It’s been about a week since I finished Ghost of Tsushima (getting the Platinum just as the credits rolled), and I’m still stuck in the post-game emptiness. A lot of my free time since then has been spent dissecting the game with friends, watching Daisuke Tsuji (Jin Sakai’s English voice and mocap actor) play through the game, watching all the interviews with the developers I could find, and seeing the various perspectives that have popped up since it launched.
There’s so many things I want to say about a game that resonated so much with me, and I want to keep it all in one place while it’s still relatively fresh for that eventual second-playthrough reflection somewhere down the line.
The most impressive thing about Ghost of Tsushima for me, is the way everything in the game manages to always tie in to the cohesive whole — the experience felt so very consistent tonally and thematically, all the while keeping the gameplay from feeling completely dissonant from the narrative — which is quite the feat for a sprawling, expansive open-world game.
By the time the credits rolled for me, I walked away feeling like everything in the game had fallen perfectly into place, without a single moment ever feeling wasted.
From the high-octane intro that sets up the major conflict: the Mongol invasion of Japan’s Tsushima Island in 1274 that drops you immediately into the thick of the action after an epic cinematic cutscene, to the elegant way it presents the tutorial via a flashback into protagonist Jin Sakai’s youth while simultaneously establishing one of his major relationships… all the way to the stunningly well-crafted “welcome to the open world” moment that sees Jin riding through a forest into a sprawling open field, with the music swelling at just the right moment, and the grass swaying in the wind as he reaches down to touch them.
It’s a powerful moment that feels especially poignant in a time like this, when most of the world has ground to a halt and we all have been stuck indoors for months — while also being a subtle way to establish Jin’s almost spiritual connection to his homeland and the nature that thrives in it.
After going through the tension-filled opening sequence, this title-drop second intro immediately exhibits that this game isn’t afraid to give space for smaller, quiet, intimate moments as well.
Also, it’s such an effective invitation into the open world. In those precious few seconds of magic, the game opens up to show us a beautiful vista, almost as if promising many, many more sights — if only we let our curiosity guide us to see what’s over the horizon.
In that one sequence, it truly felt like the game really could be everything I’ve ever wanted it to be.
Once the title sequence passes, the game’s second greatest strength also becomes apparent: making exploring the open world feel organic and rewarding by changing up formulaic genre staples through small innovations that sum up to create a refreshing experience.
I’m no stranger to open-world games. In fact it’s one of my favorite genres of video games. I’m completely fine with huge maps to clean up, a multitude of bandit camps to liberate, and a mile-long checklist of mundane side-quests to do — just give me an expansive world to get lost in and a serviceable enough main scenario to convince me to stay.
That was all I initially expected out of Ghost of Tsushima based on all the marketing material they released ahead of the game. I’d been following the news on it since it’s first announcement, and all it really had to get right for me was the setting — one I’d been wishing to experience through an open-world for years and years now.
Don’t get me wrong, while the game does have those well-trodden open-world staples too, in a way — the framing, the small innovations in the way we interact with the open-world, are what make all the difference here.
First off, if there’s one thing this game does that I hope causes a ripple-effect in the genre, it’s the scaling back of the HUD. Ghost of Tsushima does away with traditional waypoints, the clunky top-bar compass (I dislike these especially), and the minimap. Navigation is done simply by swiping up on the touchpad, calling in the gust of wind to roll in through the foliage, telling you where you need to go without distracting from the frankly arresting, and constantly beautiful landscapes of Tsushima.
It’s definitely aesthetically pleasing, and ties in with the serene and contemplative tone that the game is going for, while also fitting once again, into Jin’s connection with the island. I’d expected some set-piece locations to look astounding based on the trailers, but literally the whole island is filled with amazing views — a huge credit to the art direction, environmental design, and lighting teams.
I knew Sucker Punch was already really good at building open-world environments due to their past games, but it is in this one where they truly elevate themselves as some of the best in the business, without any doubt.
There’s a lot of meticulous attention to detail in making the environments feel lived-in and believable — I was taken aback when I saw that leaves actually floated on water and flowed along the current, that clouds were separate from the skybox, the way flocks of birds moved so realistically, and that each Mongol camp actually had a radius of chopped trees around it, suggesting that these were cut down to build fortifications.
