Ghost of Tsushima is an open-world action game available for the PlayStation 4. Joseph Pugh conducted this review on a standard PlayStation 4 console on hard mode.
UPDATE: Ghost of Tsushima has received the 1.05 patch after this review was written that has altered some of my feelings on the game, the score has been updated to reflect this. Updated portions of the review are denoted in red text.
You play as Jin, the last Samurai of the Sakai clan during the Mongols invasion of Tsushima island. To combat the Mongols you will not only need to hone your skills with intense methodical sword play, but also learn new tactics that break the Samurai’s code of honor, becoming the Ghost of Tsushima.
Stealth, honorable combat, or a mixture of both are tools the player can use to drive the Mongols away. The world is full of opportunities and meaningful experiences to find, including a plethora of well-written side quests.
Ghost of Tsushima is a beautiful and thematic game. It is very cinematic in nature, but bursting at the seams with gameplay. The attention to detail is impressive, visually, and in battle. Yet, not everything in the game is as unbreakable as the Samurai’s code.
One thing that is impossible to criticize in Ghost is something often overlooked. As the end of a console generation looms, it’s more and more common for games to run less than optimal, and the aging hardware simply makes that acceptable. Ghost of Tsushima elegantly reminds us, that excuse is horse crap.
I reviewed the game on a standard PlayStation 4 console, not a pro. The game is open world and ridiculously gorgeous. Every moment of the game is filled with incredibly vivid visuals with fine details and tons of particles. Rain slopes off of rooves, while leaves kick up around you and trees, sway in the wind. All without any noticeable performance drop on my end, the entire game felt smooth.
Most impressive of all, were the lightning-fast loading screens that take a mere second or two, despite the fact it was running off of an HDD. Ghost of Tsushima is a technical marvel that puts nearly every other game to shame and destroys the excuse that aging hardware is to blame for crap performance.
A Samurai Story
The story in Ghost of Tsushima is a serious one full of bloodshed, loss, and sorrow, but also hope and a reason to fight. The story is predictable, I had guessed the ending within hours, but it was enjoyable all the same. The writing is solid and the voice acting is superb.
Jin himself is a little bland, there isn’t much to the main character’s personality outside of being a samurai. He speaks little, and when he does his sentiments are short and to the point. He comes out of his shell a bit in the late game but overall he really doesn’t have a lot going for him.
I don’t know whether this is to help insert the player into his sandals, or to portray his calm headed Samurai dedication, but it is a bit of a bummer. Jin is likable, don’t get me wrong, but he is very passive. The other characters tend to be as equally serious, but have varying personalities and they all have interesting history to explore.
The main story itself is a bit short if you just blow through it. But doing so is missing the point of an open-world sandbox. The game is full of well-written side quests, short and long. Most of which remain attached to the games the main theme of the Mongol Invasion. Others explore the tales of Jins’ friends.
From a story and gameplay perspective, the side quests and main content are equals in quality.
For the purpose of immersion, the HUD is very minimal and the game does not feature a mini-map. You find most places of interest through exploration. Smoke on the horizon implies a Mongol camp is near, or perhaps something else. Golden birds will lead you to new locations and the cute little Foxes will guide your way to Inari shrines.
Likewise, if you follow the Torii gates they will lead you to a Kami shrine. The people you encounter may tell you rumors of something they have heard, which will place it on your map. You can then use the wind to guide you to it. It’s a very different take on open-world games and I enjoyed looking at the beautiful environment instead of a lame mini-map showing me where to go.
While the game does feature collectibles, most things you can find have tangible benefits. Places where you can make Haikus that grant new headbands, you may find shrines with new cosmetic sword sheathes. Hot springs can increase your maximum health while Kami shrines grant new charms.
While none of that is strictly necessary to complete the game, linking pieces of Jin’s progression to exploration is a nice extra incentive to see all that island offers. On the flip side, there isn’t much emergence in the world outside of the occasional Mongol or bandit patrol.
I don’t like to fast travel in open-world games, but if I had already explored an area, there was little reason not to since nothing interesting would happen during the trip.
The combat in Ghost of Tsushima is phenomenal and a bit different than what you may be used to, at least on the hard difficulty. Early on in the story, Jin is taught that patience is a Samurai’s greatest weapon, It’s not only Jin that is supposed to take this lesson to heart, you are too.
In the first half of the game, button mashing will get you skewered, I’ll talk about the second half a bit later. You need to read your enemy’s movements, dodge, block and counter to effectively win.
