‘Ghost Of Tsushima’ review: a serene samurai simulator paired with a lacklustre storyline

Sucker Punch’s newest samurai epic has plenty of minor flaws, but it looks and feels amazing to play, and sometimes that’s all that matters

I must have listened to at least 20 episodes of The Blindboy Podcast while I played through Ghost Of Tsushima. As the Irish satirist thoughtfully talked me through topics orbiting mindfulness, art history and philosophy, I’d sink further into my sofa, DualShock in my palms, writing haikus in front of waterfalls, reflecting in hot springs and brushing silently through Pampas fields to dispatch of renegade Ronin.

I vividly remember trading Sashimono Banners for saddles in Komatsu Forge while listening to my first Joe Frank radio show, its surreal notes grounded into memory in my brain by Tsushima’s gorgeous feudal vistas. As such, podcast-induced tranquility came to define my experience with Sony’s latest prestige game, developed by Sucker Punch Productions of Infamous and Sly Cooper fame.

It could be seen as a knock that I decided to tune out in between important story missions, but I’d argue that being the perfect podcast game is actually quite the compliment, especially in this nightmarish cultural moment. I never knew how much I needed a meticulously designed open-world to unwind in until this game landed in my lap a few weeks ago.

Don’t get me wrong, Ghost Of Tsushima certainly has flaws (not least of which is its painfully slow opening), but it’s well worth trudging through if you want to achieve podcast nirvana. Fortunately for us all, Tsushima’s open-world exploration lifts heavily from Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, but the combat actually has much more depth – it reminded me most of Sekiro, but with the shinobi bits stripped out in favour of stoic samurai flair.

Tsushima stands on its own two feet due to the innovative way that it ties combat to the narrative, and forces the player to grapple with their approach in battle. You see, our protagonist Jin Sakai is the last remaining samurai following the Mongol invasion of Tsushima Island, but his combat style and code simply won’t be effective with the invaders, who fight without honour.

Ghost Of Tsushima
Ghost Of Tsushima. Credit: Sucker Punch

At first, Jin will start every battle by bellowing at his opponents, alerting them to his position so he can duel each aggressor in a fair fight. This timed standoff minigame is extremely satisfying to pull off – especially when you dispatch an entire camp in a few clean slices – but this tactic gradually becomes a choice. Sometimes a standoff is way too risky, as the Mongols don’t play by Jin’s rules.

In these cases, you must lean into the underhand guerrilla tactics Jin picks up from the game’s side characters. Assassinating warlords from the shadows and shooting guards in the head with a bow complements Jin’s surgical swordplay surprisingly well – but it also flies in the face of his code. This has a damaging effect on Jin’s remaining relationships from the society he used to belong to.

As such, the inner turmoil within the protagonist is rendered playable, constituting Ghost Of Tsushima’s greatest success. In fact, it ends up being the lone emotional thread in an unfortunately safe narrative stocked with forgettable side characters. Oddly framed cutscenes and patchy performances don’t help matters either. Serious is a relatively new look for Sucker Punch, and it shows.

Ghost Of Tsushima
Ghost Of Tsushima. Credit: Sucker Punch

Yet with these two distinct combat styles constantly warring for your attention, Ghost Of Tsushima’s open-world feedback loop is never boring. Random fights are fun, and to my surprise there was no immersion-breaking XP gauge, level bars or annoying numbers lurching out of enemy bodies. Instead, you simply “build your legend” by rescuing citizens, igniting lighthouses or finding fallen swords, among other moreish objectives. If you’re lucky, you’ll get a tip-off after completing one of these tasks that’ll lead you on a paper trail full of easy endorphins.

It’s the kind of reliable gameplay you can easily lose an afternoon to, and to the game’s credit, I was so enamoured by the exploration that I ended up fully liberating each island before bothering with the main missions. Sadly, it’s the main story missions where the cracks truly begin to show thanks to a frankly ridiculous reliance on forced stealth sections and dull tailing assignments.

