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In Depth: Ghost Of Tsushima

Maxwell Andrew Smales provides an in depth dissection of the latest open world Samurai epic from Sucker Punch studios

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Image Credit: Ghost Of Tsushima, Naught Dog Studios Press Pack via IGDB (2020)

An Introduction: What are Sucker Punch Studios to me?

It’s actually really wonderful to look back in retrospect and reflect on the journeys our favourite studios have had over the many years we’ve loved them and their games. A couple of high-profile examples are studios that shaped a lot of my personal views and I’m sure many others’ love for video games growing up.

As an example, Naughty Dog - what are they to me?  They are a shift in benchmarks that jump from generation to generation with popular franchises and mascots; evolving from the simple, jumping and spinning Bandicoot, to the time hopping duo of Jak and Daxter, then leapt unprecedented bounds and took us for the ride as the charming, quippy treasure hunter. Finally, they arrive to the handsome, murderous smuggler and dad of the year
(and top tier heroes at pissing off the fans in glorious and commendable fashion, bravo again for The Last of Us Part 2). Their shift in tone is one of light to severely dark and they’ve made it work for them with characters that swooped the world of gamers off their feet and whisked them away, only to plummet them into a bleak and furious storm.

Santa Monica studios were the bald, tattooed, chained, Blades of Chaos-wielding angry spartan star of one the greatest Greek mythology gore porn series ever made. I loved it, but let’s be real, that’s what it was, and it was wonderful. Now, they are the dad and boy of the generation within a franchise that shifted its philosophy and character development to a point of cementing God of War as the Tolkien epic blockbuster fantasy of the gaming world. It felt like all style, all substance, and the perfect mesh of mechanics that make a fantastic video game and means of masterful story telling. I won’t tangent further about God of War however, because my point is like these studios, Sucker Punch’s journey has been not so different, yet wholly unique, at least to me.

So, what do they mean to me? Well, Sucker Punch is the realising of a specific fantasy. Be it one we’ve had growing up, or one that perhaps anyone must admit would be really, really cool. With Rocket: Robot On Wheels on the Nintento 64 being deemed as the “18th best Nintendo 64 game of all time” by Nintendo Power magazine, Sucker Punch were off to a good start. Then, in their own way answered a question - what is it like to be a master thief? Granted, there is literally a mature, gritty, and popular franchise called Thief; however, I stand by the case that the Sly Raccoon series is the most enjoyable iteration of living out that fantasy of becoming a master thief, a watershed moment of my PlayStation 2 days.

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Image: Sly Cooper, Sucker Punch Productions 2002

Moving on to the PlayStation 3 - I never wanted to be a superhero until watching Sam Raimi’s Spider-man in 2002. Now, before moving on I am aware of the Spider-Man 2 game – yes, swinging around New York was boss and living as the friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man was done justice for its time. Despite this, I personally did not have my fantasy of being a super powered hero realised so genuinely until Sucker Punch’s first title in the Infamous series on the PS3. No other superhero experience was as enjoyable and relatable to me as the story of Cole Mcgrath and his rise to notoriety and heroism (or infamy depending on how you played). Coupled with the fact that this was a new and unique IP with original characters lends further praise to Sucker Punch’s talent and commitment to the fantasies they try to bring to life. Within its sequel, Infamous 2, was a package that was even more refined, polished, and improved in all facets you can think of - from the progression, combat, traversal, to storytelling, any additions to the core gameplay loop these games had to offer. Though still regarded as a fairly decent game, the third game, Infamous: Second Son, was by far the weakest entry in the franchise in relation to all the facets I previously mentioned where Infamous 2 was such a step up. It did, however, show some of the true power of the PlayStation 4 and still to this day looks awesome with particle effects and superpowers that are so stunning and inventive, if not always as interesting to use. It was what I would personally consider to be the earliest true landmark attributing the PlayStation 4’s capabilities. There was a roughly eight-hour expansion called Infamous: First Light in which you play the neon wielding character Fetch, but I sadly never played it so I can’t really give my own consensus or response to that game.

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Image: Infamous 2 via IGN gameplay trailer, 2010

Six years later, with one jaw dropping E3 outing and a long, long, long silence – Sucker Punch have reached their time. The chance of giving us their The Last of Us. Their God of War. Now, holding what is hopefully their magnum opus while confidently stepping into the light as one of the top Sony 1st party studios with their latest
fantasy come true. Be a samurai. To many of us this could very well mean the same thing and I can confidently state here, early on in this discussion that you will be a badass samurai, wandering a beautiful landscape, defending the land and doing badass samurai things. Ghost of Tsushima brings with it so much more than this that for some will be for ill, some for the better, and for some it could even be shrugged away without a care. I have spent a very long-time playing Ghost of Tsushima and finally I am glad to unpack all of this preamble and give to you my experience of living the samurai fantasy.

