Platforms: PlayStation 4 (reviewed)
Choose a horse. Choose a fighting style. Choose a ghost weapon. Choose a katana upgrade. Choose a big ass black powder bomb. Choose samurai skills, stealth combat, and black and white Kurosawa Mode. Choose slitting throats in stealth and wondering what it means to be a samurai.
Choose to explore a vast and gorgeous Japanese island, wondering how only ten hours in, it’s all become so drab and repetitive. Choose shutting off your Playstation and considering your career choices and cynicism, and how something that’s so clearly a work of joy can completely bounce off your hardened, gray-beige exterior.
Nothing new under the rising sun
I’m already bored with Ghost of Tsushima. It’s not that it’s bad. The game was crafted by people who love the genre of open-world games and samurai cinema. But it’s not doing anything I haven’t seen a dozen times in other games - whether that’s open-worlders like Far Cry and Shadow of Mordor or samurai games like Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. If you’re psyched about the idea of Assassin’s Creed in feudal Japan, then, by all means, stop reading and go buy Ghosts of Tsushima. You will have a good time.
But if you’re worried that this is yet another open-world game with tons of things to do and little impetus to do those things, then let me confirm your fears and say yes, this is indeed more of the same. I’m cynical. I’m old. Something really needs to break the mold to get my attention.
This is probably my fault. I was seduced by the absolute gorgeousness of the early trailers. It looked like a samurai epic come to life and based on that alone, I wanted to play it. I figured plot would be secondary anyhow and that, as a Sony exclusive, it would have sufficiently fun mechanics to draw me in. I mean, Horizon Zero Dawn and Spider-Man didn’t let me down, did they? But that beauty wears thin after your tenth or twentieth hour of exposure to it.
I was hoping for a more unique twist on the well-worn formula of “travel to a place, do some stealth, kill some guys, stab a leader, rinse, repeat.” But other than occasionally getting mauled by extremely aggressive bears, that’s all I got. HZD gave me robot dinosaurs, a mysterious world, and a compelling protagonist. Shadow of Mordor gave me a hit of that sweet, sweet LotR fanfic and a system of subverting and controlling enemy orcs. Spider-Man was an uber-detailed love letter to my home city of NYC, featuring my favorite superhero.
Far Cry 5 might’ve been the thing that ruined me for open-world games. It was a beautiful diorama of vicious Americana that ultimately rang hollow. There were so many things to do, and so many of them were just the same five things over and over. When the game limped to a weak conclusion there were hundreds of icons indicating unfinished tasks on my map screen.
Twenty years ago, the promise of GO ANYWHERE AND DO ANYTHING IN A VAST WORLD felt like an impossible dream. Hundreds of hours of Fallout later, it feels more like homework.
Pretty does not mean compelling
Ghost of Tsushima adopts the trappings and symbolism of Japanese samurai cinema but never lays the groundwork for convincing narrative. Seven Samurai isn’t a great film because it’s pretty and has good fight scenes. It’s great because of the relationships between the titular samurai and the villagers they’re defending, and the loss you feel when they fall in battle.
The game starts at the climactic battle between Tsushima’s vastly outnumbered samurai and the overwhelming Mongolian army. The game devs expect us to care about characters we just met, to fret for the fate of an island we know nothing about. By Act 2, you start to learn more about your allies and their lives, but that’s an awfully long time for a narrative to clear its throat.
GoT expects me to automatically care about feudal Japan as much as the game devs do. But the protagonist Jin Sakai, despite living on Tsushima his whole life, seems to care only for his captured uncle. He never tried to date anyone and never made any friends of real significance. He doesn’t feel like a character that really lives in this world. It’s not enough for a game setting to be beautifully idyllic. It needs to feel lived in.
The world’s most frustrating camera
For a game with cinematic aspirations and inspirations, the camera is infuriating. Often, you’ll end up flailing your katana at an enemy that’s off-screen or a tree or a railing will block your vision. You might not be able to see the red flash that indicates that an enemy’s attack is unblockable. Things get even worse when you’re fighting indoors, and you’re struggling with rotating the camera to see your opponent. I was having Playstation 1 flashbacks struggling with this camera mid-fight. If you’re having a fight out in the open, the combat works much better, but if you’re in a cramped area or indoors, god help you.
