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Thursday, September 8, 2022

Ghost of Tsushima

With Ghost of Tsushima, Sucker Punch tries their hand at a next-gen open-world experience, blending elements of stealth, sword combat, character customization and cinematic storytelling together.  But does it all come together and become a quality experience, or will it soon vanish like a ghost into obscurity?

Sucker Punch isn't the biggest name associated with Sony, but they're a well-known one nonetheless. They've created a number of creative and original IPs in their time, beginning with Rocket; Robot on Wheels for the Nintendo 64 before moving on to create the Sly Cooper and Infamous franchises, both of which became strong sellers on the Playstation consoles. Ghost of Tsushima was their first new IP in nearly a decade, working some elements of their older games into a tale based on the first Mongol invasion of Japan.

That sets it apart from their previous games already, but what sold me on it almost immediately was its handling of some design elements seen in almost every major AAA game of the last decade. A subtle, but welcome change is that there's no hard "quest marker" pointing you straight toward your current objective; instead, the wind blows toward whatever you've currently marked on the map, rustling trees, grass and other objects. Not only is this less distracting and 'video gamey' so to speak, but it adds an element of immersion as you can still run into roadblocks on the way there - steep terrain, roving bandits, and so forth, and even once you've gotten there, you often have to find a way in that isn't clearly marked. You can also spend skill points to point it toward other side-objectives that boost Health and Resolve, give new pieces of equipment and the like; something I recommend you spend your first couple points on, as you tend to die pretty quickly in battle until you've gotten the hang of its intricacies (though the Director's Cut offsets this to a degree by starting you off with a non-upgradable armor that boosts your health and defense).

The game's cinematic design is also spot on; easily among the best I've seen in the world of gaming.  It's all too common in games going for a "movie-like" presentation that you get some astonishingly boring scene staging, with characters just standing two feet apart, never moving, while the camera cuts between 400 random angles for no reason whatsoever.  Ghost of Tsushima has relatively little character dialog with incidental characters, which allows them to do away with that almost completely.  Almost every interaction and plot scene is well-staged and framed, even retaining accurate lip syncing regardless of whether you have the language set to English or Japanese.  It feels like a professionally shot and edited film - very much a good thing in a game heavily inspired by Akira Kurosawa.  They even have another nod to this in the form of "Kurosawa Mode", which renders all of the game's graphics in black-and-white with a film grain filter added; I ended up turning this off after a while, though, as it quickly became difficult to distinguish enemies and objects from the background.  The art design is clearly geared toward contrasting, vivid colors, so while being able to play in black-and-white is a cute nod, it's not much fun to actually do.

Ghost of Tsushima's gameplay is what you'd expect of an open world game - venture around the landscape, discover objectives, complete them to earn resources, unlock new weapons and tools and power up your character so you're better prepared for future challenges.  One very big plus to this is that moving around the island is very fluid and efficient - you can summon your horse with a single button press to travel more quickly, and you can also fast-travel to the location of any major point of interest on the map you've already cleared.  Many of the game's missions are framed as episodic story arcs, having the protagonist aid them in their struggles to retake the island from the Mongols, though some serve as standalone tales, having the player hunt down a fabled lost treasure of Tsushima or go searching for other locales of interest.  Upgrades tend to be of the incremental variety - hot springs will boost your maximum health slightly, finding shrines grants you charms that aid you in various ways (gaining health from enemy kills, making sneaking more efficient and so forth), and completing bamboo-chopping minigames will boost your maximum Resolve, which allows you to perform powerful techniques or recover health in a pinch.  Completing objectives and slaying foes earns you "Legend", which serves as an experience system that grants new Technique Points and, at certain thresholds, will grant you new weapons and boost your maximum Health and Resolve.  You'll also encounter frequent bandit/Mongol patrols you have the option to avoid or fend off, though even fighting them aids you - they often take hostages that will reveal information on future missions and drop valuable supplies for upgrades.  Clearing out enemy encampments will also reveal a big chunk of the map around them, potentially pointing you in the way of more undiscovered useful things.

Throughout the game, you earn plenty of different types of equipment that complement different playstyles - armors that grant various bonuses in battle or stealth, upgradable charms, and weapons, all of which can be upgraded at smiths.  This of course results in another staple of modern gaming - the crafting system.  Fortunately, Ghost of Tsushima's focus on this is relatively subdued - there are only twelve real resources to find, and they're generally found in common-sense places; wood is found in the wilds, while metal and steel are most frequently scavenged from Mongol camps.  There's a generic currency in the form of "Supplies" too, with later upgrades getting pretty costly in terms of the amount required; a subtle way to get you to tackle more side-missions or go roaming for bandit patrols in search of them.

