Friday, January 8, 2021

Ghost of Tsushima (PS4) Review

Listed #4 on SuperPhillip Central's Games of 2020 list at the end of last year, it's no surprise that I'm quite taken by Sucker Punch's Ghost of Tsushima. Still, it's worth fully reviewing the game with this, SuperPhillip Central's first review of 2021. Here it is in all of its glory with this single-player campaign-focused review.

The winds of war blow on Tsushima

Sony's first-party studios and the PlayStation brand are no stranger to the narrative-based third-person adventure. We've seen a great number of these with Uncharted, God of War, The Last of Us, Horizon Zero Dawn and Days Gone, to name just a handful from several studios. Sucker Punch previously worked on the Sly Cooper series during the PS2 generation before moving on to the superpowered world of the InFamous series. Now, the studio turns its attention from modern day to late 13th century Japan with a game that's decidedly darker in tone and appearance. It's Ghost of Tsushima, and it's one of the PlayStation brand's strongest third-person games of this type yet.

The Mongols have invaded Japan's Tsushima island, and the samurai who stand to stop the invasion are utterly decimated and defeated, wiped out by the Mongols' brutal tactics and overwhelming forces. In the aftermath, samurai and lord Jin Sakai sees his uncle, Lord Shimura, taken captive by the leader of the Mongol forces, Khotun Khan. 

After being rejuvenated back to health by a thief named Yuna, Sakai heads to Castle Kaneda, where Khan is keeping his uncle, but ends up being defeated in the process. Now, realizing he needs more help to break in Castle Kaneda and free his uncle, Jin Sakai plots to find assistance on the island of Tsushima, whoever he can find, including new (like Yuna) and old allies alike, and through whatever methods he can. The latter eventually butts heads with both his samurai code and his uncle's teachings about honor. One of the most interesting pieces to Ghost of Tsushima's story is seeing Sakai wrestle with using decidedly unsavory tactics to take down the Mongols, going against his code, and the aftermath that follows from these decisions. It's an interesting tale overall, and one that I couldn't help but be glued to from beginning to end, told through gorgeous cinematics and acted brilliantly by the cast.

The beginning of the game sees samurai of Tsushima preparing themselves to take on the Mongol invaders.

The cinematics aren't the only part of Ghost of Tsushima that's gorgeous. No, the three sections of Tsushima, each offering unique scenery and environments, from the forests and mountains to the south, to the snowy, wintry condition of the tundra to the north. It's a thrill to hop on your horse and explore Tsushima's countryside, traversing through towns and villages, forests, and seeking out points of interest in the form of Shinto Shrines that require Sakai to channel his inner Nathan Drake (Uncharted series) to navigate cliffs and rockfaces, battlegrounds to perform samurai duels with Ronin warriors, and places to relax to write haiku or rest in hot springs to increase his maximum health. 

There are also enemy Mongol and bandit camps all over Tsushima that require infiltrating and wiping out through a combination of stealth and direct combat. Upon clearing camps, the surrounding radius of the camp reveals points of interests, denoted by a question mark for each. This helps with tracking them down.

In this way, exploration and discovering new locations isn't totally intrinsic, as question marks eventually and essentially litter the map screen, revealing points of interest, but Ghost of Tsushima uses a rather clever means to guide the player to destinations instead of utilizing waypoints as most open-word adventures use. This is performed with a guiding wind, summoned by swiping up on the PlayStation 4 Dualshock's touchpad, and it reveals a strong breeze that points Sakai and by extension the player in the correct direction without completely spoiling where the activity or notable point of interest is located. Still, although Ghost of Tsushima uses a unique means to guide the player, the open world formula remains relatively unchanged from others in gaming, notably the oft-derided Ubisoft formula, so realize that going into the game.

Horseback is your primary way to get around Tsushima, along with fast travel options, of course!

There are multiple missions to complete in order to progress Ghost of Tsushima's story, as well several side missions that further flesh out both prominent characters and the people of Tsushima, too. Many of these feature heart-wrenching endings, true to a wartime setting where things aren't exactly sunshine and spider lilies. Well, there are both in Tsushima, but you know what I mean! 

The best parts of missions in Ghost of Tsushima aren't when you're forced to investigate an area for clues or follow footprints on the ground for the umpteenth time. No, those moments somewhat detract from the overall experience, especially following tracks as it's a waste of the beauty of the game to have to put your nose down to the ground of all places instead of the stunning environments. The best moments of missions feature the samurai-based action that players most likely expect out of game such as this. And here, Ghost of Tsushima truly shines. Whether it's storming forts and castles occupied by the enemy, taking out a small army of bandits or Mongol forces, or stealthily sneaking into an enemy encampment, quietly taking foes out as to not get caught, these are the moments that make Ghost of Tsushima strong and lends to the game's true strengths.

