Ghost of Tsushima Review: The Japanese Matrix

The Lowdown

Ghost of Tsushima is gorgeous in terms of audio and sound design, but I feel that most people will get more longevity exploring another open world with a sense of more grandiosity/uniqueness to it, like Horizon, for instance, or even an oldie like Skyrim.

Overall
3.5

Pros

  • Beautiful video and sound design
  • Tight combat mechanics
  • A main story that is a little predictable but very well told

Cons

  • After a while, the game feels artificial because a lot of aspects get repetitive
  • Small QoL adjustments to improve player engagement
  • More combat encounters that challenge a late-game player

I was very excited at the mere WHIFF that Ghost of Tsushima would be coming out on PC after an initial console-only release. Many consider this game a resounding masterpiece that sets the standard for any open-world sandbox games that come after.

It’s admittedly quite good, actually great in some ways. But in my opinion, it is nowhere near perfect, and I’ll try to explain why while hiding from the lynch mob under my bed. Don’t tell them I’m there.

Premise

You are Jin Sakai, nephew of the Lord of Tsushima island, a man named Shimura. Orphaned at a young age, Jin is taken in as Shimura’s ward and learns all the typical shit you’d imagine a samurai noble would, like haiku composing, flute playing, and living a life of privilege.

One day, the Mongol horse lords land on Tsushima and decide to “graciously” integrate the local population into the Mongolian empire. They do this by torching anyone who looks at them sideways and taking over large swaths of the island.

Jin and his Uncle ride out to meet the initial invasion with their fellow samurai, but only the two survive the fight. The Samurai are bound by a strict code of honor that forces them to treat everything predictably, whereas the Mongol horde does not care about setting an example for anyone.

Your role is to liberate your Uncle, free the people of Tsushima from the yoke, and massacre as many Mongolians as you possibly can.

Before we get into the meat of the elements comprising the Ghost of Tsushima experience, I will reiterate that I think the game is very polished, and a lot of effort was put into it. While a lot of good points are certainly present, everything had an aspect or two that could have done better, preventing me from being completely captivated while playing.

Exploring the Ghost of Tsushima World: It’s a Beautiful Simulation

Gotcha! You thought I’d start with a combat section of a Samurai game, but as much as clanking swords is fun, the most detailed aspect of GoT (Ghost of Tsushima, not Game of Thrones) is the world design. The level of attention the development team put into the map’s look, the UI’s construction, and especially how the visual/audio cues interact is very apparent.

While you can see the images I’m attaching to this piece, I highly advise you to play Ghost of Tsushima with headphones on and take your time to walk around for a little while. You’ll hear the rustling of the trees, the chirping of birds, and the wind nudging you towards your objective.

One particularly unique feature is that the development team placed a huge onus on how the physical world actively directs the player’s actions and provides needed guidance.

Your character has a relatively limited HUD (Heads Up Display) in terms of the information supplied to you, so they’ve managed to maintain efficiency by introducing triggered cues that will allow you to navigate your way to where you are going by following them.

The wind, for example, will always blow towards your selected map marker relative to your character, and this will shift elements such as a field of reeds or the smoke from a fire so that there will always be some visual identifier as to where you are supposed to go.

Scene from Ghost of Tsushima

This is complemented by using animal-related cues for specific points of interest scattered across the island. For instance, a golden bird will tweet and appear on screen should you be relatively near an important side location. This bird will fly in the direction of the location, circling back every now and then if you lose sight of it.

These elements are pretty seamless in their integration and provide an ambiance that makes it relatively easy to navigate.

Speaking of the points of interest scattered across Tsushima, I was pleased to see that about half of them provided a tangible benefit to Jin Sakai as a character.

Fox Shrines lead you to altars that provide additional slots for charms that provide stat/ability modification, traditional Japanese shrines provide legendary charms that grant power abilities, and Bamboo cutting minigames increase the resource bar that you use for your special moves (like lighting your sword on fire).

There were still quite a few too many cosmetic rewards (like sword handle designs) from the other spots for my liking, but as the resident cosmetic item hater in America, it didn’t bother me too much overall.

At least discovering a point of interest adds to your overall experience level, meaning that nothing is truly worthless while exploring the world.

But unfortunately, I will have to say that while Ghost of Tsushima provides a gorgeous world, it is not an immersive one. This is the main issue I had with exploring the world in that after a while, everything seemed too much like a simulation. It is ironic that the design’s greatest strength ended up being its downfall.

Meandering around for a few minutes toward the mid-late game led me to realize that, by and by, I had seen just about everything I needed to see: the same bird, the same fox, the same collection of Mongols to eviscerate, etc.

