Ghost of Tsushima (PS4) - ReviewPaul Broussard , posted on 24 July 2020 / 10,307 Views
It’s been six years since Sucker Punch’s most recent outing, and they’ve returned with what is almost assuredly their most ambitious project to date. An open world game set in feudal Japan that seeks to blend stealth and sword combat into a cohesive whole is a tall order for any studio, and especially so for one that hasn’t really done much with either stealth or swordplay before. That said, Sucker Punch has history with handling ambitious projects well in the past, particularly Infamous and Sly Cooper. Is Ghost of Tsushima another success story, or is this the game where they bit off more than they could chew?
Ghost’s setting is the island of Tsushima in the late 13th century, situated between China and mainland Japan. Our protagonist, Jin Sakai, is a samurai defending the island from invading Mongols while upholding the samurai’s code of honor. However, after realizing the Mongols are willing to win by any means necessary, Jin begins to embrace sneakier and more underhanded tactics; usage of subterfuge and stealth rather than honorably strolling up to enemy fortresses, challenging everyone in a hundred foot radius to a swordfight, and being instantly fired upon by 15 different archers.
Jin is torn between personas of the samurai and the “ghost,” and the story primarily focuses on him wrestling with wanting to uphold the samurai’s code of honor, while also wanting to uphold the code of not being murdered by people who don’t care about honor. This split serves as the driving force behind the two major aspects of gameplay; the swordplay of the samurai and the stealthy tactics of the ghost.
Before diving into how the core gameplay functions, though, it’s worth noting that Tsushima is absolutely beautiful, probably the most gorgeous open world I’ve ever seen. It’s filled with a good bit of content too; plenty of enemy bases to raid and friendly settlements to find. Exploring is also rewarded, as you’ll often find materials to upgrade your equipment and weapons, as well as various locations that can boost your max health and healing ability.
If there's one thing Ghost absolutely excels at, it's the way it presents its world and everything that inhabits it. One very cool feature that really adds to the immersion factor is that setting a waypoint doesn’t cause a marker to pop up in front of you or some such, but rather will cause the wind to blow in the direction you need to go. It sounds minor, but it’s a really cool way to tie the game into some of the themes of nature and make the world feel like a more cohesive whole.
When you’re not traveling between locations within the world, gameplay is mostly divided into two halves: stealth and combat. Between these two aspects and the open world, Ghost has quite a bit of gameplay variety to hand. Having that gameplay variety, however, is often a double edged sword, because while it can lessen the chances of any one mechanic wearing out its welcome, it also often means that none of the mechanics have room to really grow and develop properly. And this is, by far, Ghost’s biggest undoing; both the combat and the stealth aren't particularly deep and are brought down by several notable problems. The stealth is especially bare bones; with stealth kills from behind, an enemy awareness meter, and the now pre-requisite stealth grass that’s in virtually every open world game with stealth mechanics. But there’s nothing that sticks out or makes Ghost’s stealth interesting; the mechanics are all bog standard stealth game material with no interesting new applications or uses.
The combat is a bit better. Swordplay in Ghost has a certain visceral quality to it; each swing of Jin's sword possesses weight and slicing through enemies feels impactful. The combat also has more complexity than the stealth, with Jin possessing different stances that grant different moves and each are effective against different enemy types. Ghost does do a good job of making players experiment, as use of the correct stance is almost essential to quickly taking down enemies in a crowd. There’s certainly fun to be had in quickly switching between styles as you glide from enemy to enemy, and dodging, blocking, and parrying all work together reasonably well.
But, again, there isn’t really anything particularly interesting here; just your standard suite of light attacks for dishing out quick damage, heavy attacks for breaking guards, and dodging/blocking as defensive maneuvers. Even the much touted stance switching doesn’t do much beyond just make a certain type of enemy’s guard take fewer hits to break. It's all certainly functional, but it never felt like it was really challenging me or evolving in any significant way.
If that were the end of things, Ghost might have had a perfectly satisfactory if not particularly deep combat system, but this brings us to the combat’s biggest flaw - the camera. Ghost eschews action game convention by purposefully foregoing a lock on mechanic. This means that, combined with Ghost’s rather zoomed in perspective, enemies that you're fighting will routinely move off screen, out of view. And despite the developer’s promise that the camera would stick with enemies if pointed at them, it seems to consistently do anything but.
This is especially the case with the unlockable roll upgrade, which will often move the camera so that the player can no longer see the enemy they're rolling to dodge an attack from. The fact that both attack and dodge are forcibly mapped to the face buttons with no option to reconfigure the controls means that any time an enemy you’re fighting gets off camera, you have to make a choice. Either you fight blind until the enemy moves back into view (which, if they’re preparing to attack off screen, is making a dangerous wager with getting stabbed in the face) or take your thumb off of the face buttons temporarily and hope you don't get hit with an unblockable attack while you babysit the camera.
