Players around the world have been begging for an open-world game set in feudal Japan for years, so Sucker Punch gave us a pleasant surprise when, back in 2017, the studio announced it was leaving Infamous and its superpowers behind to focus on an authentic samurai experience with Ghost of Tsushima. It's a big change for the studio, which is probably why it hasn't spent this long between games before. However, I'm glad to say that it has been worth the wait, although the developers haven't always made good use of the general improvements made in the genre since Infamous: First Light launched in 2014.
One aspect I'm glad they haven't modernised too much is the story and how it's told. Nate Fox and crew have been very open about taking heavy inspiration from Akira Kurosawa and other masters of Japanese cinema, and the results speak for themselves. Sure, you've seen the core plot before; a guy seeking revenge isn't particularly new. What is new is how protagonist Jin Sakai decides to stray from his samurai traditions and core values to actually stand a chance against the Mongol invaders and their brutal tactics. While the plot starts slow and forgettable, the pace picks up and the intrigue builds towards the latter half as the consequences of his actions and methods start to show, which makes it easier to look past some obvious twists, especially when the cinematography's cool style is reflected in the gameplay as well.
Having a great combat system is obviously a must in a game about samurai, and it's amazing to see the leaps Ghost of Tsushima has taken compared to the Infamous games. Both you and your enemies can be killed with a few stabs or slashes, making blocking and parrying essential. Some of you were disappointed when the State of Play presentation made it seem like enemies would wait for you to finish your attacks before going on the offensive. Don't worry, that's definitely not the case in the final game. Try to break through an opponent's block with more than two or three slashes and be prepared to see a razor-sharp katana or arrow come at you. It's great that you have a few abilities/weapons that not only allow you to stop these attacks, they also let you do it in style. Time your block or dodge and see the enemy stumble, leaving them somewhat open for a slash or two. Time it perfectly and you'll enter slow-motion as the enemy becomes completely open to a lethal and oftentimes cinematic final attack.
This isn't easy when going up against a large and diverse group of enemies. You wouldn't approach a large brute with a sledgehammer and a rōnin the same way, would you? Me neither, which is why you'll gradually learn four different fighting styles. Each of these is especially effective against one type of enemy. Where one will do more damage and easily stagger enemies with swords, it'll be far less threatening against someone with a spear. As most groups of enemies consist of different types, learning to swap between these styles and using your kunai, smoke bombs and such is essential. Fortunately, the system is intuitive and easy to learn, so you'll get in the flow fairly quickly, especially if you thin the herd before the real fight starts.
Ghost of Tsushima isn't necessarily a game where you start an encounter by simply swinging your katana at an enemy. You also have the option to challenge nearby enemies to a cinematic standoff, with you and three (it can be upgraded to five) opponents walking towards each other before stopping for a stare-down, Kurosawa-style, complete with close-ups of the eyes and weapons of all those involved. This is where it's important to keep your pulse and reflexes in check as you hold down the triangle button while waiting for the first attacker to make his move. Letting go too early, something you'll probably do the first time someone faints an attack, will leave you on the brink of death. Time it correctly, however, and you'll get to enjoy the white flash from your sword as it goes across the screen and the first enemy falls to the ground. Then you'll need to time your next button presses just as the other poor souls come running in to attack to leave a pile of bodies behind you while lingering on your pose. It's high risk with high reward, so much so that it's also worth taking a more stealthy approach at times.
Stealth might not be the first thing you think of when playing as a samurai, but this is where Sakai-san strays from his clan's traditions. Liberating a fort isn't easy if you just walk up to the front gate and call someone out; climbing over the wall with your grappling hook and silently killing them one by one is much easier. You might draw the attention of one enemy by throwing a wind chime or distract a group with firecrackers, and then take out the nosy archer watching over an area with your bow. If you're still in stealth, maybe you could execute the trio gathered around your distraction with some a few bloody stabs as you jump down from the rooftop before vanishing into the tall grass without anyone even knowing you were ever there. Being a samurai is cool. Being a ninja-samurai is the best!
