Game Review #1: Ghost of Tsushima – The Last PS4 Masterpiece?

More than six years after the release of their last game, Sony studio SuckerPunch released their latest game, named Ghost of Tsushima on 17th July 2020. With this game, the studio which was also behind the playstation exclusive InFamous series, releases another 3rd person open world title to see off the current generation of consoles in style. That is, according to most reviews.

I was honestly hyped about this game since way back when the studio announced they were working on a samurai title some time after the release of InFamous: Second Son in 2014. It took us some time to get there, especially with the postponed release due to covid-19 and to be honest, I would not praise Ghost of Tsushima like most people do but you will learn more about this in this review.

Is Ghost of Tsushima the better Assassin’s Creed set in Japan? Minor spoiler: I don’t think so but it is an enjoyable game nonetheless.

This is a cinematic trailer but it captures the game’s atmosphere nicely. Ghost of Tsushima is a really atmospheric game set in a nice world.

The Spirit of a Samurai

Ghost of Tsushima is set on the japanese island Tsushima in the 13th century. The isle is under siege by the mongols and the local samurai hope to defeat them in a head on battle. The game opens with this battle, in which most of the samurai are killed and protagonist Jin Sakai’s uncle, Lord Shimura, is captured. This essentially marks the end of Jin’s career as a samurai and sends him on a path towards becoming the Ghost of Tsushima, adopting a more stealthy approach in order to fight the invaders and protect his people by all means necessary.

Jin starts off as a samurai and turns more and more into what you would consider a ninja. Since his uncle, who was also his adoptive father, drilled honor into him from a young age, Jin really struggles to adopt stealth tactics, which his uncle would consider ‘dishonourable’. This internal struggle between doing what is expected of him as an honourable samurai and wanting to protect his people is prevalent throughout the entire game. This makes for an interesting dynamic and character development of Jin from a samurai to Ninja in terms of the story and the gameplay – that is in theory.

Most of the time, you can decide whether you want to go in swords slashing and bombs blazing or whether you want to pick a more stealthy approach. However, the game does not really use its potential when it comes to these two options. Why is that so? To answer this, we have to talk about the leveling and skill system first.

Becoming a Samurai or A Ghost

During the first third or so of the game, you do not really have stealth options and you need to ‘grow your legend’ (level up) to gather experience points and invest them into three skill trees.

One improves your fighting abilities as a samurai and helps you to explore your environments. Then there is the Stance Tree, which is quite engaging. By examining or killing mongol leaders, you can gain stance points and unlock three additional combat stances that are hard-counters to one enemy archetype of the game respectively. By investing into this, you drastically increase your options in melee combat. The third and final tree involves stealth and long-range tactics, offering several options to take out your enemies without being seen.

At first glance, this may seem great, since there are various skills to unlock and normally, I would agree because this kind of skill system is really motivating and keeps you playing in order to obtain the best skills and builds possible. Additionally, it seems like you can decide whether or not you want to be a samurai or ninja, since you have all these different options. However, in reality this is not the case.

Like I said earlier, most of the time, you can decide how you want to play but oftentimes, you do not have this choice and you either have to go in and slaughter all enemies (or get slaughtered by them because it takes some time to get used to the fighting system) or you HAVE to be silent and remain unseen. In the beginning, it is really difficult to take the stealth approach because you simply lack options and often you have to fight. I found this to be really annoying because about half of the time I was forced to approach things in a scripted way that was not really up to me and I really wanted to be a ninja instead of a samurai. However, that was not really possible for a considerable amount of the game.

Later in the game, you get to choose how you want to do things more frequently but at that point, it becomes more and more clear that this choice does not matter, really.  Yes, initially Jin struggles with this transition but later on in the game, it becomes more and more obvious that the choices about your play style do not really affect the story and if so, in a forced way. The game makes you feel like you are in charge but in reality, your ‘choices’ do not really matter.

At the beginning, you are locked into being a samurai with the occasional stealth bits. Then you get to choose more freely but towards the end, you are again locked into certain play styles. Accordingly, you do not really have a choice and just max out every skill tree because otherwise, you are going to fail on your missions and things are going to be frustrating, really frustrating because of the combat system. Effectively, there is not really a choice and you are just going to be both, a ninja and samurai and your ‘choices’ on the way are irrelevant.