There are a grand total of three other animals in the world (not counting the DLC) that show up in various capacities, and in general, it felt like that scene from The Matrix when a black cat walks by twice.

This won’t be a big deal for most players, but in my case, what went against me most was my hefty experience playing games of this nature. I’ve played many open-world games in my time, so while GoT is on the top echelon regarding visual majesty, it wasn’t particularly engaging and seemed very virtual after a while compared to others.

Scene from Ghost of Tsushima

The Fighting: It’s a Power Fantasy

Funnily enough, this segment of Ghost of Tsushima is simultaneously the most and least fun part of the experience, depending on where you are in the story. They really do a good job making your enemies look like total pieces of shit, so there is a kind of satisfaction running around and blowing people up with your katana.

So, we’re off to a good start right off the bat.

You only have one combat weapon, really, so the mechanics for this are pretty well-tuned. You can strike and parry as the bread and butter of this system, with a parry timed exactly at the point of contact between two weapons, staggering your foe and allowing an unblocked follow-up.

To compensate and add variety, different fighting styles are incorporated so that Jin Sakai can switch it up on the fly depending on the type of enemy he is facing.

Over time, you can upgrade your capabilities in each fighting style and expand your basic move set to deal with other challenges. This is especially important because the styles not only allow you to do more damage to the corresponding foe but also grant you access to automatic moves that can neuter that specific weapon being used against you.

For example, using spear style, you do increased damage to a spear-wielding Mongol, but after unlocking an ability, you automatically counter their spear thrusts while you are in the midst of an attack.

The progression system they implemented here is clever. By finding Mongol encampments and killing their commanders, you can gain experience, which can unlock a subsequent style.

Easily, the part I enjoyed the most out of the straight-up fighting was the duels. Often situated in a scenic location, these enemies fight you man to man and have drastically increased health and damage. You can consider them bosses.

Scene from Ghost of Tsushima

These duels are very dramatic and often the hardest enemies in the game, but I had such a good time engaging in them that I skipped quests in favor of clanking swords with the next nearest victim.

What’s more, sometimes they grant you mythical abilities that you “learn” from them after you win the fight. These are based on Japanese folk legend, so it’s cool that they wove this into the architecture of these fights.

While I’ll get into the story in a later segment, Ghost of Tsushima plays heavily on the dichotomy inherent in the lives of nobility in Feudal Japan. Honor and tradition play a key role in the daily actions of the samurai class, with sneaky and subversive actions considered a black stain on one’s character.

So naturally, Jin is given access to a series of ninja-esque tools that, shall we say, are unbecoming to the reputation of a samurai. Kunais, smoke bombs, and poisons are just some of the weapons in your arsenal, as well as the good ol’ backstab. The kunai, in particular, are quite fun.

Another thing to note is that GoT has a built-in system called “Ghost Stance,” which you unlock after a certain point in the story.

How this works is that if you kill 7 enemies without taking damage, you can activate a Kurosawa black-and-white filter over the world and kill up to three enemies in a single move apiece. It’s not super overpowered, but just enough to make it worthwhile.

A black and white scene from Ghost of Tsushima

In the field of instant kills, entering a combat engagement can be done by standoff, where you will be allowed to size up an enemy in the opposing squad.

By holding down the “Y” key on your controller and releasing it just after your opponent makes the motion to attack, you can slice up to three additional enemies — thinning out the herd, so to speak. Think of it like an Old West-style quickdraw, but instead of shooting someone, you’re turning them into grated cheese.

It sounds more complicated than it really is, but be careful; you can be baited into striking too early and taking a butt load of damage.

This has been a long and bloviating explanation of the various ways to murder in GoT, but since it’s a core part of the game itself, it’s necessary to elaborate on the various ways that the developers allow you to kill people with just a katana and a short knife.

It is clear that Ghost of Tsushima took inspiration from Kurosawa’s movies in making everything clean yet cinematic, and I respect the dedication.

So all this must sound great, but here is where things fall apart a little. At some point, combat does not become fun in the slightest. Even as enemies grew stronger or gained special attacks, I ended up losing the magic and excitement that I felt earlier in the game.

My interpretation is that the lack of variety in enemy types and the ease with which Jin Sakai can cut through them drastically diminish the sense of accomplishment you get from clearing an enemy encampment.

It would often take me less than a minute to wipe out a camp, and encountering patrols would mean I spent more time in a cutscene than actually fighting them. You just have too many tools at your disposal that some Mongol with a sword and shield can’t really keep up with you.