You can unlock several stances and special side weapons to use, and changing them on the fly is necessary to win. Each stance is good against a single enemy type, Stone stance for swordsmen, for example.
Combat is swift and lethal; attacking a staggered enemy often kills them, and on hard at least, you can’t take too many strikes either. When you get the combat down, it looks like a beautiful and fluid art form. Anyone watching you play would have trouble believing the action wasn’t choreographed. The combat animations are exceptionally fluid and smooth, lending the combat a great deal of flair.
In many games, the action makes you look and feel like a badass, in Ghost of Tsushima, you become one. The animations don’t play the game for you, they are simply the easel in which you paint the scene using your own Samurai skills.
Resolve fuels your special moves but it’s also how you heal yourself. It’s pretty fitting to draw upon one’s own resolve to keep fighting. You gain resolve by quite literally doing cool Samurai stuff. Which is just awesome.
The controls are for the most part smooth and intuitive, the lack of any kind of lock on grants you immense freedom in how you attack. Simply pushing the left thumbstick in an enemy’s direction allows you to target them. Though indoors the camera can be a bit wonky.
You have to think quickly during combat and react to your enemy, time slows down when you are changing stances, or ghost weapons which helps you keep up. Sadly doing the same thing with ranged weapons is not so forgiving.
More than once I accidentally equipped freaking wind chimes (normally used for distractions) instead of my bow and it usually went like this. “Fear me Mongols!” Nyehh….ding..
If you want to approach a situation head-on, you can call out your enemy in a standoff. A literal “Come at me bro” button. Standoffs are quick-time events where you duel a foe in classic Samurai fashion, timing your buttons release to strike them. Upgrades allow you to take multiple people down in a standoff.
Boss battles on the other hand are kind of weak. They are strict one on one fights with a much more limited repertoire of attacks and options. They are neat the first few times, but they wear out their welcome quickly.
Jin is severely outnumbered and honor can only take him so far. To even the odds, you must employ the tactics of the dishonorable ghost. This not only involves sneaking around and thinning out the enemy via stealth kills, but an array of tools called ghost weapons and employing fear.
Certain attacks or items have a chance to invoke fear in the Mongols, causing some of them to drop their weapons and run away. Basically, you’re Samurai Batman, you are the night, and your enemies should fear you!
Tall grass and roof tops are your best friend, you can stealth kill enemies up close with your blade or far away with your bow and poisons. Windchimes can distract the guards. The environments are cleverly designed with vantage points and hiding spots, as well as environmental hazards you can use. Hornets nests and gunpowder barrels can be turned against the Mongols, and even tall grass can be lit on fire.
Should you get into combat, you can throw kunai to stun foes, drop a smoke bomb or use the black powder to even the odds. Like the rest of the game, the animations and overall gameplay look and feel incredibly fluid and smooth. You have a lot of options and choice in how you approach each situation, and it is quite satisfying to pull off a plan of your own making.
You gain technique points as you play that you can spend on new Samurai and Ghost moves. You also collect materials to upgrade your Katana, tanto, bows, and armor sets. While you do collect wood in the wild, most of your goods come from quests and outposts.
In fact, nearly every activity in the game grants you new stuff. Taking down Mongol leaders is what unlocks different stances. Mythic tales grant you special armors and attacks such as exploding arrows.
Shrines and quests give you major and minor charms. You can equip these for different kinds of effects, some big and others small. The armor in particular is implemented very well. Each set grants wildly different bonuses to Jin. Some aid combat, others in stealth, or archery. You can feel the effects of armor in the game as you play, and each one is useful in it’s own way
You can also customize your armor with different styles and colors, new headbands, hats, helmets, and masks. There is an impressive number of unlockable cosmetic items, mostly found through exploration and questing.
The Challenge of Tsushima
On lower difficulties, you might be able to simply fight everything. On hard, you need to use all of your talents and tools, at least at first. Getting spotted in an outpost doesn’t automatically alert the entire encampment, this means you can thin the herd and get into sporadic fights throughout the camp.
Fighting will draw nearby enemies to you, but unless one of them blows a horn, you can take them out and continue on. This makes for incredible moments where you dart around a camp taking out a couple of guards then diving into the fray with awesome Samurai skills before vanishing into the shadows once more.