Picture by Yatheesh Gowda on Pixabay

The Way of the Sword

What frustrated me most about this game, was the fighting system. At the beginning, I thought I just had to get used to it but in the final two missions, my original qualms with this game reappeared and made me question the design decisions.

There is some sort of loose lock-on system in combat but in my opinion it does not really work too well. The combat in Ghost of Tsushima requires good timing for blocking and countering as well as precise attacks. You need to know when to strike and you should not do over-commit to attacks. This is a nice concept overall but quite frequently, it did not work for me at all.

If a fight starts, you are automatically locked onto an opponent and it can be quite difficult to aim at another opponent. In my playthrough, this did not work half of the time, so the (half-) present lock-on often prevented me from fighting in a focused way as you are supposed to do in this game. A big part of the combat is crowd control. For that reason, you can unlock various tools, such as kunai, bombs and smoke bombs. This adds some depth to the combat by offering you several possibilities to approach fights. However, combat against great groups of enemies can still get really hectic. In the penultimate mission of the game, this really stuck out to me in a negative way because the ‘semi-lock-on system’ and the camera were my greatest enemies in that mission.

Additionally, there were lots of times when I fought one-on-one duels in which I missed hits that should have hit because Jin just moved in the wrong direction and that even happened in the end game when I was aware of the distance needed for a strike, so I knew how the fighting system works at that point. In fact, in the final boss battle, he suddenly moved in the wrong direction and turned his back to the enemy, which got him killed. I honestly do not understand why the system was handled this way and it feels a bit like it was done in order to make things a bit more difficult, which feels a little forced to be honest.

Another example that illustrates this is another one of the final missions. You have to fight a boss and several other opponents at the same time but the greatest and deadliest of them all is the camera which at times does not even show the opponents but only Jin, in turn sentencing you to death in this scenario. At that point, I was quite frustrated, especially because I had had the same problem early on in the game and it became apparent that it was probably the game mechanics.

Finding your Ninja Way

As Jin takes a more silent and ghostly approach, you get to avoid combat, which was one of the reasons why I employed this kind of tactics.

I enjoyed the stealth part of the game more than the combat but in comparison with other stealth titles, it felt a bit lack luster to be frank. You can crouch and have the obligatory ‘eagle eye /detective vision’ that allows you to scout the areas and your opponents and makes stealth sections a lot easier. Apart from that, you gather a good amount of tools that help you in this approach, such as bows, a blowgun and different kinds of ammunition for these weapons that help you to kill enemies silently from a distance. For distractions and to set up chain-assassinations, you have wind chimes that attract one opponent at a time and firecrackers to attract several enemies in the close vicinity. You can hide in tall grass and in tents or on roofs but that is it really.

Ghost of Tsushima does not reinvent stealth by any means but it has a good stealth system with some nice touches. Something that I enjoyed about this system was the inclusion of animals. There are dogs, which can sniff you out and alert guards. This is nothing new but a nice touch. Apart from that, the mongols use eagles that can even find you even if you are hidden in grass. However, this is not used nearly enough, which sucks because this is a nice inversion of eagles in contemporary Assassin’s Creed games or the drone in Watch Dogs II. Instead of scouting the area with a flying companion, your opponents scout it for you and they are able to find you even if you’re hidden.

Overall, the stealth system is nice and fun but it feels a bit bland and boring after a certain amount of time because it lacks in depth and feels a bit underdeveloped in comparison with some other games like AC Origins. Keep in mind, the latter did not have a great stealth system either but to me, having replayed it just a couple months ago, it felt better than in Ghost of Tsushima.

This was the first proper presentation of gameplay and it gives you a nice overview of the game. You already catch some hints of the strog atmopshere and of the stealth and combat systems.

The Tale of Jin Sakai

Since you should have an impression of the gameplay by now, I am now going to explain why I think that the story sacrifices lots of its potential. The premise of a Samurai becoming a ninja has lots of potential and in a video game, it offers various options. However, the game does not really make use of this. It mainly tries to harness the badass energy that this premise brings with it but does not really use the potential that this provides for a great story.

