Last month we got our biggest look so far at Ghost of Tsushima, Sucker Punch Productions' swansong for PS4. Sony's first State of Play in 2020 was dedicated entirely to the samurai adventure, which meant 18 minutes of new gameplay was on hand to show off, among other things, the exploration and combat. But as is often the case, new information brings about new questions. That being the case, GR spoke with game director Nate Fox to learn more about many of the things featured in the presentation.
First and foremost, I have to ask you, how has the experience of finishing a huge game like Ghost of Tsushima under the current circumstances been?
Nate Fox: "It wasn't exactly how we thought we were going to finish it, but it has been interesting. This is, of course, a difficult time for everyone, but we have worked from home since mid-March and after an adjustment period of a few weeks, we're doing fine. We're definitely on track for our July 17 release date."
Good to hear. At Sucker Punch, you've been doing open worlds for more than 10 years. How has your approach to designing them changed?
Nate Fox: "With each of the games we've made, the goal has been to give the player more choice. In Infamous we provided the players with many choices as to how they wanted to use their superpowers. In Ghost of Tsushima, we want to give the players opportunities in relation to how they want to approach the game-world. We're giving them a large, expansive version of Feudal Japan, where they can live out the samurai dream and where it's their curiosity that guides them. Our job is to stimulate that curiosity so they look beyond that next hill and discover something unexpected."
That seems to echo what Jason [Connell] mentioned in the presentation about discovering things organically. Can you give some examples of the types of things players can discover organically and how?
Nate Fox: "Well, one of the most exciting components of the game is the 'guiding wind' feature. You can choose to, say, have a general direction that you want to travel and it will subtly point that out to you. But as you're going, you can decide you want to go off the path, for instance, because you see a smokestack in the horizon that looks like a sign of the Mongols doing something. In doing so, you create your own course through the game. We're not telling the players what to do, they're deciding for themselves. The kinds of things you discover are classic samurai genre activities. Following a fox to a shrine is just one of the things that is part of bringing this Feudal Japan to life."
The intention of letting visual markers in the game-world arouse the curiosity of players sounds very similar to Breath of the Wild, and Nintendo's classic also happens to be the title that invigorated the team's focus on exploration and curiosity, but the original North Star was another legendary open-world adventure.
Nate Fox: "One of the initial games I found very excellent was Red Dead Redemption. It did a magnificent job of letting players experience the life of being an outlaw in the Old West. The landscape, the characters, the costumes, the music. All these things supported that core fantasy. So, when getting going on Ghost of Tsushima to me that was a North Star; trying to do as good a job of bringing the life of a wandering samurai to life.
While we were working on the game, Breath of the Wild came out and I think it really invigorated us in trying to look harder at making curiosity and discovery an even richer component of the game. It was just so refreshing that the game asked you to pay attention and rewarded your curiosity. It helped us to have the courage to go even farther by crafting our game-world with that same level of mystery."
That sounds very exciting. We got a brief look at the map, which was dotted with question marks. Is it also possible to discover things that are not on the map?
Nate Fox: "Absolutely! When the game begins, you don't know where everything is, which is a design choice because players want to discover the world on their own. They don't want to know where everything is, where they have to go and what to do. They would rather plot their own course."
Can you give some examples of the kind of side content we can expect?
Nate Fox: "So, while there are activities in the world like Mongol fortifications, fox shrines or even investigating abandoned buildings, one of the more soulful elements is getting to know other characters you meet along Jin's journey from samurai to ghost and deciding to take the time to invest in that side content - in their stories, in their struggles. You do these sorts of things and you're rewarded with new weapons and abilities you wouldn't have had access to otherwise."
In order to get around in Tsushima as fast as possible, Jin gets access to a horse early on in the game. According to Nate Fox, it is your best friend, it always comes when called, it rides into battle with you, and it cannot die. It also has a lot of personality. However, there are places where the horse cannot take you such as narrow ledges and roofs. This is where the platforming enters the picture. Sucker Punch has drawn on their experiences developing Sly Cooper and Infamous in order to make the controls fast, fluid and fun. Nate Fox deflects a little when I ask him about the amount of player input required in these sections, but does say that they will feel dangerous. They are, however, not a main focus in the game.