Sure, it’s not the most realistic-looking game, but it is the most constantly stunning in its beauty. I can’t think of any other open-world that has made me go “Oh wow, look at that.” so many times in the course of a single playthrough — I didn’t fast-travel in this game until I needed to clean up some leftover trophies to claim the Platinum just before I ended this game, simply because I didn’t wanna miss out on whatever vista would distract me along the way.
Sometimes I really did just stop to take in the view... and, like so many of the people sharing their screenshots across social media since the game’s release, I also spent an inordinate amount of time in the game’s Photo Mode.
The Guiding Wind mechanic is also augmented with yellow birds that will guide you to points of interest — like hot springs, haiku spots, side-quests, and the like. Foxes will guide you to Inari Shrines, which give you more slots for charms, which are items that you can equip to augment Jin’s combat skills to fit your chosen playstyle.
It all coalesces to make going around the open world feel fresh, and the exploration feel organic — like every small discovery was my choice, instead of the game forcing me to go where it wants to, while also making the different landmarks memorable because I am looking at the world 100% of the time, instead of zoning out following a compass or minimap. The game’s amazing draw distance helps with this as well — a game where truly, “if you can see it, you can go to it” (the art direction of the game makes a conscious decision to make sure you do see it) and in Tsushima, when you get there, it’s so often worth it.
My approach to this world, as opposed to my usual “go through all the quests listed in my journal” was simply to set the guiding wind to one location, and let Tsushima take the wheel — stopping for any distraction that seems interesting along the way.
It really helped with getting into the headspace of Jin as a ‘wandering samurai’ that echoes so much of the cinema the game is clearly inspired by.
I’ve never wanted to just get lost in an open world this much before — and when I realized that I actually knew where landmarks were in the world in relation to each other, more than I knew where they were on the map? It kinda blew my mind. No other open-world game instilled such a fundamental sense of place in me before.
Speaking of “getting into the headspace” of Jin, I’ll get to my third favorite thing about this game — and probably where I’ll differ the most from the general consensus.
Jin Sakai’s character arc, which follows his descent from an honorable samurai lord and dutiful nephew, into the titular Ghost at the cost of casting away the traditions he’s grown up with all his life, personally resonated with me more than any other video game character’s has in quite a while.
I suspect it’ll keep me awake just thinking about it for a long time yet.
I’ve seen a few reviews call the game’s story “bland” and write Jin off as “boring” — but I’m gonna have to respectfully disagree.
Most of it, I think, can be attributed to the fact that I related to Jin from the get-go: the filial piety he has towards his uncle Shimura, the sense of duty to do right by the people that raised him, the pressure of meeting their expectations, and the eventual friction that occurs between them when Jin’s path begins to veer away from these expectations, especially when you know that his uncle really only wants what he believes is the best for Jin, and despite everything, is coming from a place of love... it’s a struggle that’s profoundly relatable to me, something I feel no other video game has really been able to portray so viscerally or with this much grace.
Sure, there’s some “rebellious child” and “overbearing parent” tropes in other games, but that’s usually relegated to the companions (I guess because most protagonists don’t really have a parental figure that’s alive?), and most of them, I feel, are a struggle of a different kind altogether — portrayed with the parents just being varying ranges of abusive, while the child’s departure from them would be a simple triumphant escape.
I felt like there was much more nuance in how it was handled in Ghost of Tsushima, especially in the way it’s written as an inevitable conflict of wills, instead of simply one side being problematic and the other wrenching themselves free— no matter how much they clashed, I never doubted Lord Shimura’s love for Jin, and there’s something… just sincere, heart-wrenching, and believable in the way the game portrays their dynamic.
How there isn’t a right or wrong answer, only individual decisions.
Perhaps other people’s disconnect is also because Jin is more reserved and reflective compared to the usual wise-cracking, snarky, video-game protagonist? I guess there’s a certain… restraint, a measured stillness, and a quiet contemplation with how he interacts with the world and people around him that might make him come off as overly melancholic or too serious initially.
