Blood and Poetry: The Story of Jin Sakai
Just before the launch of the PlayStation 5, Sony released a true stand-out exclusive for the PS4 at the tail-end of its life cycle. Sucker Punch, best known for its Infamous franchise, presents us with Ghost of Tsushima: the story of Jin Sakai, a 13th Century Samurai struggling to take back his home island of Tsushima from Mongol invaders led by the ruthless Khotun Khan.
Starting from rock bottom
The story starts with Jin Sakai following Lord Shimura (his uncle and the ruler of Tsushima) into battle at Komoda Beach to repel the invading Mongols, only to be met with a crushing defeat and total massacre of the Japanese forces. Lord Shimura is taken captive by Khotun Khan in the wake of this battle and Jin is left for dead. It is from this low point that the player helps Jin claw his way back to victory by scavenging for supplies, items and found materials (which can be used as currency and raw materials to purchase and improve weaponry and armor), and also by forming strategic (and very personal) relationships with the few remaining individuals capable of fighting against the invaders. Compelled by the overwhelming odds and seemingly insurmountable disadvantage in numbers, Jin resorts to fighting a stealthy, guerilla style of combat that flies in the face of the Samurai code of Bushido, which demands that warriors face their enemy head-on and without retreat. From these shadowy exploits, the rumor and legend of ‘The Ghost’ is born.
History Buffs, Rejoice!
Tsushima is a small outlying island in far western Japan, just off the southeastern coast of Mongol-occupied Goryeo (Korea), and is thus a strategic waypoint in the Mongol plan to invade the Japanese mainland. While the setting of the game is another self-contained world made evident by the fact that events take place on an island, understanding how it fits into world history gives it the game a seemingly bigger scope, something that will be apparent and exciting for world history buffs.
In this game, the protagonist essentially faces down an arm of a peerless global empire that had the world smoldering at its feet and even changed the course of human history, with conquered territories as far-flung as modern-day China, Korea, Afghanistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Hungary and Russia. Trade between these conquered regions of Eurasia naturally flourished over time, and this global connection is tantalizingly depicted in the numerous artifacts that Jin discovers and collects during his sneak attacks and foraging expeditions in Mongol-occupied Tsushima, including items of Korean, Chinese, and even Egyptian and Greek origin.
Varied and Diverse Gameplay
Players who enjoy the samurai fighting genre may be half-expecting a hack-n-slash style of play, but Ghost of Tsushima is far from it. In fact, the game boasts innovative game play where a player’s progression in the game results in the acquisition of fighting techniques that are specifically tailored to combat and overcome categories of enemies, such as the Stone Stance (for swordsmen), Water Stance (for shield men), Wind Stance (for spearmen), and the Moon Stance (for brutes). In addition to these basic combat forms, the completion of special side missions (collectively named Tales of Tsushima) enable the acquisition of advanced sword-fighting techniques that inflict massive and devastating damage on the enemy, and these special moves come in handy when playing the game in advanced mode or against the bosses.
But that’s not it – there are almost two dozen other special fighting skills to acquire that involve dodging, rolling, parrying attacks, and the use of specialized ‘Ghost Weapons’ that round out Jin Sakai’s impressive arsenal of combat techniques. This wide variety of techniques all require different button combos, and they keep the game continually challenging enough so that the players are hard-pressed to run out of techniques to master.
A wide array of weapons and stunning armor
Jin’s principle weapons are the Sakai Storm (long katana blade), Sakai Tanto (short blade). Additional ranged weapons such as the half bow, long bow, specialized arrow types, and hand-thrown weapons such as rudimentary explosives can be acquired as the story progresses. The same applies to the many types of outfits and armor that are acquired at the end of special side quests, each with special attribute that enhance different aspects of Jin’s samurai combat and stealth ninja skills. All of these items can be upgraded as you accumulate enough supplies and materials, with the help of Japanese sword smiths, bowyers, armorers, and artisans that occupy the liberated territories within Tsushima.
As a side note – but one which I genuinely appreciated – the striking aesthetics of this game is highlighted once again under the ‘outfits’ menu, which shows stunningly detailed and rotatable three-dimensional renderings depicting Jin Sakai in his many selectable armors and outfits.
