Ghost of Tsushima is a passion project from Sucker Punch; a self-proclaimed labour of love and that is something which presents itself as an indisputable fact right from the off. From the utterly stunning environments to the compelling, deep story, the game has managed to cement itself a place among the best open world games of all time, showing that Sucker Punch can go toe-to-toe with the elite PlayStation first party studios.

When I reviewed The Last of Us: Part II a month ago, I was expecting that it would easily be the stronger of Sony’s PlayStation 4 swan song; a duet consisting of the aforementioned title alongside the subject of this review. As it happens, this is a much closer race than I had anticipated, with Ghost of Tsushima even managing to give Naughty Dog’s masterpiece a run for its money.

First, let’s dive into the story of Ghost of Tsushima, including information regarding the quests, additional optional activities and collectibles on offer.

Story, quests and activities

NOTE: The following review contains some minor story spoilers, however, anything I discuss in detail will appear very early in the game.

The game’s quests are called Tales and are split into three primary categories: Jin’s Journey, Tales of Tsushima and Mythic Tales. Jin’s Journey is the main story arc of the game, which is separated into three distinct acts. Each of the three acts take place on a different part of Tsushima Island: Act 1 occurs in Izuhara, Act 2 in Toyotama and Act 3 in Kamiagata. To preserve the experience and avoid heavy spoilers, I will only discuss story elements which occur early in Act 1.

As you begin your journey, you will be thrown directly into the start of the First Mongol Invasion at Komoda beach in 1274. Many casualties have been suffered by the people of Tsushima and you, Jin Sakai, are one of the few remaining samurai who survive the battle. Your uncle, Lord Shimura, has been taken captive by Khotun Khan, a Mongol general spearheading the invasion of Tsushima Island. Once this premise has been setup, you begin the game proper and must start recruiting allies to aid you in saving your uncle.

One of the most impressive things about Ghost of Tsushima is how much meaningful, narrative-rich content is packed into the game. The game manages to blend the sense of adventure, freedom and exploration which a typical open-world game offers with a level of narrative depth, cast of captivating characters and immaculate presentation generally reserved for tightly scripted, linear titles. This makes itself evident early on through the quality of the side quests, otherwise known as the Tales of Tsushima. Ghost of Tsushima’s side quests are only side in the sense that they are mostly optional encounters. It is clear that they have been given just as much love, planning and emphasis as each of the game’s main tales, with nary a fetch quest to be found. In fact, a large proportion of the side quests make up entire story arcs of their own, occurring concurrently alongside the main story.

To give an example, one of the first main quests in the game under Jin’s Journey is called The Tale of Sensei Ishikawa. In this quest, you must assist a master archer and teacher of the ways of the bow in tracking down a rogue student prodigy who has turned to the side of the Mongols. In return, Sensei Ishikawa has agreed to aid you in rescuing your uncle, Lord Shimura, from Khotun Khan. Eagle-eyed players will notice that under this tale there is a designation: An Ishikawa Tale (1 of 9). Initially, I expected that this would be a lengthy quest line in the main story of the game, however, I was wrong. Following the first mission, Ishikawa’s quest line is relegated to the Tales of Tsushima, giving you an entire story arc of eight more missions where you play through a narrative-rich subplot which develops a recurring character of the game. This is not unique to Ishikawa, however. There are several more characters who are introduced in an identical way who then become a side quest story arc.

As a result, the side content in Ghost of Tsushima feels less like side quests and more like entire, self-contained stories. This amazing design fleshes out the history, scope and background of the game and I would highly encourage players to indulge in the Tales of Tsushima regularly as you are progressing through Jin’s Journey; they play just as vital a part in the game as any other. There are, of course, many other tales which make up once-off quests. You will encounter these regularly as you pass through the game and they are usually the result of speaking with random peasants or freeing Mongol prisoners. While these, understandably, do not have the same level of narrative depth as the more fleshed-out character-focused story arcs, I did find them to be extremely varied and not all of them are combat related, either.

There is one more category of quests in Ghost of Tsushima and that is Mythic Tales. This is a very special variety of missions which reward you with either an extremely useful piece of kit or a brand new mythic combat art upon completion. There are a total of seven Mythic Tales in the game and they generally begin by speaking to a musician who will tell you the tale through a beautiful, hand-drawn animated cutscene. You may happen upon these musicians naturally or in some cases, you will be given a hint to their location. The completion of a Mythic Tale usually involves a lot of unguided exploration along with some tricky combat scenarios. We don’t want to spoil too much, but we can truly say that these quests are among the most fun in the entire game and we know that you’ll love playing through them and earning the rewards!

Cutscenes play a heavy role in Ghost of Tsushima, with the vast majority of tales (main or otherwise) involving quite a lot of cinematic storytelling; something which impressed me given the amount of unique quests present in the game. Sucker Punch have managed to create an extremely charismatic cast of characters which captivated me almost instantly and it is a joy to play through each of their story arcs and develop relationships with them. Presentation is also absolutely astounding, with every single mission introduced and closed out with a beautiful shot of the surrounding area and the mission name on screen in stylised Japanese and English text. Every mission is further complete with a rich description and details of the precise rewards it offers through your Journal and any missions which relate to a specific character have a hand-drawn image of that character next to the name. The user interface is extremely clean, minimalistic and easy to navigate, while still looking beautiful and showcasing the depth of the customisation on offer. Each passing moment with Ghost of Tsushima manages to further convince the player of the love and attention which was devoted to the title by Sucker Punch.

