Imagine an Assassin’s Creed game set in feudal Japan under threat from invading Mongols with processor-pushing particle effects, amazing eye-candy, and combat that isn’t simply a case of mashing one button as quickly as possible. Welcome to Ghost of Tsushima which answers every craving you might have to immerse yourself if the world of the magnificent seven samurai while still creeping around like a ninja stabbing people in the back. Wow!
I really thought my game playing had peaked with Horizon Zero Dawn, but Ghost is just as immersive on a story and open-world level and has the edge of possessing a really enjoyable combat system that engages your brain while you are still giggling at the ferocity of some of the blood-soaked graphics. This is an Akira Kurosawa film at its most visceral while still supplying moments of reflection when you take a dip in a hot bath or compose a haiku.
The Japanese island of Tsushima is rendered in beautiful detail with exquisite lighting and particle effects which sometimes have my PS4 Pro blowing its fan as if its trying to physically help the leaves blow across the waving fields of grass. There’s a similar attention to detail aimed at the cut scenes and main character animation, and truth be told pretty much all the objects in the game. I’ve put the game into the very nice photo mode (similar to the mode available in Horizon) and been flabbergasted at the amount of detail that often passes you by. Also there’s a black and white Kurosawa mode during game play for those fans of the legendary director.
Game play is made up of your typical open-world collection of main story quests, side story quests and collectable gathering. Collectables are numerous and include manual dexterity testing bamboo sword strikes, haiku composition, fox shrines, hot spring baths, and cosmetic upgrades for head gear, swords, armour and bows. There is a great selection of throwable weapons, arrows and ghost skills very reminiscent of the Assassin’s Creed franchise but with their own Japanese twist. Throughout Act 1 you are reminded that fighting like a thief is not the samurai way, but it’s a shed load of fun.
The differentiating factor that raises this game above the likes of Origins or Odyssey is the sword combat system which involves different types of attack and blocking, four stances suitable for different types of opponent (swordsmen, those with shields, spear men and ‘heavies’ aka tanks in gamer-speak), some special moves, and sword stroke combinations triggered by sequences of key taps. It’s so smoothly integrated into the gaming that it never feels like you’ve entered a Soulcalibur style fight game or that you are just shelling peas like you often feel when playing Creed games. There’s a good skill system and plenty of upgrade options to suit your gaming style.
At the time of writing I have completed Act 1 of what I expect is a three-act game. This means I have had the opportunity to explore the south part of the island and recently unlocked the north part. I like to take my time with the story quests and so have managed to earn many a skill point, unlocked all four stances, a special move and plenty of gadgets and weapon upgrades. I have yet to successfully pull off a three-in-a-row assassination but I’m looking forward to it and there’s nothing quite as satisfying as a three-in-a-row stand-off where you basically call your enemies out and have a gunslinger style one ‘shot’ fight and then take out two more enemies as they run in (if you time it right).
There are also set piece duels in the main story and side story quests which are essentially boss-battles. I really hate boss battles but for some reason I’m quite enjoying these duels in Ghost. I guess it’s the fact that you can choose to lean into an aggressive approach and often get good results or hold back and learn your enemies habits while dodging their stronger attacks. If it all gets too much (and it did on one occasion when I blundered into a duel very low on health) the designers have helped you out by giving you back some health on each attempt or ultimately letting you drop the difficulty down temporarily. The game can leave you needing a rest when things get too hectic.
All in all, having got as far as I have with it, there’s not a thing I can fault about this game. It really is up there with the best games I have ever played – while it will probably turn out to be smaller (in terms of the number of missions and locations) it is certainly better than any Assassin’s Creed game (there, I said it!) and on a par with the excellent Horizon Dawn Zero.