Ghosts of Tsushima- Ancient Japanese Terror Tactics

Years ago I had the great pleasure of playing inFAMOUS 1 and 2 on my PS3, the former of which was one of the first three PS3 games I’ve ever played. It was Devil May Cry 4, the first real reason I invested in a PS3 and a game which I played way too much of, Ghostbusters the videogame, and then inFAMOUS. inFAMOUS held the first distinction of being the first platinum trophy I worked for and it holds a special place in my heart along with inFAMOUS 2 which I remember going to pick up at a Gamestop on release day for the special edition. Suffice it to say, I loved inFAMOUS 2 as well and platinumed that too. With the advent of the PS4, Sucker Punch came back with Second Son and then First Light but even I could tell from a glance and some gameplay videos that Second Son wasn’t going to match up to the previous iterations, and my hunch turned out right. For the large remainder of the PS4 era, many considered Second Son as just “okay” and more of a tech demo for the console.

Then a couple years ago as we discussed in the Sekiro post, Sucker Punch came back to E3 with a rather vague but definitely Japanese styled game for their future title, the flute performance got joked on for a bit and we got the title Ghost of Tsushima and like Sekiro, I mostly didn’t care to pay attention to it afterwards. Once it came out, I fumbled around the idea of buying it in my head for a bit but went first with Sekiro since it’s GoTY edition was cheaper and on sale.

So after years of ignoring the State of Plays, commercials, and most of its marketing, my interest in continuing my streak of feudal Japan inspired settings fueled by Sekiro made me eye Ghost of Tsushima with renewed interest.

Right from the get-go, Ghost of Tsushima introduces its setting with a magnificently grandiose introduction sequence where the 80 Samurai of Tsushima charge to their deaths against the invading Mongol Army by Komoda Beach. Our protagonist Jin Sakai is arrowed to certain death but wills himself back conscious to try and save his uncle but blacks out before he reaches his sword. Jin wakes back up a couple days later with his wounds patched up and a thief woman Yuna tells him that she needs his help rescuing her brother. Jin follows her, avoids being seen by more mongols raiding the village they’re in, recovers his blade that she sold off, and he makes a promise to her that he will assist her in saving her brother if she helps him save his uncle. The two make their way into the recently conquered castle and Jin clears the way of mongols and demands their leader, Khotun Khan to a duel. Jin loses and falls into the water below but manages to rendezvous with Yuna and come up with a plan to rescue his uncle with allies and the game opens up to wondrous music and one of the strongest company-name + logo drops I’ve experienced in a long while, hell possibly the only one this decade.

Many people critical of the western gaming open world formula solidified by the yearly releases of Assassin’s Creed by Ubisoft of yore, including me, are rightfully disillusioned with the prospects of the genre. Perhaps because inFAMOUS 1+2 were released a decade ago and the last Assassin’s Creed game I played was also around 10 years ago too so the formula itself was relatively fresh for me. Exploration in Ghost of Tsushima was incredibly fun for me and I spent a good chunk of time clearing out the map of sidequests and doing collectible hunting to increase Jin’s combat effectiveness. The experience was definitely one of the most convenient as the exploration itself is assisted by three factors that integrate themselves into the game’s world. The incredibly minimalistic UI helps add to the immersion and the literal wind that guides Jin’s waypoints seamlessly directs where to go. Equipping a particular armor set also lets you put a guiding wind to quite literally any collectible you want to hunt down too. While you traverse through the island, foxes pop out of their dens to guide you to Shrines for boosting your gear, and birds that guide you towards undiscovered points on your map. Not to mention the game looks absolutely beautiful. Ghost of Tsushima was the game, moreso than any other I’ve played, at the tail end of the PS4’s lifespan, that made me actually feel that I was playing next-gen gaming. The lighting, the environmental effects, and just the wondrous bountiful view of nature in Tsushima while also being littered with sacked and burnt towns and corpses along the road keep a reminder on what Jin is trying his best to protect. Practically any shot out of the game while exploring through the sun or moonlight between the trees over a hill can be an instant wallpaper. Even the individual shrine segments show off so many of the natural wonders present in the game be it scenic mountain tops, watery shrines in a natural cove of waterfalls, hillside islands, and so many more locations. Modern gameplay conveniences also exist as a lengthy trek up means another trek down but a simple button prompt will teleport you down once your work is finished at the shrine. While the collectible blast shard hunting in inFAMOUS did feel as though it went on for too long, Ghost of Tsushima has a neat little check list in its menu for all of its collectibles keeping tabs in both the menu and the map telling which hot springs for health, bamboo cutting for resolve, fox dens and shrines for charms, and etc have been acquired already. Jin’s horse makes traversal swift, is fucking indestructible, and an emotional crutch later down the game’s storyline which actually did get a rise out of me. Dotted around the map are mongol bases, camps, and strongholds that offer Jin a focused area of combat and chances to increase his reputation which unlocks new weapons for him to utilize and clear up parts of the map.

