Eternal Blue Sky -- Ghost of Tsushima review

Originally published at: https://gamingtrend.com/feature/reviews/eternal-blue-sky-ghost-of-tsushima-review/


In 1274, the first attempt to conquer Japan was made by the Mongols, landing on an island called Tsushima. The samurai suffered horrible losses against the unconventional weapons and tactics of the Mongol army. The battle at Komoda beach was a bloody affair that wiped out the samurai army and Sō Sukekuni, their shugo or military governor. This real-life battle serves as the basis for Ghost of Tsushima. You play Lord Jin Sakai, a samurai warrior who survived the battle at Komoda beach and is forced to make terrible choices to repel the Mongols to reclaim his home.

While Tsushima is a real place, and the battle at Komoda beach really happened, the team at Sucker Punch took some liberties with the outcome to create this game. Tsushima is not a 1:1 representation of the real-world location, but does represent the best parts of what it might have looked like in 1274. They’ve also created a compelling and plausible fictional descendant of Kublai Khan in the game’s antagonist, Khotun Khan — a fearless and intelligent Mongol General. Jin Sakai is a Lord from clan Sakai, a real-world samurai clan, albeit from the 16th Century — a full 250 years after the events of this game. It allowed them to bring the real world and their compelling narrative of family, honor, loss, and war together to create a blend that not only works, but rings enough truth to make it fascinating. If you are anything like me, it’ll have you diving back into historical books about feudal Japan.

As usual, I will take as light of a touch as I can on story elements and spoilers in this review. Rest assured, I don’t want to ruin this game for you. That said, below you’ll find a video of the first 12 minutes of the game. It covers the central thrust of the story, but it doesn’t reveal as much as you might expect. Let’s get into it.

As you can see, the Mongols have invaded the island of Tsushima, and the samurai were overwhelmed by the brutal tactics and sheer numbers their enemy brought to the battlefield. Very few samurai were left alive, and you would have shared the same fate if not for a peasant who nursed you back to health. Unfortunately you are now alone, your armor destroyed, forcibly removed from your ancestral home, with no allies, and no chance of retaking the island from the invading horde. You’ll need weapons, armor, allies, and more importantly, a new approach to combat as the last one nearly got you killed. To defeat this unconventional foe, you’ll need unorthodox techniques.

Samurai follow a code of conduct called Bushido. Bushido is a strict code involving eight codes — justice, courage, mercy, politeness, honesty and sincerity, loyalty (to their Lord and Daimyo), character and self control, and above all others, honor. In practical application it meant always facing your foe head on, looking them in the eye, and dueling them honorably. The mere concept of attacking someone from the shadows was considered to be cowardly and without honor. Losing one’s honor was insurmountable, often calling on the samurai to commit ritual suicide, or seppuku. Jin’s savior is a thief and would be considered without honor, but it isn’t long before Jin is out of options. Should he become the Ghost of Tsushima, lowering himself and otherwise sullying his honor, or should he remain true to the code of Bushido and that of the samurai? The choice is yours.

As someone who has spent a great deal of my life studying various martial arts, I have a deep appreciation for the approach Sucker Punch has taken to combat. Jin Sakai will face a variety of enemies with an array of weapons and armor in his adventure. Squaring off against an enemy that can hit you with tremendous force versus a quick moving foe with a long spear requires entirely different strategies, and the team has captured that nicely here. Real world Japanese sword fighting has arguably over 20 “postures” (or kamae) that you’ve likely seen in movies — sword high with the body straight (hasso no kamae), sword straight and level behind the swordsman (sha no kamae), kneeling with the sword lowered at a 45 degree angle (suwari migi gedan no kamae), and single handed sword high and to the rear (sasagakure no kamae) seem to be in every movie, just to name a few. Sucker Punch boils this down to just four — Stone, Wind, Water, and Moon. While Jin and others may still strike stances from what appears to be Tenshin Shōden Katori Shintō-ryū, they are simplified so as to not overwhelm the player. Stone is a heavy defensive stance, allowing Jin to absorb more damage and is best for handling other swordsmen. Water uses more circular techniques, swinging underneath shields and breaking the enemy’s guard. Wind focuses on speed, emphasizing agility to avoid and counterstrike incoming spearmen. Moon is for the bigger brutes you’ll face, emphasizing heavy kicks to knock them off balance, and then heavy spinning attacks to generate momentum and power. Like the real thing, it takes a bit of time to get used to it, but before long you’ll be switching between stances quickly, dominating the battlefield regardless of foe.

