[Warning: This review may contain mild story spoilers for Ghost of Tsushima: Director’s Cut.]
Video Games have the unique ability of allowing players to live out their wildest fictional and historical fantasies.
From living out your wild west days as a cowboy in Rockstar Games’ Red Dead Redemption 2. Even to taking on the high seas as a swashbuckling pirate in Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag. There’s no end to the amount of player fantasies that video games have been able to fulfil. One particular period in history that gamers have been wanting to explore in a big way for quite some time is ‘Feudal Japan’. It comes up a lot, and was once one of the most requested historical times for Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed franchise to explore next.
Feudal Japan, for those unfamiliar, was a time in the 12th to 15th century, filled with samurai. Often depicted as honourable warriors fighting to keep the shores of Japan safe from invading forces. For some context, they are said to be very similar to the English knights and lords of old. There is obviously a lot more to this period and its reason for existing. It was a complicated and decidedly messy time in Japan’s history. As such, it’s often a hotly-debated point of contention for historians. However, it hasn’t stopped writers of all media from romanticising this period and the brand of warriors it inspired.
Which brings us to 2020, the release of Sucker Punch Productions’ Ghost of Tsushima for the PS4. Or, more specifically, the PS5 Director’s Cut which I shall be reviewing here. Since that is the most up-to-date and ‘complete’ version of this magnificent game. Finally, gamers could get the chance to live out their samurai fantasies, running around Feudal Japan. Sucker Punch ironically did not pull any punches either. Ghost of Tsushima Director’s Cut is by far one of the more immersive gaming experiences I’ve ever had.
The Story of Ghost of Tsushima
The premise of Ghost of Tsushima is a rather simple one, especially if you’re well aware of samurai cinema already, like the works of Akira Kurosawa. The game takes place in one of the more notable and referenced parts of the era Feudal Japan; ‘the Mongolian Invasions of Japan‘. Particularly, the game focuses on Tsushima. An island off the coast of Japan where a brave band of samurai kept the Mongolian forces at bay.
You play as Jin, the last of Clan Sakai. He, alongside his uncle Lord Shimura, ruler of Tsushima, fights to repel the invading Mongolians. The initial attempt to repel them is in vain, and the Mongolians easily overwhelm the samurai forces. Now Jin is the last living samurai remaining on Tsushima. He must fight back against the invaders and defeat their sinister leader Khotun Khan. On his journey, he crosses paths with many allies, many of which are unsavoury characters. However, he must swallow his pride and recognize that ultimately, the ends justify the means.
The story does not disappoint. Although, as stated, if you’re already well aware of samurai fiction, there may not be anything new for you here. After all, it essentially is a mash-up of many different tropes from these stories. However, it uses its influences and subverts them just enough to tell a strong, compelling narrative. It questions the idea of an ‘honourable samurai’ and how they often were the moral high-ground wherever they roamed. It turns the concept on its head and delivers a satisfying, immersive story that you won’t want to turn away from.
Jin as a Protagonist
The morality of Jin’s actions is a big part of the narrative core of Ghost of Tsushima. It remains, to me, the strongest factor of its story. Jin’s constant struggle with his own sense of honour is truly compelling. To defeat the Mongolian invaders, he must set aside his ‘samurai code’ and adopt new methods. Sneaking and striking from the shadows like a thief.
As the story progresses, Jin becomes less of the honourable and respectful samurai he was in the game’s opening. Instead, he slowly turns into something resembling a ninja, or ‘shinobi’ as they were known back then.
This character development is one of the strongest aspects of Ghost of Tsushima to me. Gradually over time, you begin to question Jin’s methods. He becomes more and more sinister and seems to lose more of his grip on sanity as time goes by. However, incredibly, he remains a strong character throughout. His motives never falter. All he wants is to reunite with his uncle and save his island and people from the invaders. That never changes throughout. What does change though, is who Jin becomes in his quest to achieve that goal.
He allies himself with a cast of characters who share many different opinions of the samurai. Some whose lives were changed for the better or worse by them. Some who are disowned samurai now existing as nomads. However, all of them put aside their differences for Jin and help him drive away his enemies. The dynamics that Jin has with these characters are gripping. One character in particular, and also my favourite, Yuna, acts almost as a secondary protagonist. She aids Jin all throughout the story and we see her slowly growing closer to him. The progression of their relationship is absolutely one of the highest points.
The World of Ghost of Tsushima
The island of Tsushima acts as if its a character in itself. Travelling around the countryside on your trusty horse has a spirited charm to it. Every few feet it feels like there is something new to discover or someone new to talk to. Thanks to the minimal HUD (heads-up display) and lack of objective markers, so much emphasis is put on exploration. Though taking away information from the player in favour of immersion is always a risk, I feel like they truly pulled it off here.
The countless hours you’ll spend scouring Tsuhima’s three main regions are never wasted. Sucker Punch has sprinkled tons of content throughout the world of Tsushima to keep you occupied. I will not be listing all of the content available to you. However, among other things, I can promise that you will be petting foxes and chopping up bamboo in no time.
One downside to the exploration however, is its repetitive nature. Essentially, once you have fully explored the first region of the game and consumed everything it has to offer, you’ve basically played the rest of the game. By that I mean that it rarely, if ever, switches things up. You will still be doing everything from the hours you’ve spent in the first region into the hours you’ll spend in the second and third.
However, while that sounds disappointing, it never really affected me. I was so engrossed in exploring the island in its entirety that it never really mattered to me that I was doing the same activities over and over. That being said, your own mileage may vary. After all, each region’s environment is totally different. From lush bamboo forests to snowy peaks and valleys, your eyes will certainly never get bored.
