It’s a stunning bit of virtual tourism, although front-row seats have come at the lamentable cost of any real risks in terms of the game’s structure. We’ve all been to Tsushima’s stealth-action open world before, it turns out. Liberated its outposts, climbed its towers, slaughtered its wandering patrols. Dotted the islets and crossed the streams in a time-killing trance. It’s a superhero origin story written by a haiku poet; perhaps to pay the bills between passion projects, or perhaps because this is where their heart always was. Predictable right up to the point where a splash of colour or detail leaves you breathless. Pulpy, sure, but when was pulp ever not entertaining?
The plot’s inciting incident is a Mongol invasion of the Japanese island of Tsushima, but the central question is this: how would an honour-bound samurai react if fate forced them to become an opportunistic stealth-game character? It’s an internal struggle that follows the Ghost, samurai Jin Sakai, from his first silent kill to the game’s conclusion. Jin is likeable enough – all easy humour and boy scout bravado – if thinly sketched. It’s this conflict, not so much the man conflicted, that propels the story, and propels it well.
It does slip from the arresting to the maudlin frequently, though, as you side-quest your way through scores of hopeless short stories, the conclusions to which often feel like the game overplaying the despair card in a ploy to thrust Jin toward the light at the end of the tunnel. That’s not to say the story is incapable of affecting tragedy. There are some genuinely harrowing moments, thanks in no small part to phenomenal motion capture, able to convey wordless anguish through nothing more than gritted teeth and taut facial muscles. Still, much of the tragedy that occurs outside the main plot begins to develop a cloying, synthetic aftertaste to it through overuse.
The ensemble cast that join Jin on his quest are well-acted, voiced, and exceptionally likeable, though, and the handful of times they all convene for a mission are not only highlights of the game, but some of the most engaging action set-pieces I’ve played in recent memory. Not thrilling in say, the Uncharted sense, but the sense of taking part in pivotal narrative beats that make you want what Jin wants. A thief and her blacksmith brother, an irritable sensei, a warrior monk, and a proud woman out to avenge herself all have their own personal quest chains. You’ll get to know them individually, and when the time comes, you’ll feel like you’re heading into battle surrounded by people you care about.
That fighting itself? It’s crimson-spattered choreography that embodies both the zenith and nadir of what the word ‘cinematic’ means for action games. It’s a system that evokes the desperate duels of Sekiro and the counter-punch combos of Batman: Arkham, but is hampered by a dedication to visual flourishes that snare it in with the slightly cardboardy, limp rhythms of fencing in an early Assassin’s Creed title. The same lavish audio-visual design defining Tsushima prevents it from ever feeling weightless, however, and each finishing blow is such a decisive, convincingly virtuosic act of violence that it’s rarely unsatisfying.
There’s the Ghost side, too: Jin’s selection of stealthy tools. Smoke-bombs, hallucinogenic blow darts, wind chimes to distract, throwing daggers, explosive arrows, and the classic knife in the back. You’ve uh… you’ve played a third-person stealth-action game before, right? You know how the chorus goes. Avoid direct sight lines and you can silently kill some poor sod while his mate whistles and waters plants two metres away, and the game will make you feel like the Predator in a Kabuto helmet for being smart enough to work out which side of someone’s head is the back. Old room, new paint job, looks and feels like 2020, thinks like 2007. The explosive arrows are more fun than a monkey with a jet pack, though.
Ghost of Tsushima has a few tricks all of its own, though. The Guiding Wind – gusts that blow in the direction of your next objective, taking any need for a minimap with them – is a simple but effective solution to a long-persistent issue. The stand-off battles you can initiate to duel groups of enemies are astoundingly tense, and the way Jin flicks his Katana clean of blood after a fight is consistently brilliant. Again, in lieu of a paragraph of flowery descriptions, the soundtrack is on YouTube. Go have a listen (wfmag.cc/ghOST)! It’s phenomenal, and this extends to every aspect of Tsushima’s sound design, from the clattering of horse hooves to the Mongolian folk singing drifting to meet you as you sneak up on an enemy camp.
If you’ve got a new TV or sound system you’ve been dying to test out, don’t especially care about seeing anything you haven’t seen before, and fancy a weekend or two of luxury digital escapism, then it’s a fairly easy recommendation.
Ghost of Tsushima asks very little from the player – it reminds me, in many ways, of the very first Assassin’s Creed game – and, comparatively, gives a lot back. It’s gorgeous enough to bear repeating, and it’s as wildly competent as the word ‘wildly’ can be stretched before the word competent needs upgrading.
I enjoyed myself right up to the final moments, but I’m left with very little motivation to return to Tsushima again. I might well flick through some photographs, though.
My head says the Guiding Wind, but my heart has to go with Shigeru Umebayashi and Ilan Eshkeri’s stirring score; sweeping Hollywood grandeur with Japanese folk instrumentation.
Ghost of Tsushima is a competent stock genre offering, but – like its protagonist – it’ll make a strong impression before slipping back into the shadows beyond sight, and likely beyond memory.
Genre: Kurosawa-’em-up | Format: PS4 (tested) | Developer: Sucker Punch Productions | Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment | Price: £49.99 | Release: Out now