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‘Ghost of Tsushima’: An Honorable End to a Generation.

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Sucker Punch may have established its place as an exceptional developer with the Infamous series, but Ghost of Tsushima firmly cements the studio’s reputation. With balletic grace and uncanny poise, the studio has created a game that perfectly balances the thrill of visceral combat with narrative nuance. As the last Playstation exclusive of this console generation, Ghost of Tsushima is not just a captivating swan song for the PS4, but also one of the finest examples of mechanical, narrative, and environmental design produced in the last decade.

Ghost of Tsushima is relentlessly, achingly, and even at times ruthlessly beautiful. The Infamous games may have presented a carefully manicured patina of competence, that was compelling in spite of its workman-like robustness. Regardless of its excellence there always seemed to be something holding the studio back. Perhaps it was the inherently compartmentalized nature of the contemporary urban environments that served as the inspiration for those game worlds that hampered their efforts. Yet whatever constraints may have previously burdened them seem to have been fully and thoroughly cast-off.

The island of Tsushima is presented with such flair and skill that they seem to have been conjured into being rather than rendered. It’s a feat of techno-wizardry that is frankly incredible and calls to mind the animated triumphs of Studio Ghibli as much as it does the films of Akira Kurosawa. Recent controversies aside, Ubisoft has long since been one of the best companies in the world for creating astonishingly well-realized open worlds, most notably in the Assassin’s Creed series. Ghost of Tsushima takes that bar and lifts it significantly higher. The entire island of Tsushima feels coherent and connected. Each area within it feels distinctive and unique enough to feel like a self-contained environment in its own right.

Ghost of Tsushima is at times ruthlessly beautiful

Ancient moss-strewn forests steeped in crawling fog seamlessly give way to vast fields of wildflowers that drench the landscape in sweeping brushstrokes of vivacious color. Standalone seas of swaying pampas grass ripple against mountainous backdrops dominated by peaks capped with bonnets of blossom. Swaying bamboo thickets intermingle with clusters of Japanese maple trees wrapped in cloaks of scarlet and gold leaves. Sodden swamps verdant agricultural plots cling to clifftops that look out over the churning coastline. Taken individually these areas each have a singular beauty, but in combination, they create the unbroken illusion of a continuous sprawl of natural wonder that makes this recreation of Tsushima seem almost as much of a genuine place as its real-world counterpart.

The man-made components of the game world are just as convincingly crafted as the natural ones. Shinto shrines perched on distant hillsides, bubbling hot springs hidden in secluded clearings, and meditation mats for the composition of haiku replace the traditional points of interest found in most games of this genre. Sleepy villages comprised of small wooden huts nestle neatly under woodland boughs, and splendid inns can be found at remote crossroads, whilst resplendent temples can be found in the depths of rustling forests, whilst stalwart fortresses rise to dominate mountainsides or straddle across the rocky slopes of narrow passes. Most of these are at first either abandoned by the native inhabitants or occupied by invading Mongol forces, which lends them a tangible sense of presence as well as meaningful purpose to the player. Reclaiming areas of the island feels not so much like completing objectives as it does helping to restore the right and proper balance back to Tsushima and its citizens.

Traversal of the game world is decidedly more mundane than in Sucker Punch’s previous outings. Gone by necessity are the garish and outlandish modes of transport favored by the super-powered protagonists that they have made players so accustomed to. However, by no means does movement ever become a chore. Despite the size of Tsushima, whether on foot or horseback, players are never more than a minute or so from the next random encounter with patrolling Mongol soldiers, roaming bands of masterless ronin, or an unexpected encounter leading to one of the games many quests. The only nod towards more fantastical methods of movement is the presence of a grappling hook, and that’s only thanks to its ability to extend itself to improbable lengths. It’s a simple mechanic and it works well here, but there are some moments when climbing becomes a little frustrating. Small glitches with collision detection and the controls not immediately responding to context, definitely caused me a few baffling moments as Jin yet again refused to make a jump only to fall to his death, but they’re little more than a minor inconvenience.

Navigating the island may not be an experience as spectacular as the visuals on display, but the bulk of the gameplay is focused on combat which whilst never reaching the dizzying glory of Doom Eternal, is never anything less than a beautifully bloodthirsty thrill. It’s somewhat unexpected that Sucker Punch, a studio known for their expertise in creating hyper-kinetic fight sequences fueled by mutant superpowers, has been able to put together such a graceful and savage close-quarters combat system.

