Seven years on from its debut, the PlayStation 4 is soon to be replaced by the next generation. During this beloved era, we’ve been handed a treasure trove of PlayStation exclusives to sink our teeth into that ranges from The Last of Us Remastered all the way to The Last of Us Part II, with all sorts of quality content in between. After a short delay due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the final PS4 exclusive game is upon us: an original IP from Sucker Punch Productions to wave a fond farewell to this masterful console. Conceived as an open world game built for us to live out our ultimate samurai fantasies, this is Ghost of Tsushima.
Set in 1274 in feudal Japan, you play as samurai Lord Jin Sakai, who survives the devastating first battle of a Mongol invasion on the island of Tsushima led by Khotun Khan, descendant of the infamous Genghis. Ghost of Tsushima follows Jin’s quest for vengeance on Khan for wiping out Tsushima’s entire samurai army, capturing Jin’s uncle and mentor, Lord Shimura, and Jin’s bid to stop the reign of terror Khan’s Mongol army has on the island before it makes its way to mainland Japan. Along the way, Jin learns he must abandon the honourable Way of the Samurai in favour of more guerrilla tactics as he does everything in his power to bring down the Mongol army once and for all.
In order for Sucker Punch to fulfill our samurai fantasies, the team had to spend time getting the unique samurai combat just right. We’ve played games with sword-fighting being the main mode of combat with games like Assassin’s Creed and Shadow of Mordor—Tsushima has been compared to these two games since release—so the heat was on to make Tsushima’s combat stand out from the crowd. From the very first mission, which has you play out the overwhelming Mongol invasion that saw Jin’s uncle captured, confirms this combat system as something special.
Ghost of Tsushima has a combat system that is the definition of “easy to pick up but difficult to master.” It begins with a simple parry, dodge, and attack system with quick and heavy attacks—nothing we haven’t seen before. However, the game brilliantly develops your abilities over the course of the game and scales up the difficulty gradually as you progress. The most unique element of Tsushima’s combat are the Stances, which start as somewhat confusing but will have you marvelling at the simplicity and fluidity of combat once you’ve mastered the rhythm of the fighting.
You will meet four enemy types across the island – swordsmen, shieldmen, spearmen, and brutes. The game introduces these to you gradually, starting off with only swordsmen and then adding the other types in slowly until you meet every enemy type in every encounter, forcing you to change your Stances at the drop of a hat. Each stance—Stone, Wind, Water, Moon—introduces Jin to a different fighting style in order to correctly counter each enemy type; for instance, the Wind stance introduces moves that will over-power a shield, while Moon focuses on heavier attacks that will knock brutes off balance for an easier takedown. The more you play, the more you will begin to master the mechanics. Before too long, you will be flipping between the stances rapidly with a simple R2 + button combination. There is an endless level of satisfaction in quickly switching stances before executing a perfect parry to instantly open your foe up for a takedown; it’s just as satisfying 50 hours into the game as it was when I first pulled it off at the beginning.
In one of the game’s best features, Jin can encounter enemies with a Stand Off as he wanders the land. Jin will confidently call out for the group’s best warrior to face him and it’s a battle of wits where you face off against one another, hold the triangle button, and wait for your opponent to strike before releasing it at the right moment. The AI is cleverly designed to include feints in each Stand Off, sometimes striking immediately, other times feinting 3 or more times to bait you out. These moments are some of the game’s best and it’s a testament to how truly enjoyable the combat is that you will smash Down on the D-Pad to initiate a Stand Off every time.
Ghost of Tsushima has a noticeable difficulty curve as you progress through the story by making small adjustments to encounters and enemies. Mongols improve their armour, brutes are given shields, enemies learn new moves, and the parry windows become smaller, encouraging you to refine your craft along with the game. I had concerns that my character was becoming too powerful towards the end of Act I given how much time I’d spent unlocking experience and abilities, but the days of winning Stand Off after Stand Off ad nauseum are long behind me; I’m now losing more than I win and having to fight back from a false start, a fabulous example of the game’s replayability long after you’ve completed the main story.
