Going into a game with little clue what to expect and getting utterly sucked in is one of life's joys. So when I loaded PS4 exclusive Ghost of Tsushima (which hits shelves Friday) for the first time and saw the option to play in "Kurosawa Mode" -- a black-and-white filter with Japanese voice acting and English subtitles -- I knew this game was legit.
Ghost of Tsushima [digital] for PS4:
Ghost of Tsushima [disc] for PS4:
I wasn't quite hardcore enough to go full Kurosawa, but loved the nod to monochrome classics such as Seven Samurai and opted for the immersive Japanese voice option. Then I was dropped into the year 1274, in the role of stoic samurai Jin Sakai as he rode into battle with the invading army of the Mongol Empire on the Japanese island of Tsushima.
It's hardly the first game to open with a big playable battle sequence -- my's fan got pretty loud during this -- but seeing Tsushima's native forces being crushed and Jin suffering a humiliating defeat pulled me right in. With only a ruined set of armor and a sword, I was primed to explore the island and build Jin back up.
A self-made man
One of the first choices Ghost of Tsushima thrusts upon you is that of your mount: As you escape Mongol territory, you choose among three horses. I went with a black one called Kage (Shadow), and immediately felt a bond with this trusty steed as I rode to freedom in the game's open world.
It was the first of many satisfying customization choices: Jin has a bunch of outfits that aid elements of gameplay. The traveler's attire reveals more of the map as you explore (and has a sweet cape), the samurai armor reduces the damage you take and increases the hurt you deal out, while the ronin robes improve your sneaky-sneaky stealthiness. Using items you'll pick up throughout the game, you can improve the stats, unlock more complex looks and tweak the colors of these costumes.
You can also swap out Jin's headgear and face-coverings like masks and bandanas, which are purely for aesthetic purposes. So I focused on making him look as awesome as possible, depending on my mood, often opting for a black straw hat and matching bandanna to make Jin look utterly terrifying.
Drifting through the open world
A few years ago, while playing Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, the tropes of open-world games started to make me feel nauseous -- to the point where I've avoided games of this ilk since. Climbing up towers to reveal the map, traveling from waypoint to waypoint, shallow side-quests, collecting generic items … argh.
Ghost of Tsushima contains some of these, but developer Sucker Punch blessedly removes much of the friction. Once you set a waypoint on the map, you don't move towards a big ugly icon. Instead, you slide up on the PS4 controller's little-used trackpad and a gust of wind blows in the direction of your objective.
Simple. Unobtrusive. Beautiful.
Similarly, you'll happen upon foxes and golden birds that can gently lead you to nooks and crannies with collectibles. If you don't feel like following right away, they'll be there for you later. And so I managed to switch off the gamer instinct that'd make me laser-focused on getting to the next objective -- wandering over Tsushima's beautiful fields and hills simply became a joy in and of itself. (The game's excellent photo mode lets you make the most of its visuals)
I felt a tinge of disappointment when I realized I couldn't slice through bamboo trees in the island's many forests, though -- the game's bamboo cutting is reserved for a button-tapping minigame.
Tales of Jin
Exploring the island was so lovely that I often didn't feel compelled to follow the main story, which felt like pretty standard samurai fare (even though Jin's stealthy tactics have people questioning his honor). Much more engaging were the side quests linked to secondary characters, which included hunting down the conspirators who betrayed and slaughtered Lady Masako's family, or reconnecting with Sakio family maid Yuriko.
These quests ended with me fighting a bunch of Mongols or bandits more often than I'd like, but the character arcs were engaging enough that the slight repetitiveness didn't bother me much.
From hacking away to a samurai ballet
As you approach a group of enemies, you'll often get the chance to challenge their best warrior to a dramatic standoff. Holding a button as you stare them down, you waiting until they make a move before releasing it and make Jin slice them down smoothly before you take on others.
If you fail, you'll get a nasty slash and continue the fight. It doesn't make a huge practical difference; you'll just be a little damaged and have one more enemy to fight. But the initial flow of combat is broken, so getting into the mindset becomes more difficult -- I don't feel like a samurai badass if I mess up that first blow.
Ghost of Tsushima's combat feels much like Assassin's Creed or , with some elegant flourishes. No immersion-breaking target appears over the enemy Jin is facing. Instead, Jin has a soft-lock on one, but you can slide between them easily.
In my impatient moments, I'd try wailing on enemies with my sword, but a considered approach is the way to go. Defending, parrying and cycling through Jin's various stances -- different ones are more effective depending on the type of enemy -- made it so much more satisfying and allowed me to cut down groups of enemies without taking a hit.
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Unfortunately, the camera occasionally failed me -- an object would block my view of the action, making it hard to see when an enemy was about to strike. A quick adjustment would solve this in ordinary battles, but it could make standoffs needlessly difficult.
Switching between subweapons like the different bows and poison darts could be a little fiddly (the ranged ones are assigned to left shoulder buttons, melee options are on the right) in the heat of combat, so I went in prepared wherever possible.
Becoming the Ghost
Despite the mostly fun combat system, I opted for the stealthy approach more often than not. Sneaking around Mongol outposts and quietly offing enemies seemed the most in keeping with Jin's character as he became Tsushima Island's murderous Batman.
The stealth elements made me think of the Tenchu series, especially when I had Jin decked out like a ninja. It's pretty basic initially, since I could only step out of the concealing long grass (a classic stealth game mechanic) to kill one baddie at a time.
But unlocking more abilities increased my killing power greatly; the chain assassination ability let me quickly take out multiple enemies with a wickedly satisfying animation. I occasionally found myself whispering "shhh" just before I went for the kill, which is a little worrying.
My experience with Ghost of Tsushima was most enjoyable when I dipped in and out of the game's elements as the mood struck me, rather than relentlessly pursuing the story, side quests or upgrading items. The island is massive enough to support that approach, especially if you play over weeks or months rather than bingeing the whole lot in a fortnight.
The last year of aalways brings some , and Ghost of Tsushima's PS4 open world is worth getting lost in.