GHOST OF TSUSHIMA | GAMEPLAY REVIEW
“REFLECTING ONE’S SELF
SEA OF RED, A NEW REBIRTH
TRAINED TO NEVER FAIL”
NOTE: This was from reviewable build v1.0.5
Deep blankets of light filling in the mid-ground of breathing leaves. Serene billows of wind caressing each flower pedal and neighboring blade of grass, reflecting global illumination with each surface its own unique specular highlight.
Ghost of Tsushima (GOT) doesn’t serve as just a videogame but rather an entirely immersive experience, absorbing you to a point of forgetting that this isn’t a Holo-Deck session. It all genuinely feels married to the air of authenticity well beyond their own source materials.
While it's easy to come with mainstream comparisons of Kurosawa, Sucker Punch's (Sly Cooper, Infamous) GOT takes on many common and not so common subject points in Japanese history. To be in the 12th century Japan introduces the player to all of these themes within the story, with the some of the recognizable emotional cues and elements associated with Japanese films, fiction and even Anime.
There is a new Sony-style of 3rd person gameplay today, once introduced from the original PS2 transitions into larger 3D maps (Ico, Jak & Daxter, Sly Cooper, Ratchet & Clank). Teams such as Sucker Punch, Naughty Dog, SCE Japan Studios and Insomniac have all contributed into the design pool which has subsequently changed how most designers deal with adventure gameplay (Uncharted influencing Tomb Raider is a perfect example as is The Last of Us series just the same). GOT follows in this bag of Sony game design standards and tricks with expansive environments, lush greenery that behave to weight and wind physics and the [probably] patented system of wall climbing, world navigation and context-sensitive cue points (using L2 predominantly) placed at specific “flag” points on the world/maps.
As a side point, context-sensitive gameplay really began with earlier titles such as Splinter Cell. Ghost of Tsushima, while being influenced more so from the likes of Tenchu with its Ninjutsu style, does carry shades of Sam Fisher’s method of stealth. Which is a good thing.
Movement is very freeform in the Tsushima islands, pretty reminiscent of Sly’s agility and dexterity. The movement does seem a bit floaty at times, where single steps can zone extremely far within combat, but mostly it's fairly tightly knit and responsive. Leaping and airborne control is just as responsive as The Thievius Racoonus, including how Jin lands on pedestals, redirecting jump arcs for more accurate landings, tip toeing on rope lines and juking in any direction is all naturally intuitive. This goes the same for the camera control, being swift and nonintrusive in most situations (although an ability to see through geometry with transparency would help in tight corridors however).
Ghost’s centered story revolves around a now war-torn recovering Jin Sakai, born of his own family clan but at the same time fatherless and raised as the “son” of Lord Shimura. Shimura rules over the Tsushima islands with 12th century Samurai Shogun tenets, which were the standards of the nation's Government and core belief system at that time. Ghost does this wonderful job of pitting the player’s moralistic standings with remaining as a “pure honorable” Samurai, and through evolving as a complete fighter becoming a “Ghost”/Shinobi (the game seems to be hinting at this time period being the origin of Ninjutsu itself). The player as Jin travels through three main sections of Tsushima (bordering mainland Japan) to stave off the Mongol invasion of their country. Despite appearing to be a small region, Tsushima reveals itself to being a huge landscape with a ton of objectives to accomplish.
There are additionally a HUGE number of side stories throughout Tsushima
Many of them are deeply heartfelt, touching on the political landscape of Japan at the era. From adapting to changing times, child trafficking abuses and even a hint of speaking on closeted sexuality in a close-knit village. Just about every theme revolves around the morality of the changing period, even if there aren’t many actual choices left to the player...that is up until the very final chapter closing scenario.
It’s easy to say that this Sucker Punch entry into the PS4’s last generational library is nothing short of phenomenal when it comes to visual design. The lighting is the biggest culprit, with soft bathing illumination covering the lush individually blade-grass-modeled landscapes. Hard light pushes through smoke and hot springs’ steam diffusion, streams peer through swaying tree leaves, all rendered in constant weather cycles and moods.