Already in the InFamous series, SuckerPunch introduced a moral system and a more refined version of this would have been a perfect fit for this game. During my first playthrough, I thought that there was one in this, because on several occasions, it seems like there might be a choice. You can make some minor choices in side missions, which also hint at this. However, the only real choice comes at the very end of the game. To me, this felt very underwhelming, especially because the theme of moral and honor is a big part of the game. Accordingly, linking these concepts with the gameplay would have been the obvious choice for this game but the developers did not do so. This makes the story and Jin’s character all the more forgettable, since it really does not matter at all how you play through the game, despite Jin’s struggle with stealth tactics and honour being a big aspect of this game’s story.

The story feels undercooked, like it has not been thought through fully. For that reason, this game was more of a gameplay experience than a story-based experience and towards the end, I was honestly a bit bored and disappointed by the story because it did not use its potential. Thus, it felt quite underwhelming to me. I cannot even retell the story because it just felt too insignificant and predictable.

Despite all of that, the side characters are interesting and well-developed, more so than Jin. The game takes its time to introduce you to them and you can grow attached to these characters, which also leads to some interesting plot twists in their respective side missions. This is a nice way to get the player emotionally involved. However, the rest of the side missions feels like labour and I could not be bothered to play through all of them during my first playthrough of the main story because they mostly felt irrelevant and worked based on the same principle most of the time.

My favourite part of the game are honestly the side characters’s quest lines and optional enemy bases. The former add more depth to the characters and they have interesting structures. In the latter, you finally get to decide what to do. Either, you sneak in and fulfill the tasks or you walk in through the front door and go Kill Bill on everything that moves. Then again, at a certain point, I felt like I had seen everything in the game, so I decided to finish the campaign and get things over with. Everything after that felt even less substantial. – The Ghost of Tsushima just did not capture me in the long-run.

The Star of Tsushima

These are some of the more notable environments you can find on the island.

Since I have pointed out the aspects about this game that I found underwhelming, I am now going to talk about what I liked best about it: Tsushima itself. The game has a strong atmosphere and nice graphics. There is no mini-map but you use the guiding wind by clicking right on the D-pad. It leads you to the goal that is currently marked on your map and this system works surprisingly well. Whenever you don’t know where to go, you just use the guiding winds if the goal is marked and they will lead you there.

Ghost of Tsushima makes you consider the environment by use of this and other environmental mechanics. On your journey, you can encounter golden birds that lead you to nearby places of interest. Additionally, you can find fox dens under yellow-leafed trees and by following the foxes, you can find charms to improve your stats. Similarly, while writing haikus (short poems) you can reflect on topics and soak up the beauty and atmosphere of this game and obtain headbands for aesthetic purposes. The same goes for baths in hot springs where you think about recent events and increase your maximum health. These are some small wholesome moments with a great ambience.

A similar mechanic that helps your orientation and contributes to the atmosphere at the same time, are smoke pillars. Throughout Tsushima, there are lots of occupied farms and you can spot them from a distance because of the dark smoke rising up into the sky. Not only does this get you involved but it also communicates the setting of the game: it is set in a war and the mongols attack Tsushima, burning farms and villages in the process. Your current goal is also highlighted by smoke, however in white, which makes it stand out and integrate into the world nicely at the same time. All of these environmental mechanics help you to discover the world without annoying icons and they add to the atmosphere.

When you use the guiding winds, the controller dissipates a sound of wind, at the opening screen of the game you see and hear wind blowing through pampas grass and when there are storms in the game, you can already hear them from a distance. The ambient sounds in this game are really prominent and create a great atmosphere that just sucks you in. These are just a few examples but they hint at the tone of this game. This is potentially its biggest strength.

Then again, there is a minor complaint: thunder storms are ridiculously loud and with that I mean actually ridiculous. Oftentimes, I was wondering if it was just another storm in the game or a real storm. This proves how great the ambient sounds are but it hints at the negative side of this. The voice tracks are oftentimes drowned out by the ambience and music and I had to adapt the sound settings constantly in order to understand the characters’s voices. I played the English version and had to use sub titles in order to understand what was being said because the voice tracks were really silent at times. I guess if you play the game with the Japanese dub, it is going to be all the more atmospheric but I don’t know about the relation of voice tracks and sound effects in that version at this point.

