Ghost of Tsushima Review: A Little Something for Everyone

After getting PS4’s Ghost of Tsushima on launch day and chipping away until I achieved the platinum trophy (100%) for the game, I decided review it. This game is a stunning, clean, intriguing story with a little something for every gamer. While anyone would enjoy it, this game will be an absolute thrill for fans of anime, history, or enchanting environments.

Jin Sakai is the last samurai left on his small island after an overwhelming invasion by the disgraceful Mongol forces. After narrowly escaping death, he must build up his allies and reclaim his home. Raised to be honorable in combat and face foes head on, Jin believes stabbing your opponent in back makes you nothing but a coward. However, to stand any sort of chance against this sea of brutes, Jin realizes he won’t be able to face them all at once; he has to become the stealth-driven Ghost. This personal transformation leads to constant internal conflict for Jin. What is more important: the lives of his people, or his integrity as a warrior? Is it possible call yourself a samurai if your home is in the shadows? Ultimately, this is a story of a young man’s struggle of discovering what honor means to him.

Whether you enjoy breathtaking exploration, strategic stealth gameplay, tooth and nail combat, or a strong narrative with a lot of heart, nearly anyone will find a satisfying experience in Jin’s story somehow. I’ll be breaking down my thoughts on a few categories that I think are important for an open-world RPG and making a few comments on where I think there’s room for improvement. Please consider my critiques with the understanding that I believe this is an incredible game that simply excelled in many ways and blew me away in all others.

Story and Character Development

Story

I found the story and characters to be more and more engaging as the journey progressed. Initially a story of restoring the structure of the past from a chaotic landscape, it develops into a tale of learning to be flexible and building something new. There’s a conflict with the Mongols, sure, but there’s also a conflict between what things were like before and what they now have to be like moving forward. Some things have to change, and people do, too. How far can something bend before it breaks and must be replaced?

Jin Sakai, last remaining member of the Sakai clan, is a straight-laced samurai with a strong sense of duty towards his uncle and his home. His uncle, Lord Shimura, is the leader of the island and raised Jin after Jin’s mother and family died over the course of his childhood. Jin is a little hard to like at first, because at first glance, it seems as though most of the other characters in the game are far more charismatic than he is. In RPGs, we are used to playing either gruff veterans like Kratos or Geralt, or wise-cracking rebels like Aloy or Nathan Drake. Jin is neither, and seems to lack any sort of personality. In fact, his dialogue in most quests make him sound like any of the other nameless peasants of the island.

However, this is because Jin has been trained under a strict code of honor and humility. Challenging the status quo or showing disrespect is contrary to how his uncle raised him. As he travels alone in a Tsushima without the samurai class system in place, he’s free to begin letting loose and making choices for himself. Whether the path of the Ghost changes him or whether he’s really just exploring his own personality, Jin becomes more comfortable questioning his elders and using his words, rather than his sword, to challenge various antagonists. With time, we see that Jin isn’t just a stick in the mud. His reflections while alone in the hot springs show his inner thoughts while his guard is down outside of battle. He is open-minded, he is unshakably kind, and his soft, but powerful aura makes him extremely likable. He really grows on you.

Jin really shines while interacting with the main cast of allies. It’s a pleasant surprise when Jin aims a teasing jab at one of his elders, or when he lets the younger peers convince him to let loose a little. Yuna, Jin’s thieving savior who is normally the one encouraging him to do what’s necessary, is especially good at chipping away at Jin’s exterior. While he is quiet, Jin is truly a man of the people, and it’s rewarding to see his friends expose more of his personality through the dialogue.

A bright spot of this story is the chilling antagonist, Khotun Khan. The leader of the Mongol invasion, he is terrifyingly calm and persuasive, bringing to mind Ultron from the MCU. He’s a master manipulator and it’s hard to know when he’s being genuine. Khan’s aim is to divide and conquer, and he’s damn good at it. Some light criticisms despite this praise: I would have liked to have seen him change and develop throughout the game as well, I wish we could’ve seen more examples of the genius the characters make him out to be, and I wish he would’ve had more dialogue with Jin.

Quest Types

In terms of the quest system, there are four main types. There is the main story, which obviously contains the necessary events for the journey. There are also special quest lines for each of Jin’s allies, which help form bonds between the characters and shows us that they need him just as much as he needs them. These quest lines can be hit or miss; some are surprising and intense, while some are the same old track-and-kill missions. The most cohesive are the quest lines of the two elder allies, Sensei Ishigawa and Lady Masako, who are both struggling with finding peace in their legacy. These quests are rewarding on their own, but some quests grant a cool piece of armor or a nice skin for your weapon that you can’t find anywhere else.

