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Sucker Punch Productions, the studio known for Infamous and Sly Cooper, has returned with its first game in six years. Ghost of Tsushima is a brand-new story set in feudal Japan, a period with surprisingly little representation in the world of video gaming.
The events in Ghost of Tsushima unfold amid the Mongol invasion of Japan in 1274 A.D. You play as the samurai Jin Sakai, nephew to the Jito (land head) of Tsushima, Lord Shimura. As the Khotun Khan-led Mongols land, the samurai of the island gather to defend their home, but they are quickly slaughtered by the ruthless, and far more numerous, invaders. The only two samurai to survive are Jin, who is found near death and rescued by the thief Yuna, and Lord Shimura, who is taken prisoner and transported to Castle Kaneda.
Jin’s objective is to kill Khotun Khan and drive the Mongol invaders off of the island. With Yuna and a number of Tsushima’s inhabitants at his side, he must rescue his uncle while searching for a way to reconcile both the old ways and the new. Due to the death of the other samurai, Jin has to start his resistance from scratch. However, his most significant conflict is between his desire to free his people and the rigid tenets of the samurai code, or Bushido. The Mongols have no respect for Bushido, and part of Jin’s struggle is determining how far he can bend the code without becoming as brutal as his enemies.
Ghost of Tsushima is an incredible slice of feudal Japan, and it brings the era to life in a swirl of samurai bravado. Unlike most open-world games, each area feels vital, with its own unique locations and biome. Even the player who doesn’t seek out every nook and cranny will likely be compelled to search the length and breadth of Tsushima Island for the next hidden shrine or scenic vista.
The game takes massive creative liberties with the history surrounding the Mongol invasions of Tsushima. None of the samurai clans mentioned during the game are authentic, and Khotun Khan, Jin and all the other significant characters are entirely fictional. Sucker Punch developers considered using historical figures but, according to an interview with Game Informer, were told it would be insensitive, so they abandoned the idea.
Other aspects of the game are authentic, though. The scale representation of Tsushima is a microcosm of the real island’s landscape and architecture. Additionally, though there are some anachronisms (like the use of the katana and the daisho worn by samurai in-game instead of a tachi), the portrayal of Japanese feudalism is relatively accurate.
Ghost of Tsushima is beautiful. You’ll ride your horse through thick forests, trees clad in yellow leaves, and burst through the edge into open fields of white flowers. The countryside of Tsushima is an artist’s palette of colors, and Sucker Punch was careful to craft the world with sweeping vistas that let you drink in the breadth of this fantastic land.
If anyone thought HDR was a gimmick, this game should put those doubts to rest because the technology makes Ghost of Tsushima pop in dazzling ways. In some titles, it’s hard to tell when HDR mode is on or off, but this game shows how much of a difference the increased dynamic range can make.
The beauty extends to the flowing nature of combat as well. Ghost of Tsushima avoids the formulaic animations and stilted pauses of similar titles, which makes Jin’s battles seem like a dance.
Video games have struggled from time to time in depicting melee combat with multiple foes, often relying on a cumbersome lock-on system to assist players. In Ghost of Tsushima, you can end up fighting five to 10 enemies at a time, which might sound overwhelming. However, all it takes is a simple push in the direction of the enemy you want to fight, and the game takes care of the rest. This subtle lock-on, the ability to cancel any action instantly, and a robust parry-and-dodge system make battle in this game incredibly satisfying. However, Ghost of Tsushima goes beyond a simple hack-and-slash by giving players access to sword stances, which introduce a rock, paper, scissors approach to fighting.
There are five general classes of enemies in Ghost of Tsushima: swordsmen, shieldmen, spearmen, archers and brutes. There are multiple types of each class, but almost every foe fits in one of these categories. As you defeat more Mongol leaders, you’ll gain access to more sword stances. The default, the Stone Stance, is effective against swordsmen, and its heavy attack breaks their defense and staggers them more easily.
Your limited move set at the start of the game means you’ll have a harder time dealing with the other three classes. As you earn stances, you’ll become more effective at breaking through your foes’ guards, but you’ll also be facing more powerful and well-equipped troops as you fight your way closer to the Khan.
The give and take of earning stances versus fighting harder foes keeps the game challenging and prevents it from devolving into a button-masher. Toward the end, when you’re fighting all four classes of soldiers in large groups, it’s immensely satisfying to rapidly switch between stances and fell all your foes without taking a scratch.
However, to even the odds, Jin can’t just rely on his training as a samurai. Part of the game’s narrative centers on Jin’s transformation into the Ghost and his mastery of the arts of an assassin. The game doesn’t make you choose between charging in head-on, katana raised to the sky, or sneaking through the bushes to kill silently with the tanto. Instead, you’re encouraged to forge your own path, and you’re seldomly forced into selecting one course of action.
The Way of the Ghost is philosophically and practically the opposite of Bushido. Using subterfuge like smoke bombs, wind chimes and firecrackers to confuse and distract the enemy while positioning for a silent kill is the Ghost’s forte. As you progress through the game, you’ll get further tools like poison and sticky bombs, which act as force equalizers. Eventually, you’ll likely begin to blend Jin’s Samurai and Ghost skills as you come to find the fighting style that most fits you.
Considering the somewhat tenuous historical basis for the events in Ghost of Tsushima, some might accuse Sucker Punch Productions, an American studio, of cultural profiteering. After all, this game follows the “rule of cool” first and foremost. However, there’s tenderness for Japanese culture present in the game that precludes any notion of appropriation or exploitation.
On the surface, Ghost of Tsushima is an action-packed homage to filmmakers like Akira Kurosawa and Kenji Mizoguchi, as the game’s creative directors have stated. However, once you peel back the veneer of awesome sword fighting, you discover a deep appreciation for Japanese tradition and the country’s natural beauty.
This game beckons the player to explore a side of Japan not always explored in Western media. Seeking out serene spots for Jin to compose haiku puts context behind the poetic form, and the heavy use of Shakuhachi (traditional Japanese bamboo flute) and Koto (a traditional Japanese stringed instrument) in the soundtrack will introduce a whole new group of people to classical Japanese music.
We usually see the best games of a generation just as it ends, and publisher Sony has truly delivered over the last month. Ghost of Tsushima and The Last of Us 2 are such different games they can barely be compared. The one thing they both have in common, though, is that they’re extremely high-quality experiences that are must-buy games for PS4 owners.
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