If imitation is indeed the sincerest form of flattery, Sucker Punch’s sprawling historical open world adventure Ghost of Tsushima is a loving ode to Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed games, which have more or less owned this space for the last decade and a half.
Based loosely on the thirteenth century Mongol invasion of the island of Tsushima, which served as run-up to a full-scale assault on the Japanese mainland, it begins with a brutal battle in which the atoll’s small samurai force stands against a legion of invaders before being overwhelmed and destroyed. Jin Sakai, loyal nephew of the leader of the ruling clan, is badly wounded but pulled from the battle and nursed back to health by a thief who needs his help. By the time Jin awakens, the Mongols have completely subjugated the island, mercilessly killing or enslaving everyone they stumble upon. As we begin exploring, we see firsthand the supreme savagery of the occupying force, which has left the bodies of murdered families and the ashen ruins of countless villages in its wake. Jin makes it his mission to bring hope and freedom back to the peaceful people of Tsushima.
That’s the set-up. What follows is a game that relies so heavily on the established framework of recent Assassin’s Creed games that a casual observer could be excused for thinking that it was, in fact, the latest entry in Ubisoft’s flagship series.
Players are provided an enormous and lush recreation of the entirety of Tsushima Island that can be freely explored on foot or horseback. Jin can climb mountains, swim across rivers, and use a grappling hook to latch onto distant tree branches and rooftops to hoist himself up. We gather plants, metals, and hides used to craft better gear; collect artifacts and notes that offer real historical insight into how both the Japanese and Mongols lived (I’ll never think about milk the same way); meet and become close friends with interesting characters who have problems of their own; carefully ascend rocky precipices to reach sacred shrines and treasures, and survey and plan out attacks on well-guarded towns and fortresses in order to liberate them.
Sound familiar yet?
Most of these mechanics and systems are executed with precision and flare, and are undeniably enjoyable. But there can be little doubt that they are more the result of inspiration and imitation rather than a truly creative spark.
Sucker Punch does, however, earn kudos for originality in other ways.
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Graphically, the game is an absolute wonder. Tsushima’s geography is rivetingly beautiful, from bamboo forests and heaving mountains to picturesque waterfalls and seas of swaying pampas grass composed of thousands of gently moving blades each of which will catch the moonlight on a clear night. I could almost feel the chill of thunderstorms as they came crashing in and the heat of the sun as it rose above the horizon in a dazzling blaze of light. Even the wind feels like a living force, always blowing towards our current goal and thus elegantly eliminating the need for an artificial objective tracker as part of the heads-up display.
And the visuals do more than simply strive for authenticity. Ghost of Tsushima gushes style like an oil pipe split wide. We see it when Jin takes time out to compose haikus inspired by the nature around him, and when he swings his sword with deadly, slow-motion enhanced one-stroke kills during the game’s outstanding standoff encounters before whipping his sword to fling off the blood and slowly sheathing it in classic samurai style. There’s even a display option called Kurosawa mode — named after the famed Japanese auteur Akira Kurosawa, whose movies clearly influenced the game’s filmic style and identity — that applies a grainy black and white filter, making it feel like we’re taking part in an interactive version of Throne of Blood or The Hidden Fortress.
Combat has some clever innovations, too. The standoffs mentioned above — which allow Jin to begin fights by calling out the strongest warrior among a group of enemies for a duel — provide a means for us to dispatch enemies quickly, assuming you have the required reflexes. And rather than relying on tricky button combinations, Jin’s journey as a warrior involves learning a variety of battle stances and techniques suited for specific enemies, such as swordsmen, shieldmen, spearmen, and heavies. Quickly and fluidly switching between these stances in the middle of brawls against multiple foes is essential, and leads to some spectacularly cinematic fight choreography that plenty of players will be eager to capture and share.
Battles aren’t without issue — the camera isn’t always cooperative, and the auto targeting system sometimes doesn’t pick the enemy you might think it should — but the fighting feels deep and sophisticated, and continues to evolve and challenge us through the course of the game, which is no easy task for an adventure that can last 50 hours or more.
The most engaging facet of the experience, however, is the story. It’s filled with complex characters and moral dilemmas, not least of which is a meaningful examination of the age-old problem of whether noble ends can excuse dubious means. The samurai credo is tied up in a traditional concept of honour so rigid that death is considered preferable to winning battles using underhanded tactics. Massively outnumbered by an enemy unhesitant to do whatever it takes to win, Jin and his small group of ragtag allies have to decide whether saving the people and culture of Tsushima warrants abandoning the Way of the Samurai.
Even more interesting to me, however, were some of the quieter tales tangential to the main plot, including a subtly performed series of scenes in which Jin reconnects with his childhood caregiver, who is now suffering senility, and learns of a family secret he never suspected as a child but which he gracefully accepts as an adult. This unexpected yet convincing sensitivity is also evident when he discovers a same-sex relationship between one of his closest allies and a house servant. Point being, there’s a lot more to our protagonists than their ability to stylishly slice and dice Mongols.
Unfortunately, the Mongols are pretty one-dimensional by comparison. I don’t think there’s a single instance in which a Mongol soldier is portrayed as sympathetic or anything other than fodder for Jin’s sword and bow. It makes it easier to cleave your way through them without remorse, but even just a mission about conscientious deserters or a serious contrasting of cultural philosophies would have gone some way towards humanizing Jin’s foes.
Ghost of Tsushima is indisputably indebted to Assassin’s Creed (and, to a lesser degree, Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption games), but it does just enough to establish a personality of its own. And it’s fun. I never lost interest in exploring the island and learning what lay beyond distant hills and mountains, and the slick, stylish combat kept me itching for fights right up until the final battle.
If you want to give your Criterion Collection Kurosawa Blu-rays a rest and are looking for a safe way to kill a few weeks while locked away in your house this blistering summer, you could do a lot worse than what Sucker Punch has given us in this gorgeous and enormous samurai epic.