Another type of quests are the typical side quests throughout the island which are relatively short and not really worthwhile. At most, you get a small charm to make your weapon better—but you’ll usually already have that charm already. In addition, it’s not too hard to get to the highest level possible, so the experience you gain from side quests isn’t necessary, either.

Finally, the legendary tales are a treat. These are the missions that allow Jin to gain a new special skill by accomplishing unique tasks. To access these, you listen to musicians that tell stories of fabled heroes or demons. The story is told with an awesome ink art style and gets you hyped to take on the challenge. They usually involve finding a legendary area and dueling a formidable foe. What makes these really engaging is that Jin behaves like an anime character while pursuing them. He becomes instantly motivated to gain whatever skill/armor/weapon in question and wants to seek that power no matter what. He faces off against the enemy and becomes intent on learning and becoming stronger. Normally humble, this is where you can see Jin be a little self-indulgent, because he gets to come out of it with something new and exciting. The best part is that it’s not a part of the main story. You didn’t need to do it, but you did, and you feel like you’ve made yourself a legend on your own terms.

My recommendation for someone playing this game, in order to get the most out of it, is to mold your playstyle to the story. If Jin seems to be struggling with walking the path of the Ghost and being more stealthy, try to play more stealthy. Make the changes the game wants, but doesn’t require, you to make. Jin is a much different character at the end of the journey, so it helps to roleplay a little. Use more cheap tricks in your fights. Wear more black and make edgier dialogue choices. Make the game your own, but let the story guide your choices.

Combat and Enemy Encounters

Enemy Encounters 

The combat system in Ghost of Tsushima is both familiar and surprisingly polished. Most encounters consist of five or six enemies with different attack styles—some will use shields and attack with unblockable bashes, some will use quick jabs with a spear, and some will come at you with multiple quick sword slashes. The first time you get smacked at point blank range with what’s basically a rocket launcher is a bit jarring. For the most part, the enemies will come two at a time with a couple archers shooting every once in a while. The other melee enemies will hang back and wait to enter the scrap as you defeat their comrades.

Sleek and easy to pick up on, the sword-fighting encounters use a simple fast/heavy attack system with possible parries, sidesteps, and rolls. In that sense, the combat follows the tried and true system used by other hits like The Witcher or God of War. Dodging or parrying at the last second is risky, but the payout is a satisfying slow-motion counter-attack. Your attacks feel fluid and look sleek, as expected from our master swordsman, Jin.

A couple things separate combat here from other games I’ve played. The “stand-off” option at the beginning of encounters allows you to enter a sudden-death showdown that tests your reaction speed. If you don’t flinch and wait for the enemy to try to strike you first, you can retaliate in slow-motion and cut down a few enemies pretty easily at the very beginning of the squabble. In addition, Jin learns multiple sword “stances” throughout the early game that are more effective against different enemies. The “water” stance was my favorite, and features fluid strikes in quick succession to beat down shield-bearers’ defenses. It’s very easy to switch stances in battle, so it makes you feel like a hardened samurai in this game.

Archery is an optional method for Jin that makes combat far easier. With a few perks and upgrades, your short range “half bow” can take only a moment to snuff out enemies that would otherwise take a decent amount of attention if you used your sword. The bow doesn’t take long to draw and shoot, even without upgrades, perks, or armor to bolster it. Flaming arrows can be used to do a little extra damage or set the ground on fire to take out multiple enemies. It’s also not difficult to roll back a few times to put some distance between you and them. While archery is far too powerful early game, enemies gain more and more armor throughout the story, forcing you to switch to the much-slower-to-use “longbow” to do significant damage.

In most encounters, you can choose to adopt a sneakier approach to taking down Mongols on the road or in their camps. Similar to stealth in the Assassin’s Creed series, you can crouch to move silently and hide in the grass, behind structure and scenery, or choose to take the high ground and trot along suspended slack lines. Getting close enough to an unsuspecting enemy triggers the assassination option, which can be upgraded to a “chain assassination,” making it possible to quietly take out clumps of enemies at a time. Even if you’re seen, it sometimes takes a while for the enemy to alert others in the camp, giving you a small window to silence them.