While his katana and wakizashi are powerful weapons in his arsenal, they are far from Jin’s only tools. Soon after escaping the initial assault by Mongol forces, he’ll have a chance to reunite with his old archery master, obtaining a half-bow in the process. This will let Jin cut down foes from a moderate distance, but you’ll need to find a daikyu (heavy bow) to do any long-distance work. Over the course of 50 hours of gameplay, that arsenal will grow as Jin’s needs shift and change, but that’s for you to discover.

Jin’s progression in Ghost of Tsushima is accomplished by earning enough “Legend” to earn technique points. These points can be invested in a number of ways, chiefly among them being stances. Stances, as we’ll discuss later, are about squaring off with a foe head-to-head. Ghost techniques are more about deception and distraction. A kunai to the face will break a foe’s guard, just like a smoke bomb will disorient them for escape or a stealthy assassination. These tools, weapons, and techniques expand greatly over time, but part of that progression is tightly tied to the story, so it’s yours to reveal. What’s beautiful about the way Sucker Punch has implemented this progression, however, is that it didn’t feel like I had to “level up” at any point. This game is about skill, technique, timing, and observation as much as it is about what weapons and tools you possess. Sword fighting can be over in the blink of an eye, and nowhere is that truer than here.

In practice, the decision to pursue that of a Ghost or a samurai is more about play style than story outcomes, and it’s very likely you’ll use a mixture of both as the situation demands. Your Ghost selections focus on distraction, deception, and disabling your opponents, whereas your stances are centered around facing your opponent head on and with honor. There are baked-in gameplay beats that may emphasize one type of engagement over another, but very rarely does the game force you into any one path.

The main storyline is rather lengthy, easily taking roughly 30 hours on its own, but the “Tales”, or side missions, will tack on another 20. Finding everything is easily another 10-12, I’d guess — it never felt like a grind, so I freely admit I didn’t track it that closely. Not unlike CD Projekt Red’s game, The Witcher III: Wild Hunt, the side missions often feel just as well written and plot-relevant to the main story thread. Having finished them all, I have to say that each had its own story to tell. Sure, some of them are simple delivery missions or “track and kill”, but the writing in each is fantastic.

The amount of collectibles in Ghost of Tsushima is massive. Beyond trinkets like headbands you get for meditation or exploration, you’ll also get the opportunity to collect a great many sets of armor. These all have three bonuses attached to them, as well as several steps of upgrades for each. There are so many that it was hard to choose, but by the end of the game I knew I had to have every single one of them. It’s rare for me to want to chase down all of the collectibles in the game, but in Ghost of Tsushima, it never felt like a chore.

Japanese tradition is filled with myths and stories, and this game stays fairly rooted in grim reality, although there are moments that transcend into legends. Mystic armors and weapons once used by well-storied masters are recounted by the local shamisen musician (the guitar played with a bachi pick). These stories will lead Jin to explore the most dangerous and hidden places of Tsushima island to try to find these wonderful artifacts. While they are entirely optional, they are also extraordinary moments that no player should miss.