However, as I progressed through the game and played through more and more of the sidequests, I found Jin’s personality shining through in subtle ways — he is always ready to help others, usually without asking for anything in return. Something I chalked up to his survivor’s guilt from being one of the few to live through the Mongols landing at Komoda beach, his own personal atonement for past failures… the game also goes out of its way to show that this earnestness to help sometimes doesn’t always end well for Jin or the people he tries to save.
There’s also a distinctly near-suicidal way he flings himself at the cause too, and it was easy to believe that he was on a lone crusade to free his homeland at any cost — ready to lay down his life or cast away his honor if need be.
When I found out that Jin’s name (仁) meant “benevolence” or “compassion” everything clicked.
His interactions with his allies, both old and newfound, also offer valuable insight into his character, and I’d suggest anyone playing through the game to at least finish all of these ally-centric tales before doing the final quest at the end of the game. Each of Jin’s companions have their own interesting character arcs, and you find out more about Jin’s viewpoints, thoughts, and past alongside theirs. Some of these moments are genuinely affecting, and I found that the quests being spaced out throughout the breadth of the whole narrative really helped keep me invested in each of Jin’s allies, from the moment they are introduced until the very end.
The tone of the game is usually somber and melancholic, appropriate I guess, for a game set in a war-torn land — but there are moments of levity sprinkled here and there, heightened by the fact that they are quite rare — and while most situations end up tainted by death and demise, the game never feels like it revels in it, or that it’s there just as a spectacle or placed haphazardly for shock value.
Jin always has words of reassurance for survivors, talks of hope and finding purpose in helping those that are still in need… throughout the game there is a strong message that there is hope through the darkness, and worth to be found in the struggle to see it through, no matter how bleak it is: Move forward. Keep fighting. Emphasizing the impact of what even a single person’s effort can do if fueled towards a unified goal.
It’s a message I found particularly comforting at a time like this, almost six months into local quarantine, among other… troubling things.
There’s also something to be said about Jin’s descent into becoming the Ghost, and the inherent dehumanization of it all — the extent of his transformation into “a storm, made flesh” an agent of vengeance, and ultimately leaving behind Jin Sakai the man, and embracing the legend he’s created for himself, the price he pays for freedom.
As you go on the journey, there is a plodding, wistful acceptance that there is no going back.
I don’t want to go into too much detail to avoid spoilers, but I found the main narrative to be strong and well-written, and while somewhat predictable, especially if you are familiar with the genre of cinema that it takes inspiration from, it is still masterfully executed. Nothing that happens feels random or forced, and every character makes a decision that makes sense.
There is value in every single side-quest — not just gameplay-wise because of rewards, but as another piece in the puzzle of Jin’s character arc. With the game as a whole functioning as a series of anthologies, every quest is a “tale”; each being book-ended by it’s own cinematic title-card, eventually culminating in one of the most genuinely moving endings I’ve come across in video games. (I mean, I cried through the credits — only eight other games have achieved actually moving me to tears.)
But of course, the story only really tackles the “why” — the “how” is handled by the gameplay… and in a game that drops you in the middle of an invasion, it’s expected that most of that “how” will be fighting.
To be honest, combat isn’t too high on my list of considerations for open-world games — I find most other games to have serviceable systems, with some others that have combat that feels like it’s kinda just there as a vehicle so I can get on with the story and the side quests, that ultimately end up feeling more like a detriment to the experience than a highlight. Thankfully, that isn’t the case for Ghost of Tsushima.
I’d go so far as to say this might be the best combat I’ve played in an open-world game — I’ve certainly never played one before where I was constantly itching for a fight simply because it was so much fun.
This is “The Samurai Power Fantasy” meticulously crafted, and perfectly distilled.
The combat takes a while to get used to at first — there’s no lock-on, and Jin only has one stance at the beginning, which makes it a bit difficult to fight some enemies, especially when you’re surrounded by multiple ones of different types.
But as you go through the game and unlock more stances (each of which are tailor-fit to go against certain enemy types), it begins to strike the perfect balance between fast and fluid, while also being weighty and methodical. You’ll feel the mistake of every wasted movement, and the joy in performing a perfect parry, and every well-executed standoff is like a small victory in itself.
Certain special moves will also become available at the cost of resolve — a resource gained through killing enemies, executing parries, and the like, and is also used for healing. This makes combat a fast succession of risk-reward assessments, as it’ll never allow you to run around passively waiting for your HP to replenish.