All in all, using a stealth approach was less fun than head-on encounters, especially because it’s not very hard to stay hidden. This is a shame, because the whole premise of the game is that you can’t just face this threat head on. But the thing is… you can. Every Mongol camp I encountered, every quest I took on, every group of bandits, I could have used my trusty sword—and it was more fun that way. To make the gameplay mesh with the story, I believe Ghost of Tsushima would benefit from way more enemies grouped together, and it would be more realistic if they attacked all at once as opposed to only a few at a time.

Another group of weapons in Jin’s arsenal is the “ghost weapons.” As Jin walks further down the path of the Ghost, he gains more dishonorable weapons to match the Mongol threat. The sticky bomb attaches to enemies and deals collateral damage; the kunai stun multiple enemies at a time; the poison dart terrifies those that witness the victim’s demise, and so on. Early on, these tools seem repetitive and unnecessary, but as the enemies become more aggressive and well-armored, the ghost weapons are essential to get out of a pinch, heal, and reset.

With all of these easy-to-use weapons, Ghost of Tsushima gives you the freedom to approach situations however you want. Given the lack of diversity in enemies and the repetitive nature of clearing camps and other related quests, the diverse skillset offers a way to mix things up. Although you may be able to take out the three enemies looting a corpse on the road with a few slashes, you may choose to see if you can pull off a chain-assassination. You may want to see if you can take them out with a bow before they can reach you. You may want to lure them away one at a time with wind chimes and surprise them all separately. I encourage anyone that starts to feel that combat is getting bland to become comfortable with a different weapon you may not be familiar with, because otherwise encounters get boring. It doesn’t have to be boring if you don’t let it.

Worth noting is one of the unavoidable downsides of this game: lack of enemy diversity. This is a history-themed game, and doesn’t have the benefit of the writers being able to think up a huge set varied opponents to keep things interesting. For the most part, you have swordsmen, spearmen, shield-bearers, and brutes. Other than that, the occasional bear doesn’t offer much of a challenge and the Mongol’s dogs are just sort of annoying. Because of the fact that this is based on historical enemies in the real world, we can’t blame the game for not having a lot of options on this front, but as I mentioned, it’s up to the gamer to make things interesting.

Difficulty

In terms of difficulty, the game felt easy at first. I chose to play on hard mode, which was the hardest option available at the time. The combat was engaging, but I never had the feeling that I accomplished something truly amazing. Faced with a dozen enemies at a time, I would feel almost relieved that I might actually get taken down. I’m not even that great at video games—don’t talk to me about my experience playing Give Me God of War Mode. But in this game, I wanted to be forced to use all my weapons instead of parrying everyone. I didn’t want to be able to do something flashy and wasteful every time, like choosing to herd all of the enemies to a cliff and kick them off one by one—which I did a few times. For a truly challenging experience, I would recommend taking it a step farther and choosing the patched-in “lethal” mode, which will make the gameplay a little more gritty and suspenseful.

Outside of normal combat, there are plenty of one-on-one duels Jin must take part in on his journey. Indulgently dramatic and influenced by samurai cinema, you face off against certain bosses in small arenas with only your sword—no ghost weapons or bows allowed. Each duel begins with Jin calmly and confidently popping his katana out of its sheath with a twitch of his thumb, which never fails to give me goosebumps. The enemies usually have intensely aggressive, unique attacks that take you a while to figure out. These were genuinely thrilling and challenging, and often included dialogue that became more desperate and intimate as the duel went on.

World and Exploration

The island of Tsushima in the game is, of course, modeled off of the real-world island (situated roughly halfway between South Korea and mainland Japan). Although it is eventually a fully open world, the map is split into three large areas that correspond with the three “Acts” of the story. The second area is locked until you reach Act 2, and the third is locked until Act 3. The map is not nearly as big as other modern open-world games (Tsushima is about 11 square miles, making it smaller than Skyrim, three times smaller than Red Dead Redemption 2, and four times smaller than The Witcher 3) but the varied landscape and interesting side content makes the world seem plenty big enough for a playthrough.

From the start, the developers have been proud of their unique “guiding wind” system. There is no mini-map, but there is a gentle gust that points you in the direction of your desired target, whether that be a quest or a custom marker. This allows you to take in the environment and fully immerse yourself in the character and mission without being reminded that you’re in a video game. There is also a yellow and black bird that will swoop into your field of view and lead you to points of interest you may not have otherwise noticed. Columns of smoke indicate areas with new quests or vendors. It was a risk, but I have to say it works. It’s a bit disorienting at first if you’re used to a minimap, but as you get to know the island and travel a bit, it’s really no trouble to get around without one. The game tricks you into thinking you know where you’re going, and the wind at your back actually gives you a sense of purpose. In fact, you discover that the wind and animals of the area each have a special connection to Jin that further strengthens your bond with this new environment-focused guiding system.

