How does one say goodbye? It may seem overly sentimental, but the PlayStation 4 is quickly approaching its twilight era, where new games for the console will slowly become less common until it's completely retired. And while there are a number of truly excellent games yet to come, one title serves as the first outrider of the platform's impending demise. Sucker Punch was among the first to launch the PS4 with Infamous: Second Son, and it seems utterly fitting they should be the first to close out the console with Ghost of Tsushima.
First, a brief history lesson, because it's probably the most "real" history you're going to get related to this game. In the fall of 1274 CE, Kublai Khan sent a sizable invasion force against Japan. The island of Tsushima was where they made their first landing en route to the Japanese Home Islands. During a long and bloody battle on the beach where the Mongols landed, the samurai of Tsushima and their troops were roundly defeated, and the island was completely overtaken by the Mongols within about two weeks. Looking for historic accuracy in Ghost of Tsushima is a fool's errand. The anachronisms are plentiful and range from the minor (like period inappropriate sake brewery equipment) to the major (every character in the game). This isn't about recreating history, or even trying to get at the "real story" of the Mongol invasion of Japan. It can't even get the right flowers blooming at the right time of year. It's grand spectacle on par with classic samurai movies by Akira Kurosawa and modern titles by the likes of Takashi Miike. It's all about the romance of the period and the genre. It's entirely fictional.
None of which makes this game any less incredible.
Even on a regular PlayStation 4, Ghost of Tsushima looks absolutely gorgeous. From the way the pampas grass waves in the wind and leaves fall from the trees, down to the details of the weapons and armor worn by the main character, his allies and his enemies, Sucker Punch has managed to apply almost a decade's worth of development lessons towards making this world look amazing. You can tell that it's not raw horsepower driving the visuals, but rather artistry. It's a fusion of the technical working in service to the aesthetic which brings about expansive environments and the simple interiors of buildings together in a way you just don't see very much any more. Even the most violent moments have a sense of poetry to them. If your idea of "artistic violence" is a Shaw Brothers B-movie, you're going to be blown away. Ghost of Tsushima gives you an idea about what Sam Peckinpah would likely have done if he'd been making a samurai movie.
Another indication about the lack of brute force is the loading times when fast traveling or transitioning between areas as part of a mission. They're incredibly fast. Sometimes, you barely get a chance to read the tool tips. Is it perfect? No, perfection escapes Ghost of Tsushima, particularly in the fur and hair department on animals. Some, like bears, can get away with it. Others, like the helpful foxes and horses, don't seem to be quite right. It might be a different case on a PlayStation 4 Pro, but they look a bit rough. That said, "rough" doesn't automatically equate to "unpleasant." Some horses look ugly as hell, but you can tell that they're supposed to look ugly, that they're intentionally mangy looking because Sucker Punch wanted you to be riding a worn down nag instead of a well groomed war horse. And that's all just on the regular visual setting. If you really wanted to get artistic with your game, you can choose to play it in black and white, or even in "Kurosawa Mode" which makes it black and white as well as adjusting frame rate and audio quality to reflect the original releases of films like Seven Samurai and Yojimbo.
While I couldn't quite bring myself to play in Kurosawa Mode the first time around, I'm glad I didn't, since I got a chance to enjoy not only the visuals but the audio in its full glory. Much like the visuals, there's a feeling of artistry to the whole package. The music score is very low on orchestral bombast, but it manages to not only set the mood, but also do so subtly. Hearing the shifts from travel to impending danger to actual combat is rarely jarring unless you've been completely inattentive about your surroundings. The music and sound effects work to help immerse the player in the setting, both in a cinematic and naturalistic sense. Like any good movie soundtrack, the music often stays just below the level of your consciousness. And like any good foley work, the sound effects are never employed in a way that breaks the sense of immersion. When The Game Awards come around later this year, I wouldn't be surprised if this soundtrack was one of the nominees.