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Image: Sucker Punch Productions Press Kit, 2020

Part 1: The Colours Of Sight And Sound

Ghost of Tsushima is one of the most beautiful games I have ever played. That is as good a place to start as any.

It took me a long time to finish the game due to the fact that I mostly walked everywhere, or slowly cantered on Sura (the name I gave to my horse). Nearly all aspects working within Ghost of Tsushima are elevated by the visuals; its evocative gameplay and character progression are fed and tailored to a constantly moving space of serenity and colour. Stronger is the connection to this judiciously splendorous land, due to the juxtaposition of opposing the brutal and advanced presence of the Mongol hordes.

It’s worth mentioning that anyone with a personal bias in favour of the entire Eastern, samurai, honour/wisdom story aesthetic will have a hard time finding things to not like about this game’s presentation. As I am someone with such a bias, I can speak for this instance since although I’m constantly captivated and in love with all of the sights, sounds, and colours of Ghost of Tsushima – it covers certain things that are not as consistently interesting. In spite of this, I completely forgive it more so than I have with other games with the same approach - I’ll get to those elements later.

Ghost of Tsushimais a cinematic take on the samurai fantasy, not a realistic one. There’s a blend of the genuine authenticity to the culture throughout the world, mixed with a much more romanticised old Hollywood style approach to the samurai way. There are inaccuracies in the history and how it’s used and in the depiction of certain events and fighting styles. Those inaccuracies and alterations are used for the sake elevating the video game experience which is obviously important here. Quick examples would be the fact that historically all the Samurai at the Mongols arrival were wiped out, though in the game some survive. The act of a Samurai wiping blood from his blade with his sleeve or flicking the blood onto the ground is inaccurate but who cares - it looks awesome.

There might be many more little inconsistencies with regards to historical accuracy that stray from the 100 per cent authentic Samurai simulator – these are not flaws to the game at all, but it should be brought up to those who may have really been expecting that all out realistic Samurai adventure.

There is obvious testament to the cinematic design philosophy to this game since there is a mode that literally gives love and inclusion of the games own source of inspiration, Akira Kurosawa. No surprise that it’s called Kurosawa mode, which turns the picture black and white with that old looking film grain and black flickers while also mixing the sound down to a very mono setting. This is where authenticity shines in Ghost of Tsushima, when it plays into those tropes we know, love, and feel to be incredibly awesome and stylish in a way that’s like nothing else.

The art style of this game could be considered and picked apart joyously for 10,000 words, but I neither have the
vocabulary or experience to do valid justice to what the art and look of the world here wholeheartedly deserves. All I can say is, it’s beautiful, colourful, vast, intelligent, full of life and peace you feel compelled to protect and affliction you are ready to cast away.

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Image: Sucker Punch Productions Press Kit, 2020

Part 2: The Ghost And The Guiding Wind

It’s rare that I would attempt to mesh the analysis of gameplay and story simultaneously, since there’s plenty to talk about for both. There’s such a focus of one aiding the other that’s done so well here that it only feels proper to approach talking about them on the same terms.

Ghost of Tsushima *is an open world game in which you play a young Samurai, Jin Sakai. Faced with an impossible force on the shores of his homeland, he rides beside his mentor and uncle Lord Shimura with 80 samurai brethren at their back. They are met with the dishonourable tactics of Mongol leader, Khotun Kahn and suffer a crippling defeat. Jin is saved from the beach by an unlikely thief while his uncle is held captive. Bound to a code so easily penetrated by the enemy, Jin must reclaim his home land in a battle between honouring the identity and laws of his people, and lowering himself to a disgraced yet heroic identity, to save all he loves. *

Open world games live and die based on the layers (or lack thereof) of systems and incentives within them. We’ve had our fair share of games that do not successfully adhere to these incentives in meaningful and compelling ways. While Ghost of Tsushima has much of what you associate with an open world formula, it manages for the most part to validate such a formula in ways that so many others haven’t. There’s an argument to be made in considering the most important function of future video game titles. One is how much a title innovates with new and interesting gameplay loops and formulas, creating new experiences never before seen and always pushing what games are capable of. Ghost of Tsushima very much pulls off the very latter. There’s a reason many of the public have cried out slating this as a Samurai Assassins Creed since it borrows from so many of the tropes obsessively baked into that franchise to (in my view) a complete detriment. If you hate open world games and what they have previously asked of you, most of that is here in Ghost of Tsushima. Although, as I said – the other franchises this title borrows from have never utilised the better part of what video games are capable of, Ghost of Tsushima does*.*

Past games would contain these vast and meticulously crafted open worlds and then passively filter you through it with heaps of icons and would drastically break immersion with an overly busy UI. That’s not the case here. Here the world guides you with visual markers that draw you to mysteries and objectives scattered across the island. Something as simple as rising smoke seen over the rolling hills, or a yellow songbird flying by your side as Jin brushes his hand over grasslands constantly in motion. You might well hear the gleeful high-pitched howl of a fox that seeks to guide to a nearby shrine to grant a useful charm to attribute particular playstyles and stats. With a swipe of the touchpad, a strong and resonant gust of wind will blow in the direction of what ever marker you place on your map.

