The PlayStation 4 is the best selling of the 8th generation consoles, and Sony’s second-best selling console behind the PlayStation 2. While some of this has to do with Microsoft shooting itself in the foot with the launch of the Xbox One, it is mostly due to its impressive library of exclusive titles. God of War, Ratchet and Clank, Horizon Zero Dawn, Uncharted 4, Death Stranding (FedEx Simulator), Bloodborne (for you masochists out there), and The Last of Us Part Two (yuck) can all be considered system sellers, but I’m here to talk about the best of the bunch, Ghost of Tsushima. Considered to be the swan song of the PS4, Ghost of Tsushima is the best of Sony’s ever-expanding lineup of narrative driven single player titles.
*Technical disclaimer* - I played Ghost of Tsushima from start to finish twice. The first play through was shortly after the game launched in 2019 on a PS4 Pro hooked up to a TCL 6 Series TV on medium difficulty. The second play through was done on a PS5 hooked up to an LG CX TV on hard difficulty. The PlayStation 4 Pro version runs at 1800p (probably checker-boarded) at 30fps while the PlayStation 5 version is a native 4K 60fps title. Not so subtle gaming setup flex, sue me.
Ghost of Tsushima’s plot is “loosely” based on the Mongol invasion of the island of Tsushima. In short, the Mongols land on the island, slaughter most of the samurai in Tsushima in the opening battle and wreak havoc unopposed by anyone unfortunate enough to be in their way. You are Jin Sakai, the lone samurai to survive the initial onslaught. You unsuccessfully try to free your uncle, Lord Shimura (military ruler of Tsushima), from Mongol captivity. After failing to defeat the big bad bug Khotun Khan, you realize that you must become more than a samurai to defeat this enemy. You take back the island piece by piece while becoming “the ghost.” The story overall is well written and enjoyable, but the real star of the show is the character development. This is true for both Jin and the supporting cast, as nobody ends the game the way they started. Without giving too much away, my favorite subplot involves a warrior monk trying to find peace but exacts terrible and fiery vengeance (pun intended) on those who wronged his brother.
Any well-designed open world will tap into the curiosity of the player. You will want to go exploring off the beaten path to discover the secrets hidden from plain sight. The world of Ghost of Tsushima is a beautifully rendered, romantic exaggeration of 1274 AD Tsushima Island complete with caves, waterfalls, rock formations, fields of flowers, and ancient towns and settlements. Exploration is never a waste of time and always rewards the player with something useful. Sometimes you will find a new weapon charm, suit of armor, special attack to master, supplies for trade and upgrades or even unlock a new quest line that rewards the player with legendary gear. Ghost of Tsushima does not have way point markers, but instead a guiding wind that leads Jin on the main path. While following this guiding wind, you might see fire in the distance, a curious fox begging to be chased, a bird that beckons you in a new direction, or the sound of a battle in the distance. Go off the beaten path and check it out, it's worth it. Also, there is a GRAPPLING HOOK for traversal. Stop the review, 10/10 perfect score…
I like games that are fun to play and reward you for engaging in their systems. Therefore, I enjoy the hell out of Ghost of Tsushima, enough for me to play a 30-hour game again. Ghost of Tsushima’s combat is broken into two parts, Samurai and Ghost. Ghost is the stealth option, Samurai is the going in “swords-blazing” option. I’ve never been patient enough to master stealth games and I certainly didn’t master it here. I use stealth to take out archers and get a few easy kills to build the “ghost stance meter” up, and the game is perfectly fine to let you use that approach. Ghost of Tsushima allows for several different play styles and builds, but I feel the best way to review this is to describe the build I developed in my second playthrough. But first, let’s describe some of the components of the combat system.
Health – If you have ever played a video game, you know what this is. Health can be restored by manually healing at the cost of resolve.
Resolve – This meter controls how many times you can manually heal and use special attacks.
Guard – Jin and every enemy has a guard meter. The more you block attacks, especially heavy ones, the faster your guard can be broken. On enemies, it functions as a second health bar for you to go through before you can damage your opponent. Once depleted, the enemy is left in a staggered state, but will recover eventually.
Block – You can block most attacks to avoid taking health damage, but this will deplete your guard, leaving you open for an attack.
Parry – Hitting block at the very last second will parry (deflect) the enemy attack, leaving them open for a devastating counter attack, a one hit kill on most enemies. Successfully parrying attacks also builds your resolve. Successful parries also do heavy damage to the enemy’s guard. Miss-time the parry and the enemy attack lands in full force.
Quick Attack – Quick hitting attacks that do solid health damage, but little guard damage.
Heavy attack – Slower attacks, often needing a wind up, that do guard damage and health damage.
Dodge – A quick step in any direction to evade an enemy blow. Timed perfectly and the enemy is vulnerable to heavy health damage and a one hit kill if you attack instantly. Dodge in the wrong direction and you tank the enemy attack. Risk vs reward.
Roll – Sometimes you need to GTFO the way. Rolling covers more ground than dodging. Unlike other games in this genre, you do NOT get invincibility frames while rolling.
Stances – You have four that can be cycled through at the push of a button, each has an enemy weapon that it is effective against. Each stance has its own heavy and quick attacks.