The Combat of Ghost of Tsushima
The meat and bones of Ghost of Tsushima is of course its gameplay. More specifically, its combat. Because, while yes, you will be doing a lot of exploring, climbing and swinging, combat is its bread and butter. The combat system is one that is tricky to learn at first, but satisfying once you master it. There are three primary commands – light attack, heavy attack and block/parry. Though there are additional skills and abilities that will unlock as you progress, these three pillars are key. After all, they are what you will be doing the most.
One of the game’s most flashy features is its ‘standoff mode’. By pressing a button once you reach a group of enemies, Jin will sheath his sword. You then engage in a standoff where once the enemy swings his weapon at you, you can slice him in one swift blow. This can then be upgraded so that eventually, you can perform this at three enemies at once and send the others running in fear. This particular feature is tricky to get the timing right on. However, a tip that I found works is by staring at their feet. Once their feet move an inch towards you, then you can strike. By using this method, I was then able to complete every single stand-off in the game successfully with little effort.
And that is perhaps the biggest strength of the game’s combat. It can be tricky and truly frustrating at first, especially since it doesn’t really tell you everything. However, once you have it all figured out, by the middle of your time with the game, you will be a samurai master.
Downsides of the Combat
This is also where I found an unfortunate criticism of the game. Because once you have mastered the combat, it doesn’t do much to throw you off. All of the enemies you encounter in the first area of the game are the enemies in the rest of the game. Once you have their attack patterns memorised and you know how to dispatch them, you will have little to no trouble with them following that. Which is such a shame considering how deep and robust the combat system is.
The game never forces you to be either a forceful samurai or a stealthy shinobi. While that kind of freedom is appreciated, I feel like its also a curse. I found myself having more trouble with the enemies when I was being stealthy than when I was taking them all on as a samurai. And since the game never forces you to be stealthy, you can just plow through enemies with relative ease by the end of the game. It really is quite disappointing since ultimately what they have built here is remarkable and really satisfying to play. However, when it doesn’t do much to challenge you and test your knowledge of its mechanics, it becomes less and less fun.
So, while the combat is ultimately incredibly satisfying and fun to pull off, it doesn’t surprise the player nearly enough.
The Sound Design of Ghost of Tsushima
One of my biggest positives with Ghost of Tsushima is its sound design and music. Particularly in the Director’s Cut. This is made especially evident with the PS5’s 3D Audio system. When it’s activated, a once incredibly immersive game world only doubles as you get a real auditory sense of the world around you. The wind rushes by you as the trees creak and distant voices and clashing of swords can be heard. It all adds up to transport you into 13th century Japan in a way I never thought possible, as hyperbolic as that may sound.
Another key aspect of the sound design is the game’s score. Composed by Ilan Eshkeri and legendary Japanese film composer Shigeru Umebayashi, the sweeping cinematic music enhances the game’s narrative tenfold. I sincerely feel as though it would be much less of a game without its score. This is exemplified by the game’s title sequence, where Jin rides through a field of white flowers as a powerful, swelling score plays. This moment is key to selling the player on Ghost of Tsushima as a game, and it truly works, as I can attest.
The score is entirely analogue, using real Japanese woodwind instruments like flutes that were prominent in that period. That only adds to the experience, since Jin himself carries one on him that he can play at any time. With every bombastic melody and memorable sound that the game throws at you, don’t be surprised if you get the feeling that you want to learn the flute by the end of the game.
What does the Director’s Cut add?
Besides the aforementioned 3D Audio, the PS5 version also uses its ‘adaptive triggers’ and ‘haptic feedback’ technology. The adaptive triggers change the feeling of the controller’s triggers depending on different situations, as the name implies. It makes minimal, yet effective, use in Ghost of Tsushima Director’s Cut. Here, the triggers are primarily used for Jin’s bow and arrow. When the bow is pulled all the way back, the trigger tightens and buckles as if you were actually holding a bow. This is really effective, especially when trying to land a tricky shot from far away.
The Director’s Cut usage of haptic feedback on the other hand is a sight more impressive. Again, it’s used minimally. Most notably, for when Jin is riding his horse. The controller rumbles in such a way that it emulates different surfaces that the horse is running on. Weirdly enough, it behaves the best when Jin is going over a bridge on his horse. It’s hard to describe but the specific way that the controller rumbles when the horse travels over a bridge blew me away. You’ll see what I mean.
The biggest addition from the Director’s Cut is the Iki Island story expansion. Taking place after the main story, the expansion is set on the island of the same name. There, Jin must investigate a strange plague that is contaminating the island’s residents and who exactly is behind it.
While the expansion is considerably short compared to the rest of the game, it’s no less vital. Without spoiling, it explores an aspect of the story that I felt was lacking in the main game. It also adds a host of entirely new content to uncover, separate from the main game also. All in all, it’s absolutely worth playing and a worthy epilogue to Jin’s story.
Despite a few major problems I have with Ghost of Tsushima Director’s Cut, those problems never took away from how much I loved the game. Which is kind of surprising, considering that the downsides may end up turning some people off of it for various reasons. However, I feel like what is good and strong about the game really counts and stays that way throughout. The story, characters and world really shine and alongside the incredible music, help to bring the world to life in a way few games I’ve played have.
Whether you’re into open world adventure games or not, I feel like Ghost of Tsushima Director’s Cut is at least worth some of your time, just to experience how much care and effort the developers have placed into bringing its world to life. There’s so much to love about the game and despite its pitfalls, I feel it cannot possibly detract from the staying power it has for me. Everything contained within its Director’s Cut has a lasting impression and one that I think will stand the test of time now and forever.
For that reason, and many more, Ghost of Tsushima Director’s Cut gets 9.5