Swordplay is always a tricky thing to get right in games like this; either it's overcomplicated and not really fun to deal with (Kingdom Come: Deliverance), or it's overly simple (most of the Zeldas).  Tsushima hits a good balance here; the actual combat itself isn't especially complex, with slower, guard-breaking slashes and quicker ones that deal damage and can chain attacks, but it works well enough, especially when you're facing down multiple opponents.  There's no clunky lock-on system to deal with; instead, you just press toward an enemy and hit an attack button or hold L1 to block an attack (with a parry occurring if you tap the button just before or as their weapon lands).  Some weapons can't be blocked, though, and must either be parried or avoided entirely with a quick dodge.  Using all of these skills well is important too, as even with numerous upgrades and strong armor you tend to die in only a few good hits.  As the game progresses, you get more tools to even the odds, too - black powder and sticky bombs to damage enemies, kunai to stun multiple opponents quickly, and various Stances to deal with different types of weapons - Water stance for dealing with shielded opponents, Wind is more effective against spear-wielders, and Moon is effective against Brutes (large, highly damaging enemies).  You can swap stances on the fly with a combination of buttons as well, and you'll definitely need to late-game when battles get larger and more chaotic.

Unless you're supremely confident in your combat skills, though, it can be very difficult to take every battle head-on and win, especially when you're taking on strongholds with dozens of Mongols inside.  Fortunately, you often have other options.  As you approach enemy groups you get the option to challenge their "strongest" to a one-on-one duel, in which you can take them out with a single well timed press-and-release; miss, though, and you'll take a ton of damage.  (You can also purchase upgrades to this that let you take out one or two additional enemies before you have to engage the rest normally.)  Stealth is the other major option, and the game gives you plenty of ways to discreetly eliminate enemies and stir up chaos.  Setting up traps with wind chimes and environmental hazards, poisoning guards so they attack other enemies, picking them off with arrows from afar, or sneaking around and backstabbing them one-by-one (an instant kill for most enemies; bosses take major damage from it).

One slightly odd element is that the game seems like it's set up to have multiple story paths based on your choice of tactics and dialog, but it actually doesn't.  Whether you act "honorably" by facing all of your opponents head-on or use underhanded, stealthier tactics, the story plays out the same either way, with the only real difference being some lines of dialog here and there, with characters either chastising or encouraging your choices.  Granted, Tsushima's marketing never claims that it does have multiple story paths or a branching narrative, which sets it a cut above most games I've seen that promise that and don't really deliver, but it did make me wonder if it was something they had planned but ended up scrapping along the course of development.

All told, though, I was pleasantly surprised with Ghost of Tsushima.  It's a fine open-world game that overcomes several common shortcomings of the genre, and really highlights how fluid movement and strong action are absolutely essential in games like this - if major components of the experience aren't fun or are overly monotonous, it's really going to drag the game down fast.  The exploration element is consistently rewarding, with a surprisingly meaty amount of story content and few missions that feel like drab filler.  It's a very well-produced and gorgeous-looking experience too, flawlessly capturing the cinematic elements of its inspirations and making its game world - essentially a lot of wide open space - visually captivating with its use of bold color, negative space and wind moving around plantlife and clothing making it feel more alive and immersive.  Even the subtle visual cues are quite clever - the weather becomes more cloudy/stormy the more you rely on stealth attacks and other underhanded tactics (a subtle reference to the real-life Mongolian invasion being thwarted by a devastating typhoon - storms are also a recurring motif in the game), and areas with characters in need of help are indicated with smokestacks, letting you find them from long distances even without a quest marker.  A lot of people consider Horizon Zero Dawn to be the Playstation 4/5's answer to Breath of the Wild, but Ghost of Tsushima fits the bill much better in my book, taking hints from its freeform, creativity-inspiring design and showing an impressive level of polish that gives any of Nintendo's high-profile releases a run for their money.  An excellent experience and one that I strongly recommend.

Developer: Sucker Punch Productions
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Platform: Playstation 4, Playstation 5
Released: 2020, 2021
Recommended Version: I've only personally played the Playstation 4 version, but the Director's Cut upgrade is available on both platforms and contains several additions and performance tweaks, including an entirely new area laden with quests based on Iki island.