Even without this, you see dim particles of dust and petals blow in that same direction, so as to guide you more calmly and attentively should you desire to simply be within the world and soak it in at calm and attentive pace. Above you may be the flush of hyper real blues and pinks of the gorgeously painted skyscape, or the thick black of storm clouds whilst wind and rain bash against your cloak and straw hat. This weather may change depending on how you then approach the Mongol camp that looms ahead. The land becomes a blitz of this storm to further prop the fear and cruelty of the ghost tactics you may or may not employ to overcome the enemy numbers. Though should you follow the prompt to stand your ground and face off at the gates with full honourable force, the movement of your surroundings are controlled. Not completely still, but focused and strong. Be it the sun, or the wind and grey skies while you cut the enemy down with the best, most precise and meaningful combat in any open world game ever made.

These are the three main pillars of gameplay within Ghost of Tsushima: exploration, stealth, and combat.

While you traverse the land, it is completely possible for you to almost never have to even look at your map, save for perhaps placing a marker and heading in a general direction to see what you find. The fact that markers don’t even appear on the map until you clear the fog of war by travelling through it is a lovely note as well. Intrigue in what lies in the distance, or within the secrets of the world without a guiding hand (or wind in this case) is what brings this and would bring any open world game to a higher standard. For that reason I’m not going to list the majority of the not so secret content you find as many other articles have (that’s not a dig, it’s just a thing that has happened) because I didn’t know about most of it, and my experience was much better for it. There are incredible highs within the game’s exploration, and what could be seen as some very noticeable lows. I say “could be” because as with many things it depends on the player and what they enjoy.

A sheer abundance of collectibles and checklists of minor things to do is very much here - all over the place and
chances are I will never find all of them because beyond buffing effectiveness of certain playstyles and abilities, the rewards for most of them just aren’t that interesting. There are, however, players out there I have no doubt will relish the potentially satisfying feeling of clearing all tasks across a world that looks this good. I will say it’s much less of a problem because you don’t actually have to do any of it if you don’t want. Normally, you could say that it shouldn’t be there then if it isn’t vital to the core experience. I would say that in fact, if the core experience wasn’t so subjective and open to player choice because I can see a clear demographic for each facet of the games content, thus there is clear value here for whatever approach you decide to take with it. Whether that’s blasting through the story, or satiating that completionist hunger, any way is worthwhile. There’s a wealth of side missions here. Some varied, some not so much, with the latter being more so the case with the smaller missions that usually entail finding someone who has been done wrong by the Mongols, and then involves you going to find and kill said Mongols.

Parallel to progressing through the main campaign to swell your ranks against the Mongols, are character missions structured as a sort of saga, taking you along for missions that are especially important and personal to that side character. These stories had emotional highs and quality of writing that matched or even surpassed the main campaigns most compelling moments. There’s another form of side mission which offers up the most unique and engaging gameplay challenges the game has to offer, providing the most memorable and game changing rewards. If you play Ghost of Tsushima, you will be so much more enamoured to discover what these are for yourself, so I’ll leave that there.

Now, let’s go back to what I said with regards to the smaller side missions.

They are in fact of a lower standard both in gameplay and writing compared to other shining moments, but they would be much worse were it not for some the best parts of the game. The stealth, and the combat.

On the road, or at the gates. A prompt to press up on the D-pad will appear to instigate a standoff. You wait with hand on hilt of the katana as the enemy soldiers try to bait you into attacking. The constant shredding lull of low music runs beneath all of it until the soldier rushes, and the sharp ring of your blade cuts in an instant across your screen and sound system. If appropriately spec’d on one of your skill trees, you can commit a string of three of these one hit kills on the attacking force. When detail of thick blood falls to the ground and your stance is ready, you may then annihilate the rest of the camp. Though seemingly shallow early on, the combat system here favours precision and patience not unlike Sekiro, from Software’s much more fantastical and punishing take on a Samurai/Shinobi adventure.