This is a Cinematographer porn valley here. I mean, aside from the thousands of particle effects, wind physics, insanely detailed facial modeling and expressions, multi-layered material maps for each surface… I honestly could go on and on about Ghosts’ visual fidelity. However it’s the ART DIRECTION that does the most work on top of this technically astounding engine (-- that seems to get passed around with certain custom changes through Sony’s teams internationally). On par with the beautiful animations and animation transitions simply makes for one of the most immersive gameplay experiences to date. Half the time you simply want to walk through the waist high gardens just to enjoy the sun and wind as Jin runs his fingers through the leaves before invoking beautiful death Gladiator style.
A few wishes in this area would definitely be regarding some real interaction with the environment. As it is the engine is fantastic, however there aren’t any real interactive elements or gameplay physics to speak of. At most there are items littering the open scape and tucked within tents and corridors. However, the player can’t knock objects over, bash open loose doors or the biggest crime of all- unable to actually cut down simpler elements, such as bamboo trees, grass or wooden posts (a major theme of Samurai epics, Chambara films, and yes even Anime), which are a mainstay across the three areas of Tsushima. Obviously there are design limitations being that this is already a busy open-world engine. There’s more than enough processing and logic to go around with it all remaining locked at a smooth 30fps; zero hitches. Still the little things, even if they were baked in and not actual physics-based, would have added a sweeter touch so the player feels more immersed. And, not so much as if the environment is simply a pretty set of collision colliders.
One of the more unique points are in following the wind. Rather than navigation from a HUD map screen, the player moves through the world by literally following the direction of wind gusts and the physics with floating particles. Particles ranging from leaves, pollen, sakura petals and even ash (also all used in the fantastic PHOTO MODE).
With open-world games come some of the issues associated. While the elements of GOT are fairly simple (Haiku, Bamboo stake challenges, Fox Dens and liberating encampments) and there are certain changes in the normal variables (finishing missions without being seen for instance) they can get a bit repetitive. Fortunately the depth of the combat system combined with the large toolbelt of abilities and items tend to make up for some of these shortcomings.
Ghosts would definitely benefit from additional DLC.
There are a large amount of collectible items within the world, many of which are cosmetic. While you're able to change the helmet, mask and armor of Jin, the real gameplay status sits within the armor variations. Each one boasting attributes from having stronger health, all the way to instilling chain reacted fear from one enemy to another. It would have been better for the many headbands gained from missions and Haiku to actually have gameplay benefits of some sort. However as it is these are mostly for visual style and even then I'm constantly switching the look for Jin. Do we want to look like the son of the Shogun or Joe Musashi today? Hmmn.
[NOTE: As of this date, Ghost Of Tsushima has been updated with a “Lethal” mode and an additional easier difficulty]
Some issues with how the player can move about the environment do exist within the polish. For instance an inability to roll off of the edges of ledges and cliffs is actually more annoying than it seems. Understandably this function was probably implemented to prevent the user from mistakenly falling off of cliffs and edges of buildings. Yet it ends up becoming more of a detriment because this actually ends up limiting your mobility, forcing you to jump or wait for a slower subsequent “falling” animation to kick in from a crouching or walking position. A minor detail but greatly helps fast moving players who need to evade quickly while crouching while using the dodge/rolling function.
Associated with this is being unable to grab and HOLD onto ledges-- which does become annoying. The automatic grab function kicks in when airborne near ledges and “whitened” edge points of rocks and walls, a standard shared in most modern 3rd person adventure games today. However instead of ever hanging from a ledge, Jin always hops UP immediately after gripping the ledge automatically. There is never an option to simply...hang from a ledge before an inputted transition to hop up. This would greatly improve the ability to view and attack enemies underneath most areas, especially in doorways and the many overhangs in the classical architecture.
The single most agile ability that you have throughout the game even after numerous upgrades is in the ground recovery roll/dodge roll. Aside from that, there isn’t any form of wall hop or wall jump to speak of and his actual jumping function itself is somewhat short and stumpy. Which if we were speaking about Splinter Cell or Metal Gear Solid that would be somewhat understandable. Yet Jin in all of his Ninjutsu training or horse leaping abilities doesn’t have basic abilities to.
