima can only be described this way, and this is being modest. Immersion in the struggle and burden of a samurai lord in 13th century Japan against invading Mongols is stupefying once you realize that it’s intricately crafted in a video game. You are the ghost, the Ghost of Tsushima.
Wandering around the real island of Tsushima, Japan, in 1274 is a fairytale. Every location and nearly every blade of grass or tree tells a story. That story is of samurai lord Jin Sakai, a man desperate to save his home from an invading Mongolian force led by the grandson of Genghis Khan. Jin gathers a counterforce, only to be defeated and nearly killed. In the process of healing, Jin finds allies to rally to the cause and petitions for help from the shogunate to defeat the Mongols. You become Jin in your quest to save his home and gather weapons and supplies, learn skills, acquire alliances, and fight to repeal the invaders. There is much to learn and see in the open world presented to you even if you aren’t a history buff or care about the politics, economy, or goings on of feudal Japan. There are no time limits for tackling missions, and you are encouraged to free roam and explore the land.
Much like any other open world game I’ve ever played, what I like to call the “Metroid instinct” kicks in and I find myself searching every nook and cranny to find hidden supplies and other goodies. During my exploration, of course, I come across people who don’t like Jin. I note the presence of bonfires, which generally indicates who I like to refer to as “dudes.” Dudes are the type that are generally hostile to me and my interests. Those interests involve investigation and saving people in the general populace who require the services of a skilled samurai and contract killer. This is usually how the fight starts: Dudes notice me in my finery and my magical horse frolicking in the countryside and now they want to get reckless about things.
In an absolutely fun mechanic, I tend to get into standoffs with bandits. Now, my fighting skills here with a katana and tantō are not the best, but I have been known to make dudes meet their maker quickly. Similarly, I’m not great with archery, but I make the best of a bad situation and stealth kill my way through the countryside cleanly and quickly. My grasp of the controls is tenuous at best, but that’s on me and my lack of skill and “older folks’ reflexes™”. Ghost’s control mechanics are sound and easy to pick up with a little practice.
As I explore after my fights, looting what I need, I take in the scenery. Ghost of Tsushima is quite possibly the most beautiful video game I have ever seen. I’ve been playing games a long time, and I can’t say until now that I’ve ever been just wowed by a game where I specifically take in-game photography to use as a background. This is what you buy the latest console for and the best TV for: marveling at the graphics. I’m not even on the latest PlayStation model (I’m playing with a PS4 Pro), and Ghost makes almost everything else look like stick figures from the Atari 2600 era.
With a masterful audio experience, Ghost has the sound and feel of a Kurosawa masterpiece. You want to feel like the epic Seven Samurai? Turn on the Japanese dialogue and English subtitles. It’s that type of experience. The natural ambiance is also nice. It’s comforting to know that paying attention to sounds in the environment can save Jin’s life when I’m exploring. I’ve lost count of the number of times listening for audio cues linked to bears or dudes has helped me avoid an ambush.
While it’s a great experience, Ghost is not without its problems. The camera work doesn’t always help when it’s time to fight. Often, I’m fighting the camera to see my enemies and avoid taking massive damage. The camera could use some refinement in later updates. And my other issue is the Legends mode, added after the game’s initial release. I was all geared up to play with my partner and then realized that this long-awaited co-op mode does not support local play. We were hotly anticipating being able to roam around Tsushima together as we’re gamers, engrossed in the tale of Jin who absolutely love samurai. But we were highly disappointed to learn that the only co-op supported is online. Though the mode is free, it was a massive letdown to realize that we weren’t going to be playing this epic together.
Despite some minor technical issues, Ghost of Tsushima hits the mark in a lot of areas. A competent narrative, open world exploration, stunning visuals and an easy-to-grasp system are just some of the goodies awaiting engrossment in Jin’s tale of revenge and revolution in 1274 feudal Japan. Ghost of Tsushima scares up a great adventure worthy of all the praise one can muster.