'Ghost of Tsushima' Is More Open-World Formula Than Samurai Cinema

No matter its many visual qualities, Ghost of Tsushima is best revealed by its mechanics, since its lush and meticulously designed open world is a flat space, unliving, atop of which an action adventure takes place. Ghost of Tsushima's map may have stuff to do and see as you travel between destinations on your horse, but it is first and foremost an aesthetic space connecting combat encounters.

This is meant as descriptive more than a slight: Ghost of Tsushima is an action game from a very particular mold. It is not designed with sandbox or emergent gameplay in mind. Between the many missions, incidental combat encounters, and mini-game-like distractions there is an overwhelming amount of stuff to do in Ghost of Tsushima, but what you'll mainly be doing is killing Mongols.

Ghost of Tsushima is set in 1274, when the forces of Kublai Khan moved on the Japanese archipelago, beginning their invasion with the Japanese island of Tsushima, which lay between one of Japan's main islands and the Mongol-occupied Korean peninsula. When they landed on Tsushima, the Mongol army was met by 80 samurai. Ghost of Tsushima takes place primarily in the aftermath of that battle, as the fictional Sakai gathers warriors from among the peasantry and surviving samurai to repel the invaders, defeat their general Khotun Khan and free Sakai's uncle—the island's shogun-appointed jitō—from captivity.

'Ghost of Tsushima' is gigantic. Sucker Punch Productions / Sony Interactive Entertainment

All of this is accomplished by a combination of exploration, taking on missions and freeing villages, bases and camps from Mongol invaders, while improving Sakai's combat capabilities and equipment in the process. This self-improvement loop is genre standard by this point, though Ghost of Tsushima stands out with its well-tuned progression and satisfyingly polished implementation of formulaic open-world features.

Ghost of Tsushima exceeds the industry-standard Ubisoft approach to open-world games by refining its mechanics. But while demonstrating none of the fatigue of musty open-world franchises like Far Cry and Assassin's Creed, those games remain strong comparison points because they embody Tsushima's same combination of sprawling world and rigid parameters for interacting with it. Sometimes this is immensely successful, polishing Ghost of Tsushima to a shine worthy of the PS4's twilight years, but just as often the game refines what needed to be transformed instead.

The smallest possible example of this dynamic—between open-world gameplay at the peak of its formula's capacity and the exact hollow repetitiveness this perfection reveals in its reprising—came after a battlefield tutorial, and shortly after samurai Jin Sakai wakes outside of a now Mongol-occupied village. I felt a peculiar thrill when first encountering the telltale shimmer of an in-game item and found the pick-up called simply "Supplies." This label briefly represented an exciting possibility, since open-world games of this console generation lard their environments with overt and covert items, forcing the player to pick and hunt as much as play. In most open-world precursors to Ghost of Tsushima, beelines become zigzags, as your avatar runs from glimmer to glimmer, picking different herbs or whatever.

Did Ghost of Tsushima developer Sucker Punch Productions dare to cut the genre's mess of collecting, inventory management and potion/ammunition recipe items down to a single resource, giving us, at last, the all-purpose "Supplies"? Sadly, no. Sakai will spend his days gathering up iron, gold, bamboo, linen and more, like a common gleaner, or one of the seeming majority of Tsushima islanders named simply "Peasant." But while Ghost of Tsushima may not have eliminated a staple feature of its genre, its implementation is remarkably streamlined, significantly deemphasizing what has become tedious.

New gear and charm power-ups feel mostly worthwhile in 'Ghost of Tsushima.' Sucker Punch Productions / Sony Interactive Entertainment

Everywhere in Ghost of Tsushima are similarly polished game elements, several of which are innovative enough to be the type of sea changes the genre has needed—like the use of wind and other visual cues to guide players to their destination. The simple ability to traverse the world without constantly squinting at the corner mini-map is an incredible improvement Tsushima makes over games similar to it. But whereas the use of wind is additive, some of the sanding down of gameplay staples makes it harder to see what was ever worthwhile in them in the first place, like Tsushima's too-standard climbing mechanics, which no longer even require button presses between handholds.

