‘Ghost of Tsushima’ Is a Pretty Game Built on an Old and Creaky Foundation

What might be Sony's last game for the PlayStation 4 is also, ironically, stuck in the past.

Jul 14 2020, 2:00pmSnap

There were a handful of times during the dozen or so hours I recently spent with Ghost of Tsushima, a new open world samurai cop action game from Infamous developer Sucker Punch, where I’d deliberately pause whatever seemingly urgent mission I was on and idle in slack-jawed awe at what was displayed in front of me. The sake production facility that was on fire, I told myself, could wait. As clusters of vibrant leaves swirled abound and a patch of tall grass gently swayed beneath my feet, the sun would blast rays of blinding color that combined into something more than beautiful—it proved genuinely moving.

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All of this is punctuated by the game’s clever way of guiding players from one waypoint to the next, with the wind subtly flowing and rocking trees and bushes about, nudging the player in the right direction. It turns a critical interface component into a damn piece of art.

The problem was after the moment passed and I returned to the action. Then, it was time for another investigation of the problems of someone who found you on the side of the road—you spend a surprising amount of time tracking footprints in Ghost of Tsushima—or another set of the enemies in the same-ish fort, one of dozens in need. It’s a game where so many individual components feel really good, but it’s all dropped into outdated structure.

Fans of photo modes (and HDR) will have a field day with Ghost of Tsushima, but its striking world masks an otherwise derivative take on an open world style we’ve seen a lot. The pieces that work—the tragically underused and very intense duels, a markedly good combat system (especially by open world standards), the wind gusting as a travel guide—provide a glimpse at a different game that might have found a way to weave everything together.

But it frequently doesn’t, falling into the category of a pretty good one of those whose longterm appeal likely has more to do with your affinity for its setting than anything else, even as it occasionally tosses a smart idea your way that makes you think it’ll turn a corner.

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There are also problems with its storytelling and world building, especially as it relates to the game’s depiction of Japanese history and samurai culture, but as someone who’s only played through the first act of the game, I strongly recommend you listen to this episode of Waypoint Radio, where Austin Walker and Matthew Gault, who’ve beaten it, talk through it. They were pretty down on it:

On the cusp of a new generation of hardware promising advanced new tech, Ghost of Tsushima also arrives shortly after Sony’s own The Last of Us Part II, a divisive but undeniably audacious expression of a cinematic-centric approach to merging story and gameplay that’s become entrenched in the company’s design DNA. It represents one of two major pillars for how these types of big budget games are made. Ghost of Tsushima is the other, epitomized by a sprawling landscape filled with an intimidatingly large number of question marks, representing the endless things a player can do while not providing enough guidance on which of those question marks are truly worth one’s time.

Which is a part of the problem: it’s impossible to know, so you waste time. One of the great things The Witcher 3, a game that continues to tower over open worlds, did was be upfront with players about what was—and crucially, wasn’t—worth spending time on. Side quests meant some meaty story content, while treasure hunts were fetch quests for loot. In Ghost of Tsushima, too much is unknown. I only knew a quest was worth doing after I finished it. For some, this is the appeal of open world games, a way to calmly listen to podcasts and tick off a series of completionist boxes. It’s a feature, not a bug. That’s not usually for me.

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But whereas other open world games find ways to help handwave their often mediocre moment-to-moment gameplay with combinations of spectacle and sheer grandiosity of content, Ghost of Tsushima does concern itself with the actions you spend the vast majority of the game engaging in. It’s not Sekiro levels of sublime, but combat feels pretty good. In its best and most exhilarating moments, it has players frantically swapping between stances and items best suited for the waves of enemy types hurtling your way, forcing players to change strategy on the fly. This is even more acute during the game’s best idea: duels.

Most combat in Ghost of Tsushima takes place in open spaces, where you’re jumping between one-on-one fights within a larger group, ala Arkham. But on occasion, Ghost of Tsushima moves the camera close, blurs out the rest of the world, and strips the player of their overpowered items, like a smoke bomb that allows for instant assassinations. In a duel, you only have a sword and one enemy to go up against with. They no longer act like a bumbling AI acting as XP fodder, either; they’re smart, calculated, and see you coming.

Suddenly, nailing a parry, opening up an enemy for a strike, becomes the only way to land a hit. The big, glowing health bar that appears at the top inspires some real Dark Souls vibes, as you and an opponent near death, and one small mistake could send you back to the start.

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These duels are usually accompanied by some truly stunning visuals—crackling thunder, flowing petals—to juice the energy. It’s understandable that Ghost of Tsushima dishes these duels with some irregularity, but they’re easily the game’s strongest moments, and my mind often wandered to a hypothetical version of Ghost of Tsushima with some kind of consequential Nemesis system where the results of the duel change the power dynamic in the open world, and folks constantly challenging you to duels as you wandered around.

Ah well.

It’s also full of awkward bits harder to forgive, like the glaring and obvious markings where you’re supposed to climb and grapple, or missions where all you do is follow someone and wait for them to occasionally look behind and go “Who was that?” For as many new ideas as Ghost of Tsushima is playing with, it’s also full of plenty jettisoned from a decade ago, perhaps an understandable consequence of a game that’s been in development since at least 2015. How can a game stay relevant if its foundation is more than five years old?

Or jeez, there’s a moment early on, where I had flashbacks to one of the most mocked moments in recent history: “press F to pay respects.” In that scene, players approach a casket of a fallen friend in Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare and hold a button to, well, pay their respects. In Ghost of Tsushima, there’s a text bubble that reads: “hold R2 to honor the dead.” Like any good video game player, I promptly held R2 and honored the dead. I know how a moment like that happens, because Ghost of Tsushima leans on R2 for all manner of contextual actions, but it’s one of many ways the game undercuts its otherwise serious tone.

Part of what I wrestle with, ultimately, is that I do want to keep playing Ghost of Tsushima.

I want to see where the story goes and how an early plot twist with a character I’d grown to care for pans out; I want to be in as many duels as possible; I want to see what beautiful landscapes are beyond the horizon; I want to see how the game does or doesn’t resolve the story of these “honorable” samurai who treat anyone beneath them like shit.

And especially now, in this specific moment, I find myself okay with the sheer amount of pointless stuff there is to do because when the kids are in bed and my brain is fried, I desire an empty sense of accomplishment before rest. That’s not really a high compliment, though.

Follow Patrick on Twitter. His email is patrick.klepek@vice.com, and available privately on Signal (224-707-1561).

Tagged:

PlayStation 4, open world, Ghost of Tsushima, Sucker Punch Productions

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