I’d also like to applaud Sucker Punch for the archery-based combat in this game — I feel like most games in the genre kind of add the bow in at the last minute, making it feel just kind of tacked-on. That’s definitely not the case here in Ghost of Tsushima.
Here there’s a certain weight to be felt in the bow draw, and it’s not absurdly fast either. Every headshot (on an unarmored foe) is a killshot too, making it invaluable for clearing out enemy camps or counter-sniping enemy archers — who are quite competent, by the way. The Yumi (弓) or Japanese longbow also has a much weightier draw and a longer draw time, and the animation for it is just… perfection. As someone who looks forward bow combat in every game it’s available on, I’m just really glad it’s actually an extremely viable choice to be an archer too.
Jin’s samurai kit is also augmented by the eventual introductions of his Ghost Weapons — kunai, smokebombs, grenades, and the like, allowing him to execute enemies with a veritable arsenal for every situation.
Of course, there is also the matter of stealth, and here I think is where the game doesn’t shine as brightly. It’s completely viable, and the game does give gentle nudges to the player to embrace it — enemy encampments get progressively larger as you get closer to the end, and their layout also subtly encourages stealth… making it a much faster option. It’s serviceable, and comes with most of what you’d expect. Chain-assassinations, distractions, and the like, but there’s nothing really new here. It’s still serviceable of course, but seeing the rest of the game elevate the conventions of the genre but just stay on par here is a little disappointing. That’s not to say it isn’t fun though — of course clearing out enemy forts without ever being seen will always be some measure of fun, and we finally have a AAA game this gen where we can sneakily climb pagodas and play ninja… even if you can too easily run circles around the enemy AI.
I embraced stealth myself when Jin did in the story, so I never really experienced feeling that gameplay was dissonant from the narrative. I’d imagine players that tried to completely play as an honorable samurai might’ve had that issue though.
However, on the whole I’m still really glad they didn’t go with the InFAMOUS route of a blue-red morality system that forced itself upon the gameplay — Jin’s kit is available as you unlock it, and you can play encounters any way you’d like. When the combat is firing on all cylinders, it’s deeply rewarding, challenging yet not frustrating, and just… immensely fun.
Even after getting the Platinum for it (my first one ever, too), I found myself just hoping there was an option for New Game + or to reset camps just so I could go back in and play more of it. No open world game has given me that feeling before.
There’s a lot of other things that elevate the experience too — the music and sound design is top-notch. This is the first game that isn’t a JRPG that actually had it’s soundtrack stuck in my head, probably because it’s used so liberally throughout the game instead of being drowned out by the gameplay.
And the track “The Way of the Ghost” with the vocal rendition? Positively chilling.
The soundtrack also features instruments and sounds we don’t hear in video games too often, like the Sakhuhachi, Biwa, Morin Khuur, and especially the Mongolian throat singing — sneaking around a Mongol camp and seeing them singing and playing drums around the campfire was a small joy for me personally.
It’s also the first open-world game where I felt like listening to sound cues was actually integral to the combat (especially for archers that are outside your field of vision). There’s also the clashing of swords, the clinking of armor, footsteps on tiled roofs, sloshes through mud… everything sounds so grounded and realistic. The way the controller speakers also make the wind sound when you swipe up for Guiding Wind is also a great little touch.
And the ambient sounds? My god when thunder rolls in or when you hear the wind rustle through the leaves? It’s so atmospheric you can close your eyes and almost believe you’re somewhere else. They also actually put in the effort to record wildlife from Japan, so there’s an extra layer of authenticity there.
There’s a myriad of other little things that I adore in this game — the impeccable voice acting (both in English and Japanese), the inclusion of a black-and-white “Kurosawa Mode”, petting the foxes, Jin playing the flute to change the weather, the meticulously-designed armor sets that actually have gameplay value and are relevant throughout the game, there being a different block animation for each stance, the assassination animation actually changing as Jin gets more efficient at it, the haiku sections, villagers you save on a random patrol telling you “rumors” that lead to sidequests, looting being so hassle-free, and the load times being insanely short, to name a few.
But it’s not a perfect game by any means (no game ever is), and I’ve already stated my slight disappointment with stealth already.
