Considering how rough 2020 was, video games, movies, and TV were a welcome escape from everyday life.
In an Otherwise Turbulent Year . . .
Ghost of Tsushima is one of my favorite big budget AAA games of 2020, without question. As a whole, the game was refined with an excellent narrative and an open world—free of the bloat that plagues many open world titles. Every side activity matters, leading to a direct improvement of Jin Sakai (our protagonist), or giving the player interesting cosmetic items. Combined with the aforementioned narrative that feels ripped right out of samurai cinema and the skill tree that naturally underscores the journey of Jin Sakai, I haven't felt this engaged with a game since since Breath of the Wild. It's refreshing to explore a world that so perfectly balances peace, war, growth, and despair.
The main story may not be the most original, ground breaking narrative, but it's paired with such an elegant and nuanced telling of Jin Sakai’s journey, that the simplicity works in its favor. The loss at the battle of Komoda at the hands of the Mongols sets up an amazing tale of loss, revenge, and growth that is underscored in the rest of the moment-to-moment gameplay, whether through plot-related narrative or gameplay design.
When Jin foolishly tries to face the Khan alone, without proper armor or the skills to take on a new threat, he quickly learns the error of his ways when he is thrown to the bottom of a rushing river, defeated and disgraced. But instead of immediately returning to face the Khan, Jin chooses to gather his allies and learn to strike in a much more creative fashion than he did before. In order to truly stand a chance against the Mongol invasion, Jin must branch out from the honorable roots of being a samurai, and take the mantle of “The Ghost."
By becoming The Ghost, Jin must reject his beliefs as a samurai by attacking from the shadows and using poisons, among other deceitful tactics, to gain the upper hand over the Mongol invaders. This brings the main conflict of the story to light—Jin is forced to take this measure to save his island, but in doing so, he must sacrifice all he stands for as an honorable samurai. Jin must choose between preserving the lives and culture of those he’s sworn to defend, or preserve a way of life that simply isn’t viable to their survival.
Learning to Grow
As you progress and gain more Ghost abilities, sword stances, and other useful character improvements, the Mongols become much more manageable—but without ever becoming any less deadly. One wrong move in combat can still result in death, but slowly the Mongols stop seeming to be as insurmountable an enemy as they initially seemed. But simply becoming The Ghost isn't the answer to victory. Jin forms new bonds with allies he never otherwise may have, such as Yuna and Taka. He learns the plight of those around him, giving him a new point of view of what a samurai can be.
The Ghost is more than a single person—they are a symbol of strength, honor, and a much needed spark of hope in an otherwise bleak time. This newfound strength is the key to Jin's victory, but is met with heavy opposition by his Uncle who is both the Lord of the island, but also Jin's father figure. In the eyes of Lord Shimura, The Ghost is a deadly figure that threatens to destroy their family legacy, as well as consume Jin if left unchecked. But without The Ghost, the tide of war may never have shifted in Tsushima’s favor. This, paired with just how excellent the game feels to play as you become stronger and expand the skill tree, help prove why The Ghost is a necessary evil in many ways.
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Downtime and Exploration
The game's open world design deserves just as much praise as the story, as every side activity feeds back into the growth of Jin. Tales of Tsushima are rarely longer than one single mission, while the longer side stories are saved for Jin's allies, fleshing them out as characters and contributing to the overarching narrative. But on a smaller scale, the many activities such as Haikus, Hot Springs, and Bamboo strikes, all directly serve as player and character growth, while never feeling like standard open world filler.
Many modern open world titles rely on quantity over quality, where most of the activities you complete seem like miscellaneous chores. But in the world of Ghost of Tsushima, the downtime in between main objectives and story beats, is where the game comes alive and gives depth to Jin as a protagonist. This is when Jin has time to reflect on his journey through haiku and hot springs, or trains using bamboo strikes. (My god, the mini games are seriously fun.) The rewards again always serve a narrative purpose as they increase Jin's health, resolve or add cosmetics to Jin's inventory. It's also important to note that every mission will tell you upfront what your rewards will be for finishing them; while it may seem inconsequential, it feels like the game respects your time. On a narrative level, these activities function as a means of helping Jin center his mind, body, and spirit to be the most effective warrior he can be, without losing who he is as a person.
