'Ghosts of Tsushima' succeeds in spite of its design

Last year’s “Ghosts of Tsushima” is one of the few games that has managed to make the open world format somewhat enjoyable — even if it still offers more of a hindrance than helps.

I’ve avoided approaching developer Sucker Punch’s love letter to Kurosawa films — despite loving “Yojimbo,” “Seven Samurai” and others — because I remain continuously burned out by massive, empty open worlds that require more playtime of simply traveling from objective to objective than actually engaging with the game in combat, puzzle solving or other gameplay elements. Sure, many open worlds are lovely to look at, and there is an admittedly insane amount of work that goes into crafting such detail. But when you spend literally hours just moving back and forth with no real engagement beyond enjoying the stunning vistas — especially when modern game design doesn’t actually utilize any of the environmental design for exploration — the game becomes more of a chore than an enjoyable experience. Case in point, “Assassin’s Creed Valhalla” — a wonderful game that drug out for more than 100 hours because a good portion of that was traveling through an empty wilderness to your next objective.

After “Ghosts of Tsushima” received a patch that upgraded its performance to 60 FPS on the PlayStation 5, I decided it was as good of a time as any to jump in. After logging more than 50 hours in the game, meeting amazing characters, and truly feeling like I was enveloped in a Kurosawa film, I come away extremely impressed, and almost a little sad it took me this long to experience one of the best games of 2020.

You play as Jin Sakai, a samurai warrior who nearly died fighting a Mongol invasion of the island of Tsushima. After he’s nursed back to health, he launches a one-man guerilla war campaign against the occupying forces. Along the way, he gains allies, including a disgraced samurai whose protege joined the Mongols, a thief-turned-freedom fighter and a female samurai out to avenge the death of her sons. Other allies join throughout the game, and each has their own set of side missions that dive deep into their characters and motivations and provide quality characterization.

The core of the story is centered on Jin, as he tries to reconcile the actions he must take with his samurai honor and code. In order to fight off the Mongols, and retake his homeland, Jin must kill indiscriminately, attack from behind and undertake hard decisions — all of which contradict the teachings of his uncle, Lord Shimura. As Jin continues his campaign of death, he begins to develop a reputation around the island that paints him as a monster as much as a hero.

From a gameplay perspective, “Ghosts of Tsushima” is very much designed in the same vein as “Assassin’s Creed” and Sucker Punch’s previous series, “inFAMOUS.” Jin’s movement and traversal are extremely fluid and very snappy. He can scale buildings and cliff faces with relative ease. The mid-game addition of a grappling hook provides a nice traversal mechanic that helps open the world design a bit. But the combat is where the game really shines.

At first, the game’s combat can feel a little shallow. All you have to do is just mash the weak and strong attack buttons and you’ll defeat enemies with relative ease. But as the game progresses, you’ll come across enemies that require you to shift between the game’s four stances — each of which is more effective against a certain type of enemy — and utilize upgraded combos and mechanics. By the time you reach the third section of the game, you’ll find the combat system to be surprisingly deep and effective, especially when surrounded by enemies of different types that you must fight at the same time.

As mentioned before, “Ghosts of Tsushima” is an open world title, and thus still comes with those caveats. The game world is absolutely beautiful. Graphically, this game is in the top percentage of the generation with visuals that often look like moving paintings. Combined with the unlocked framerate on the PS5, and “Ghosts of Tsushima” looks just as good as many early next-gen titles. But while the vistas and environments are beautiful to admire, they’re relatively empty.

The individual quests and missions are very well done. Each character’s quest employs different mechanics. One character’s journey will focus on using bows and arrows for ranged combat. Another’s journey will focus on stealth and evading the enemy as you sneak around settlements and forts. Others are straight forward that require precision skills and timing in melee combat. But the rest of the game’s design leaves something to be desired.

The map is relatively devoid of engaging activities. It’s filled with collectables, including flags of samurai clans, random Mongolian artifacts, notes on battle strategies that do nothing but check off lists. Other collectables are slightly more engaging, such as shrines that require precision platforming in order to obtain character upgrades. Hot springs are sprinkled around the world that upgrade Jin’s maximum health. Fox dens are everywhere, and provide Jin with additional upgrades to his abilities. Beyond these, however, the only thing left to do in the game is to kill Mongols in random encounters around the game world, or clear out Mongolian settlements that come with their own set of objectives.

“Ghosts of Tsushima” is a game that should not be missed. Many might think feudal Japan is played out lately — and there’s certainly a case to be made — but none of them replicate that Kurosawa feel that this game does. The gameplay is responsive and fun, the storyline is very well presented and the characters are some of the best in open world gaming. The overall structure and design are disappointing, but there’s a good framework here for an improved sequel.

Josh Rouse lives in Lawton and writes a weekly gaming column for The Lawton Constitution.

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