An adventure across the gorgeous landscape of (a windy) Tsushima.
Here be spoilers…
What we like
It may be a video game but this plays like a movie. It's beautiful in its scope, with each region of Tsushima, a colour palette, coming alive—the snow-white plains of the north; the fiery reds of maple trees; the green curtain of bamboo groves—it is a veritable fodder for your Instagram feed. If Tsushima wants to promote tourism to its fair island, they won't be lacking in pictures.
To heighten the realism of Tsushima, the producers opt to make the HUD (heads-up display) unobtrusive. So, a seldom-seen health indicator (unless during a battle) and other HUD elements, allows for greater immersion into the world of Tsushima. Sucker Punch Productions (the fine folks who made this) wants you to explore Tsushima and while the lack of that distracting HUD means that there won't be waypoints (directional indicators), it doesn't mean you'll be lost in it. Instead, as you traverse this open world, you'll rely on landmarks (plumes of smoke indicating Mongols camp; firebugs signalling a fox den) and the wind pointing you to the desired location.
Speaking of the wind, the Tsushima is really windswept. It's thematic to the story and the motion adds to the artistry of it: Pampas fields sway erratically; leaves (so many leaves) swirl about you as though you're caught up in a leaf tornado. And being an island and all, it is not uncommon to Tsushima visited by an overcast sky and the impatient rumble of thunder; a mother of a storm is imminent but it won't arrive until later in the game (it's not so much of a spoiler but a historical fact: the Mongols navy were decimated by typhoons, which led to them to retreat to China).
Tsushima is humungous and I doubt I'd ever finished exploring the island. The exploration doesn't feel tedious and certain areas of Tsushima yields may yield secrets yet to be discovered. There are detours from the main storyline: side quests of your allies to take up; random liberation from Mongol-occupied villages; powering up by seeking out hot springs (to increase your maximum healths) or Pillars of Honour (to increase that swag by garnering a different skin for your weapons).
There is one such diversion that I actually enjoyed: there are places that allows you to meditate and compose a haiku. It's a welcome respite, far away from your quest for vengeance and the bloodshed. Here, you sit before the landscape—the stillness of a marsh; the burning sky of a setting sun; the crashing of waves against rocks—and you are inspired to draft out a haiku. Is it poetic? Is it any good? Who knows, at least, your soul is sated.
Other things we love about this game is the combat system. There are two playstyles: as a samurai, who faces his enemies head-on and as the Ghost, who stalks from the shadows. It's not so much as a dichotomy of two combat styles but rather an evolution of Jin the samurai adopting the covert stratagem of the Ghost. Unlike Sucker Punch Productions' previous Infamous series, where your character can choose to be evil or good (either side grants you specific abilities), in Ghost of Tsushima, you can utilise both fighting styles, without locking one or the other.
As a samurai, you can initiate a 'stand-off', which is a sort of quick draw with katanas. And you'll develop four sword stances—Stone, Water, Wind and Moon; each stance that works well against enemy types. Stone stance works well with enemies with swords; Water stance is great against shieldman and so on.
As the Ghost, you can hide in the on the Internet likens this to a 'Japanese Assassin's Creed', given the stealth and assassination capabilities of Jin. You can use smoke bombs or bells to draw enemies' attention; you can make quick of the enemy by sneaking up on him and jamming a tantō into their necks (further in the game, you'll get to develop more tactics to illicit fear and intimidation).
Combat is as accurate as can be (Sucker Punch Productions got actual samurais to consult on the game), you parry, you deflect your opponents' blows. It isn't all button-mashing; it is a challenge prompting you to pay attention; to select the appropriate attack and time your strikes. And when you're fighting in an area with the waterfall behind you, death can look rather scenic. There's also a game mechanic called Resolves. These are used in pulling off special moves or replenishing your health bar, which means, you're literally willing yourself not to die.
Remember how we said that this plays like a movie? There's an option for your characters to speak in Japanese, y'know, keeping the experience as real as possible. And while the soundtrack tries to be as diegetic as it can but when there's a battle scene, the music is God damn epic.
The plot of Ghost of Tsushima doesn't uncover new grounds when it comes to the protagonist breaking away from traditions but it makes for a sweeping story that would make Akira Kurosawa weep. It drags in certain places but overall, it is moving. The side quests are no slouches either, many of which keeps the gameplay interesting, and each of them plays out like an episode in a samurai series.
What we didn't like
The camera system can be a little frustrating. It can swivel and then an environment asset, like tree branches of an overhanging eave, will block your view. This is not ideal when you're being assailed by encroaching enemies.
As mentioned before, the combat system is great fun but we found problems during switching among stances. For example, if I'm picking a Stone Stance to deal with swordsmen, I'd depress R2 and hit the X button but, sometimes in the heat of battle, I'd press either the square or the triangle button (light or heavy strike) to attack, it sometimes switches my stance to either Moon or Wind Stance, which I won't know until by the third failed attempt in breaking through the swordsman's defence.
I've never spent any money at merchants. Anything that I own, from the ammo to the weapon upgrades, I either forage for parts or I pick it off the dead. So, the use of currency is basically useless.
Also, certain game logic baffles me. It's funny to watch Jin drink sake of play his flute even when he's still wearing his mask. But it grinds my gears when I can pass through an open door and can slash my way through a closed shoji (traditional paper) door; I can go through an open window but when there's a closed shoji window, I CAN'T SLASH MY WAY THROUGH IT? BULL. SHIT.
The Kurosawa Mode is a visual option for players to play in black-and-white. It's supposed to bathe the game in the aesthetic of the old samurai films that Kurosawa is known for but it's fine for a while until you realise that you're dependent on colours to get through the game. On a quest, I'm told to find purple flowers but I can't because I'm viewing the world through the eyes of a dog. And, it could be me, but the greys seem to blend into one another, making it hard to pick out minute details like flowers or items.
What to look out for
Tsushima is vast. And the island is filled with all sorts of collectables like Vanity Gears and Inari Shrines to discover. And apparently, depending on your playstyle—whether you fight with honour or if you choose to assassinate from the shadows—that will affect how other characters will take to you.
Oh, and do take a lot of pictures.
Ghost of Tsushima is out now and is only exclusive for the PlayStation 4.