Although exploration is a big part of Ghost of Tsushima, the plot itself revolves around the historic invasion by the Mongol Empire in the 13th Century. Therefore, combat has an equally important part to play. Whereas the keywords for the exploration of the island are "discovery" and "curiosity", the combat against the invading Mongols has a very different set of words associated with it. Blood, mud and steel is how the team describes their approach to designing the combat in order for it to honour the samurai genre. This means a focus on precision and correctly reading your opponents' animations. In this way, combat, in spite of its brutality, mirrors the exploration because it's all about paying attention to the game world itself, instead of checking menus, minimaps or HP bars. This approach to combat is particularly visible in stand-offs, which was introduced during the State of Play Presentation.
Nate Fox: "As Jin approaches Mongols, he can call them out, insult them and get them into a stand-off. Now, this is classic samurai movie stuff, right, where the two swordsmen are staring each other down waiting for that other person to make the first move. We wanted to capture the tension that is particular to this genre element. In the game it's very simple: you just have to wait for the enemy to move, they will try to fake you out and if you're calm and you're paying attention, you will be able to, at the right moment, slice and take them down with one stroke. When their buddies come in, you can do the same to them. It's about honouring the genre of samurai cinema through interactivity."
So it's about paying close attention to the movements of the enemy and timing a single button press correctly?
Nate Fox: "Absolutely! Like the 'guiding wind' mechanic, we want players to look at the game world, to look at the characters' bodies and animations, to pay attention to the reality of Tsushima."
We also saw Jin deflecting arrows with his Katana. How does that system work?
Nate Fox: "Combat in the game - and reflecting arrows - is all about precision. Jin is radically outnumbered by the Mongols, so if you swing your sword without a lot of thought behind it, you're going to die. We honour the lethality of the sword. Two swipes with it and you can kill somebody and you yourself can be killed very quickly. So you have to have some skills; it's a challenge."
If that sounds a bit intimidating, Nate Fox points out that there are several difficulty levels making the game either easier or harder than the default normal mode. When asked about differences between the different difficulty levels, he says that the fast, brutal nature of combat is carried across them all, although on hard you can't take quite as much damage. Sucker Punch clearly wants the feel and style of combat to be similar no matter the difficulty. Mastery of certain systems - such as parries that enable you to open up your opponent and counter - is, however, not required in order to succeed, particularly on lower difficulty levels. Jin also invents stances on the fly in order to adapt to his enemies' foreign combat techniques. Different enemy types are susceptible to different stances making this system all about selecting the right stance for the right situation.
The confrontational samurai play-style is, of course, not the only way to play Ghost of Tsushima. The title refers to the dishonourable techniques you acquire as The Ghost, and there is a bigger focus on tools. During the presentation, we saw firecrackers, kunai and smoke bombs and while there are more to come, Sucker Punch is, understandably, not revealing them all right now.
It seems as though you have the opportunity to play as either samurai or ghost throughout the entirety of the game. Is that correct?
Nate Fox: "When the game begins you are a samurai raised inside the samurai code of honour. You always look an enemy in the eyes before you attack him and you fight with your katana. However, as the game progresses Jin acquires new abilities - some of which are completely dishonourable - in order to fight back against impossible odds. He becomes a new type of warrior. He becomes The Ghost. Jin's new abilities are about traversal, assassination, or throwing tools but that doesn't mean he stops being an expert with the katana. That's always available to players. In fact, you might choose to invest more of your skill points - through a skill tree - in making your swordplay even more effective. Players get to decide when they grow skills and herd those skills towards the kind of play-style they like the most. You never stop being excellent with the sword like a samurai, you just get new abilities. It's not a binary thing where you're either a samurai or a ghost. You're The Ghost, and The Ghost is all of these abilities at once."
Does playing "with honour" or "dishonourably" affect the story?
Nate Fox: "This story about Jin's sacrifice of who he thought he would be as a samurai is just one story. It's something we wrote to tell what it's like for him."
Charms are another way to customise Jin to make him align with your preferred playstyle. Can you tell more about how they enhance his abilities?
Nate Fox: "While the game is completely grounded one aspect that is not so grounded is that you can pick up Omamori Charms, which give you stat boosts. They might make you 10% quieter or more capable of absorbing damage. These kinds of things, paired with different armour types that offer similar kinds of advantages, have you tinkering, defining the kind of benefits that you want to see on your Ghost to offset the playstyle that you like the best."
You mention the game being completely grounded. Does that mean no supernatural elements - such as monsters - are in the game?
Nate Fox: "Well, this is a game about real people struggling to survive inside the Mongol invasion. It doesn't feature any magic, or monsters or demons."
Even if we don't get to engage in optional boss battles with Yokai, it seems Ghost of Tsushima still has a few surprises up its sleeve. We look forward to discovering them when the game releases July 17.