Jumping challenges and grappling in 'Ghost of Tsushima' are too derivative to excite. Sucker Punch Productions / Sony Interactive Entertainment

But while the various activities scattered around Tsushima Island vary from pleasurable distractions (bamboo stands, where you practice combos) to complete time-wasters (following foxes and birds gets old fast), it hardly matters, since the bulk of gameplay takes place at the point of Jin Sakai's katana.

Since sword fighting will be your primary interaction with the invaders of Tsushima and their local collaborators, it's a relief the combat is so consistently satisfying. Primary combat interactions combine Quick and Heavy attacks with blocking, parrying and dodging, in a familiar pattern of situational rock-paper-scissors. Heavy attacks break down defenses, while Quick attacks deliver damage while they're vulnerable. Certain moves can be blocked—or parried, if timed right—while others are unblockable, requiring a dodge.

Enemies often attack in numbers, so Quickfire weapons like kunai throwing blades and smoke bombs can be used to disrupt fights that aren't going well, or break up amassed enemies. Combos are simple but satisfying, particularly the few attacks learned that drain your metered "Resolve" (which is more commonly used for healing), such as a devastatingly cinematic lunging sword slice that cuts through enemies when their guard is broken.

But while combat is consistently rewarding, with a system that pays off judicious button presses with streaks of masterful killing, the well-balanced fighting is achieved by substantially limiting chaotic variables. There is often one best way to approach an enemy with Sakai's katana. While there are variants, including more armored forms, enemy types primarily come in a handful of flavors—armed with swords, spears, shields, bows or melee bulkiness—which immediately define the optimum line of attack.

Stances in 'Ghost of Tsushima' look awesome, but overshadow other techniques with their tactical essentialness. Sucker Punch Productions / Sony Interactive Entertainment

As Sakai, players will eventually learn four Stances, each with variants on Quick and Heavy attacks and their subsequent combos. While you can attack in any stance, swapping between the appropriate one for a given situation becomes too much of a silver-bullet approach. While Stone Stance may work against enemies also armed with swords, it will prove disastrous when brought against a shield. As a result, the one-right-answer decision made before swinging your sword comes to overshadow actually cutting into enemies. It's a frustrating bottleneck, especially when late-game combat mistakes too often come from failing to swap quickly and accurately between stances. So while the Stance mechanic has an obvious aesthetic appeal, adding samurai-sword-master tactical flavor, it ultimately becomes a substantial caveat to Ghost of Tsushima's otherwise sparkling sword fighting.

There are other approaches to combat. Archery is the most engaging outside of swordplay, with a fairly standard but well-polished combination of nocking, compensating for range and a limited slow-motion "Concentration." In the right situation, archery can mow down a charging horde so you never have to draw your sword. More unique to Ghost of Tsushima is the tactical split between the Half Bow and Longbow, which trades a longer draw time for more power and range.

Compared to sword fighting and archery, stealth is far less compelling, with single-button press assassinations and dull-witted enemies. Similar to sword combat, stealth is a realm of unambiguous interactions, but much more narrowly, with escalating warnings replacing any sense of chaotic uncertainty as you crouch and crawl around, making effortless kills.

Stealth is one of the few misfires in 'Ghost of Tsushima's otherwise sterling combat gameplay. Sucker Punch Productions / Sony Interactive Entertainment

Seemingly aware of its duplicative and boring stealth, Ghost of Tsushima rarely requires it, further discouraging its use both narratively and with one of the game's more unique mechanics: Standoffs. Rather than the dishonorable "Ghost" tactics decried by your fellow samurai, Standoffs are a way to call enemies out into the open, available as a shortcut for a narrow window as you approach an enemy base, camp or patrol.

Standoffs are simple, but well-elaborated upon, requiring only a button hold that's released when an enemy attacks. The patience it requires is a nice inversion from more button-heavy combat. Fall for your enemy's juke or battle cry and you'll get slashed instead of them, entering the subsequent combat at a serious disadvantage. While straightforward, the Standoff provides a cinematic way to kick off combat encounters, especially as it conceptually expands to allow for more enemies cut down in streaks, replacing stealth enemy winnowing with an upfront attack that can reduce their numbers.