It might not exactly be honorable, but some situations call for a stealthy sneak attack.

Combat is such a strength, and you really feel like a powerful samurai when battling foes, whether against groups or in the cinematic one-on-one showdowns and duels with more powerful and important enemies. Ghost of Tsushima features a stance mechanic, of which there are four to unlock. Each stance is useful against a specific type of enemy weapon. Some are best to use against swords, while others are great for use against shields or spears. Switching between stances is as simple as holding down the right shoulder button, slowing down time in the process, and making your selection, then getting right back into battle. Sakai has a normal and heavy attack, the second of which is great for eventually staggering foes, leaving them vulnerable and wide open to hacks, slashes, and their eventual slaying by the hands--or in this case, blade of our hero. 

In the cover of the forest's fog, Lord Sakai delivers a killing blow to an enemy brute.

A good offense is only as strong as a good defense, and thankfully, Jin has options here as well. Enemies all have tells when they're about to attack, and with a perfect parry, Sakai can stagger Mongol and bandit forces equally with relative ease. There's a risk here in attempting to time a parry perfectly, as you can leave yourself open to getting attacked if you don't time it right, but the payoff is rewarding regardless. However, some attacks that emit a red spark when they're about to be unleashed cannot be blocked or parried at all, so it's important for our hero to get the heck out of the way during the windup of these attacks. 

One of my favorite missions is a siege of Lord Shimura's occupied castle, as seen here.

Sakai learns new skills and abilities through missions, such as the ability to light his katana on fire to take down opponents more easily and set them ablaze in battle. He also earns experience from completed missions and encounters with the enemy. As his reputation and legend grows, so do the skill points allotted to him, enabling players to spend them on various bonus abilities via a skill tree. Sakai also later gains new tools to use in battle, such as throwing kunai, smoke bombs, and firecrackers to either distract or incapacitate the enemy. Additionally, for long distance targets, Jin Sakai has a bow which he can use to pick off faraway foes. All of these tools make combat even more complex but never really convoluted in execution.

Throughout Jin Sakai's journey, he can discover and collect new armor sets and katana styles. Though the latter is purely cosmetic, the different armor Sakai stumbles upon provide unique bonuses, such as higher defense, lower enemy detection speed, and increased health. Both his various armor sets and katana can be upgraded in settlements, using materials salvaged all around Tsushima. The greater the upgrade, the more materials required. 

Ghost of Tsushima is a lengthy game, offering a journey of 30-40 hours, depending on how much side content is completed. The game also offers various difficulties to make for a breezy to hard-as-nails adventure to overcome. Lethal mode doesn't make enemies more challenging per se, but it does make encounters more so and realistic, even duels, where defeat on both ends of the blade is decided by one or two well-positioned strikes as opposed to death by a dozen cuts. It makes for a game mode where you always have to be on your guard, both figuratively and literally.

This Mongol won't be appearing in Rush Hour 3--I mean, Ghost of Tsushima 2!

I've previously noted the beauty that is Ghost of Tsushima, but allow me to gush about the game's gorgeousness some more. The countryside, mountains, forests, oceans--all of it is a graphical stunner. It's all so picturesque and postcard-worthy. Hence, all of my hours I racked up by spending time in the extremely detailed and sophisticated Photo Mode, easily accessed with a simple press of the left directional button on the D-Pad. The character models, too, stun, presenting immaculate animation and incredible clarity and emotion. The way blood splatters on their clothing during battle is impressive, if not decidedly macabre. Still, it's a sight to behold. The presentation prowess of Ghost of Tsushima doesn't end with the visuals. The audio, too, is terrific, giving a stellar score featuring pounding drums during tense moments before and during battle, and soothing flutes and other woodwinds during more introspective moments in the game. The voice acting, whether in English or Japanese, is well done, too, though the latter is not adequately synced with characters' mouths, so this might distract some players. 

The isle of Tsushima is so varied and beautiful. Make sure to take time to stop and enjoy the scenery!

Ghost of Tsushima is one part sensationally crafted story that paints a bleak picture of life in war-torn Japan, one part incredible combat that is both visceral and mechanically sound, and one part well presented to make for one wonderful open-world adventure. There is some sense of being formulaic with its structure and how discoveries are stumbled upon. Overall, though, Ghost of Tsushima ends up being one of the PlayStation's strongest open-world action games, and one that stands tall among PlayStation's impressive lineup of first-party titles. Another jewel in Sony's first-party crown, for sure.

[SPC Says: A-]

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