I am not a gamer who enjoys just demolishing everything in my path. To me, the challenge is part of the allure, which is slightly sadistic if you really mull it over.

Scene from Ghost of Tsushima

For review purposes, I tend to play games on Normal difficulty because, in theory, that’s how the game was designed to be played, but on a subsequent playthrough, I’ll jack that shit all the way to the top.

To recapture the wonder felt at earlier stages of the story, I actually ended up putting the game down for a week at a time so that I’d forget the muscle memory of Mongol attacks. I also used a specific Armor set that was the absolute worst at blocking damage, so I’d get hit hard if I ever got hit.

My point here is that if I have to bump the difficulty artificially, it’s not really a well-balanced combat experience.

I guess you could argue that as you gain character levels and become the titular “Ghost” of Tsushima Island, you’re supposed to become this sort of transcendent legend that lays waste to an entire invading army, but it made the mid-late game tedious for me.

Narrative Arc: It’s Good at What It Does

So, speaking of the Ghost of Tsushima narrative, they did an overall very solid job of weaving conflicting ideological concepts into the plot without making it. To expand a little on the premise, this whole game is basically Jin Sakai’s personal odyssey, during which he needs to identify what core values he truly believes in.

As mentioned above, feudal Japan was essentially rooted in the ideas of tradition, personal honor/reputation, and what it considered to be ethical. The samurai were seen as warriors, of course, but also as examples to live up to. Serving as semi-paragons, any action not deemed to fall within this code’s constraints was seen as heretical.

Remember, this is a society that would kill themselves over failure, so flexibility isn’t on the menu.

However, because of this rigidity, the Mongols learned that the Samurai were predictable. Jin’s Uncle led the initial defense of Tsushima Island by taking his drastically outnumbered samurai to a straightforward fight they couldn’t possibly win.

Scene from Ghost of Tsushima

As you can imagine, this ends disastrously with every samurai dead, Lord Shimura captured, and our hero Jin badly beaten. This tactical disaster leads the Mongol horde to sweep the entire island with minimal resistance and subsequently terrorize the population from front to back.

Jin’s quest starts with him alone and wounded against overwhelming odds. He has grown up under his Uncle’s wing, so he is of the same mindset, but he quickly realizes that fighting conventionally will more than likely doom his people.

He’s going up against an army that knows the samurai tactics inside out. They’re overwhelming in numbers and seemingly devoid of limitations in their brutality. He quickly realizes that he can’t just do the same thing they’ve always done; he has to fight smarter.

As Jin’s cathartic journey progresses and he learns more effective ways to handle the Mongol problem (like blowing them up with a grenade),  his Uncle constantly reminds him that this is not the “wAy Of tHe SaMuRaI.”

It’s improper, and Shimura worries that setting this bad example, even in victory, would teach the populace that maybe being bound to a feudal hierarchy system isn’t how it should be.

As the resident big dick on the island, Shimura’s stance seems like a bit of self-interest masquerading as the high road, and you really cannot teach this old dog new tricks.

Anyway, it was clear to me at this point that despite the carnage and destruction from the beach, even if he knew the results beforehand, Shimura would have done the same charge 100 times over if he could. Jin knows this, too.

Scene from Ghost of Tsushima

As you do more quests, help more people, kill more Mongols, etc., the man formerly known as Lord Sakai slowly transitions into a legend known as the Ghost of Tsushima.

The people embrace him because, in their minds, they don’t care that he isn’t doing things the samurai way; he’s saving their lives.

While I won’t spoil the ending or any major events, this clash of ideologies crops up in quite a few beautifully done scenes.

Shimura pleads with his nephew to return to his side (both literally and metaphorically), while Jin insists that his method will do what is most important: protect his people.

From an overarching narrative standpoint, you can probably tell that I liked the themes woven into the main story’s fabric, but the side content wasn’t as strong in terms of delivery.

There are two types of side content: your companion character missions and generic side quest points of interest. The companion character missions obviously had some thought put into them, but their quality was all over the map.

Let’s take a side mission involving an old woman who supposedly raised Jin when he was a boy. Upon returning to the Sakai clan’s estate to retrieve the family armor, Jin reconnects with his old caretaker, who the player has never heard of before this very moment.

She teaches him how to make poison, and in a very contrived way, you go about this story of going to various cemeteries to pay respects to the ancestors. It’s incredibly boring primarily because the game heavily relies on the notion that an emotional connection exists between the two characters that the player hasn’t been able to develop on their own.

It was basically like them saying, “feel something, now!”