While Tsushima excels at combat, it encourages you to utilize a more stealth-based approach to missions as you sneak through Mongol encampments all over the island as you slowly begin to take on the mantle of the titular Ghost. The stealth gameplay is enjoyable and it has its satisfying moments throughout the campaign—for instance, a side quest in which Jin must sneak through a camp to assassinate three specific targets and no one else was a welcome change of speed—but the stealth side of the game could have been refined.
Where the stealth play stumbles is in the movement around camps and towns. You lack the finesse required compared to a game like Assassin’s Creed, which puts stealth first in their combat design. What should be a simple hop onto a tight rope to move between buildings doesn’t really feel as smooth as it should. Several of these simple hops have resulted in an inadvertent fall either to my death or into the middle of a pack of Mongols. It’s frustrating too, because the game has incorporated climbing mechanics that help you scale cliff faces and swing from tree to tree with your Iron Hook and they feel fun and simple to execute, so scaling a building and running across rooftops should play better than it does.
You will unlock a series of new weapons and gadgets as you progress in order to aid your Ghostly ways, but frequently I found myself wondering why I was bothering to complete missions in a stealthy manner when I knew I could slice my way through the camp without batting an eye. Still, even when certain missions force you down the stealth route, it’s amusing enough to not detract from the overall experience. You’ll be familiar with some of the gadgets you unlock; a wind chime thrown to move enemies out of your way, a smoke bomb for a quick escape, and a poison dart to take enemies out silently from a distance, to name but three. In isolation, these gadgets are fun to use and, despite being a creature of habit who uses the same stuff more often than not, I found myself experimenting with the gadgets as I played and found all of them to be useful both in stealth and in open combat.
Ghost of Tsushima’s main quest is one that I found wholly engaging, frequently exciting, and remarkably emotional. The connection you forge with Jin Sakai is an extremely tight one, resulting in genuinely astounding moments that left my jaw agape time after time. These moments ranged from the bombastic action sequences that typically closed each of the game’s three acts, but many of the shocking character moments, from foreshadowed betrayals to surprise deaths, are the moments that leave the biggest impression.
Each of the three acts are distinctly separated across the three regions on the island: Izuhara, Toyotama, and Kamiagata; though as much as the campaign will send you further north, you will be sent here, there, and everywhere. The main campaign has terrific pacing, with the slowest act being Act I as it’s carefully designed to introduce you to characters, game mechanics, and the island itself on top of the main storyline. As you approach the end of each act, the creative team behind the scenes—directors Nate Fox & Jason Connell and writers Ian Ryan, Liz Albl, Patrick Downs, and Jordan Lemos—knew to scale up the action to give you real stand-out moments that will live long in the memory. From the mad dash through hordes of Mongols at Castle Kaneda at the end of Act I, to the hwacha (Japanese siege weapons) sequences at the end of Act II, and the inevitable confrontation with Khotun Khan at the end of Act III, Ghost of Tsushima scales up the action to near perfection.
One of the game’s stand-out missions is during an Act II subplot around an under-siege fort entitled “Ghost of Yarikawa.” With Mongols literally knocking at the door, Jin arrives on the scene to protect the fort from the inevitable attack and earns a brand new ability as his reward, the Ghost Stance. This moment is already a fan favourite with YouTube flooded with reaction videos to this sequence. For lack of a better term, it is the hypest shit. The sheer surprise of the moment combined with the devastation that follows felt plucked straight out of an anime. The ability is extremely satisfying after this moment, but the game reaches its highest point with this sequence in a game full of massive high points.