Ghost Stance – Unlocked a little less than halfway through the game. When activated, enemies cower and you slaughter three of them unopposed. To unlock ghost mode, you must kill seven enemies without taking a hit or stealth assassinate a Mongol leader, which has a pretty cool beheading animation.
My Combat Build
I’m very much a “stealth optional” player (those were the best missions in Splinter Cell). I try to start engagements with a standoff. This is literally when you walk up to the front gate and call out the bad guys for being cowards then challenge them to an old-fashioned western duel. This is a game of timing, and you must strike precisely when the bad guys leave themselves open, or you take heavy damage and die quickly. Time it right and the bad guy dies instantly with a chance to terrify nearby foes. You can upgrade this through perks and special armor to increase the number of bad guys that will charge at you with each successful strike, allowing for more one hit kills if you continue to time your strikes successfully. Once you have unlocked the “ghost” stance, each standoff kill builds the meter. Assuming there are more Mongols in the area (SPOILER ALERT, THERE ARE ALWAYS MORE MONGOLS IN THE AREA), I try to isolate and take out two more without taking a hit and then break out the Ghost stance. This sounds broken, and it is but in a good way. You also cannot approach every encounter this way as the standoff prompt only works when the bad guys don’t see you coming. Even if you successfully pull this off, there are likely dozens more bad guys to deal with in an area, and now they’re angry. Time to fight for real.
In my first play through, I leaned on block and roll to get me out of trouble. This time around, the only attack I ever blocked was an arrow. I went for a parry heavy and dodge build and let me tell you, this is how the game is meant to be played. It is a very high-risk high reward strategy that tests your reflexes and memorization of enemy attack patterns, but it is so satisfying when you “git gud'' at it. It is a dance of timing and precision, rather than a frantic button mash fest (don’t try this approach, you’ll die, die, and die some more). You can use charms to minimize your risk here. Charms are applied to weapon slots, which are unlocked through certain adorable exploration activities. I used a charm to regain health from killing enemies, increase stagger damage (makes breaking guard faster), and increase overall melee damage. This means, I gain resolve through parries, perfectly timed dodges, and killing enemies efficiently while killing enemies replenishes my health. This allowed me to always have resolve reserved for special attacks and to heal myself in a pinch, while keeping my health in relatively good standing as long as I’m not being too stupid. This approach allows for some margin of error, as you will have the resolve necessary to recover from mistakes like trying to parry an attack that you cannot or dodging right into an attack. A parry/ dodge heavy approach will serve you well against the game’s many bosses. Boss fights are one on one duels to the death against fast and skilled enemies with a lot of health. You are going to need resolve to keep your health up and parrying/ dodging does just that.
At its core, Ghost of Tsushima is a power fantasy, and a great one at that. This isn’t a Dark Souls-type game where you win through attrition and perseverance. You dictate the terms of engagements, and you don’t have to worry about losing your hard earned XP when you die. My play style is one of many. You can be a ranged fighter that uses bows and thrown weapons, you can be a ninja and stealth your way through, you can “souls roll '' your way to victory or focus on block and hitting back hard. Unlike most games that offer you this freedom of choice, you still must play well to win encounters. There is no I win button and enemies will react and fight you accordingly. Games that give you this many choices are often horribly unbalanced (cough cough Far Cry) and don’t incentivize you to try different styles. While I prefer to go in swords blazing, this is often a really dumb idea. If there are many archers, you are far better off using your bow or sneaking to take them out first, or you will be lit up as soon as the Mongols realize you are there. Heavily armored brutes and shieldmen are tough to take down with arrows, so you will want to assassinate them or take them out in a sword fight. I don’t like to roll, but some Mongols (jerks) throw explosives or have primitive blunderbuss cannons that cannot be parried or blocked. Take them out with ranged weapons and learn to roll in a pinch. In an open world game of choice Far Cry, you can approach every encounter with a sniper rifle and win. If you get bored of that, push the I win button and call in a helicopter. Ghost of Tsushima has a combat encounter variety that will not allow you to just pick your favorite option every time, the game requires thought and some degree of intelligent play to be successful.
By now it is no secret that I love this game. I generally dislike open world game design, but this is how to implement it properly. The game is loaded with interesting content, has a gripping story, is beautiful to look at, runs like a dream, and has amazing combat. 9.5 out of 10 and the only thing holding it back is the camera can occasionally get you killed, which is true of every over the shoulder third person action game. I recommend it to every PlayStation owner, fans of Assassin's Creed II, samurai and ninja fanatics, TV enthusiasts, Homer Simpson, and even my dog.
***Author’s note on the PS5 upgrade***
Sony’s approach to PS5 upgrades on their first party titles sucks. Microsoft has “smart play” which automatically gives you access to the next generation version of their first party games if it exists. Sony has $10 paid upgrades. So these are your upgrade options if you are lucky enough to have a PS5…
PS4 Pro version through backwards compatibility (Free if you own a copy) – Framerate doubles to 60fps, reduced load times which are already ludicrously fast, 1800p resolution
Upgrade to Native PS5 App ($10) – 4K 60fps, PS5 SSD integration, dualsense controller support (which is f**king awesome), access to Japanese lip sync if you’re into that sort of thing
DLC IKI Island ($20 regardless of version) – More Ghost of Tsushima but mythological.