Ages ago, while visiting my dad’s collection of books, I picked up James Clavell’s samurai epic “Shōgun.” Despite the insanely long length, I did finish the book and sustained interest in samurai-inspired stories set in feudal Japan. Sure, I’ve scoffed at many Hollywood interpretations, “47 Ronin” and “The Last Samurai” obviously borrowed elements from the book, but these efforts failed (to me) in execution.
A few games, such as the “Samurai Warriors” series and, more recently, “For Honor,” include some of the characters and a tad bit of history from the era, but focus more on combat than on lore or story.
Suckerpunch’s newest game, “Ghost of Tsushima,” exclusively on PlayStation 4, puts players in a role of a samurai whose morals are tested as he has to resort to less honorable tactics to survive and rescue his kidnapped uncle. Early on, gamers learn about the protagonist Jin Sakai, who became a samurai, the code he swore to live by and honor attributed to the accomplishment. But soon, players are forced to defy those morals by sneaking around, stabbing unsuspecting victims in the back and acting more like a silent assassin or ninja than a confrontational, bold samurai. For the most part, players can choose which way they want to play. When you approach a town or settlement, a prompt appears and if you hold down the triangle, Jin will reveal himself to foes and, essentially, pick a fight. Then, an enemy approaches, which initiates a stand-off, where, if timed well, Jin can kick his brash onslaught by instantly dispatching the adversary with a single, fatal slash. Later, gamers can unlock an ability to follow up with a series of three or four more slashes and eliminate additional attackers.
Players can also take a more silent approach. Sneaking around, hiding on roofs, climbing under buildings and quietly assassinating enemies translates into some serious fun. Eventually, tools like smoke bombs and exploding arrows maximize the fun factor and make players want to experiment with a variety of strategies for segments in the game.
Ultimately, the way you play doesn’t really impact the story, but some segments require players to stray from the samurai code. And while I will admit, I invested heavily in the story and where things lead with Jin and company, I found myself often exploring tangents like side quests and optional objectives. Unlike other open-world games, roaming Tsushima encourages explorations and distractions. A casual horse ride would reveal a small band of Mongols terrorizing a hostage. Naturally, I stopped to teach them a lesson and free the hostage. But then, I saw a fox, followed it to a shrine, petted it and spotted an enemy camp full of bad dudes. Naturally, I meandered down the cliff, onto the roof of a house, and silently took out the entourage of bandits.
I also spent much of my time with character-development quests. For instance, early on in the game, Yuna, saves Jin from dying in an epic battle. After getting him out of a bind and convincing him to use a more covert battle strategy, more quests become available. I sought out this chain of quests, and after saving her blacksmith brother, found myself wanting to know how her story played out.
These side missions often yield some pretty impressive rewards. For example, one quest had me seeking out six ronin, all waiting at specific spots in Tsushima, for a duel with Jin. After dispatching each, Jin earned a new set of heavy samurai armor, which remained viable late in the game.
Combat resembles games like “Assassin’s Creed,” “Marvel’s Spider-Man,” and “Batman: Arkham City,” but developers take it to the next level. Jin can counter, strike and dodge just like Batman, but he can eventually unlock up to four stances that really advance combat. Each stance counters a specific enemy type. On the onset, stone stance counters swords-wielding enemies. Shieldmen and spearman can become the bane of existence as the default stance seems better at tickling them than divulging any real damage. At first, this makes the game seem difficult, but the experience is more rewarding when other stances are unlocked. Water stance allows Jin to knock a shield out of the way, and spearmen have no counter for Water stance. I recognize that developers chose to lock these stances to make players appreciate them more. However, I feel Jin should have the ability from the beginning.
In addition, “Ghost of Tsushima’s” visuals must be considered some of the best on the current gen systems. Often times, I felt myself pausing to take screen shots, or stopping on the edge of a mountain pass just to observe the world in motion. Remarkably, developers decided to implement wind in helping players navigate the world. By swiping on the PS4 center control pad, immense gusts will blow through the environment, directing the player to their next objective. This, in itself, comes off way more impressive than it sounds, as not only does the grass and dust move, but leaves from trees get carried away in the wind storm.
Overall, “Ghost of Tsushima” evolves the formula of open-world, combat-based game design. And, while I’m already calling it the game of the year, samurai fans finally have a game, with all the action, lore and history of a samurai saga like “Shogun.” Except by the end, players will feel more like a samurai-ninja.