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-]

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

The Tuesday 10s - Most Anticipated Games of 2021

Welcome to the first major post of 2021 on SuperPhillip Central, as well as the first edition of the Tuesday 10s of the year as well! Looking ahead and leaving 2020 rightfully in the dust, 2021 is shaping up to be an incredible year for games. The PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series line of consoles are kicking into overdrive, and the Nintendo Switch continues its successful run. This installment of the Tuesday 10s looks forward to the games that most excite and bring the hype in 2021. For this list, games that have a somewhat firm 2021 release period will qualify, so titles with nebulous launch dates like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild's sequel (albeit well worth hyping up) won't be listed. Now, with that out of the way, let's get to this list of the most anticipated games of 2021 with the Tuesday 10s!

Horizon: Forbidden West (PS5, PS4)

Our first most anticipated game set to release this year is Horizon: Forbidden West, the follow-up to 2017's fantastic Horizon: Zero Dawn. A planned cross-gen release, Forbidden West takes place in the titular locale, specifically the United States' west coast, though one that has gone irredeemably south in a post-apocalyptic setting. We'll be able to explore above and below ground, even underwater--a first in the series--on a map that is set to be even larger than the already expansive original game's world. Aloy's sophomore adventure is shaping up to be an excellent one, that's for sure, and I'm eager to discover more about the game later this year.

Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart (PS5)

All of Sony's first-party PS5 projects and games use the system's enhanced hardware and solid state drive for sensationally fast loading times, and none show this as excellently gameplay-wise than with the latest in the Ratchet & Clank series, Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart. One segment of last June's first footage from the game showed our lombax and robot pair falling through portal after portal, where complex and completely different action-packed environments--that on any other platform would require loading screens to show--displayed themselves instantaneously in utterly impressive fashion. Rift Apart showcases a lot of the PS5's processing power, most certainly, and it'll be nice to have a wholly original game in the series to play, with new worlds and characters (such as a new mysterious female lombax!), after all this time!

Gran Turismo 7 (PS5)

Arguably the king of racing simulation games (the "arguably" is due to Forza being in contention), Gran Turismo 7, comes screeching down the PlayStation 5 pipeline. The ultimate driving simulator is estimated to make its PlayStation 5 debut sometime this year, and I cannot wait. Several classic modes are confirmed to return in this installment from past games, such as the GT Simulation Mode, the helpful tutorial and practice mode known as the Driving School, Special Events, and Championship modes, to name a handful, as well as various modes and features from Gran Turismo Sport. This seventh numbered edition of Gran Turismo is shaping up to speed into the hearts of many racing game lovers and delight!

Kena: Bridge of Spirits (PS5, PS4, PC)

A graphically stunning game made by a small but ambitious studio to boot, Kena: Bridge of Spirits looks absolutely delightful--almost Pixar-esque in its graphical glory. The game follows our eponymous protagonist as she serves as a spirit guide in an oriental-inspired world. There, she goes around venturing through the world collecting spiritual creatures. The developers have revealed that the name of these spirits is collectively known as the Rot. Using her staff, bow, and even getting some help from her new Rot friends, Kena engages in combat and sets off on a grand adventure to learn more about herself and restore the village hub to its former glory. Kena: Bridge of Spirits was delayed to later this year, but with a game with this much potential for being fantastic, I'm just fine with the developers taking as much time as they need to make Kena's debut adventure as great as possible.

Bravely Default II (NSW)

We move on from PlayStation projects and games on the horizon to the Nintendo Switch, which has some mystery surrounding it on what will actually release on the darn thing from Nintendo this year! Will we see the sequel to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild for the series' 35th anniversary? While we ponder that question, let's turn to Bravely Default II, the direct sequel to the Nintendo 3DS RPG hit from Square Enix. The Brave Point combat system from the original game returns, though in altered and refined form, as does the sensationally talented composer Revo. This time around, players find and collect asterisks in order to change each party member's class, making this job system function in a different way when compared to the 3DS original. After receiving feedback from players last year from the first demo, a final demo for Bravely Default II released a month ago, offering one last look at the game before it arrives on the Nintendo Switch on February 26th.