Scene from Ghost of Tsushima

Of course, after all this traipsing, the old lady f*cking dies on you in an abrupt manner that felt incredibly heavy-handed, making it one of the oddest quest lines I’ve ever played through in recent memory.

There are elements here that I can obviously identify the developers were hoping to shoot for, but I think it was poorly executed.

Other character quest lines, while being mostly unique, had a similar MO of just feeling uncomfortable playing through. Whether it’s the conman who constantly f*cks up and is clearly not trustworthy—but you somehow trust him anyway—to an old archery master who is the epitome of the words “this old bitch,” I sped through these so I could just be done with it.

The generic quests are extremely similar, so they frankly get stale very quickly. It’s always some combination of going to some place, searching the area for ambiguous clues, following said clues to a nearby location where Mongols have committed atrocities, killing the Mongols, and returning to start.

Just typing that made me realize how repetitive a lot of this game can be when you’ve managed to master the combat system because you’re no longer in any threat of danger. In fact, I think I have died more from jumping off cliffs that are too high, rather than a Mongol blade.

Adding to the monotony is the constant insertion of generic cutscenes for the simplest player-to-nonplayer character interactions. The example that pissed me off the most was saving some poor peasant from a Mongol patrol in an almost annoyingly frequent randomly occurring event, and then as a reward, watching the peasant thank me for 30 seconds and hand me a pittance of supplies as thanks.

This may not seem like such a big deal, but imagine an immersion-breaking cutscene for a relatively worthless interaction. Then multiply that by 50 for the number of times I saw that specific instance, and then add another 40 other animations shoehorned into mundane tasks that you have to watch 50 times. You can’t help but roll your eyes.

Speaking of eyes, while the combat and ambient meandering animation around the map was pretty good, the developers had issues realistically animating facial expressions. I think it had something to do with how everyone has these 1000-yard stares at all times, no matter what emotion is being conveyed.

Scene from Ghost of Tsushima

It was a bit unsettling because this unblinking gaze gave off a real “skinwalker” vibe and occasionally took me out of the experience.

My final thought on the narrative is that I didn’t appreciate the inflexibility of it all.

I’m not asking for multiple endings or dialogue trees or any of that shit, I can respect we are playing Jin Sakai’s personal journey here and I can appreciate the allure of a tight story. However, I wish they had altered the dialogue to reflect what was actually happening at that point in the saga.

As mentioned, you’re constantly struggling against the dated and draconian edicts present in patriarchal feudalistic Japan, so whenever Uncle Shimura’s fabulous mustache is in the vicinity, you’ll get an earful about the “samurai way.”

While this is certainly very annoying, what makes matters worse is that even if you do a mission together and refrain from using ninja-esque skills or tactics, he will still act as you had in a subsequent dialogue.

This is just a single example, but I found it weird that, for a game this polished, they wouldn’t at least have a separate post-mission cutscene for deviating in such an obvious manner.

Likewise, depending on which order you perform missions and such, dialogue you encounter later may refer to things that you’ve already completed as if they haven’t happened yet.

This, topped off with there being relatively few character models, lent to the aforementioned feeling that I wasn’t actually in Tsushima, but more that I was trapped in the Matrix.

Miscellaneous: What Would Have Made Ghost of Tsushima Better?

As I type this last segment, it’s been eight days since I last played Ghost of Tsushima. Part of that is because I’ve been busy at my day job, but the other is that I’ve simply not been interested in it as much.

I plan to do a few milestones a day (roughly 20-30 minutes worth) so I can complete what was a solid experience overall, but any more than that is very dubious to consider.

This got me thinking about what they could have done beyond the paragraphs above to make the game more seamless.

First and foremost, Ghost of Tsushima needed more duels, and they needed more duels with kookier characters. In my book, any fight that lasted longer than two seconds was a good one, and the more grandiose the scene or the wilder the character, the more fun it became.

Scene from Ghost of Tsushima

The mission that springs to mind that was absolute peak enjoyment was a “Mythic Tale” where Jin Sakai is told about a legendary folktale that often included an item or technique that you would have to uncover.

Jin is told about the legend of the Lightning Strike, a sword that moves so fast it calls down lightning and defeats a demon horde. Of course, this is absolute bullshit, but a murderer has been killing his way across the island to learn the technique.

Jin eventually fights this dude, beats him, and lightning poetically strikes his enemy as he lands the last blow.

While a bit campy if you really think about it, there is no denying that the duel was fun, the scene was electric (pun intended), and the reward is valuable.

Perhaps they should have scattered in more people wandering around the map that you could theoretically engage in a duel with, sort of like a miniboss.