Lord Jin Sakai is a stellar protagonist. He starts the game with the honour of a true samurai as the de facto leader of the Sakai Clan following the death of his father at a young age, but he is forced into uncomfortable decisions throughout, calling his honour into question from Lord Shimura. Jin’s tale manages to seamlessly blend his mission to save his island and his desire to put Khan’s head on a pike with powerful emotional moments. On his journey to become the Ghost, his story delves into his mindset and, at many turns, questions whether what he’s doing is right. His Ghost identity, a moniker thrust upon him by Tsushima’s inhabitants, clouds his judgement at times and leads to potential catastrophe for his people.
The relationship between Jin and Shimura is the game’s most fleshed-out connection in a game chock full of them. Given Shimura took Jin in as his ward after his father’s death, for Jin to betray both his training and his tradition is a decision that isn’t taken lightly by Jin or by Shimura. While Jin argues he is merely doing what he feels necessary to save his island, Shimura refuses to see this way of thinking and considers Jin a traitor to the samurai code and to the dying wish of his father, which was for Jin to be the greatest Sakai Clan leader he can be. It’s a testament to Jin and Shimura’s actors, Daisuke Tsuji and Eric Steinberg, that they deliver their character’s respective dilemmas so convincingly.
Jin’s journey is flooded with memorable characters that are all as equally well written as our two main characters. From the angry and vengeful Lady Masako, to the wise Sensei Ishikawa, to the hard-shell-soft-interior Yuna, you’ll be pleased to cross paths with these characters throughout Jin’s campaign and across the island in the game’s vast number of side quests.
The Tales of Tsushima are stories to be completed at your own pace alongside the relevant side characters, and each of these side stories are as brilliantly written as the main quest in their own way. Lady Masako, played with devastating brilliance by Lauren Tom, is an all-out revenge quest hunting for the person who killed her family and is home to another of the game’s many emotional gut punches with a brutal surprise that will leave you devastated. The Tale of Sensei Ishikawa, also played brilliantly by François Chau, is an exciting one that encourages you to use your bow more than any other point in the game as he must search for his former student gone rogue, all the while taking Jin under his wing as his new student.
Yuna and Taka’s sibling relationship and Norio’s quest to save the temples of Tsushima are equally as enjoyable to be a part of. These stories have an important impact on the grand designs of the game, with each one contributing to Jin’s overall reasoning for becoming the Ghost.
Beyond the side quests, a special mention must be given to the game’s selection of Mythic Quests. Across the island, there are myths to be uncovered that develop Jin’s abilities beyond his wildest dreams. Whether you’re completing tense battles in order to learn a devastating katana move or adventuring across the island hunting for a legendary armour set, these were home to yet more of the game’s highlights, particularly those that ended in challenging, gorgeously designed duels.
The island of Tsushima is a vibrant open world to explore. Riding around the map on your slightly customisable horse—mine was a white beauty called Sora—was so enjoyable that, despite fast travel being an option extremely early in the game, I would choose to ride to my destination. The bond formed with Sora also ranks just as highly in terms of video game horses alongside Agro in Shadow of the Colossus and the Arabian horse I named Shadowfax in Red Dead Redemption 2.
Tsushima is home to an almost overwhelming number of places and things to discover for a variety of reasons. Whether you’re following a fox to shrine, scaling a cliff face, or completing the bizarrely satisfying bamboo strike mini games, each activity contributes to developing Jin’s abilities.
These activities all contribute to the game’s impressive level of customisation of your equipment, particularly that of your armour sets. Each armour set can be upgraded both statistically and aesthetically to give you an edge on the battlefield and in Photo Mode. All these armour sets have different uses to suit your needs and your playstyle, whether you prefer more health, more stealth, more combat boosts, or any number of other perks to satisfy your needs. Personally, I preferred the Ghost armour, which isn’t available until later in the game, but I have dipped in and out of other armour types depending on the mission. Hilariously, you can switch armour sets on the fly, so I can only imagine the confusion on the brutish Mongols’ faces as you switch seamlessly from your lightweight stealth armour to your heavy, preposterously overpowered samurai armour, complete with a giant antler helmet instantly.