However, my greatest complaint is with the game’s platforming. It’s not a deal-breaker, but there are numerous times when it just felt… janky and inconsistent.
This, I feel, is the only section where Ghost of Tsushima is truly outclassed by some of its peers in the genre.
Sometimes a jump that looks like Jin should be able to make actually isn’t, and the animations for platforming look stiff and stilted compared to the quality of the animations in the rest of the game. It’s frustrating sometimes, not being sure if he’d fall to his demise, in a game where he’s supposed to evolve into a nimble Ghost.
I also wish more of the open-world utilized the grappling hook. There’s so much missed potential with the traversal here, and while I did enjoy the small environmental traversal puzzles to get to shrines, I just wish platforming in general was better implemented. It does its job, for sure, but it could be so much better too. I wish platforming also felt more involved, as zoning out and just pointing the analog stick waiting for Jin to jump automatically to the next hand-hold felt more disconnected than in other aspects of the game where it almost feels like we’re in full control.
Other than stealth and platforming, I can’t really think of other major gripes to be honest. There’s a few bugs here and there, but nothing game-breaking, and I thankfully ran into them very rarely. I’ve seen some people decry the repetitiveness of some of the side-missions, and sure some additional mission variety would be nice, but “go to village -> talk to person -> go to place -> kill enemies -> report back” is the core gameplay loop of well… any open-world game’s side missions, and I felt like the game did enough set-up and framing to make each one worthwhile. There is quite an obvious lack of animations for non-essential cutscenes too, but these were mostly hidden by the camerawork, so I didn’t really feel like it detracted too much from the experience as a whole. I guess the combat camera can be somewhat a struggle until you get used to moving it around yourself during combat? I think adding transparency on objects when they block the view during combat would fix this easily (hopefully the devs consider it!).
So no, not a perfect game, and certainly still has room for improvement — but I can’t help but feel just… overwhelmingly impressed by what Sucker Punch has achieved with this game.
There’s also something to be said about the game’s impeccable pacing across both gameplay and narrative: the way it manages to introduce something new just at the point that I began looking for it.
I remember getting close to the end of Act 1 and feeling like stealth felt so cumbersome to use because the layout of the Mongol encampments didn’t really facilitate stealth traversal, only to be happily satisfied by the new layouts and options added to the camps in Act 2.
I felt the same about the combat, having my ass handed to me by wandering Ronin just as I thought I’d already gotten the combat down pat. Same with the story too — a new character to meet added just when I was hoping for more, a new small twist in the story just when I thought I already had it all figured out.
The pacing almost uncannily felt tailor-made for me specifically, like it knew exactly when to dole out the parts to ultimately form an amalgamation of nearly everything I’ve ever wanted since I first stepped into an open world years and years ago.
I stopped in the middle of two other open-world games just as I picked up Ghost of Tsushima, and in a way this game has ruined all others in the genre for me. I’m almost afraid of going back to finish them because I know they won’t capture the magic the same way this game did for me.
So here I am, about a whole week later, still utterly consumed by this game without even playing it. I suspect I won’t connect to a game at this level for a long while yet, so I might as well write most of how I feel down while everything still feels crystal clear and the ebb and flow of time haven’t dulled away the memories.
Ghost of Tsushima was an experience I won’t forget for a long while, and is definitely among my favorite games of all time. There’s a constant feeling of passion and care taken in nearly every aspect of the game here, from ensuring that each major character is three-dimensional and has depth, to the portrayals of the Mongols as a cunning military force to be reckoned with, and the sheer research and effort gone into creating an experience that feels respectful to the Japanese culture and history that inspired it. In a way it feels like quite a triumph of cross-cultural cooperation — teams and people from across the world coming together to create a truly unique experience.
Playing it for the first time felt like wading into still water — slowly but surely, I got more and more immersed into it, and felt everything else fall away, as I stepped into the shoes of Jin Sakai and felt the wind at my back, beckoning me to explore… before I knew it, I’m off the deep end, taken by the current, and filled with both an excitement for what this means for the future, and the dread in the knowledge that going back to other games in the genre will never be the same.
Sucker Punch have managed to catch lightning in a bottle here — and I can’t wait to see where they go next.