The core of this issue is the fact that you cannot lock onto an enemy in melee combat. Let me repeat that again, in case disbelief knocked you unconscious: YOU CANNOT LOCK ONTO AN ENEMY IN MELEE COMBAT. I am absolutely baffled that a game about sword-fighting opts to ignore the last two decades of game design around sword-fighting.
In boss fights, the camera locks onto a single enemy by default. So it’s not like the game devs didn’t realize how important this was. They just don’t let you use it when fighting mobs, which is exactly when it would be most useful.
The loading screen tips section tells you that you can aim your sword attacks with your left stick - something the game needs to tell you because it left out a critical piece of functionality. This encouragement often leads to you swinging your katana at enemies who are off-screen or worse, having my swings go ridiculously wide, which opens me up to a counterattack. I can’t attack (face buttons) and spin the camera (right stick) at the same time, man! I only have two thumbs!
This is made more frustrating by the fact that, like a bad action movie, combat is often confusing and disorienting. Unlike, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, lone enemies aren’t that difficult to defeat in single combat. You break their guard with multiple heavy attacks in the appropriate stance, then hack them to death with light attacks. Sometimes you dodge. It’s really simple.
GoT disguises this fact by swarming you with multiple enemies, including several archers in the background plinking you with arrows to break your combo flow. Combine the inability to lock onto a single target with a bad camera and combat becomes a chaotic mess. GoT can’t decide whether it wants to be a Soulsborne or a “Press X to be Batman, press Y to be Batman harder” Arkham title, and ends up being neither.
What’s more frustrating is the fact that the boss fights are quite compelling. Your first boss fight takes place at night, in a shallow pond covered in floating lanterns. If you bump these lanterns hard enough as you circle your opponent, they actually go out. It’s the first fight with real emotional resonance, and it’s a great set-piece. There’s a real back and forth, some serious mind games, and just enough challenge. The trailers made me think that every fight was going to be this cool, but usually, my greatest enemy is the camera itself. In 2020.
It’s not that there are no good parts to this game. It is indeed as gorgeous as the trailers made it out to be. GoT sets a new high watermark for environmental beauty. But the game’s cut scenes don’t take advantage of cinematic language at all. Most of them involve a drab “shot, reaction shot, shot, reaction shot” that can drain the life out of the most interesting conversations. Again, for a game clearly inspired by movies, the devs don’t seem to watch many.
Speaking of which, GoT has the most seamless photo mode I’ve seen in a game yet. Switching back and forth between the action and the photo mode is the simplest I’ve ever seen in a game. There’s no load time, no fade to black, nothing. Just a kickass photo mode that you can turn off and on as easily as your cell phone camera. Long after you get tired of killing Mongols and liberating small towns, GoT will live on as a 4K screenshot generator.
Thematically, GoT tries to address the conflict between the samurai code and the guerrilla warfare you need to engage in. Is it acceptable to break your code of honor when the freedom of your home and the survival of your people is at stake?
This is an interesting question, but it would’ve been better if Jin’s internal conflict affected the mechanics in some way. What if performing stealth kills made it harder to learn samurai techniques, and vice versa? I would love it if the player were forced to ask themselves where their priorities lie, vis a vis their development of Jin’s skills. Do you become a more effective ninja or do I walk the more challenging path of the samurai?
The game also has interesting female characters. Lady Masako is a hardened samurai who buries her entire family after being betrayed by her fellow Tsushimans. Yuna is a pragmatic thief character whose expediency serves as a foil to Jin’s (quickly abandoned) samurai morals. Her plotline is probably my favorite.
In accordance with Law 17B, Amendment 4, Subparagraph 2 of the Eighth Console Generation, all AAA games must have a horse, and your horse is awesome. It doesn’t matter where you left him, or how far away he is, if you whistle, he immediately trots up from behind you. Other side of a mountain? Opposite a mighty river? A thousand Mongol soldiers between you two? Doesn’t matter. The horse arrives. If you try to whistle and then immediately turn to see where the horse is coming from, he appears from a different direction. The horse is a master of cunning and stealth. The horse is the true Ghost of Tsushima.