The lack of a lock on or targeting feature also means that there is no way to guarantee which enemy Jin will swing at when you press the attack button. In some cases, the game will seemingly just forget about things and target nothing at all, resulting in a number of frustrating moments where Jin opted to attack shrubbery rather than the 7 foot tall naginata-wielding behemoth who desperately felt my head would look better separated from the rest of my body.
Thankfully this, and the camera issues as a whole, are mitigated somewhat by how easily most enemies go down; as long as you don’t neglect to upgrade your sword, standard enemies will usually die in 3-4 hits, which keeps combat from ever getting too frustrating. Unless you really go out of your way to attract an enormous group of enemies, you’ll rarely find yourself in a position where you can’t fight your way out of a cluster, as long as you’re willing to consider your options carefully and switch between stances to break foes’ guards.
However, the ability to handle multiple enemies is a double edged sword, because while it gives the player more freedom in combat, it also inherently cheapens the stealth. Being detected has virtually no consequence, as you can almost always easily dispatch whoever is attacking you. And even on the rare occasion that you find yourself overwhelmed by sheer numbers, you can simply make a dash for a hiding spot and wait a few seconds for the enemy to forget about you. Ghost’s enemy AI is legendarily awful - one of the worst I’ve seen in any AAA game with stealth mechanics. You can run through a hole in the wall or dive under a propped up piece of wood and the enemy will instantly forget you exist. The AI in the original Metal Gear Solid, a game released more than two decades ago now, was more intelligent than this. You might reasonably believe I'm exaggerating the issues with it, so here is a short video showing just how easy it is to fool the game’s AI. It's truly astonishingly dumb.
A stealth mechanic with little to no consequence for being caught is barely a stealth mechanic at all, which is probably why the game occasionally makes the player participate in forced stealth sections where you have to avoid detection. This is usually done by either escorting a convoy of defenseless civilians, having the enemy run to kill a previously captured hostage if you’re spotted, or just automatically giving you a game over the moment the alarm’s raised. Despite my usual aversion to forced stealth segments, these were honestly probably the most fun I had with the stealth in Ghost, because it was the only time I felt like I really had to take things seriously. It’s not good game design by any stretch of the imagination; forced stealth is always, at the bare minimum, a cheap way to restrict the player’s options, but it at least adds some weight and genuine stakes to proceedings.
As you may have gathered from this, Ghost of Tsushima isn’t a particularly challenging game, even on hard difficulty. The exception to this is the game’s boss fights, which take the form of one on one showdowns with a named foe. These do provide a solid challenge, and often feature interesting movesets that you have to learn and adapt to, but the fights are also let down in their own ways.
Ghost’s boss fights share the same problem with Deus Ex: Mankind Divided or Sekiro, in that they're purely combat focused in a game where combat and stealth are otherwise both equally viable options. It’s entirely possible to get through pretty much the entire game save the boss fights relying on stealth alone, and anyone who has been opting for stealth will be at an inherent disadvantage when all their gadgets are stripped away and they’re forced into a tough fight without having practiced the combat that much. One might fault players in this situation for avoiding combat up until they absolutely have to use it, but if a game allows for multiple solutions to the vast majority of its problems, it should either allow for both those approaches at every point or routinely require the player to practice the skills that they will be tested on.
On top of this, the game has a nasty habit of throwing boss fights in locations with no easy opportunities for healing, so if you happen to use up most of your health restores getting through a segment and then a boss gets sprung on you, you can be in for a real rough time taking on a fight with 20% or so of your health and no opportunity to restore it before retrying without aborting the mission altogether.
Even with all those criticisms, I can’t say I really dislike Ghost of Tsushima. Ultimately, I feel like its largest problem may have been over-ambition. While Sucker Punch has created some compelling open worlds before, they’ve never really tried their hand at sword combat or stealth, as the large number of rookie mistakes on display certainly shows. Terrible stealth AI and bad combat camera design - these are things that developers familiar with the respective genres would recognize as significant pitfalls to be avoided. And Sucker Punch might have too, if it had focused on one or the other. However, the attempt to tackle both stealth and combat creates a game that never really quite manages to fully get a grasp on either. Going forward, I hope the devs get the chance to take a crack at a sequel or another game with a similar concept, because I believe there’s genuine potential with a bit of polishing. As it stands now, though, there are too many flaws that keep it from being good.
But is it worth your money? That will probably depend on how much the issues I’ve described bother you. Ghost is a game that has a sizable amount of content, but much of it lacks depth or substance. If that isn’t a deal breaker, and you’re intrigued by the prospect of a title that comes as close as video games can to capturing the feel of feudal Japan, then Ghost is probably a solid buy. However, if you’re looking for thoughtfully crafted, fleshed out stealth or combat, I’d advise searching elsewhere, because like a ghost, neither can be found.
This review is based on a retail copy of Ghost of Tsushima for the PS4