Much like other games, there is a fog that covers undiscovered areas. One method of clearing it is to simply travel and discover every inch on foot. An easier method is to conquer the scattered Mongol bases, which will largely free the surrounding area and reveal a radius of the fog for you, along with the location of points of interest. The bases are where most of the Mongols congregate and already provide a fun, satisfying challenge to clear, but the fog removal is an added incentive.

This world looks phenomenal, which we will get to later. Aside from that, scattered throughout the island are various activities with different utilities that feel almost like mini games. You have the chance to relax in natural hot springs and meditate on topics of your choosing, write haiku by drawing inspiration from the beautiful scenery, and participate in obstacle courses to reach the unreachable. Stacks of bamboo present a button mash challenge to raise Jin’s stats. These activities offer much-needed variation in the gameplay and make exploration a real treat.

Another point of interest that is not hard to come by are the multitudes of fox dens throughout the world. Foxes are sacred to Jin and his clan, and they lead him to shrines that allow you to customize your weapon and perks. This is yet another thing that draws you closer to this wonderfully interactive island. Even if finding the shrines is awfully repetitive, the fox will sometimes stick around after you find the shrine and let you pet it, so we don’t have a lot to complain about. It even curls its tail up and hops around after you finish petting it… Bless them.

The more annoying part of the game for those who wish to gain the platinum trophy are the various collectibles scattered throughout the game. Some of them are significant to customization, like sword kits, but others are more of a drag unless you are really into this game or the history behind it. There are 50 Mongol artifacts, which teach you about Mongol culture, and 40 records, which provide little conversations and letters people have written and left behind. If you want to save yourself some time, it’s best to wear the “traveler’s attire” armor, which will prompt your controller to vibrate whenever you’re close to a collectible. Luckily, this armor looks badass when fully upgraded, so I would’ve worn it anyway. Even while wearing it for the whole game though, I still had to spend an hour tracking down collectibles at the end of my playthrough.

What I believe this game is missing is a solid base of operations for Jin. There are some safe havens with plenty of vendors to upgrade your equipment, but none of them really feels like it’s yours. Granted, a major part of the story is that Jin is on his own, but it would be nice to have a place to retreat to, put your horse in a stable, and be able to sleep before going out into the world again. This would make the world feel a little more immersive than it already is.

A really pleasing and exciting part of exploration is coming upon an area that will later become relevant to a quest. I remember seeing a hole in a rock formation and crawling/ducking around obstacles until I found a field of flowers and a shrine tucked away in the hills and thinking about the duel I may have there later on. These locations exist across the map and add an element of mystery to the gameplay. It’s a nice feeling to know there’s a story yet to be told in the area and look forward to seeing it later on.

Materials are needed for upgrading Jin’s armor, weapons, and weapon capacity. Thankfully, it’s incredibly easy to gather bamboo, wood, and animal hides from horseback and without pointless animations that are present in many other similar games. You can dash by and they disappear into your satchel with the press of a button.

Visuals and Soundtrack

Visuals

One of the most attractive parts of this game, it’s photo mode, could almost be considered a whole game in itself. All of the photos used in this review are a result of the game’s photo mode. Almost every frame of this game presents the opportunity for a stunning screenshot you can take credit for. Aside from changing the perspective of the frame and facial expressions of Jin, you can even change the density of floating particles in the frame and change the time of day or weather to make the lighting perfect. Although I usually was too engaged in the story to take time to master photo mode, anyone that enjoys capturing the perfect moment along their journey will have as many chances as they want.

And you don’t have to just use photo mode to be able to fully appreciate the beauty of this game. The colors are vivid and well-balanced, the textures of the dirt and snow are incredibly realistic, and the sky often looks like a painting. The environment is constantly in flux, with animals trotting around and the wind gently blowing in the background. Rain and thunder storms will suddenly appear to mix up your day of exploration.