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Image: Sucker Punch Productions Press Kit, 2020

Each light attack is swift and deadly, with a heavy attack meant to break an enemy’s guard and cut through bone when that guard falters. As you observe the enemy the leaders and destroy their camps of varied combatants, Jin will take on new stances and tactics to face off the growing numbers within the later encounters. Stances tailored to face those with shield, spear, or brute strength. Depth of the system grows the more and more you play, hone your skills and invest in the various skill trees, giving a consistent feeling of rising power and knowledge against the Mongol ranks. Nothing feels quite so amazing as donning impressive Samurai armour or any interesting outfit (of which there are many, affecting various stats) and calling them out to face you head on. Such is the Samurai way that your uncle taught you from being a boy up until now. The game does an incredible job and having you carry that with you. So many of the early encounters I had would have been so much easier had I played dirty, manipulating, and picking the enemy off one by one. I wouldn’t do it. I was compelled to play the honourable way, since the moment you stab a Mongol in the back, you feel ashamed. You feel undeserving of the admirable principles with which Jins’ life has been imbued. Saying that, you can flawlessly and almost effortlessly wipe any encampment out without them ever knowing you are there.

It’s here where all the layers of Ghost of Tsushima are at a constant and ever ramping crescendo. The drama within the campaign is clear. The conflict within Jin and against the ideals of his people is strong and well told if flatly told across many of the side content. The quality is hampered by an antagonist whose portrayal while at first is intriguing, becomes less interesting and underutilised when heading into the later parts of the story. The swelling marvel of the climax to each of the campaigns three acts are delivered to soaring excellence and were moving, powerful and haunting.

These were not the highlight of my time as Jin Sakai. Mine was the natural realisation of my own transformation into the Ghost through gameplay, alongside the streamlined character progression. I learned begrudgingly as Jin did the effectiveness of taking these enemies by surprise. How the shameful gutting of the Mongol men as they slept became the truest and most effective path to saving Tsushima. The stealth mechanics are nothing unseen before, they are not so challenging to provide a tense and suspenseful stealth thriller. What they are is the empowerment of becoming the ghost. The throwing away of bold and brash stand off’s against overwhelming odds over and over. To poison, distract, hurl explosives, or engulf in smoke, and slit the throats of these murderers, makes you invincible and insurmountable against them. Where I first focused primarily on the honourable, free flowing and engaging combat, upon feeling the power of such disgraceful tactics, I wanted more.

Seeing the way these soldiers feared you more and more, and the more that feature began to feed into player progression as well as the character, I knew this was something special. It never made it so you had to use stealth across the whole of the game, the alternative however would simply be more difficult situation to manage. When realising my own transformation of player expression alongside Jin’s character development and downfall, my fantasy was no longer that of being a Samurai.

My fantasy was becoming the ghost.

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Image: Sucker Punch Productions Press Kit, 2020

Final Act

Ghost of Tsushima is not the answer for every gamer. It may not even be the perfect answer for the open world genre, as many of its parts could still be considered a flaw in the larger landscape of gaming so filled by a formula of its kind. No one who decides to try Ghost of Tsushima can deny that it is a strong step in the right direction for open world games. The craftsmanship and artistry behind Tsushima invites evocative and immersive exploration that does away with the faults of more uninspired game design. All roads lead to a fight against a force that drags our protagonist down to a desperate and vengeful entity as much at war with himself and those he cares for, as well as invaders so brutal and dishonourable that you need to be lower to attain hope of victory. While much of the games overall writing is delivered flatly with a commitment to severe seriousness, there are some highs to speak of that raise the story to one of the best in the open world genre.

The story plays to the strengths of its Samurai tropes, and although doing so without considering more compelling contemporary aspects – what it achieves is an extremely strong offering. I don’t initially see a clear way of bringing appropriate levity to a story and setting like this. Some can be found in a familiar character archetype or two, but rarely is it ever surprising. The player and character progression parallels are effective and meaningful, in service to a punchy and deadly combat system, and powerful stealth mechanics. The hauntingly impactful ending and final boss gives a resolution to Ghost of Tsushima that certainly opens a door to Jin’s next chapter. That will probably be imperfect in some way as well, but I have no doubt like it’s first entry, it will succeed like with all the fantasies that Sucker Punch have tried to realise. They are the realising of a specific fantasy and will accomplish exactly what they clearly and confidently set out to achieve, whatever that may mean to the people that play games or to why you love them.

The image and meaning of Sucker Punch have transformed like other developers we’ve grown baring admiration for. To see transformation as something so indicative to this particular and final contribution to a player base, just as it’s nearly time to move on to something new, is something so apt I love it even more.

So right now, what are Sucker Punch studios to me?

At the start of this game they were the badass and serene samurai master and transformed into the noble, heroic and haunting descent of becoming the Ghost of Tsushima.

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