This allows you to fight on your own terms and it honestly feels great. Dropping from a roof to chain three stealth kills together, then stick a black powder bomb to a shield guy before parrying and insta-killing a swordsman gives you the sense of being in a Samurai film, and to pull it off, you have to get good at the game. It’s incredibly satisfying when the right amount of challenge is there.
The more you play, the more the cracks begin to show. The stealth is incredibly abusable due to the dumb AI. Clearing an encampment completely unseen is nowhere near as entertaining as a mixture of fierce combat and stealth.
The enemies are painfully ignorant to your presence and take forever to actually spot you, even when you move out of cover. It’s very easy to dart around any camp unseen.
If they find a body you can continually snipe them as they investigate. When using windchimes you only ever draw a single guard at a time, and you choose which one. You can literally throw chimes, one at a time to draw guard after guard away from a group and sneak attack them. No one ever finds this suspicious in any way.
The lethal difficulty introduced in patch 1.05 makes enemies detect Jin significantly faster. The stealth AI is still poor, but you do have to be far more cautious when playing lethal mode.
Furthermore, I was incredibly disappointed the first time I died trying to clear a Mongol encampment. When you die during a quest, you reset to a checkpoint. However, many camps exist in the open world for you to clear. Dying didn’t reset anything. Every guard I killed was still dead. It was as if I didn’t die at all. Making the entire point of being able to fail, non-existent.
These encampments are the playground in which you can unleash your toolbox, it took the wind out of my chimes when I realized that no matter how I approached it, I couldn’t fail, I’d just make incremental progress no matter how much I died. The game already features an easy mode and the loading after death is so quick it’s not even inconvenient. There is no reason to have this kind of coddling in the game.
While not listed in the patch notes, I noticed that the enemy camps were, in fact, respawning after I died when playing the new lethal difficulty. The only camps I have left in the post-game are smaller ones. One possibility is that small camps do reset while the larger strongholds do not.
Once you get to the second half of the game, Jin receives such powerful abilities that the concept of the Ghost is silly. You can kill half a dozen foes almost instantly and send even more running in terror. The challenge vanishes and the combat almost becomes repetitious. The boss duels remain tough, but also kind of funny. Jin can now slaughter entire camps in straight combat but struggles with a single swordsman for no real reason.
The new lethal difficulty is significantly more challenging. Some abilities and armor boosts are still abusable, especially once upgraded. But I can’t deny how much better it feels on lethal mode. Enemies are more aggressive and deal far more damage. The deadly combat gives you a reason to thin out the herd as every strike could end you. It pairs well with the fact that you are spotted quicker.
Ghost of Tsushima is a stellar game in a large number of ways and a fitting end to the PlayStation 4’s life. It’s nearly unmatched in technical prowess, and the environments are some of the most impressive in gaming.
The combat and stealth mixture is phenomenal, and as you improve at that game, you will look and feel awesome in ways most games can’t match. The exploration is handled exceptionally well, and the side quests are high quality.
The story was enjoyable, if predictable despite Jin’s blandness. Game balance just takes a steep dive after a certain point, wreaking havoc on Tsushima’s refined craftsmanship.
The stealth AI is atrocious, the boss fights are shallow, and you become an unstoppable beast halfway through the game in direct conflict with the Ghost concept.
Even still, Ghost of Tsushima remains one of the most thrilling and entertaining open-world games to release this generation. It captures the feeling of Samurai perfectly through fantastic combat and fine details. It handles exploration in a way that does away with GPS style mini maps and radars while offering a great deal of quality content through and through. While it isn’t perfect, it’s still a humble ending for the current generation of PlayStation games.
While still not perfect, the new lethal setting introduced in patch 1.05 goes a long way toward fixing quite a few of my complaints, and I enjoy the game, even more, thanks to it. The score has been updated from 8.5 to 9.0.
- Beautiful, highly detailed, smooth, with lightning-quick load screens
- Superb animations and hit detection
- Meaningful open-world exploration
- Fantastic methodical combat, and stealth gameplay
- Interesting, and well-voiced characters
- Great and well-written side quests
- Excellent and meaningful progression
- Difficulty settings present
- Plenty of content
- Jin doesn’t have much personality
- Predictable story
- Terrible, exploitable stealth AI (The new lethal setting makes enemies detect you faster)
- The game ceases to be challenging in the second half, even on hard (The new lethal difficulty does help address this)
- Boss battles are repetitive after the first few
- The open-world lacks emergence, outside of the occasional Mongol patrol, nothing interesting happens when traveling.