As far as the visuals for the story and characters, Ghost of Tsushima is definitely not behind the times. The animation for the main cast is incredibly realistic, especially when it comes to facial expression. There is really only one character that I would consider expressive; the rest are very subtle in terms of showing emotion. That’s what makes it so impressive that even the slightest hesitation or doubt on the characters’ faces is easily discernable in the cut scenes of the story. As one would expect from the main character, Jin is especially interesting to pay attention to. The quiet narrowing of his eyes or slight tilt of his head are very important for foreshadowing essential parts of the journey, and Sucker Punch has done an outstanding job making sure the visuals are on par with the gameplay and story.

Soundtrack

As a fan of scores, I also appreciate the audible queues from the environment and intensely emotional soundtrack during the main story. Getting close to a point of interest will prompt a certain melody that stops you in your tracks and puts you on the hunt for its source. Climbing to the top of a towering temple brings with it some triumphant, pleasant music that at first seems out of place, but actually invites you to take a second to enjoy your surroundings and immerse yourself in the moment.

There are also musical themes of sadness and desperation in thrilling and heart-breaking scenes, as well as more optimistic tunes that carry through during Jin’s successes. Overall, the audio in this game succeeds at making this play like an actual movie—one that you can explore to your heart’s content.

Customization and Player Choice

If this game has a weak point, it’s in the amount of choice you get as a player. Story dialogue is entirely scripted, with the occasional inconsequential binary conversation choice. What you say doesn’t even matter ten seconds later. Aside from a single important choice at the end of the story, instances like that make the choice seem like it does more harm than good for the enjoyment of the game.

In terms of player choice of Jin’s appearance, there’s certainly a lot to choose from. You get to select Jin’s main armor, which carries with it certain perks. There’s a large assortment of headbands with different patterns and colors you get from special locations across the map, but primarily from finishing haikus. There are also cool straw hats to choose from and some wicked helms. As far as face coverings go, most of your choices are gained as you progress in your story and complete more quests, prompting new masks to appear at “gift altars” throughout Tsushima.

Choice for your sword’s appearance depends on “pillars of honor” you find throughout the map. These are often found on the edges of cliffs or in more serene locations. Resting on the pillar are sword kits that make your sheath look different. You can’t change the sword you carry, making total customization limited, but the system in place is diverse enough. While some kits looked cheap and dull, some were really flashy or terrifying. It’s a fun experience to get a new sword kit you really like and see if it matches the rest of your outfit.

While you can’t make sure you get every piece of clothing the exact color you want, there are about three or four different skins for each armor and bow, sold to you by vendors at safe locations. There are even special vendors you can find that sell unique black and white tones for certain items. While it does make it more satisfying to find a cool combination of armor and colors because of how rare it is to get different skins that actually mesh, the game would benefit aesthetically if the player could make things blend better. I can’t tell you how many times I wished the shade of yellow on my sword kit matched the color of my saddle.

As I mentioned, armor grants you different perks that are normally unique to those armors. While some are generic, like giving health or damage increases, some add benefits to staggering or stealth skills that are hard to find elsewhere. The issue is, you may not like some of the armors’ appearances. That’s why it’s sort of frustrating that you can’t get those perks unless you wear an armor that you really don’t feel good playing in. It would be better if the player could somehow use currency to be able to pick off those special perks and add them to armors that match their tastes.

And, lastly, you can add charms to your katana to give you perks. This is where you have a good amount of freedom to cater to your playstyle. Finishing shrines give you major perks, of which you can equip two. These are very beneficial. For instance, one of the major perks I chose for a majority of my playthrough granted a 40% chance to get an arrow back if I achieved a headshot with it. The minor perks are gained through the regular tales, or quests, of the game. These are less consequential, like small gains to healing.

Basically, I found customization to be both rigid and accessible. You can make changes whenever you want without worrying about your skills or stats matching up with it as you would in other games. If you like the look of a piece of armor, you don’t have to think about if it’s heavy or light, and there are no level requirements. As soon as you get something, you can wear it. In that way, it’s accessible. On the other hand, some special perks are only available on certain armor that you may not like, and you can barely even change their color tones. In that way, you don’t have a lot of freedom at all.

Summary

8.8/10

Ghost of Tsushima’s positives are plenty. The story pulls you in with a sense of desperation and uses an engaging main cast to get you invested in a story that becomes more interesting as the journey continues. The combat is sleek and familiar, along with a few twists to separate this RPG from the pack. The world is absolutely stunning, making exploration a treat—especially with a stellar photo mode. Finishing this outstanding game makes nitpicking feel wrong, but there are flaws in sneaking, weapon balancing, and customization that leave room for improvement in a possible sequel.