What’s worse is that they all serve a plot that doesn’t demand your attention, especially when it’s not leaning on Jin’s crisis of conscience. As he struggled through Tsushima’s three main regions towards the Mongol leader, I struggled to hold interest in the script, latching onto the Mythic Quests instead, a series of legendary side stories that respect the player with tricky puzzles and later reward them with exciting showdowns and new techniques.

Ghost Of Tsushima
Ghost Of Tsushima. Credit: Sucker Punch

When a lot is at stake, some of the main missions reach similar heights, but a lot of them just reminded me that I’d rather be out in the open world, plugged into a podcast, experiencing the game at its best on my own terms. The arbitrary “stay in tale area” boundaries didn’t help either – this instanced approach robs you of that superb Breath Of The Wild feeling of coming back to a tricky mission after a training montage in the wilderness.

However, it is worth noting that the game really nails its boss battles. Ghost Of Tsushima’s duels are as difficult as they are memorable. I was gutted when I completed them all and found that I couldn’t replay them.

Scored perfectly to up the ante, they do a lot of heavy lifting to deliver Tsushima’s few solid story beats. Jin and his opponent will trade quips in between harsh, tense clashes that reward perfect timing. I’d love to see Sucker Punch spin this incredible pocket of gameplay out into a title of its own – if only they had the Star Wars licence…

Ghost Of Tsushima
Ghost Of Tsushima. Credit: Sucker Punch

A lot of the game’s marketing focused on the “Kurosawa Mode”, which filters the visuals and granulates the audio to make Ghost Of Tsushima appear like one of the legendary Japanese filmmaker’s movies. But after trialling it in the early game, I found that it has all the nuance of an Instagram filter.

It actively detracts from the vibrant assets and environments that the developers have clearly worked so bloody hard on. It turns out that Kurosawa’s films are not comparable to 30-hour video games with colour-coded combat cues and collectibles. To play through the entire game with the filter on would be an exercise in masochism given how gorgeous Tsushima Island is.

One worthwhile visual asset is The Guiding Wind, a clever mechanic that removes the need for intrusive HUD elements and lets you find something to do with a simple swipe on the touchpad. It works well but it’s not perfect – mainly it will suspiciously disappear during arbitrary ‘crime-scene’ investigations in the story, offering a frustrating reminder of how much you’ve come to rely on it.

If you haven’t been able to tell already, Ghost Of Tsushima is quite a mixed bag. From a technical perspective, it’s not dropping the ball in any department – it plays well, sounds great and looks incredible, but the finer notes detract from its overall stopping power. It’s easy to recommend when it comes to value for money, just as long as you can stomach some strange design choices.

‘Ghost Of Tsushima’ will be released for the PlayStation 4 on July 17.

Our Verdict

Sony’s knack for nurturing AAA open-world games this console generation is once again on display with Ghost Of Tsushima, but due to some ancient mission design and forgettable writing, it can’t quite compete with the inspired exclusives we’ve seen lately such as Death Stranding or The Last Of Us Part II.

Yet unlike those emotionally arresting games, Ghost Of Tsushima offers an appealing sandbox that lets you disconnect from the world around you and sink into samurai serenity. It’s one of the most well-made and addicting open-worlds I’ve had the pleasure of playing in, especially when you ignore the narrative and let the wind guide you through its gorgeous period setting.

With effortless controls and seriously satisfying swordplay, Ghost Of Tsushima is well worth the money as long as you can temper your expectations story-wise. Despite being yet another entry in a saturated genre, it’s far from derivative, introducing a host of interesting ideas that complement its particularly podcast-friendly formula.

Pros

  • Superbly crafted samurai swordplay, with delectable duels to boot
  • Introduces many clever mechanics to an aging open-world formula
  • Offers a delightful gameplay loop that is extremely podcast-friendly

Cons

  • Offers a forgettable, stoic narrative with few interesting characters
  • Relies upon some of the worst trends in open-world mission design
  • The opening is quite the slog, but worth wading through
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