That’s one thing I enjoyed in particular about Assassin’s Creed Odyssey and Valhalla: having these big lads (or lasses) patrolling the world looking for you and being able to put up a real fight.

By extension, more variety in enemies would have gone a long way. Having four types of enemies to fight against absolutely makes sense when it comes to the four fighting styles you have, but I think they could have done more by possibly expanding the Mongol bands to be more than the generic, cookie-cutter enemies they were.

Small ticky-tacky stuff like having a quick swap button for armor sets would also have been very welcome. Ghost of Tsushima does a good job of providing you with several pieces of armor that, when together, will allow you to be better at some facet of the Mongol killing experience.

Increasing your stealth, arrow reload, or straight-up attack damage can be surprisingly useful when the situation calls for it. The only problem is that it’s a pain in the ass to swap on the fly.

Charm of Recruitment explained in a scene from Ghost of Tsushima

Let’s say you are stealthily making your way through some bushes and then trip into some Mongols behind and alert the camp because you weren’t paying attention.

Swapping into your combat-focused armor would be advisable, but to do that, you must open a few menus, swap the armor, ensure you have your charm loadout properly set up, and then head back into the main game.

It would be much easier for the player if there was a quick swap or swap present button somewhere that you could utilize to address the situations better. Yes, it’s not that realistic, but neither is a fox leading you to a holy shrine, so f*ck it.

My final point is that I didn’t feel that Ghost of Tsushima offers much of an in-game economy to speak of. The only real currency you accrue is ubiquitously dubbed “Supplies,” and this can be used to buy ammunition for your various weaponry, but the problem is that I never really used it.

You can pick up ammunition all over the map (the game does a good job slowly revealing these as they are always present, but you can’t interact with them until you unlock the relative weapon), and being a sword-based player, I rarely even have the opportunity to pick them up.

The only resources that matter are those that upgrade your equipment to higher tiers, like steel for your sword and linen for your armor; after a while, I had managed to get to the highest level, barely 60-70% of the way into the game.

I’m not entirely sure what I would recommend here, except they need to figure out new things to buy. They have a separate currency called flowers that you can use to purchase armor and weapon cosmetics, but maybe the most obvious fix would be to coalesce these currencies into one universal tender.

I’m not a game designer, but I’ll stress again that having some system in your game with minimal reward for engaging in it is poor design.

Scene from Ghost of Tsushima

Should You Buy Ghost of Tsushima?

Ghost of Tsushima is a game that will blow away most people at first, but I think the length of time a person stays in this honeymoon state largely depends on how frequently you have played large sandbox games of this nature.

The crippling impediment that GoT has that prevents it from propelling itself to God-tier is that in addition to being a jack-of-all-trades master of none, it doesn’t have a unique enough twist/gameplay loop to it that will carry experienced gamers through a gradually more artificial world.

There is a DLC set on the nearby island of Iki but I will not be covering it here because it was mostly the same concept as the main game, just with different activities.

Ghost of Tsushima is gorgeous in terms of audio and sound design, but I feel that most people will get more longevity exploring another open world with a sense of more grandiosity/uniqueness to it, like Horizon, for instance, or even an oldie like Skyrim.

Ghost of Tsushima is basically a 4/5 if you look at what is offered, but considering that I am an avid gamer, I have to give it a 3.5/5; it’s really, really good, but not great enough to keep me engaged day in and day out.

However, if you want to introduce someone to open-world games, Ghost of Tsushima is a good choice.

Ghost of Tsushima retails for $59.99; it is available for PC on Steam and Epic. It is also available for PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 5 from multiple retailers, including the PlayStation Store, Dell, Game Stop, and Amazon.

Developer: Sucker Punch Productions, Nixxes Software

Publisher: PlayStation Publishing LLC

Source: Personal Purchase

What I Like: Beautiful video and sound design; Tight combat mechanics; A main story that is a little predictable but very well told

What Needs Improvement: After a while, the game feels artificial because a lot of aspects get repetitive; Small QoL adjustments to improve player engagement; More combat encounters that challenge a late-game player

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About the Author

Flint Pickleback
Just some guy who plays video games to disconnect from the world. Wine is often involved, which thoroughly enhances the experience. I'm playing these games on an custom build, with 32GB RAM, 13th Gen Intel Core i7-13700KF, and a NVIDIA GeForce RTX 4070 Ti 12GB Graphics Card. Please send pitches to "[email protected]" with "[email protected]" cced.

1 Comment on "Ghost of Tsushima Review: The Japanese Matrix"

  1. honest review

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