Tshushima is a real place, and Sucker Punch has brought to life the most beautiful and brutal parts of this Japanese island. Shortly after the game’s brief introduction, you are set free on the island of Tsushima with a handful of main missions and the wind at your back. You’ll want to pay attention to that wind as it serves as the central navigation indicator for the game. Swiping up on the PlayStation 4 touchpad causes the wind to swirl in the direction of your selected objective, stirring up maple leaves and cherry blossoms and sending them in the direction you need to go. There is no navigation hud with waypoints — just the wind guiding you in the general direction. It’s soothing and fits with the excellent thematic components that make up the entire experience. Hitting the options button lets you change what you’d like the wind to “focus” on, be it a rumored location you’ve heard about from a villager, a nearby fox den, a random collectible record, or any other manner of places and things. As you get very close, you’ll see an indicator telling you where you need to go, but otherwise it’s a seamless and transparent system — I really appreciated the simplicity and tranquility of it.

Speaking of guides, you have a few friends that’ll help you find places of interest in the world. A brilliant yellow oriole will soar past, encouraging you to follow it to something you’ve not yet found nearby. Foxes will sit underneath trees cleverly illuminated with swarms of slow-moving lighting bugs, guiding you to Inari shrines. These shrines expand your secondary charm slots for your katana. You can also find hot spring baths to rest, restore, and slightly expand your health bar, bamboo cutting poles for tameshigiri (the art of cutting through multiple bamboo shoots with a single strike), caged crickets that can teach you new flute songs if you collect enough, and much more. The world is alive with things to see, do, explore, and collect, but thankfully it all feels very optional and non-intrusive. You don’t have to compose a single haiku at a zazen location if you don’t want to — they only yield cosmetic headbands, but I can’t help but feel like you are missing out if you skip them.

There are mysteries to discover in Ghost of Tsushima. I found one particular place where bowing to a frog statue caused dozens of live frogs to gather at my feet. I found another where bowing in front of a lake caused the fish to jump around in the water. Grasshoppers swarm at another shrine. What do any of these mean? Are they just for fun? Is there a larger mystery to unravel? Either way, it makes the world feel alive, and it keeps your eyes searching. Throughout the island of Tsushima you’ll find Torii gates which mark the paths to the famed Shinto shrines of Tsushima. Unfortunately, the Mongol invaders have destroyed the wooden bridges that lead to these shrines. Jin has to use his wits and tools to find other ways to reach them. These shrines present a navigational puzzle to solve, rewarding him with charms that he can attach to his weapons. These augments can restore a small bit of health when killing a foe, make it easier to block and deflect, grant a small amount of resolve (the “power” you use to unleash your special sword techniques), among other things. There are quite a few to find, allowing you to further customize to fit your playstyle.

If you’ve seen any movie by Akira Kurosawa, it quickly becomes clear that his work served as a major inspiration for Ghost of Tsushima. From the opening moments of the game you’ll see very similar structure and storytelling mechanics. Massive battles taking place in the foreground while the rising sun sets in the background. Kurasawa liked movement in his films, and you see that similarly reflected here. Nature plays a major role in framing shots, where the actors are still, but the storm in the background creates a great deal of motion. Smoke and fire in the distance cuts a scar in the otherwise beautiful landscape as leaves dance on the wind. Your archery master stands with you in his dojo talking about someone he lost to the Mongols as a torrential rain cascades. It tells a story inside the story. Similarly, the Sucker Punch team used the sorts of creative shot blocking that Kurosawa frequently employed, walking the camera behind an obstruction like a jail cell pole, around a pillar, or other realistic framed object. I may be delving full-on into film dork territory, but you’ll also see similar camera movement work. The camera is rarely stationary, instead focusing on the character, but also moving within the space to create cinematic movement that tells as much story as what is being said. Long sight lines leading up a dramatic staircase to the Golden Temple is already a cool shot, but the sheer amount of movement from the all-yellow trees leading up to it creates a magnificent cinematic moment that never ceases to amaze, no matter how many times you ride through it. You are so focused on the beauty of the place that you actually stop paying attention to the place itself. It’s very zen, and I love it.