This also leads to another conversation: the grappling hook which is eventually unlockable. The issue here is that it’s BARELY used and is only useful on certain context sensitive “flag” points usually located on the edges of CERTAIN buildings, rocks and trees. Only within these far and few instances can the grappling hook be used, which essentially makes it collect dust for most of the game. Acquire’s Tenchu was able to use a grappling hook to move damn near anywhere 20+ years ago and the now modern Sekiro can provide plenty of flag points for their environments, GOT tends to feel somewhat limited and outdated with such a basic functionality sorely missing. Essentially Sucker Punch would really benefit by adding much more mult-tiered movement with trees and a general grapple-anywhere ability that isn’t so dependent on context cues.
COMBAT | STANCE SYSTEM
Aside from standard stealth kills executed with unsuspecting enemies, GOT brings a unique strong gameplay system setup for the genre as “Stances". Following in the spirit of titles such as Tekken and Virtua Fighter of old, each Stance (Water, Moon, Stone and Wind) presents a different set of attack options for each enemy style, all of which are upgraded through multiple progress trees. Depending on each enemy (swordsman, brute, spear and sword/shield) you’ll be swapping Stances often, which are also unlocked throughout the game within their own progress trees as well. It may seem confusing initially but once you get the hang of it, you’ll be swapping stances better than Lei Wulong ever could.
Ghost Of Tsushima gives a healthy emphasis on their combat system which seems to borrow from Sekiro in many respects. Namely the technical parry counter system which is based on “staggering” to gain an advantage in fights. In order to work this, Ghost hosts categories of attacks to remain aware of, two out of three are light cue based:
RED= are un-guardable attacks. Can only be evaded/dodged
BLUE= are attacks that can be parried even though they’re heavy
NEUTRAL which can be guarded or parried
Even with all of this at your disposal it’s usually a better idea to use your environment Jackie Chan style. Moving in and out like a monkey, up and down areas to reset the pace of the fights. Fool the enemies into losing sight of you to change from battling outright, to assassination within the same battle flow. If you decide the stand in the center and battle it out, you deserve what you get. That is up until you begin powering up Jin with numerous abilities ranging from Stance upgrades, “Ghost” weapons that focus on stealth and numerous charms that serve as status upgrades and percentage variables.
As a fighting gameplay note, some attack frames CAN be cancelled. Usually it's the dodge roll which comes in handy 80% of the time and is semi-invincible. However the dodge roll comes with setbacks, whereas you can't guard/parry immediately afterwards. Jin has additional recovery frames directly after the roll animation that happens BEFORE guarding. A harsh lesson learned in duals and getting crowded by literally 6 enemies simultaneously on a regular basis.
Using the Stances as general attacks and defense against multiple enemies with items and weapons on the field is obviously where your best options are. However there are quite a few clipping issues with attacks- clipping through the enemy character models after redirected defenses. Even IF the CPU is stumbling from a guarded strike and struck by a prior single attack, they can still instantly spin around and recover, invincibly absorbing the following blow without taking any damage or reacting. This also doesn't help that on 1v1 duels there isn’t a lock-on function...yet the CPU lock-tracks you LITERALLY from across an entire yard with a single sliding step.
While these issues may seem large they're actually not as detrimental as thought. Even with some very needed functions missing the game just sucks you in to love all of it beyond the sum of its parts. With a strong story chronicling Jin’s journey through a changing Japan, the demanding-to-be-perfected in depth combat system (especially on Lethal settings), painstakingly insanely detailed environments, texture material work, architecture and character models, plus the loving option of Japanese dialogue in Kurosawa mode-- it’s impossible to overlook this gem in the Sony library at the conclusion of the PS4’s lifecycle.
Ghost Of Tsushima executes so many things right on the nose thanks to the years of high quality design references under Sucker Punch’s belt. They have a phenomenal new system base to build off of with this current gameplay engine and even with its hiccups, Ghost accomplishes so much beautifully to help evolve this genre.
I honestly cannot wait to see what this team has in store for the future of this series.
FINAL REVIEW VIDEO