Out-of-this World Cinematics, Seamlessly Woven into Gameplay and Side Quests
The true standout moments in Ghost of Tsushima come in the cutscenes, which are truly nothing short of cinematic. Actually, that’s not true either because the standout visuals manage to hit you even in those mundane, idle moments where you look away to check your phone or have a sip of your favorite drink. I’m not exaggerating – this game leaves you breathless every few minutes.
There have been scores of visually gorgeous games over the years that boast stunning graphics and photorealism in its landscapes, but what sets Ghost of Tsushima apart is its flawless use of color, light, shadow, varied weather conditions and movement (leaves and flower blossoms carried by wind) to paint gorgeous, sweeping landscapes which deliver a visual treat that I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed before in a game. This effect on the viewer is so total and overwhelming that one feels transported to and immersed in the natural beauty of the unspoiled 13th Century Japanese wilderness. It’s really not a stretch to say that one regularly forgets that this is a video game, and not a film!
In fact one feels compelled to somehow record this beauty every few minutes (I reflexively took out my phone more than a few times), but Sucker Punch has this handled too as the game boasts one of the best photo modes I’ve seen. You can save screenshots and video of the gorgeous landscape with a wide array of angles and filters that deliver a truly cinematic experience – all outside of a cutscene. I give Sucker Punch major props here, because that’s true attention and consideration shown to the player.
We’re still not done, though. Side quests for collectibles and involve quintessentially Japanese art forms and culture, such as inari (fox) shrines, onsens set in nature, inspirational and scenic spots for composing haikus, and traditional Japanese storytelling by bards that involve legends of past guardians of the island. All these aspects of gameplay make for a fun and immersive experience that is visually arresting every step of the way.
Then in a respectful and reverent move, Sucker Punch includes a special tribute to legendary Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa as part of the gameplay. In the main ‘settings’ menu, the player can choose to play in ‘Kurosawa Mode’ – this changes the appearance of the screen into a grainy and gritty monochrome aesthetic that resembles scenes from classic black-and-white samurai films of the 1950s and 1960s.
One particular aspect of the game play brilliantly combines the cinematic aesthetics of Kurosawa films with in-game combat. This is the ‘Ghost Mode’, which can be acquired and activated after a specific mission in the middle of the storyline by using a special combination of buttons. Enabling ‘Ghost Mode’ causes the screen to temporarily go black-and-white – and each sword strike inflicted upon the enemy while in this mode floods the entire screen with a shock of red, as if to indicate an actual blood bath. This special move inflicts lethal one-strike damage on the targets, but also leaves the player in a state of shock and complete awe at the visuals in front of them. It is pure brilliance, and witnessing this visual carnage for the first time is an unforgettable experience.
Tight Storytelling with a Sympathetic and Likeable Ensemble Cast
There are three main phases to the main storyline involving Jin’s quest to retake Tsushima. He gradually progresses from the southern half of the island to the northernmost tip, where he has his final showdown with Khotun Khan. This storyline is supplemented the entire way by numerous secondary and tertiary storylines involving the ragtag band of rogues and misfit warriors that Jin befriends during his journey. These supporting characters include: a female thief and her blacksmith brother, Jin’s archery teacher/sensei, a vengeful noblewoman that has lost her entire family in the invasion, a warrior monk that fights without hatred, and a hapless sake merchant and swindler. Each harbor and eventually face down their own spotty pasts which are smattered with loss, betrayal, pain, and finally redemption. Given how carefully their stories are fleshed-out, one can’t help but develop a sympathy and emotional investment in the outcomes of their fates.
And speaking of getting emotionally invested in the characters, I don’t dare comment on the conclusion of Jin’s story but I can say that it will move you deeply. Add this triumphant web of storytelling to the wide but engaging array of aforementioned side quests involving many of the peasants and residents of Tsushima – and you have a game that will keep you glued to your screen for days on end. ‘Nuff said.
Now that I’ve had a moment to catch my breath and collect myself, what I’m about to say will hardly come as a surprise to anyone. Get Ghost of Tsushima now, if you haven’t, and play it immediately if it’s on your backlog. It just holds up against the stiffest of competition in the PS4 generation of games, and may even exceed them by a hair.
For now, I will be quietly praying for a sequel to Ghost of Tsushima.
Final Verdict: 5/5
Available on: PS4 (reviewed); Publisher: Sony; Developer: Sucker Punch; Players: 1; Released: July 17, 2020; MSRP: $59.99
Editor’s note: This review is based on a retail copy of Ghost of Tsushima purchased by the reviewer.