No matter what approach you choose, everything you do feels and looks great, so it's well worth taking an incredible photo of what you've just done with a new Photo Mode that I think just raised the bar for similar features. That's a hyperbolic-sounding statement considering that the animations aren't exactly top-class, but the game more than makes up for it with a visually astounding world, excellent lighting, and fabulous sound design. This Japanese archipelago offers the entire spectrum of colours, and the blend of these colours with both sunlight and moonlight is really a sight to behold. Ever wondered what's so special about HDR? Take a look at Ghost of Tsushima. Whether it is how the white petals are carried with the wind as Jin walks through a field, the contrast between green grass and red flowers, or how a gloomy fog wraps a mysterious atmosphere around a temple - there are some stunning sights to behold and I've caught myself doing the press conference-pan more times than I care to admit because my eyes were drawn to something beautiful like a moth to a flame. Seeing images of these things doesn't do them justice, and Sucker Punch knows it. That's why activating the Photo Mode stops all characters while the surroundings keep on moving. Then you're free to change camera angles, focus, time of day, facial expressions, add different coloured leaves or birds flying in the wind and a whole load of other things. I'm looking forward to seeing the gifs and screenshots posted everywhere after launch. Heck, even the black and white Kurosawa Mode is worth using if you're a fan of classic Japanese cinema. Ghost of Tsushima is simply one of the most stylish games of this console generation.
Looks aren't everything, however. A great open-world game also needs to offer fun things to do outside of story- and side-missions. Ghost of Tsushima includes something for every mood in that regard. Just want to relax after fighting for a long time? Try to find one of the hidden hot springs to lay down in and hear Jin reflect on a subject of your choosing while watching his maximum health increase. Think you need some better attributes? Go looking for one of the fox shrines by either exploring or letting a fox guide you from its den to increase the strength of a perk-like charm. Keep running out of the magical runes that allow you to heal and use special abilities? Test your dexterity by doing long strings of button combinations on a bamboo stand to get more of them. Tired of walking around with the same armour, mask, hat and sword? Climb the highest places and find hidden areas in the world to find new gear. Hungry for some knowledge? Find different Mongolian artefacts to learn more about them and the Khan. There are a ton of customisation items spread across the world, and many of them are quite good, so it's unfortunate that looking for them gets repetitive after a while.
Don't get me wrong. Ghost of Tsushima is a great game, but it doesn't quite keep up with the best in the industry when it comes to filling its large world with interesting content. While it's extremely beautiful, many objects and areas feel a bit copy/pasted. You'll know exactly how a Mongol camp is laid out after the first two, fight pretty much the same enemies after twenty hours as you did after three, pet the same fox at every shrine and free the same hostage from Mongolians so many times that I kind of think the farmer has a weird fetish for it.
The same applies to most of the missions. Ride from A to B, kill a group of enemies, maybe investigate something by using your X-ray vision, talk with someone and see the mission's neat title card blow away in the wind as you wait to get control over Jin again. There are a few significant exceptions that are really cool and unique, but these are fairly few and far between. The game's technical shortcomings don't help either.
I'm really not a fan of objects morphing through each other (clipping). Zooming in on Jin's head or katana in the intro to a duel simply isn't as exciting when you see his scarf going through the helmet or the katana's handle going through his cape or armour. Wonky animations can take some of the blame for that; characters running in circles, suddenly changing pose as they drop dead, and floating on top of stairs are just some of the less than stellar things I've seen.
Then we have the extensive loading times on both the regular PS4 and PS4 Pro. I'm not talking about loading times between deaths or fast travel here, as those are actually short. The main problem is talking with characters. Starting a conversation will usually leave you with a black screen for a couple of seconds before a more cinematic angle takes you through it. Then it goes black for a few seconds again. If it's a mission, you'll have to wait even longer as there are even more screens to click through. What's more, seeing Mongolians and a bear standing completely still until I get close enough for them to suddenly come to life and fight each other is just bad icing on the otherwise great cake.
The rough edges are a real shame, as the core elements of Ghost of Tsushima are terrific. It's jaw-droppingly beautiful and the same attention to detail shines through in the combat and its presentation. Few games succeed in blending style and substance, but this does. It sounds like a cliché, but swapping between different fighting styles, perfectly parrying an attack and knowing when to strike or use a throwable gadget looks and feels like a brilliant ballet. Meanwhile, taking a more stealthy approach is also satisfying, making you feel like a real badass as you kill enemies in exuberant ways or use your tools to sneak past unnoticed. Just try not to look too closely as clipping and stiff animations become all the more obvious when the camera zooms in. I'd also recommend taking your time with this particular journey, as the game can be somewhat repetitive. Do that, and you have an amazing experience ahead that really makes you feel like a samurai exploring and fighting your way through a brilliant version of feudal Japan.