Another PS4 exclusive, another game about the cost of violence. Sam Brooks reviews Ghost of Tsushima, the last big exclusive of the console.
A lot of gamers have been calling for a game like Ghost of Tsushima since Assassin’s Creed started moving into different time periods and locations across the globe. They wanted an Assassin’s Creed game set in Japan. With each successive game announced in that series, the collective “oh well” got louder. It’s fortuitous, then, just as buzz for the latest Assassin’s Creed game starts building in earnest (set in Vikings-era Britannia), that Ghost of Tsushima, the last big exclusive on the PS4, courtesy of Sucker Punch, drops. Gamers, you finally got it. You got your Assassin’s Creed set in Japan. But does it live up to what you’ve wanted for well over a decade now?
Look at the scroll bar to your right. You know the answer is a little bit yes, and a little bit no. First, the yes. Sucker Punch has been making slick games for years now, and the half-decade it has spent on it shows. The game is set on Tsushima Island during the first Mongol invasion of Japan in 1274; the island sits between Korea and Japan, and it’s the last stepping stone for the Mongols to get to the mainland. It opens with the inhabitants of Tsushima Island well and truly losing their first skirmishes with the Mongols, and by the time you play as samurai Jin Sakai, you’re in the position of having to win the island back, bit-by-bit, against a foe who has more or less already won.
It’s a reskin of the same gameplay that we’ve seen a hundred times before – indeed, the game is more similar to latter-day Assassin’s Creed games than it is to anything Sucker Punch has done before. The combat relies on you keeping on your feet; changing stances, using ghost weapons (a gadget by any other name still blows people up) and mixing up parries with dodges. While there’s no waypoints, as such, there’s light RPG progression, a range of collectibles to boost your way through that progression, and question marks to tick off on a map.
The difference is that Sucker Punch’s product is a lot slicker; it simply feels more satisfying to play, with little flourishes and quality of life/play improvements. Rather than an ugly HUD telling you where to go, simply brushing on the touchpad will have a picturesque wind blow in the direction you want to go. It’s a level of care and specificity that puts Ghost of Tsushima if not ahead of the pack, then definitely apart from it; it doesn’t feel like yet another open world game, it feels like its own thing.
It helps that the world isn’t the huge sprawl of Assassin’s Creed, but it has a variety that makes it seem larger and livelier than it is. Somehow the island of Tsushima (in real life about 700km squared) manages to have four seasons all at the same time, and the player gets to explore both deep wintry whites, sulky-looking swamps and glossy green forests.
The game that Ghost most feels like is, strangely enough, the PS2-era Grand Theft Auto games. The focus of the missions, especially the incidental “Tales” (side stories, essentially) is more character focused than many open world games are; Jin gathers a small amount of allies through his journey to rid the island of Mongols, like the bow master Sensei Ishikawa, the slightly dodgy merchant Kenji and the bereaved, revenge-bent mother Masako. The last of these is the most compelling; Masako has a genuine emotional arc, going through pretty much every stage of grief but lingering on anger for a lot of anger, and it’s a sad reminder of what open world games lost when they went for breadth over depth.
Those PS2 Grand Theft Auto games had tight plots, memorable side characters, but the worlds had a sense of scale to them; you felt like you were truly inhabiting a city. Now, most open world games feel like you’re inhabiting a very lusciously rendered map. Sucker Punch leans hard into the former; even though you’re inhabiting an island that has very quickly been torn apart by invading forces, it feels alive with survivor camps and settlements, and by keeping both the scale of the island and the cast limited, it lets the player spend more time, and to actually emotionally invest in it.
But, and this is something I noted in my review of The Last of Us Part II, it suffers from hanging out in the same thematic territory that a lot of triple-A games are preoccupied: the cost of violence. Ghost of Tsushima has a more interesting spin on this; it’s less the cost of violence, and more the cost of what engaging in a very specific kind of violence means. If it’s the only way to save your home, your island, and everybody who lives there, then is it worth ditching your sense of honour? But it’s still the same area, thematically and tonally. It makes for a gruelling time – while there’s a little more lightness and more variety in the gameplay than say, even The Last of Us Part II, it’s still ultimately a lot of violence that’s intended to be dark, depressing and thoughtful.
That brings us to the elephant in the room: the setting. Since the game’s announcement, it’s been hard not to throw some side-eye at a western studio using a very specific point in Japanese history as the setting for their next game. While this is something that Assassin’s Creed has been doing, well, since the start, Ubisoft skirts around the issue with the disclaimer at the beginning of each of those games (“this work of fiction was designed, developed, and produced by a multicultural team of various religions and beliefs”) and by taking on characters that are as much part of myth as they are history. Putting Leonardo Da Vinci in your game is not quite the same as putting an obscure historical character from 13th century Japan in your game is.
It’s why Sucker Punch’s decision to fill a historical event with fictional characters is understandable, but frustrating. Understandable in that the studio clearly doesn’t want to offend (or be cancelled) for misrepresenting real-life historical figures in what will be their first introduction to millions of people. This isn’t Dynasty Warriors, there are not dozens of folk tales and other adaptations preceding them to muddy the waters of fictionalisation, and to essentially give Sucker Punch carte-blanche to do what they want. There has to be some respect paid to the culture they’re debating, and understanding of the weight of bringing this certain period of mainstream history to the fore.
According to a smattering of Japanese critics who have reviewed the game, Ghost of Tsushima actually does a good job of this – especially compared to most exoticised depictions of the country in other western media. Lost in Translation this isn’t. The work’s clearly been done, but it raises the question of why this era in this way? If you’re going to go through all the work to get the culture right, why not pick an era where you can get the history right as well? To remove culture from its historical context is dicey territory, and although Sucker Punch has done it well here, it sets a precedent that studios without the same resources as Sucker Punch might not be able or willing to meet.
Beyond being a slick game with hours of engaging, dynamic gameplay (you could even say too many hours), Sucker Punch’s Ghost of Tsushima actually ends up being a step in the right direction when it comes to these sorts of semi-historical open world games, a far more prominent genre than all those adjectives and qualifiers might suggest. It’s definitely more culturally aware than I think it would be if it came out at, say, the start of this generation. The game is also a fine rounding off for the PS4 at the end of its lifecycle, but I hope it’s a capping off for at least one more thing: games about the cost of violence. Ghost of Tsushima is inarguably the cream of the crop of these – I’d rank it as more enjoyable, with more tonal variation than, say, another recent PS4 exclusive – but I’m pretty done with this theme. Bring on the next generation of gaming.
Ghost of Tsushima is available now on PS4. The game was completed once, on a copy provided by Sony.
The Spinoff Daily gets you all the day's best reading in one handy package, fresh to your inbox Monday-Friday at 5pm.