Standoffs are a great way to help even the odds early in an assault on a Mongol encampment. Sucker Punch Productions / Sony Interactive Entertainment

In its totality, Ghost of Tsushima combat is pleasing enough to justify its centrality, but the rigorously polished balance of mechanics also makes it a master-able endeavor—by the final main story missions there was no one left to put up substantial opposition, even on Hard difficulty.

The major exception are periodic one-on-one sword duels, which employ the same basic combat tactics, but demand a rigor unlike the typical multi-enemy scrum. These can come in the form of story campaign face-offs with known characters, or in challenges from various ronin or maybe-demonic figures. Typically held in movie-climax-appropriate locations—the base of a waterfall, in a graveyard or a pool of floating water lilies—these duels replace the wider camera perspective with a fighting game's two-shot. They are also utterly unforgiving, requiring precise dodges and parries. These duels (the only time I ever dialed down the difficulty) have the effect of honing your combat mastery, by ruthlessly attacking any button-mashing or simple tactics you had previously depended upon.

They are the height of what Ghost of Tsushima can be as an action game.

Samurai duels are one of the major highlights of 'Ghost of Tsushima.' Sucker Punch Productions / Sony Interactive Entertainment

The same handful of basic combat scenarios—freeing settlements, ambushing patrols and toppling strongholds—are presented in endless variations in "Jin's Journey" campaign missions, "Tales of Tsushima" side or secondary character missions and the comparatively more unique and rare "Mythic Tales," which use sumi-ink campfire stories to launch into multi-stage hunts for legendary armors and abilities.

It is necessary to spend one paragraph on 2019's Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, a shinobi vs. samurai game that Ghost of Tsushima has the misfortune of following. Even with the on-paper similarities in some of their sword-fighting mechanics, the teeth-gnashing perfection demanded in Sekiro results in a materially different play sensation from Tsushima. The substantial differences between Sekiro's "Metroidvania" gameplay and the open world of Tsushima eventually dampened my inclination to constantly compare.

But while Ghost of Tsushima establishes its own worthwhile identity, I could never quite get over being disappointed in its lack of environmental interactivity. There is no slashing through a bamboo forest and watching the stalks fall, or even random trinkets to break in any of the houses scattered over Tsushima Island. It is a living painting of a world, which has obvious positive qualities, but only once you've accepted its limitations.

While not as graphically impressive as The Last of Us Part II, Ghost of Tsushima justifiably presents itself as at the pinnacle of what's achievable on the PlayStation 4. At first, this self-conception is aesthetically disastrous, with Tsushima's early regions popping with so much color and on-screen particles it began to nauseate with visual noise—not every leaf needs to flutter poetically behind every step, as pollen chokes the air. But these early efforts to wow unfold into a varied and gorgeous landscape of swamps, rice paddies, tangled forests, shrines and fishing villages.

Don't worry, you will soon be out of the yellow zones. Sucker Punch Productions / Sony Interactive Entertainment

Ghost of Tsushima's secondary ambition—to be an all-encompassing samurai lifestyle simulator—flows from this astonishing visual detail. Combine the open-world environmental splendor with the wide variety of outfits, armor, hats, headbands and scabbards and the possibilities inherent in Tsushima's comprehensive photo mode (easily accessible on the d-pad) become obvious—people are going to create incredible things in Ghost of Tsushima. This stylistic largesse sometimes extends to minor gameplay elements that underscore how powerfully mood-setting Tsushima can be, such as the occasional opportunity to compose haikus while overlooking a contemplative vista. But it's always, eventually, back to chopping.

Ghost of Tsushima's storyline is best thought of as the framework unifying the combat gameplay and its painterly playfield, rather than a gripping narrative in itself. By hitching its campaign to an invasion by an overwhelmingly imperial power, Ghost of Tsushima can plausibly tell a story of resistance against an implacable enemy—embodied in the clever but goonish Khan and little else. (There's a surprising dearth of secondary bad guys and bosses, with only a few exceptions.) But this invading enemy flattens Ghost of Tsushima dramatically, and defangs the game's limited efforts to explore the dimensions of honor and obligation so central to the movies Tsushima admires.