There are some that might be turned off by the idea of undertaking yet another open world game, doubtlessly suffering from the fatigue of too many meaningless widget hunts in games like Assassin's Creed Odyssey or Far Cry 5. While Ghost of Tsushima may be an open world game, it doesn't have quite the same cluttered feel you find in Ubisoft titles. In many ways, it echoes the sensibilities found in The Witcher III. You're almost never just hunting stuff to tick off a box on a list. From finding onsen hot springs to bump your health to bamboo cutting stands to improve your Resolve meter for special moves to fox dens which lead to unlocking charm slots, it's all about building yourself into the single most terrifying warrior ever to stride the island of Tsushima. When you go hunting for document records and Mongol artifacts, it doesn't feel like you're just picking up random stuff. It gives the sense that you're picking up intelligence, learning about how your enemies think, finding out why your putative allies haven't been backing you up. Questing feels like you're working to inflict manpower and material losses on the enemy while building popular support for your efforts to overthrow the occupation. Even the purely cosmetic pursuits of different dyes for your armor and different saddles for your horse don't have a sense of urgency to them beyond your own personal desire to look cool. The haiku locales aren't just pretty spots to compose bad poetry, but they're soothing as well as mentally focusing, having you contemplate ephemeral concepts instead of simply hacking your enemies down, much as samurai once did before going to do battle. And you get nifty headbands with your particular poetic work attached to them.
Beyond the object hunting, you're going to be fighting Mongols, bandits, and ronin who aren't doing anything more interesting, along with controlling the local wildlife population for hides. This may be the weakest portion of the game, oddly enough, with some very intricate button presses that don't seem to get a whole hell of a lot of use. It may have been a result of play style, or maybe just a lack of clear instruction, but a number of special attacks which were unlocked in the course of play almost never got used. Certainly the few times I tried didn't end well for me. While the game does give you some basic combat instruction in flashback sequences, having a dojo to practice your moves between missions would have been very helpful.
We may have established that Ghost of Tsushima isn't particularly accurate from a historic perspective, but that doesn't mean that the story isn't worthwhile or that the characters are somehow diminished by being purely fictional constructs. The Mongol invasion becomes a framing device where players assume the role of Jin Sakai, the last scion of his clan, and one of the few samurai who survived the battle on Komoda Beach. Tsushima under Mongol occupation becomes a sandbox where you (as Jin) must try to reconcile the demands of honor, duty, and responsibility when faced with an enemy who has not only studied your entire culture, but has designed their invasion forces specifically to counter your every move. And no matter what you do, somebody is always going to complain about it.
While the main storyline moves you through Jin's efforts to take another shot at Mongol general and magnificent bastard Khotun Khan, the better storylines are in the smaller stories, the one-off quests where a peasant or village elder has a small problem that needs to be solved, as well as the multi-part secondary quests for Jin's "inner circle." Even the "Mythic" quests which have Jin hunting down lost artifacts and secret techniques feel more fleshed out than the main quest in some regards. That said, the main storyline still sets the tone for the whole game, and if there is a feeling of "gaps" in the narrative, it's perhaps a subtle direction on the part of Sucker Punch to nudge the player towards taking care of other business in the area before getting down to the main event. How much of those other quests you do before finishing the main quests of a given act in a sense determines the narrative flow. Do you go straight for Khotun Khan's throat, rampaging through the main quests without stopping or leveling up? Or do you conduct a classic guerrilla campaign, destroying supply depots, eliminating leadership, and making the enemy feel the blade hovering over their neck before the final stroke? A direct run through the main missions would be a murderous challenge, even before the recently added difficulty mode came out, but it could be an interesting narrative flavor, leaving the Mongols on Tsushima without their Khan as you slowly wipe them out to the last man.
Ghost of Tsushima is not an innovative game by any stretch of the imagination. It doesn't break new ground in any technical areas, it doesn't come up with any unheard of mechanics, and it relies on tried-and-true formulas. Yet it still rises to the level of art in the way that they are presented, how those techniques and mechanics are deployed to evoke feeling and even touch the spirit, if only for a moment. Once the final fight was over and after the credits rolled, even a jaded old gamer such as myself had to take a few moments and reflect on the journey, seven breaths of contemplation on what just happened and where I would go from there. Rarely has a game ever struck me that hard or in that fashion, but Ghost of Tsushima did so with the speed and steadiness of an iaijutsu draw. If nothing else, Ghost of Tsushima settles, once and for all, the argument that video games can be art as much as entertainment.
Hands that shaped the world
A bond broken forever
This is where we part
--Final haiku, Ghost of Tsushima