Super Mario 3D World + Bowser's Fury (NSW)

One of the few remaining games that could realistically make the jump from the Wii U to the Nintendo Switch without drastically reworking the game, Super Mario 3D World prepares to make the leap to Switch on February 12th. However, it's not just a simple port with little work done. In fact, Super Mario 3D World + Bowser's Fury seems more than worth its asking price with the new content packed into it. While we don't fully know the details about the new Bowser's Fury content, we do know that Mario and company have faster maximum running speeds to alter the gameplay rather significantly, and more interestingly, online co-op has been announced! I adored Super Mario 3D World on the Wii U, as you can see by the SPC review from 2013, so it'll be terrific to replay the game on a more enjoyable platform in the Switch with the game's new features.

Monster Hunter Rise (NSW)

It's time to rise up, hunters! Well... or at least will be come March, and possibly even in two days if the announced limited-time demo is set to debut that day after the big Monster Hunter Rise stream. Regardless, Monster Hunter Rise is currently set as a Nintendo Switch exclusive (though a Capcom leak revealed a PC version in the pipeline), and the game looks absolutely sensational so far. New and familiar monsters await battling, and the movement and mobility options on display in Rise have reached levels never witnessed before in the Monster Hunter franchise. It's going to make hunting down monsters an even more thrilling activity than past entries--and that was exciting already! The fact that Monster Hunter Rise looks so good running on the Switch is pretty astounding as well, as we all know that the system isn't the most powerful under the hood, but Capcom's development team have done superb work. It won't be long until we all get our hands on the final version of the game, but in the meantime, let's have that demo, Capcom!

No More Heroes III (NSW)

Suda51 is a master at making provocative, eccentric, and at times, just off-the-wall crazy games, and that's why a great deal of gamers love his titles. No More Heroes III seems to take the craziness and insanity and turn it up all the way to 11. Alien invasions? Check. Super Sentai-like abilities? Check. All the familiar beam katana action that fans of No More Heroes have come to love? Check and much more! No More Heroes III seems to serve as Suda51's magnum opus, at least for the No More Heroes series. If he and his team can nail down the mechanics and gameplay well enough so the game has a nice balance of style and substance, No More Heroes III will no doubt knock it out the proverbial ballpark. I can't wait to see just how masterfully insane No More Heroes III is and where the game goes.

Hollow Knight: Silksong (NSW, PC)

After its debut at Nintendo's E3 2019 showcase, fans of the original Hollow Knight were left in the dark, like being lost in the Hollownest, after there was complete radio silence from Team Cherry's Hollow Knight: Silksong. Fortunately, last week saw the reveal of new information as part of Edge Magazine's cover story for the game. While not a drastic departure so far from what made the original game so beloved and cherished--and for someone like me, that's great news--Silksong does feature some new gameplay and mechanical upgrades. Of course, there's the new playable character Hornet, whose move set is much different than the Knight's, but there is also a fresh quest system where Hornet can speak with various characters and assist them with tasks and missions. This is all the while keeping the intrinsic exploration and discoveries that fans like myself adored about the original Hollow Knight. Hollow Knight: Silksong will hopefully launch this year initially for Nintendo Switch and PC.

Ys IX: Monstrum Nox (PS4, NSW, PC)

Our final game on this edition of the Tuesday 10s, and the one that is closest to release--February 2nd for North America, to be exact--Ys IX: Monstrum Nox is the latest in the long-running series of action-RPG games. Once more, Adol Christin finds himself on a new adventure, though this time he seems to have gotten himself into a real pickle, being imprisoned and cursed as a Monstrum in the process! His new abilities grant him--and players themselves--new means and methods to get around areas, such as a warp that he can use to shift himself to higher platforms, and even the ability to run up walls. The familiar, tried and true high-octane combat Ys fans like myself love about the series returns with a new flavor as well, as many of the new mobility options available to Adol and his party are useable in battle, too. Ys IX: Monstrum Nox debuts first on PlayStation 4 with Nintendo Switch and PC versions launching later this summer.