Nowhere is Kurosawa’s influence more injected than in the duel sequences. Occasionally Jin will face master swordsmen that could be considered “bosses”. They will challenge your timing and skills, and they are visually arresting. You’ll see the framing I mentioned above as the two stationary figures stand still as the rain cuts crosswise, leaves drifting gently in the wind. They face off at a distance, two noble warriors preparing to do battle. The first time this happened I had chills and goosebumps. These moments are a highlight of the game, and I looked forward to every once of them.

Beyond duels, you’ll also test your skill in standoffs. Approaching enemies you are welcome to snipe them from a distance, sneak up on them, and otherwise dispatch them as you see fit, but you can also hit up on the D-pad to initiate a standoff. Facing your foes head on, you’ll leave your sword in its scabbard, prepared for Iaijutsu — the art of drawing your sword and destroying your opponent with a single stroke. Holding the triangle button, your foes will approach and prepare to strike. They may attack immediately, taunt you, or otherwise try to feint to draw your attack. Attack too early or too late and your enemy will get the drop on you, heavily damaging you. Time it right, however, and you’ll cut down nearly any foe in the blink of an eye. As your skills grow, you may draw even more foes in this way, allowing you to thin their ranks rapidly and efficiently. While stealth is rewarding in its own way, I enjoyed standoff showdowns immensely.

Not unlike God of War, Ghost of Tsushima features a toggle for PlayStation Pro owners to select between prioritizing framerate or resolution. Prioritizing resolution puts the game at 4K resolution with a framerate that tries its best to hold to 30fps. Framerate does what it suggests, locking the resolution at 1080p, but unlocking the framerate to something approaching 60 — not unlike Infamous: Second Son. There are certainly dips at the resolution-focused setting, and it’s frequent enough where it ceases to be worth using fairly quickly as it mars the otherwise beautiful presentation of the game. Set it on framerate-focused and enjoy the game instead. Neither one will fix one of the other technical hiccups — the mechanical drive struggles to load the 3D models for cosmetic previews for upgrades and such (though it’s thankfully never an issue during gameplay), but with PlayStation 5 backwards compatibility and SSDs, this game could benefit from the additional power and speed of Sony’s upcoming platform.

There is a concept in Japan called wabi-sabi, or the acceptance of transience and imperfection. There are a few hiccups in Ghost of Tsushima. One quest named The River Children asks you to investigate a mystery on a river dock which causes Jin to freeze in place and just endlessly gaze upon a blood streak, or a half-eaten fish. I had to come back more than a dozen times before the mission triggers finally let me complete it. Highly zen, I’m sure, but it does mean that this side story doesn’t work the way it is supposed to. Occasionally I’d jump onto a rock surface, causing Jin to levitate as he tries to find his footing. This has always self-corrected, thankfully, eventually sliding Jin to a solid surface. Similarly, I’ve had situations where the game was insistent I was in battle, preventing fast travel, no matter how far away I rode or how many enemies I slayed. Restarting the game resolved this. All of that said, these minor imperfections are insignificant in the face of what is a true masterpiece.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that you can play Ghost of Tsushima in English, or in Japanese with English subtitles. You can also play in “Kurasawa mode” which gives the game a black and white filter with authentic film grain pops. The voice work in this game is pretty stellar, but hearing it in Japanese takes it to a new level. It’s the sort of thing that I’m guessing a lot of people will skip, and it must have been insanely expensive, but it drives home the Kurasawa influence that is infused in all parts of this game.

It’s a bit meta, but part of reviewing a game is knowing that you likely won’t have the time to hit every objective in time for release. Ghost of Tsushima hooked me so completely that I had to finish everything. I’ve found every Shinto Temple shrine, tameshigiri (bamboo cutting) stand, hot spring, Kami shrine, found and upgraded every piece of armor and weapon, wrote every haiku, solved every tale (side missions), maxed out all skills, uncovered every Pillar of Honor (collectible sword cosmetics), and lit every lighthouse. I humbly offer my own haiku as I close the book on this phenomenal adventure.

Blossoms in the wind
My sword is sheathed and now rests
I search for flowers

Thanks!

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