However, the problem with many of these side activities is that they are astonishingly repetitive. Once you’ve followed one fox, you’ve followed them all. Do I really have to follow more than 40 of them (not an exaggeration)? This repetitive problem extends to the multitude of one-off missions you will receive from NPCs around Tsushima. Frequently, the inhabitants will ask you to help them find a missing friend or family member and you will investigate the site, discover a dead body alongside some footprints, follow the footprints and take out the culprit. Rinse and repeat. It’s fortunate that Sucker Punch nailed so many of the important gameplay mechanics because if the game was less fun to play, I wouldn’t be in a hurry to complete these never-ending activities. I have begun my quest for the Platinum trophy, as it’s a game that deserves it, but the repetition is rivalled for frustration only by the Riddler Trophies in the Batman Arkham series.
In terms of overall game design, not only do I doff my cap to Sucker Punch, but every cap possible must be doffed. Tsushima is a gorgeous world to roam, with stunning graphics at every turn. The ever-changing weather ranges from searing sunlight to harsh rain to falling snow, and it only adds to the game’s incredible achievement in this regard. Daybreak was a particular favourite time of day of mine; riding through a forest with the sun tearing between the trees was beautiful and the subject of far too many in-game photos. Bizarrely, though, the graphics in the game’s many cutscenes frequently looked worse than the graphics you see as you travel around the land.
The game also sounds fantastic to combine with the gorgeous visuals. Every clang of a katana or every shield break sounds fierce, with the katana leaving a particularly satisfying ring in the air after every slain foe. Even in the quieter moments of wandering through a forest, leaves rustle and branches snap beneath your feet, creating a world as aurally appealing as it is visually. The music is also brilliantly used; the sound designers knew exactly when to escalate the excitement with the gorgeous soundtrack, dropping heavy violins on us to tug at our heartstrings on the emotional beats, and incorporating the famous drums from samurai cinema’s past as your enemy draws their sword from its sheath.
The map is designed to encourage complete free roam with the highly publicised lack of waypoints. Sucker Punch instead use in-world signals to encourage exploration, whether with a tower of white smoke signifying someone has set up camp nearby, a mysterious collection of fireflies, or a burning building you spy ruining the otherwise picturesque horizon are all begging to be explored. These in-world signals create a truly natural feel to Ghost of Tsushima, and their work around of having no waypoints by using a guiding wind that blows the nature around you in the direction it wants you to travel is a delightful touch; though occasionally having no waypoints is a source of frustration, as finding a swordsmith in a new town proves to be a far too difficult a challenge (I’m looking at you, Hyoshi Springs).
The much-discussed Photo Mode is sure to have dominated your Twitter timeline in the weeks since the game’s release. Sucker Punch have created one of the most detailed photo modes we’ve ever seen, and this is by far the most amount of time I have ever spent taking screenshots, rivalled only by Marvel’s Spider-Man. You can edit almost every single aspect of the photo you’ve taken, even changing the time of day or the weather type to create the perfect samurai shot of your dreams that would make Akira Kurasawa proud.
Ghost of Tsushima is a sprawling, epic adventure with some flaws, but these take nothing away from the overall power of the game. It has an emotional, powerful story with a complex central hero and fabulously written side characters, a brilliant combat system that is as fun to get to grips with as it is once you’ve mastered it, and a stunning open world to explore on horseback with something to do around every corner. There is so much to do on the island of Tsushima that it can seem like completing it for completion’s sake, and the mission types are repetitive but, mercifully, the game is so endlessly fun that I didn’t care.
The highs of this game are astronomical, with the story ramping up steadily throughout each act resulting in wildly exciting sequences and shocking character moments both in the main story and in the side quests. If not for the existence of The Last of Us Part II, Ghost of Tsushima would be my Game of the Year. As it is, it’s a worthy addition to the packed PS4 exclusives library and Lord Jin Sakai fits right in among Sony’s vast lineup of memorable main characters. Ghost of Tsushima waves goodbye to the PS4 generation in sumptuous style.