The first Mongol invasion of Japan in 1274 marked one of the most gruesome and darkest times in Japanese history. The Mongols arrived at nightfall and landed on Komodahama beach on Tsushima Island and within hours they killed the Yuan fleet and began making their way inland. Ghost of Tsushima picks up during the events of the historic Komodahama beach invasion, or Azamo Bay in this case and retells the tale of the Mongol invasion led by the ruthless Khotun Khan.
Watch our full Ghost of Tsushima video review down below
If you did not know any better, you would say Ghost of Tsushima accurately portrays the people and events of late 13th century Japan. This is thanks to the pure genius of its storytelling, characters and cultural significance. Sucker Punch went leaps and bounds beyond to bring an authentic world to life with which is grounded in reality. Every death felt like a heroic sacrifice, every landscape was an opportunity to take a screenshot, every temple felt as if it took decades to craft and every character managed to find their place in my heart.
There’s so much going on in Ghost of Tsushima that tugs at your heartstrings. So many themes of betrayal, honour, love, hate and most important of all, how the people of Japan were led by belief. Even if it meant their ignorance would lead them to death by their own blade. Ghost of Tsushima is a huge game with so much to see and do. Sure, its gameplay is not perfect but its storytelling and authentic Japanese approach make it a breath of fresh air in a time where open-world games are just big for the sake of being big.
Ghost of Tsushima follows Jin Sakai, a samurai warrior who lost his father a few years prior to the Mongol invasion. He was brought up and trained by his uncle Lord Shimura who is abducted by the ruthless Mongol leader Khotun Khan at the start of the game. Things happen and Jin sets off on a heroic quest to take back the island and save his uncle. He meets a cast of charming characters along the way such as Yuna, Masako and others. If anything, Ghost of Tsushima features some of the best cast members in an open-world video game to date. Even days after the end-game credits rolled, I thought about them and how they contributed to the game’s narrative.
It also helps that throughout the game Jin sets off on side quests tied into each of these character’s past. Yuna’s brother Taka had been locked up and forced to make weapons for the Mongols. Jin sets off to save him. Masako’s family were murdered and Jin helps her uncover how it happened and exact revenge. These quests play out throughout the game and tie into the overall progression quite nicely.
We then have lead roles. Jin Sakai does a terrific job throughout the game as he battles his inner demons of abandoning the Samurai way in favour of becoming the Ghost. The samurai believe in honour and facing their opponents head-on while Jin’s current situation forces him to become a silent ghost taking enemies down in the shadows while at the same time being brutal in face-offs and sieges. Throughout the game, Jin’s unique storyline becomes the game’s main focus and his struggle between his samurai past and saving the island by any means possible plays out brilliantly.
Again, these moments are pinnacle storytelling arcs for Sucker Punch and wonderful to witness first hand. I became so invested in his journey that it was painful to see him suffer mentally. To some degree, Jin’s struggle can be relatable to many people in the real world. We all face this constant battle of being true to ourselves and conforming to how society wants us to behave and live. Let’s just 13th century Japan was not the era of open-mindedness.
We then have the ruthless Khotun Khan played by Patrick Gallagher. To say he sent chills down my spine is an understatement. He delivers this overwhelming dark presence on-screen at every scene. Every word he spoke shot fear into my mind and he managed to breathe life into this fictional character as if the history books carried his tale for hundreds of years.
The island is divided into three mainlands. Each of them features unique landscapes and weather. Izuhara is filled with mountains to climb forests to explore and most of the time it is sunny with clear skies. Toyotama is flat with wet swamplands, overgrown jungle-like landscapes and it rains… a lot. Kamiagata is a winter wonderland with snowy hills and frozen lakes. Each of these three mainlands then delivers stunning biomes to discover. Combine this with the ever-blowing wind, plantation and weather and you have yourself one of the most unique open-worlds in gaming. Every scene is picturesque with leaves blowing across your screen, trees swaying in the distance and wildlife running around. It makes exploring the game such a joy and it never once felt dull even after fifty or so hours.
The world is also filled with things to do such as hot springs to relax in and increase Jin’s health bar. Fox Dens that saw me chase a fox into secret locations to pray at and unlock charm slots. Shrines paths that tasked me to complete lengthily parkour challenges to reach the top of a mountain or the middle of a maze. There are even fun little mini-games like a bamboo challenge where I had to tap a sequence of buttons in order to increase Jin’s resolve bar. Ghost of Tsushima is not short of its side activities and once you get into the game’s core, all of these will offer a fun break from the ruthless killing of Mongols.
Combat also feels great. Jin can take on any challenge as you see fit. This means sneaking into your objective or just going in with your sword out ready to slice and dice like a mad man. The “ghost” approach is very anti-samurai but works. You can sneak through bushes, over rooftops and around corners to plan your route and take down the invaders without being seen. The sneaking mechanics are not groundbreaking here by any means. An enemy spotted me and I quickly ducked back into the grass or around the corner before the bar filled up. If you have played any stealth game in the past few decades you will feel right at home here.
Ghost of Tsushima relies on a combination of using your bow, Ghost tools such as a smoke bomb or tossing a handful of Kunai at enemies and abilities like a powerful Heavenly Strike. While Jin has a range of unique attacks and tools, he is still squishy and can be killed with a few simple hits. It makes the combat in Ghost of Tsushima feel tough at all times you always need to watch your back and listen for bow enemies calling out before they shoot so you can quickly dodge the incoming arrow. Abilities also help which are unlocked as you earn technique points. Some weapons and attacks are locked behind awesome mythic tales making progression key to becoming a true combat master.
Even in later parts of the game where I had new weapons, attacks and a decent health bar, I had to still be very careful. Stealth is not always an option either as some enemies cannot be killed instantly for most of the game. No matter how powerful you feel, there’s always an enemy that can best you if are not careful. Sure, you can spam a heavy attack to stagger an enemy but there’s always one behind you ready to attack. The equipment also helps with combat. Throughout the game, Jin finds new gear which can be upgraded with supplies, leather and other lootable items. These change appearance as you level them up and unlock specific perks in the Ghost and Combat approach. There’s even an outfit to benefit exploration and finding collectables.
Apart from the usual combat, Ghost of Tsushima features a dual system too. These are “boss-like” fights where Jin and his opponent fight off in an arena. These were the best moments in the game for me and delivered intense one-on-one fights. I had to think fast, block where I could, watch my health bar, parry where possible and slice my opponent when I had the opportunity to do so. These fights were pinnacle moments for not only the game’s combat but for the story too. There was nothing more epic than facing off against a well-trained samurai or legendary fighter.
There’s a lot to love about Ghost of Tsushima. Even after I completed the main game I had Haikus to compile, gear to obtain and upgrade which improved by stats and abilities and much more. I had side quests to dive into and shrines to reach in the far distance. The game is an extraordinary combination of great storytelling and combat set in a remarkable world. We have not had an open-world Japanese-based game that allowed us to dive into the history and culture as much as this. There’s so much to enjoy here, so many characters to love and hate and a story you’ll never forget.
This Ghost of Tsushima review was based on a code sent to us by Sony Interactive Entertainment
Available On: PS4 | Reviewed On: PS4 Pro | Release Date: 17 July 2020 | Price: R1,055