At Open World Action Games one inevitably thinks of the “Ubisoft formula”, which has already become a meme: solid gameplay mix of various popular genres, huge cards full of markers that lead to some side occupations, and a story that then constructs the whole thing holds together more or less convincingly. The whole thing is then planted in the most spectacular setting possible and packed in pretty graphics. What happens if you let a development team like Sucker Punch, who is established in the genre but not bound by the strict rules of the “formula”, shows this current work, Ghost of Tsushima.
Last man standing
The samurai of the island of Tsushima have gathered to defend their homeland against the invading Mongols in a last major offensive. Led by Lord Shimura, they plunge into battle with the barbarians and are defeated. While Shimura is captured, his nephew Jin Sakai is the only one who barely survives the slaughter festival. Patched up by the thief Yuna, the honorable samurai now has only one goal in mind: to free his uncle from the clutches of the Khan and to take back his homeland.
Equipped with nothing but his katana, Jin begins his long journey through the war-torn lands of Tsushima and does what a good samurai does: He helps the common people wherever he can, looks for allies to fight him The Mongols support his combat strength and equipment so that he can survive against the overpowering opponent. This is accomplished via various main missions, some of which may be completed in any order to complete an act of overall history. This not only unlocks the next act, but also another of the 3 major areas of the game world.
The course of these main quests is very reminiscent Red Dead Redemption 2. Not too long, but intense adventures, some of which are difficult to script, which also has the same problems as in the model: As soon as such a mission is accepted, freedom is over. Straying from the current goal either does not work at all or leads to the mission being aborted and you can start over. The quests are mostly absolutely worth the restriction, but this peculiarity can lead to some frustration at the beginning, if you are not yet aware of this fact.
There is a lot to do, let’s pick a few flowers
The real star of Ghost of Tsushima but are clearly the side missions. You either stumble across them while exploring the expansive landscapes, or get them from talkative NPCs marked with a speech bubble. It is these side orders that convey the depressed and less hopeful atmosphere of the game more than anything else. Happy ends are few and far between when it comes to the lives and destinies of ordinary people in the midst of a brutal war. Showing things like this is quite a brave step in a genre that lives Power Fantasy, so usually lives from it to give the player the feeling of being able to do everything and be invincible. But it also cannot be the greatest hero everywhere at the same time and not every problem can be solved with a sharp blade.
Of course, main and side missions are not all there is to do on Tsushima. As usual in the genre, there are all sorts of more or less hidden places to discover, which either help you to steel yourself for the adventures ahead, or simply serve as a diversion. So it is important to bathe in remote onsen (hot springs), to behead bamboo in a small minigame, or to create small haikus in particularly picturesque locations. While the former increases the life energy of Jin a little, there are only purely cosmetic headbands for rhyming. There are also hidden shrines to find, Mongolian artifacts to collect and settlements to be freed from the barbarian conquerors.
The unusual way in which the game leads us to all these things is very welcome. Because the well-known markers on the map are (in the beginning) to no avail. Instead, keep your eyes open while traveling around. Because if you are close to an interesting point, a pretty yellow bird appears, chirping and leading us to that very place, should we follow it. Other places are addressed by the above-mentioned NPCs and only then appear on the map. You can also have the route there pointed out as usual, but there are no gaudy displays and signposts here. This is replaced by the wind, which always blows in the direction of the selected destination. This may not be particularly realistic, but it is definitely more atmospheric than a big red arrow in the corner of the picture.
Was there anything else? Oh the Mongols!
So the big question is: how does it all play out now? Damn good, even if the basic gameplay loop is no different from various other genre representatives. You run or ride on your trusty steed from A to B, meet trailblazers or Mongolian patrols and free small settlements along the way from besiegers. In between there are always large fortresses to take or infiltrate, often in the course of the main missions. At first, this is only in the direct way that Jin’s samurai honor is owed, since he would never raid an enemy in cold blood without giving him the chance of an honest fight. But he realizes very quickly that with his laudable attitude against the overpowering (and far less honorable) Mongols he won’t get far and can be instructed in the art of silent killing.