Interspersed with the collectibles on the map are the Main Quests and Side Quests that make up the game’s narrative. There are three types of Side Quest, the usual short and quick stuff, character-specific episode quests, and then Mythic Quests. An enormous majority of the regular Side Stories tend to be on the depressing end, showing the effects of what the mongol raids on the islands have done to the people. The fear and paranoia making people betray each other and the likes. The standout stories occur in the character specific missions conveniently labeled x out of 9 stories for most of them. Jin gathers allies across the island to assist him in the big story set-piece missions and these include the know-it-all archer Ishikawa, who taught a student too well that ended up joining the mongols in killing her own people; Masako, the only surviving member of her clan after her husband and sons were killed at the beach while the women and children were murdered by someone close to her; Yuna, the thief who helped Jin recover and is his staunchest ally in the game; Kenji, a liquor salesman who also helps while having a bad reputation for helping people in the wrong ways; Ryuzo, Jin’s childhood friend who is now a ronin; Yuriko, Jin’s elderly family caretaker who teaches him how to make poison while also revealing Jin’s family dynamic he was too young to remember properly; and Norio, a warrior monk who starts out naive but slowly accepts the more bloodthirsty nature of war and vengeance as the mongols harm more of his friends and family. Much like how inFAMOUS 2 really nailed the superhero in a city feeling with never a dull moment between going from mission to mission as roadside raiding parties and kidnapped villagers will frequently occur. Villagers in towns and even the ones you save on the road will often mention rumors that they hear about certain locations, leading to other sidequests, giving you another waypoint to satisfy your curiosity.

Mythic Quests are unique quests that begin with meeting an NPC named Yamato, a storyteller who tells you a tale about a certain technique, weapon, or person somewhere out in the world where Jin must investigate further. This usually involves him moving around a decent distance chasing after leads to find what he’s after and each mythic quest ends with powerful new gear or technique. All of Yamato’s stories are accompanied by fancy illustrated cutscenes reminiscent of inFAMOUS cutscenes with the comic book style art. I just wish the upgrade menu didn’t show off what exactly these unlockable techniques didn’t show them to maintain the mystery, even if it was really cool that Jin was able to learn stuff like Vergil’s Rapid Slash or Shishio Makoto’s Homura Dama, I think these would have been more exciting to discover without a visual preview the game provides.

Combat in the game is primarily done through Jin’s blade as well as his expansive arsenal of weapons to take out as many enemies as possible. Early-game, Jin’s blade is his only weapon and combat involves mixing in light attacks to swiftly attack enemies and heavy attacks to throw enemies off-balance. Incoming attacks can either be blocked, deflected, or dodged away and some attacks that flash red are unblockable but certain attacks can be later blocked by upgrades. Jin’s samurai techniques allow him to block more attacks, gain more resolve which is utilized for skills and healing, and generally find more uses for his sword. Jin can also choose to sneak around and silently kill his enemies to avoid detection and instantly take out foes. Otherwise, Jin can bombastically announce his presence at the start of most encounters to challenge enemies to face him which will activate Stand-Off. Attacking right as an enemy begins their animation will lead to an instant kill and this can be upgraded to goad more enemies to follow their recently slain compatriots. To help with game convenience, enemy strongholds can have Jin announce his location so you don’t have to comb the area to look for survivors.

As Jin continues his mission of liberation, he will take down Mongol warband leaders and gain points toward unlocking new stances. Each stance is specialized to counter a specific weapon and enemy commanders can be further “studied” from stealth to advance your progression. Stone Stance is unlocked by default to combat other sword users, Water Stance for shielded enemies, Wind Stance for spears, and then Moon Stance for larger enemies. 

The tactics further advance with the Ghost upgrades where Jin can utilize an arsenal of arrows, bombs, throwing knives, smoke bombs, sticky bombs, firebombs, poison blowdarts, and distracting windchimes and firecrackers which really help because by the end of the game, enemies can take more hits and there will generally be just more of them swarming Jin so the means to eliminate them from afar without being constantly interrupted are plentiful.

While the game itself and the narrative suggests Jin’s mythic role as “the Ghost”, he still retains some semblance of honor as Duels are present as the boss battles of the game. In this state, Jin’s arsenal is strictly limited to his blade attacks and stances and are generally difficult since the damage values are pretty high and going into these without a reserve of resolve can get pretty dicey unless you really worked on your perfect parries.