Final Thoughts and Evaluation

Ghost of Tsushima is a long-awaited game with an interesting setting. The developers were aware of this and tried to make use of the setting and of the inherent badassness of samurai and ninja. However, I do not think that they really pulled it off.

Jin Sakai is a rather forgettable character and I did not really care about him or his story. The rest of the main cast was interesting and added more depth to the game but this did not save it for me. I think the story is just dull and boring, hence at some point, I just decided to finish it off because I felt like I was not going to see anything new and I was not wrong.

Despite being centred around katanas, the fighting system is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it is enjoyable and stylish, on the other hand, the camera and the only half-present lock-on system were my greatest enemies in this game, despite having mastered the combat system somewhere in the mid-section. Accordingly, to me it felt like these things were an attempt to artificially increase the difficulty in the last bit of the game, making it annoying and rather unenjoyable.

Ghost of Tsushima is not a bad game but it it nowhere near perfect. For an exclusive title, it just felt underwhelming on almost every level, since everything has been done by other games in a better way. This may seem like some harsh criticism but it comes from someone who really wanted to like this game. Unfortunately, I did not enjoy it too much but I thoroughly enjoyed the bits that I liked.

The atmosphere is great and Tsushima looks beautiful and picturesque. You can literally open the photo mode at any time and it is going to look good. The traversal system using the environment as a means of orientation works nicely and contributes to the atmosphere, making Ghost of Tsushima an intense experience even if the story is rather forgettable in comparison. Apart from that, there is the Kurosawa mode, turning the screen black and white and increasing the atmosphere even more. Whenever you want, you can switch that mode on or off, which will make you feel like you are in an old samurai flick or you play the game in the normal mode and enjoy the beautiful environments.

How much you are going to enjoy this game, depends on what you are looking for in a video game. If you are looking for an experience, I can recommend it, since the visuals and overall tone of this game are beautiful. Additionally, the gameplay can be fun, yet frustrating at times.

I cannot really recommend it if you want to experience a great, captivating story but if you’ve always wanted to play as a samurai or ninja, this game might be the gameplay experience you always wanted. However, I think you should not come at it with high expectations. I did not do so either because the gameplay presentations already felt a bit underwhelming to me. Accordingly, I could enjoy the game despite having some glaring issues with it. In this respect, it reminded me a little of Watch Dogs II but I honestly preferred the latter.

All things considered, I give it an 80 %. I think it is a good experience but I expect more from an exclusive title, especially if it is blatant that lots of work went in there. Ghost of Tsushima is fun but oftentimes, things feel forced and underwhelming in comparison with other games of the last years, so to me it is none of the best games of the current generation but an enjoyable one, nonetheless.

What’s Good?

  • short loading screens
  • Nice graphics
  • Great ambience sounds and atmosphere
  • Nice setting and premise
  • Mastering the gameplay is fun and feels stylish
  • there are some small, emotional moments that do not even contribute to the plot but just feel great

What’s not so good?

  • Forgettable story, protagonist and antagonist
  • Side missions often feel like labour
  • Frustrating camera and ‘lock-on system’
  • The gameplay becomes stale quite fast once you’ve seen everything
  • The game pretends to have some kind of moral system but in reality, your decisions do not matter at all, making everything feel irrelevant

This marks the end of my first gaming review. As always thank you for reading. Have you already played the game and if so, how did you like it? Feel free to tell me here or on Twitter (@sovlpvnkblog). Please do not feel offended by this review if it does not reflect your opinion. Like I said, I liked this game but it really did not blow me away. If you do not share my opinion, that’s fair enough because everyone is entitled to their own opinion. That makes gaming and media as a whole so interesting.

My next post is going to be a political one again, as I am going to talk about the moral aspects of vegetarianism and veganism. Hopefully until then.

-sovlpvnk

Next time on sovlpvnk: For the Future #3: Veganism VS. Vegetarianism

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Published by sovlpvnk

This is my personal blog about culture and sustainability. It is mainly concerned with topics that I'm interested in, mostly the alternative music scene and its ethics as well as LGBTQIA+ -related topics and veganism. I post my content in English and German.

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