Outside of these tales, the game offers some additional activities. For example, some towns, strongholds and ports have been invaded by Mongols and these will be marked with a symbol on the map when you learn of them, which can happen at random or through an NPC. Liberating these camps generally rewards some progress towards your Legend, which I will discuss in-depth later in the review, along with some other resources. There are also a wealth of collectibles to find through the world include Sashimono Banners, Records, Mongol Artifacts and more. There are also hidden areas on the map which offer improvements to your core attributes, such as your health and resolve, however, I will discuss these in exploration.

Next, I will discuss the combat and gameplay in Ghost of Tsushima, including the progression options available to the player.

Combat, gameplay and progression

Prior to playing Ghost of Tsushima, combat was the aspect of the game which I was most concerned about, likely due to Sucker Punch’s efforts in keeping as much of the game a surprise as possible. If you felt the same way, I can safely say that you may cast all of your doubts aside. The game has a satisfying, fluid and deep combat system which allows for a wealth of different approaches and styles in playing through the game.

Jin’s main weapon is, of course, the katana of the Sakai clan. Sucker Punch have previously placed emphasis on making the katana feel powerful, stating that otherwise, it is simply a “nerf tube”. Ghost of Tsushima’s combat strikes a masterful balance between both power and vulnerability; the katana feels immensely powerful, a few strikes to an unshielded or staggered enemy will result in death. To preserve realism and authenticity, Jin is equally susceptible to death with just a few strikes of a katana or a Mongol sword. This approach is quite rarely taken in games; the main character is usually unrealistically durable compared to enemies. This is an understandable decision, owing to a great difficulty in balancing gameplay where groups of enemies are each as powerful as the main character, however, in this instance, a perfect balance has been struck, without making the game inaccessibly difficult. As a result, the combat feels incredibly satisfying and offers great challenge on higher difficulties, while still allowing a more casual playthrough on easier settings.

When engaging in combat using your katana, you will be able to use four different stances: Stone Stance, effective against Swordsmen; Water Stance, effective against Shieldmen; Wind Stance, effective against Spearmen and Moon Stance, effective against Brutes. When in each of these stances, a heavy attack will do significant stagger damage to the enemy type which it is effective against. Staggering an enemy leaves them vulnerable to your attacks for a period of time. Using an incorrect stance on an enemy type will result in very little stagger damage being done and thus the fight will be difficult. Mastering the ability to quickly change between stances on the fly, alongside blocking and parrying, is key to dealing with large groups of varied enemies. Blocking works by holding L1 and will shield you from most attacks. Tapping the button precisely as the attack is going to hit will result in a parry and leave the enemy vulnerable to a strike. In addition, some attacks are unblockable and will be marked with a red cross, these require you to dodge using the circle button. A successful dash out of the way also leaves the enemy vulnerable to a strike. Each stance also has some special combination attacks unique to that stance, which can be unlocked through the progression tree. There are also some extremely powerful attacks which will deplete your Resolve meter when used, however, we will not spoil the details of these. Resolve can also be used to heal after taking damage and is refilled through combat.

Beyond the katana, however, lie a number of other weapons which can be used in combat. The Sakai Tanto is a short blade accompanying the Sakai Katana which can be used for stealthy assassinations. Two ranged bows will also become available to you, with alternate arrow types such as fire arrows and explosive arrows unlocking as you progress through the game. Progression is handled via a Legend system; after each mission, your legend will grow by a certain amount. Along the way, you will also gain Technique Points, which will allow you to upgrade your skills, known as Techniques. When you complete a level of the Legend meter, you will gain a new title as your legend grows and you become more known throughout Tsushima Island. This increases your health and resolve alongside the reward of a new Ghost Weapon. Ghost Weapons include items such as smoke bombs, sticky bombs, wind chimes and more. Through these systems, Ghost of Tsushima offers players a great choice in whether they decide to approach each mission using stealth or brute force. I was pleasantly surprised by the arsenal on offer, as well as the depth of skill tree upgrades to various aspects of your kit.

Outside of these Techniques, you can also upgrade your katana, bows, armour and the carrying capacity of each of the previously mentioned Ghost Weapons and arrow types using raw materials which you will find through the world. At various hubs in Tsushima, you will find armourers, swordsmiths, trappers and merchants and these people will allow you to upgrade Jin’s array of equipment as you see fit. If you are a fan of cosmetics, do not worry, Sucker Punch has also added depth to customisation of your appearance. Throughout the world of Ghost of Tsushima, you can find flowers in the wild. These flowers can be exchanged with merchants for Sword Kits, Armour Dyes and Bow Vanity Gear, each of which change the appearance of their respective items. These changes are purely cosmetic, so you need not worry about altering any stats for the weapon in return for achieving the look you desire. You may also find special cosmetic items in hidden areas through the game’s world, which is a fun collectible for those who enjoy customising their character’s appearance in games.