Art Direction and the Guiding Wind
While the story and objectives may not be wholly original, the art of the game world feels entirely unique, allowing for the lack of traditional UI to really shine. The lack of a minimap doesn't feel like a major loss because of the implementation of the Guiding Wind mechanic. This bends and moves the game world in the direction the player needs to go. The use of color also accentuates this choice, as a point of interest will be brought to the player's attention through different colors in the environment. Sometimes I had issues finding objects during investigations, but it was nothing that majorly detracted from the game. And more often than not, an on-screen marker will point you in the right direction. The confidence Sucker Punch has in players to find their way without filling the screen with information is extremely refreshing, as many AAA games have the habit of not trusting the player enough to figure things out on their own.
The combat in Ghost of Tsushima deserves special mention, as Sucker Punch put the utmost care into every component of combat. With a minimal UI on screen, the game needs to be easily legible for combat to work. Sucker Punch chose to make the combat similar to the Batman Arkham games, where your character auto locks, and the more you face enemies, the more you learn their moves and how to fight them efficiently. This, combined with a simple yet effective use of red and blue colored glints from enemy weapons, gives players all the information they need to face new threats. Each enemy can be taken down with one of four sword stances— learning which enemy is weak against each specific stance is key to surviving the Mongol invasion. As you progress, you must learn to adapt, as enemies only become harder to fight. However, the increase in difficulty is not because they gain more base health, but because they introduce entirely new enemy classes, each with their own distinctions. Some may be faster, use poisons, or wield new weapons. It remains challenging until the very end of the game, but it never feels unfair.
Quality of Life
Even in regards to quality of life, Ghost of Tsushima is a very accessible title in its moment-to-moment gameplay. You can call your horse to your side with a single button, which allows for continuous and fluid movement. You can easily pick-up flowers or anything left on the ground from horseback, and even pull up Photo Mode with a different button. Every facet of the game feels designed with the player in mind. In missions where you follow an NPC, they move at the player's pace. During missions that require the player to backtrack, the game will automatically take them to the previous location, ensuring that the journey never becomes monotonous. Even the game's load times feel like they're designed to get the player back into the game as soon as possible, with an average load screen only taking roughly 10 seconds. Whether a fast travel is required or the player dies, the quick load times are an astounding quality of life feature.
All of these elements may be excellent, but they would be nothing without the game's astounding soundtrack, composed by Shigeru Umebayashi and Ilan Eshkeri. Sucker Punch incorporated the music exactly where it needs to play to heighten the gameplay in any situation. The soundtrack plays loudly in the most epic scenes, but also knows when to play quietly or not at all, allowing the player to be fully immersed in the moment. When roaming the world, the music may play faintly, if at all, allowing the sounds of the beautifully crafted scenery to soak in. The soundtrack, in many ways, is the final touch that truly breathes life into this game.
Experience Jin's Journey
In the end, the simplicity of the story is the game's finest achievement. Through tales and side stories, we see a world full of life upended by the Mongol invaders in disturbing ways. It is through these stories that we experience the birth of The Ghost. The overarching narrative is an epic tale of learning and growth, filled with betrayal, tragedies, and uplifting victories. The soundtrack, art direction, gameplay, and striking narrative combine to create one of the most unique and genuinely enjoyable gaming experiences I've had in a long time. Ultimately, Jin's story comes down to the struggle to maintain a family legacy, and whether it is more honorable to respect the Samurai Code or to bend that code to save their people and ensure a future for more than just his lineage. In the end, is maintaining tradition more important than protecting lives? That is the question that Ghost of Tsushima tries to answer.