Ghost of Tsushima is best when it's quiet.
Sucker Punch's latest PS4 game is an attempt to combine the structure of a traditional open world game with the backdrop of a classic samurai film. Think of it as Assassin's Creed via Akira Kurosawa. When things click, it's amazing. Ghost is a beautiful game that is full of concentrated, contemplative moments, from tense one-on-one sword duels to peaceful retreats to compose haiku under a tree. Ghost doesn't reach the same heights as its cinematic inspiration, but it shows their themes and style in a way that feels at least unique to a video game.
The problem is that it is often not quiet. Open world games are big and bustling, and these elements – the gigantic battles, the extensive map, the numerous side quests, the repeating mission structure – drown out what makes Ghost so special. The two sides of the game constantly feel at odds. If it works, it's incredible. The rest of the time is another open world action game.
Ghost of Tsushima takes place in 13th century Japan when a Mongolian army invaded the title island. You play as Jin Sakai, one of the few remaining samurai on Tsushima after a large-scale attack that wiped out a large part of the warrior population. Jin's goal is initially relatively small: he wants to save his uncle, the leader of the Tsushima samurai, who was captured by the Mongolian leader. After all, as these things do so often, the stakes get higher. Jin is effectively becoming the leader of a resistance force that is trying to thwart the invasion and prevent it from spreading to mainland Japan.
This process is not easy. The conflict at the core of the game isn't just between two opposing armies. It is also in Jin himself. In the beginning he is a traditional samurai who faces his enemies directly and values honor above all else. But that doesn't necessarily win wars. To successfully fend off the ruthless invasion force that uses siege weapons and tactics to terrorize the enemy, he has to try different tactics.
This happens in different ways. The most important thing is how Jin changes. He is slowly losing his samurai upbringing to become something else. He uses stealth tactics, morally questionable weapons like poison arrows and much more to become what the residents of Tsushima simply call "the ghost". In the end, he is basically a samurai batman equipped with a variety of combat skills and useful devices.
But Jin can't do it alone, which fits into the structure of the game. Most of the quests in Ghost of Tsushima are about preparing to fight the Mongols and kill their leader. That means gathering the support of the island's residents – including a core group of four allies, including a warrior monk and a shamed bow master – to search for new skills and weapons, and to clear camps, cities, and farmland to set up safe zones .
It sounds cool, but mostly plays like any other game in the genre. The missions – especially the side quests – can be painfully general. Almost everyone is about going into an area, freeing it from enemies and possibly collecting an important item along the way. Some require stealth, others climbing or chasing, and almost everyone forces you to walk or ride alongside another character while telling you what appears to be important. Ghost of Tsushima is a well-made game, but it often reveals a serious lack of imagination. You may feel like you've been transferred to 13th century Japan, but that doesn't mean you can move away from explosive red barrels or the ubiquitous tower sequence.
"Ghost of Tsushima" often reveals a serious lack of imagination
These elements are not bad in themselves. It's just that they've been seen so many times, be it in Assassins Creed, Shadow of Mordor, The Witcher, or virtually any other open world game in the past 10 years. What makes this particularly frustrating is that the new elements that Ghost brings to the genre are interesting and so well match the game's themes and attitudes. But they get lost in a structure for painting by numbers.
A good example of this is the fight. Jin is a samurai master and he controls like one. As you progress through the game, you'll learn different points of view, each of which works particularly well against a particular enemy type and has slightly different controls. The result is that the fight feels different depending on whether you are up against a large, bulky blank or an experienced swordsman with a shield. The game also encourages exploration and often drives you to goals in a subtle way. There is a function called "Leitwind" that sounds exactly like this: You see a gust of wind pointing in the direction of your current destination. It's mostly a soft memory, unlike the solid push games the player usually receives. When it comes to exploration, there is a similar light touch. You may see a golden bird or a brown fox that will make you follow them to something interesting.
The problem is that these ideas are often buried under or undermined by traditional elements of the open world. For example, fighting small groups of enemies is a lot of fun. You need to think about your posture and can confuse things with weapons like hidden throwing blades. But often the game throws waves and waves of enemy soldiers at you and it turns into a push of a button. Likewise, spontaneous discovery and exploration is not so fun when the streets are full of enemy soldiers and other dangers. The idea of getting into another battle kept me from going anywhere to see what I could find; As much as I love to ride games and enjoy the scenery, I've often resorted to the option of fast travel instead.
My absolute favorite moments in Ghost of Tsushima are when things get to the point. For key battles, the game uses a duel format that is incredibly reduced. There are no viewpoints or special weapons. It's just you and a sword who use timing and quick reflexes to defeat your opponent. There are also more contemplative moments that are completely non-violent. When you find a relaxing hot spring, you can sit and think about things that happened during your trip to that point. There are quiet places where you can sit and compose a haiku from pre-written lines. Jin will search the world for inspiration and you choose what to write. It's rare for a blockbuster action game to ask you to do something so calm and meditative, but it's a wonderful respite from the blood-soaked action.
It's rare for a blockbuster game to prompt you to do something so calm and meditative
These moments often feel hidden. If you want Ghost to be more than a standard action game, you need to look for these elements. Fortunately, unlike Days Gone, for example, the world and history are at least interesting. As I skipped a few side quests, I made sure I went through the storylines for each of Jin's close allies who had their own storylines that kept me away from the main story. The characters range from an embarrassed sensei looking for his best student who has defected to the Mongolian army to a reformed thief trying to live a better life. Learning more about these people was enough to push me through some of the more boring side quests. It is a testament to acting and writing that even though I saw most of the big story beats coming, I was still involved.
Ghost of Tsushima also tries to combine the gameplay and the narrative in an interesting way, which ultimately doesn't quite work. In essence, the game wants you to feel guilty about Jin's transformation. If you do something that isn't particularly honorable, like using an arrow to poison an unsuspecting soldier, you'll often be greeted with a flashback that tells a young Jin about his sensei, "If we take their lives let's look them in the eye. "Nowadays Jin has to constantly admit that" I did what I had to do ". The problem is that you have to play pretty much as a ghost; the game is both difficult and difficult is less fun than compliant samurai, and certain missions require a stealth approach. If the game tells you to play with the new toy you just got, I never felt really guilty. It didn't help that I did felt that despite violating his code, Jin was actually doing the right thing by sacrificing himself and his reputation to help his people.
Maybe Ghost is suffering from unrealistic expectations. After all, it's a well-crafted, if not particularly imaginative, adventure that recalls some of the most important films of all time. But it is also the last big exclusive PS4. And after a series of creative and daring hits, including Death Stranding, The Last of Us Part II and Final Fantasy VII Remake, Ghost of Tsushima is kind of a disappointment. We also saw that it is perfectly possible to take the worn open world structure and twist it in some way to keep it fresh, whether it's Horizon Zero Dawn's fanciful environment or Spider-Mans web slinging acts, but Ghost also plays things safely.
Ghost of Tsushima just doesn't go far enough into what makes it unique. It's big and beautiful – but you have to have the patience of a samurai to find out what makes it so special.
Ghost of Tsushima launches on PS4 on July 17th.