Last are the armor sets that define your look and also boost specific effects such as the gifted samurai armor Masako’s quest unlocks that grants massive boosts to your health, getting damaged giving back resolve, and generally making you more tanky. Other armor sets give more boosts to damage, allows for more standoff kill streaks, intimidate enemies, and etc. The mengu/masks and the hats confer no benefits which allow you to customize your look and I admit to rocking the ronin with a straw hat look for most of the game while switching to samurai armor in story missions and longer engagements. 

I got all the gameplay out of the way, at least I think so, I wanted to talk about my personal experiences going through the game. I felt that the game’s integration of side quests, general exploration, and main story really fueled into the overall experience. The game has plenty of big story moments with future implications and they’re all preceded by smaller big moments of recruiting allies and setting up for a large operation all work into each other. The story in of itself plays out as one would expect the sort of premise would suggest and yes, it’s a bit predictable at points but I firmly believe that the character interactions and how their struggles runs parallel with Jin’s own struggles. Yuno’s abandonment of her other kids mirrors Jin and Ryuzo, Ishikawa’s broken relationship with a student mirrors Jin and Shimura, Masako’s thirst for revenge being similar to Jin’s own motivations going forward, and Norio showing the depths of anger and ruthlessness to those who harmed his family. Jin’s exploration itself reveals things about his character as hot springs relaxation times offer slight glimpses into his opinion on recent happenings, his views on his allies and family, as well as his childhood. Yuriko herself calls the wind at his back and the birds in the trees as his father and mother watching over him and wouldn’t you know it, the guiding wind and golden birds all end up guiding Jin at some point or another. 

The story’s high points come to a surge in Act 2 where Jin’s character is tested between his incredibly effective tactics clashing against his rescued uncle’s teachings. I think this is where the story and gameplay complement each other, assuming you’re embracing this mythic fantasy roleplaying a samurai adopting more brutal and effective techniques to sow fear and confusion against your enemies, pretty much Arkham Asyluming it up just without the get out of jail free grappling hook gun. So as long as someone is accepting to use all available weapons on hand, then I do believe Jin’s transformation is being executed cleanly through natural gameplay progression and story. For example, Jin’s assassination with the unupgraded tanto are messy, loud, and take a couple seconds which can alert nearby guards. As you upgrade his tanto specifically, kills are made much quicker and quieter, and by the final upgrade, Jin makes surgical strikes at the neck to instantly and quietly kill anyone he gets behind. Jin’s actions during the Ghost of Yarikawa mission being one of the brightest highlights of gameplay to story integration where Ghost Stance is unlocked in a heat of murderous and protective fervor that Jin fully assumes the mythical strength of the ghost and unlocks a skill that instantly puts the fear into the heart of his enemies. Also with the final fight between Jin and Khotun Khan where they duel at first but the second Jin gets poison thrown at him, he exits duel mode and treats the Khan as any other enemy, able to be hit with arrows, knives, and explosives like any other enemy. The flashback sequences were not only beautiful but stand to show that Jin’s solid foundation of combat and ideals stem from his uncle’s teachings. Jin’s own appreciation of his home can be seen as early as the title-drop where Jin leans to the side to feel the tall grass when he rides through a field or when he’s on foot he’ll have his palms open. 

Admittedly, like Sekiro, gameplay styles are kind of limited. You’ll end up unlocking everything eventually and it’s not like you can shift the game’s plot by not utilizing any fear tactics. That would have been cool but it kind of takes away the samurai roleplaying a bit. I mentioned how Assassin’s Creed could never hope to compare because they’ve basically switched genres to become roleplaying games at this point and I don’t believe this level of story integration could occur, especially with how far-gone the Abstergo plotline started to end with Desmond. I think the general attitude towards the Ubisoft collectathons muddles the outsider perspective of Ghosts and I’ll defend it from that accusation as I felt that it did its job of creating an enticingly explorable world incredibly well and had the gameplay and modern conveniences to make each trip into the island a fun one where there was always something to do between getting to your next location. Whereas I found the collectibles in Ghost either beneficial to improving Jin’s abilities or just generally interesting part of lore such as the Mongol artifacts and records, I cannot remember having that same glee in wanting to explore as I did in AC2 or Brotherhood. 

Ghost is the HD Samurai roleplay game that I always wanted to recreate all the classic chanbara cliches of old. This little recap was written all the way back in the early weeks of August where I was supposed to say “I look forward to the DLC” but by this point, I’ve played and beaten it already. The most common qualitative reason I’ve seen against Ghosts was that Jin was a rather boring character and the DLC directly seems to acknowledge this and make it all about him and his father. Unfortunately I lost all of my footage for playing it and can only say that it’s definitely harder to fight enemies and those damn archery missions were tough. I always thought Jin’s character was as well so this only adds more to him that I liked. I was also just about to end it here but remembered so much more about the referential shrines, more horse caretaking, and even more animal interactions that fully solidifies Jin as some Disney princess.

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