In the week before Ghost of Tsushima came out, I did not have particularly high expectations. It looked nice, it looked fine, it looked like the open world games we’ve all been playing since, eh, Assassin’s Creed 2-ish. Early reviews seemed to confirm that, middling out with a respectable, if unremarkable, 83 on Metacritic. I booted it up hoping for a mostly solid experience with some nice screenshots.
Oddly enough, that’s exactly what I got, but it was just perfect for what it was.
On paper, Tsushima is exactly what it looks like: an open-world icon game, where you bop between mostly repetitive quest types, upgrading your character, hoovering up collectibles and liberating successive zones. Somehow, however, it is handled with uncommon grace and care. Some of the prettiest visuals ever put to pixel help, from golden forests to fog-covered marshes and brilliant snowy peaks, but there’s a lot more to it than that.
The story in Ghost of Tsushima is not particularly interesting or surprising: you are Jin Sakai, defending your island from Mongol invaders, gradually adapting the sorts of stealthy, “dishonorable” tactics that go against your training as a Samurai, angering your uncle but transforming you from a fallen lord to folk hero over the course of the game. There are, occasionally, glimmers of something deeper about the role of honor and its relationship between aristocratic power structures, but we don’t linger on them. We follow the story beat by beat, whether we’ve predicted the next one or not, but the performances, writing and cinematography give us this popcorn story without much artifice or flash, and it’s refreshing. It is genuinely affecting by the end, something few game stories can claim.
It’s that same philosophy that extends to gameplay design. Yes, the fox shrines are simplistic map icons that don’t do much besides fill up some meters and work our way towards a platinum trophy. And yet there is something so lovely about the way we follow the little fox to its goal, the sound cue as we approach, the gentle moment as Jin claps his hands and bows. The hot springs are bog standard health pickups, and yet we have the opportunity to rest for a moment under a red maple tree and reflect on the game’s story. A series of duels in the middle of the game serves as little more than an opportunity to watch a fight unfold in a picturesque location, and the game delivers those frames with such grace that it is more than worth it.
We see it with the combat too: left trigger to block, circle to dodge, heavy and light attacks, different enemy types that require different strategies, nothing terribly new. And yet, again, there is care. It keeps you on your toes as you must constantly shift stances to counter different enemy types. It gives you a bunch of ghost tools like Kunai and smoke bombs that are absurdly overpowered, but immensely satisfying to use. When you nail a perfect parry and slice through a Mongol Swordsman, it’s like something out of a movie. Much of it is like something out of a movie.
It has its issues, sure. The treatment of the Mongolians as essentially inhuman invaders compromises the pleasures of the open world: from a plot perspective, they are little more than a red wash over each of the islands’ three sections, and it means that the open world feels more static and less deep than it could. The game makes it clear that there is a complex world here in Tsushima, but the war means we don’t see much of it.
Overall, however, the game just feels like it takes the entirety of third person combat design and open world game design from the past decade and packages it with some of the most stunning visuals and solid, approachable design that you could ask for. It’s comfortable but not boring, beautiful but not necessarily flashy, well-executed from top to bottom. It is odd to say about a game that involves quite so much throat-stabbing and charred bodies, but it is a pleasant game.
Of course, the headline up there does not say that Ghost of Tsushima is the best PS4 exclusive this generation, it is the second best, and so I’ll make good on that implicit promise here. For whatever reason—maybe the Dualshock 4 was just feeling comfortable in my hands—immediately after Tsushima I dove back into Bloodborne, which I hadn’t touched since it first took over my brain when it came out. And damn, if that game doesn’t hold up: maddening, intense, relentless. It is in so many ways the opposite of Tsushima—there is nothing welcoming about the streets of Central Yharnam—but it remains one of the more singular gaming experiences I’ve had in my life.
There have been some other top notch PS4 exclusives, naturally. I loved God of War. There is The Last of Us Part 2, Horizon Zero Dawn, Uncharted 4, The Last Guardian. And yet for me, Tsushima has bested all of them but Bloodborne, and it’s been a lovely surprise.
I’d put God of War at 3 I think.