The end of a console generation is always a little bittersweet. Sure, you’ve got the new hardware hotness coming out, but your beloved plastic box that’s been with you for years, is probably going to find a new home gathering dust in the back of the closet. So it goes. At least the last few games on a given console tend to be memorable romps that push the venerated machine to its limits, such as The Last of Us Part II for the PlayStation 4.
That’s definitely the case with Ghost of Tsushima, an open-world stealth romp through one of the most turbulent eras of medieval Japan that also happens to be one of the final swan songs for Sony’s slanted, noisy console.
Hundreds of years ago, the island of Tsushima in Japan came under attack by the invading forces of the Mongols. Noble samurai Jin Sakai was part of the group fighting to stop them, but their cunning foe annihilates them and the invasion proceeds apace. Barely surviving, Jin has to strike back and save the day, but doing so might result in taking measures that might not jive with the rigid honor code of the samurai. Is saving Tsushima worth the price Jin will have to pay?
Usually I don’t talk about presentation until later in a review, but it bears early mention here: Ghost of Tsushima looks and sounds great. So great, in fact, that it’s pretty clear its presentation was meant to be the game’s big selling point. It works, too, with a solid framerate on PS4 Pro and lovely environment design underlying everything in Tsushima. Even the interface gets in on the act, with plenty of Donkey Kong Country-style hud-hiding to let you focus on the gorgeous vistas and blowing leaves and epic orchestral soundtrack.
Were you impressed with the similar visual splendor seen in Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice? You’ll be equally impressed here. While I can’t help but feel like this game would be more comfortable as a PS5 launch title, Ghost of Tsushima is a fine graphical sendoff for the PS4.
For all its dedication to pushing the limits visually, though, Ghost of Tsushima’s gameplay is pretty standard for its genre. It’s basically a Japanese take on the more recent Assassin’s Creed games, Origins and Odyssey in particular. You’ll complete quests that largely revolve around riding your horse to a specific area and killing all the baddies present in whatever way you see fit. Sometimes you’ll have to rescue or talk to NPCs after doing so, sometimes you’ll have to do so stealthily and sometimes you’ll have to do so while not being detected under pain of restarting from a checkpoint, but this is mostly what you’ll be doing.
There’s the odd obstacle course and boss fight here and there to mix things up, but these are the exception rather than the rule. The most memorable missions tend to be the periodic one-on-one duels that serve as boss and miniboss fights, and these are pretty exciting.
From a non-murder perspective you’ve got a minor degree of character customization, allowing you to choose gear, upgrades and cosmetics to turn Jin into the samurai of your dreams. These are largely focused on particular playstyles, boiling down to melee combat, ranged combat and stealth. There’s also a simple skill tree and a selection of Ghost gadgets to equip that can help make your life a little easier. Note that while the plot does focus quite heavily on the dichotomy between Jin’s samurai honor and the necessity of underhanded tactics to survive, there’s no morality meter or anything stopping you from playing however you choose.
The mundanity of most of the content isn’t necessarily a game-killer, but it does mean that if you come into Ghost of Tsushima expecting a revolutionary experience you’re probably going to be disappointed. It’s a Video Game in 2020 through and through, right down to the part where the menu conveniently explains the “Damage” stat by explaining that with more of it, you “kill enemies faster.” Video games are art now!
Kidding aside, innovation and smart design are bonuses rather than necessary elements for an enjoyable experience. Ghost of Tsushima might be comprised almost entirely of fundamentals, but it does execute those fundamentals well. Combat is fast and fluid, with mistakes being punished a little more than one might expect, so you’re encouraged to improve. Meanwhile, digging around for crafting materials has been old hat since it became common around 2011 or so, but at least the environments are well-designed, interesting to explore and a pleasure to look at.
Your enjoyment with Ghost of Tsushima will likely come down to how you feel about the modern open-world collectathon genre. If you played through Assassin’s Creed Origins and Odyssey, the various Far Cry games and the many other similar titles floating around out there, you may or may not want more. If you do, then Jin Sakai’s epic quest through feudal Japan will embrace you with open arms and a knife ready to give you a shankin’. On the other hand, if you’re over the trend and crave something else, there’s not a Ghost of a chance this one’s going to change your mind. It sure is pretty, though.