Apart from specific missions that do not require to be discovered, it is basically up to the player how he wants to deal with the respective situation. Whether the head (and sword) is raised through the front gate, or secretly over the roofs, the player has a whole range of tools available to accomplish his goal. For example throwing knives, smoke bombs, a bow with which you can not only silently kill opponents, but also spur bee or hornet nests to distract opponents. In direct combat, Jin primarily relies on his beloved katana, but here too he has a few options, because he gradually learns up to 4 different fighting stances by observing (or defeating in duel) from enemy leaders. Each of them has special combos that are particularly effective against spears, swords or shield carriers. These stances can be changed as you like during the fight and are quite intuitive after a little getting used to it, which is particularly necessary in the advanced course of the game if you want to emerge victorious from the sometimes quite intense fights.
In the course of some main or side missions, there are always duels with particularly strong opponents. They are playful just like the regular fights, but are atmospheric and exciting. In the end, these encounters, as well as completing quests, liberating settlements or eliminating stray enemies, bring legend status, which serves here as an equivalent to the experience bar. This earns skill points that can be distributed across various passive and active skills. The equipment comes optically diverse, especially in the form of color schemes bought with collected flowers, but only the body armor and the sword has an actual influence on our values or abilities. For example, there are various combat or sneak bonuses that are upgraded by armorsmiths, but can never be changed. The katana, however, always remains the same, but can be used with up to 6 talismans collected during the adventure, which have passive effects. All equipment and weapons can be upgraded with the appropriate NPC to bring the necessary materials. The latter can be found all over the huge island, sometimes more or less difficult to obtain. For animal skins, for example, they first have to be hunted in order to obtain the rare resources.
But first pick a few flowers …
Mechanically differs Ghost of Tsushima So only in details of the large mass of Open World games that flood the market every year. But what really makes it stand out from this mass is the really breathtaking presentation. Again and again you get caught instead of riding to the next destination, just standing somewhere on a coastal cliff and enjoying the fabulous view. Bamboo forests through which the light of the morning sun breaks, rugged mountains over which thunderstorms rage, or picturesque lakes at dusk. You can not walk 3 steps before you are amazed again. There are also detailed settlements and very authentic outfits and armor. Only the very well done and diverse faces sometimes seem strangely flat, especially in cutscenes and close-ups. But this is a rare and forgivable flaw given the brilliance offered in the rest of the game.
The same can be said about music and soundscape. Be it the gentle rustling of the wind in a remote piece of forest or wild fighting sounds in the midst of an intense skirmish, everything sounds as if you were there. The music of course remains true to the setting according to classic Japanese sounds and never pushes to the fore, but adapts perfectly to any situation and always fits perfectly into the overall picture. The synchronization into German and English is also very successful. The completely Japanese version should also be mentioned here. In combination with the black and white mode, which can be selected at any time, the flair of a feudal Japan is hard to beat. This mode is not only obviously inspired by the works of the legendary director Akira Kurosawa, but is also named after him.
Also on the technical side there is hardly anything to complain about the game. Even in the high-resolution setting, everything stays pleasantly fluid and there were hardly any bugs to be found. Tiny graphic clitches, like a bird flying through a house corner, are all there is to complain about. In performance mode, things are really smooth, but they don’t look that bad. So the decision is one that depends entirely on the priorities of each player.
Apart from a few details, remains Ghost of Tsushima largely true to the well-known Open World formula. But it is precisely these details, such as the lack of obvious signposts and thousands of quest markers on the map, as well as the grandiose visual presentation and the wonderfully pathetic side quests, that let you immerse yourself in the world of a war-torn feudal Japan. This can even tie doubters of the genre, like me, to the TV. Sucker Punch doesn’t make any real mistakes here, everything is at least as good as that of comparable competitors. If you like this kind of game anyway, you actually have no useful excuse not to get this pearl. Unless he can’t get anything out of samurai and old Japan … but those few bananas should give it a try too.
Tested on: PS4 Pro
Developer / publisher: Sucker Punch Productions / Sony Interactive Entertainment
Release: July 17, 2020
Link: official website