Despite the historical setting and the grim tone of the marketing, you shouldn’t expect a documentary here. The Mongol invasion is a fascinating subject and great care is taken to inject elements of verisimilitude, but it’s always in service of fun gameplay.
The history books for example will tell you that typhoons, which the Samurai would go on to dub “divine winds”, were primarily responsible for killing and repelling the Mongol invaders attacking Tsushima. Here the Mongols take the island and the repelling force is primarily the player, as Sakai, though aided in many ways by the magical wind.
I was initially taken aback by the game’s graphical style; the Tsushima depicted here is endlessly vibrant, bordering on glossy. But the bold colours and high sheen, combined with the wind that whips exaggerated embers, pollen and leaves around you constantly, makes for some beautifully hyperreal scenes. During the day the sky is filled with birds and streaked with colour above impossible yellow forests or purple fields. While at night fireflies wander enormous fields of fluttering silver lillies, or frogs break the brilliant reflection of the moon on black ponds. Frequent storms only add to the drama and spectacle.
The broader aesthetic is unapologetically inspired by film director Akira Kurosawa, from the period outfits and the title cards that open each tale to an unexpected use of the classic Samurai cinema full-screen red effect. There’s even an optional “Kurosawa mode” that muffles the audio, desaturates the visuals and makes everything extremely windy for a true Seven Samurai vibe. There’s also an option for full Japanese dialogue, independent of Kurosawa mode, which I was glad for because the Japanese-accented American English voices were too much.
Combat is very much a core pillar of the game here, and though Jin maintains elements of his Samurai ways throughout (you always have the Katana as your main weapon, as well as the option to challenge enemies to a face-to-face standoff), the introduction of new tactics and gear makes for a fun and flexible system that rewards creativity and timing.
In open combat enemies circle you and attack one at a time in true cinematic style, and once you’ve unlocked certain upgrades and learnt your parries from your dodges you’ll be able to dispatch many of them with a single strike. Meanwhile you also have ranged weapons and can invest in more devious methods involving smoke bombs, covert assassinations, poison and fire. Scenarios range from wide open fields where you’re free to approach enemies as you like, to one-on-one duals where watching for an opening is key. The combat is backed by a series of visually incredible armour sets you can collect, customise and upgrade as you go, ranging from flowing cloth and straw hats to intricately carved Samurai masks and steel.
My one issue with the fighting is that the camera remains manual outside of duels, with no ability to lock onto enemies and keep them in view. It’s understandable given the focus on large-scale battle, but it can make things unnecessarily tough. There are also some scenarios that require you to sneak about unseen for story reasons, where being detected forces you to start again, but the stiff enemy AI and basic stealth systems here make those feel more punishing than challenging.
This is an open-world adventure of the “go where you like” variety, and I appreciate how often you’re encouraged to explore rather than merely follow objective markers. If you’re on a mission or travelling to a certain place you follow the direction of the wind (as indicated by the constantly swirling leaves, grass and pollen), while you’re frequently distracted by foxes which can be followed to secret shrines, or rising steam or smoke on the horizon indicating something of interest. The huge map is filled with villages, camps, temples, farms and fortresses, and roaming unexplored areas on horseback to fill it all in, collect vital materials and liberate subjugated locals is a joy.
Of particular note are the silly but engaging little slices of ancient culture that appear as fun asides and activities. The esoteric zen buddhism of the time is represented in natural hot springs where you can reflect to gain health increases, and the meditation spots where you can compose haiku based on your adventure and surroundings, earning new headbands. Then there are the omamori charms you can find at shrines, which can be equipped for various godly benefits.
The story is broken up into a great number of missions (or “tales”). Some follow Jin’s primary objective of rescuing his uncle from capture and liberating Tsushima, while a handful of other major narratives follow key allies. Then there are random side quests you gain from listening out for rumours on the road, and mythic tales that lead you to special equipment or new techniques.
I ended up a little unsatisfied with the blunt and predictable overarching narrative, which certainly isn’t up to par with most Samurai cinema, but with the exception of a few standard open world filler episodes (those aren’t spirits, they’re just bandits!), the individual stories are stellar. From learning the true reason why an old master’s student defected to join the Mongols, to tracking down a murderer who kills according to the whims of villagers who pray to them, each tale is a gratifying self-contained journey.
As with the best open world games, Ghost of Tsushima is more than the sum of its stories, combat and systems. Taken together with the outstanding cinematic presentation and keen attention to period detail, all its various parts work together to create an adventure you really feel you can inhabit. It’s unquestionably the defining Samurai video game, the greatest work Sucker Punch has yet created and, along with The Last of Us Part II, an incredible endcap to Sony’s PlayStation 4 library.
Ghost of Tsushima is out today for PlayStation 4.
Tim is the editor of The Age and Sydney Morning Herald technology sections.