Ghost of Tsushima has Remarkable Design

Players gradually unlock new stances and attack combinations that enable them to artfully carve their way through even the largest horde of enemy combatants. The range of choices on offer is fairly limited, designed as it is to provide counters to specific enemy tactics or armaments, but being able to switch between them on the fly with just a couple of button presses means that players can weave in and out on a moment-to-moment basis. The result is a combat system that has a surprising amount of flexibility despite seeming quite rigid at first glance. Paired with the various tools and devices they acquire ( such as black powder bombs, kunai, poison darts for example) players can eventually unleash flurries of perfectly timed strikes that by the end of the game will see enemies quite literally running for their lives. Assuming they survive, that is. When it comes to combat, the character movements, sound effects, and satisfyingly intricate control scheme all work together to admirably to evoke Japanese swordplay at the end of the Kamakura period.

Ghost of Tsushima has a remarkable economy of design, in the sense that there’s not a single element of its content that feels truly superfluous. The cosmetic items and lore-related collectibles, as well as the fox dens that serve as an active guide to play style-refining character upgrades, plus the bamboo-slicing quick-time challenges are not required to fully enjoy the game. Yet they do offer minor to major character upgrades and visual customization options that add depth to the game rather than subtracting from it. The side quests or tales as the game refers to them, from the most humble fetch quest to the grandest subplot feel like calculated interludes in the story that enhance and expand the main narrative. Unlike in many games of this genre, where the additional missions can often feel like so much inconvenient busy work, in Ghost of Tsushima they all feel like integral parts of an over-arching story.

Speaking of, the narrative that plays out over the course of the game is nothing particularly unique or original, but it’s bold, forthright, and never anything less than completely sincere. Players are cast in the role of Jin Sakai, the last surviving member of a samurai clan who in the aftermath of the initial battle of the Mongol invasion of Tsushima, finds himself without the support of friends and allies that he had previously taken for granted. With his homeland brought to the very brink of destruction, Jin is forced to find new allies, adopt an entirely new form of warfare, and to bide his time until the time is right to strike back against Khotun Khan and his Mongol horde. Jin’s journey takes him one end of Tsushima to the other, the story setting an unrelenting pace as settlements are liberated, notorious enemies routed, and imposing fortresses besieged.

Ghost of Tsushima is an Experience Not to Missed

There are times when the overall mood of the story can feel too morbid for its own good. However, more often than not the severity of the narrative is tempered by gentle hints of wry humor or bittersweet melancholy that offer a welcome respite from the pervasive sorrow. Thanks to the exemplary efforts of the entire cast, with particularly standout performances from Lauren Tom as Lady Masako and Patrick Gallagher as Khotun Khan, the story manages to retain its solemnity without ever becoming overwhelmingly sentimental. It is fitting however that Ghost of Tsushima has such an introspective thematic core. As the last exclusive title for the PS4, it seems as if this game takes looks back on the lessons learned across this console generation and presents its accomplishments with stylish mastery, whilst making leaps in the quality of presentation that grant us a glimpse as to what the era of the PS5 has in store for us.

Ghost of Tsushima has its faults, but in the face of its otherwise eminent quality, they are easily forgivable or overlooked entirely. The excellent game design, fantastic voice acting performances by both English and Japanse cast members, plus the impeccable score provided by Ilan Eshkeri and Shigeru Umebayashi combine to create in one of the most aesthetically accomplished games in recent memory. If you own a PS4 and you’re a fan of Sucker Punch Studios, classic Japanese samurai cinema, or open-world games in general then Ghost of Tsushima is a gaming experience that you won’t want to miss.

Chris is a Cambridge, UK based freelance writer and reviewer. A graduate of English Literature from Goldsmiths College in London he has been composing poetry and prose for most of his life. More than partial to real ale/craft beer and a general fan of sci-fi and fantasy. He first started gaming on a borrowed Mega Drive as a child and has been a passionate enthusiast of the hobby and art form ever since. Never afraid to speak his mind he always aims to tell the unvarnished truth about a game. Favourite genres: RPGs, action adventure and MMOs. Least favourite genre: anything EA Sports related (they're the same games every year!)

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