Jin Sakai only wants to live up to his uncle's example... (cry emoji) (cry emoji) (cry emoji). Sucker Punch Productions / Sony Interactive Entertainment

Though too straight-faced to admit it, Ghost of Tsushima better reflects pulp samurai conventions, with its narrative seriousness often undercut by its portrayal of samurai as superheroes, whose noblesse oblige only ever wavers for being too honorable and committed to their tradition-bound ways. While the game explores the tensions between the peasantry and the samurai, or the dark corners into which a warrior lifestyle may lead, these themes are typically expressed in bite-sized dialogues on the way to missions or act-breaking cutscenes. More effective is the central relationship between Sakai and his uncle Lord Shimura—its peculiar but nonetheless true that one of Ghost of Tsushima's clearest gaming superlatives is its uncle-nephew relationship.

While the Ghost of Tsushima campaign isn't a memorable story in itself, it is non-intrusive and mercifully secondary. There is no morality system; as best as I could tell the game wasn't responsive to my conscious dialing back of tactics other samurai scolded me for using. Instead, the story becomes part of the overall landscape, with its latest twists surprisingly well-embedded in gameplay itself. After beating the campaign and returning to neglected side missions, I was delighted to find the script substantially altered, with references to the new conditions Sakai had brought about. It is Ghost of Tsushima, once again, taking something standard and elevating it with care.

So long as players come to Tsushima aware of the limits of its open world, the game will provide an astonishing amount of fighting fun. Even after completing the substantial campaign and dozens of side missions, there remains a breathtaking number of things to do, including multi-mission secondary character arcs, plus dozens of hot springs, shrines, pillars, haiku vistas and bamboo strikes to visit. There are significant swathes of the map I've yet to see, which brim over with enemy encampments to take on. I still come across sprawling NPC-populated estates and hidden temples with golden statues. By this point, I know not to expect much more than the same enemies to cut down, but it's an impressive bounty regardless.

There are always more and varied environments to find in 'Ghost of Tsushima.' Sucker Punch Productions / Sony Interactive Entertainment

Ghost of Tsushima is only disappointing in the gap between what's actually on offer and the expansive promises its beautifully wrought world seems to make. This contrast is well-captured in the game's ballyhooed Kurosawa Mode, which swaps out color for cinematic black and white. While the option is welcome (as is the more successfully immersive Japanese-language audio track) and its aspiration—to capture the qualities of classic samurai movies—is an exciting one, it completely misses its lofty target.

In the Kurosawa mode, Ghost of Tsushima replaces its color compositions with muddy grayscale, forgetting that black-and-white cinematography is more than just the removal of color, but has a separate visual language that's lost in such a blunt translation. The cacophony of on-screen scratches Kurosawa Mode adds to simulate an old film print underlines the mode's fundamental miscalculation, since the late director for which its named—Kurosawa Akira—was one of the few with the international profile to ensure his films were most typically presented in pristine condition.

But for the most part, Ghost of Tsushima embodies visually both the feudal Japan of Kurosawa and his more neon-blooded followers. (Jin Sakai might get along great with the implacable Itto Ogami of the Lone Wolf and Cub manga and movie series.) Visually will have to be enough—in most satisfactorily building out its endless waves of combat, Ghost of Tsushima makes a gloss of many of the qualities it admires in samurai movies.

In a duel in 1962's Harakiri, an impoverished ronin defeats a senior clan samurai, with the lead-up to the duel leading through a still graveyard to a wind-whipped field. Ghost of Tsushima can give us that field, but as birds, lightning, wind and blowing chaff load the screen, it never finds the essential contrast between stillness and motion. In Kurosawa's Ran and Throne of Blood, we see Shakespearean tragedies rewritten across the agonized faces of samurai tormented by their own failings. Ghost of Tsushima pushes its characters, but never to the same operatic heights. In Okamoto Kihachi's Sword of Doom, an amoral samurai kills without remorse until death fills his vision, but Ghost of Tsushima never risks carrying its protagonist over the same cliff.

Tsushima includes the visual vocabulary of those worlds, but its true nature will forever be at right angles from the samurai influences it most clearly cherishes. In movies, samurai duels are precise and fast—a competition of single strokes that you don't always recognize is over until one of the opponents splits apart, or gouts of blood spray from them (like in the powerful close-up duel ending Kurosawa's Sanjuro). But there's just too many Mongols to kill and junk to collect for Ghost of Tsushima to be too much more than an excellent open-world action game.