The depth of the combat system does not end there; Ghost of Tsushima offers collectible Charms which can boost certain things such as your health, damage resistance, healing rate, resolve gain rate and more. The number of different charms on offer and their potential effects is actually rather large and I continued to find completely new charms as I progressed through the story. As you go further into the game, you will also begin to find better versions of the same charm type, for example, offering a major health increase rather than a moderate one. The number of charms which you can equip simultaneously can also be expanded through searching the world and I will discuss this further in the exploration section.

This gameplay design pays dividends in ensuring that the experience can be tailored and shaped to the player’s desires and I found it extremely enjoyable to alternate between stealth and brute based combat options on a mission by mission basis. Undoubtedly, the game delivers a rich, fresh, evolving and deeply satisfying combat system which is sure to keep players hooked for the entire duration of the game.

Next I will delve into the most breathtaking aspect of the game: the expansive, beautiful open world and the exploration options available to the player.

Exploration, environment and graphics

Ghost of Tsushima is perhaps the most beautifully designed game that I have ever played. Sucker Punch has brought Tsushima Island to life with a stunning, breathtaking level of detail. The lush, colourful world is filled with vivid, dynamic foliage, regularly offering remarkable vistas with an impressive draw distance from elevated peaks. The lighting in the game is also an outstanding technical achievement; the sun’s rays reflect off both water and foliage in a gorgeous manner. At times, the game might trick you into thinking that they have employed some ray tracing, however, we know that is not possible on the current hardware. Particle effects are employed liberally and add another layer of beauty to the game’s lovely art style. Words cannot begin to capture the beauty of Ghost of Tsushima’s world, so I will allow these beautiful, in-game screenshots to do the talking for me.

The map of Ghost of Tsushima is enormous but never feels overwhelming. By the time ten hours of the game had passed, I had explored less than one-sixth of the explorable area in the game. With the wealth of content, my count had reached around forty hours by the half-way point of exploration. It is also extremely important to note that this world is not a barren wasteland, far from it. Every inch of the world has been expertly crafted with care and love, every area has its own unique charm and everything is designed with a purpose. I previously mentioned that the game was divided into three Acts, each of which take place on a separate area of the island; these areas must be separately liberated from the Mongol forces and you cannot pass to the next area until you complete the main story act of the area you are currently in. The wonderful thing about Sucker Punch’s design philosophy in Ghost of Tsushima is that they have managed to give each of the three areas its own unique feel and charm, while still making them each feel part of a collective Tsushima Island. Going from Izuhara to Toyotama feels familiar, yet simultaneously feels like a fresh and unique land to explore at your leisure.

Through some impressive technical wizardry, Ghost of Tsushima achieves visuals on par with The Last of Us: Part II, despite having to do so under the more demanding constraints of an open world map. The game offers two modes on PlayStation 4 Pro: higher framerate and higher resolution and I played through the game with the latter option. Load times during fast travel are also surprisingly low and I am curious to find out what techniques Sucker Punch employed to deliver such spectacular graphics and performance in a game of this scope. One thing is for certain: the studio has earned its place among the elite development studios under Sony’s first party umbrella, where it was perhaps previously considered slightly below the likes of Naughty Dog, Santa Monica and Guerrilla Games.

Beyond the visuals, Ghost of Tsushima is also backed by incredible music and sound effects. The score is superb and manages to fit the theme of the game and the location perfectly. A team was sent to Japan to record real sounds of nature for the game, truly immersing the player with even the tiniest details. Authenticity has clearly been a number one priority for Sucker Punch and the experience they have delivery oozes it in every aspect. Whether it be the peaceful, melodic music accompanying the stunning sounds of nature while exploring the world at leisure on your horse, or the tense, epic drumbeats thumping as you charge into battle, Ghost of Tsushima delivers the perfect track for every single occasion.

In terms of exploration, the game is littered with hidden secrets which can upgrade Jin’s attributes and offer cosmetic gear. For example, there are eighteen Hot Springs across the map, each of which will increase your maximum health. There are sixteen total Bamboo Strikes; after completing a strike challenge, you will be given progress towards an increase of your Resolve. Additional charm slots can be unlocked by finding and honouring the Inari Shines in the forty-nine Foxes’ Dens. These are just some of the secrets which you’ll find in Ghost of Tsushima’s world, each of which can be tracked under the Collections tab in the menu.

The result of this lovingly crafted world, immense level of detail and grand sense of exploration is the creation of an atmosphere which is second to none and sits among the best and most beautiful open worlds ever created. Sucker Punch mentioned in the past that they took some inspiration from Breath of the Wild and that is something which resonated with me while playing through Ghost of Tsushima; I felt the same type of wonder and adventure as I did when exploring Nintendo’s masterpiece. Next, let’s take a look at the game’s dialogue and voice cast.

Voice acting and dialogue

The colourful cast of characters is a key strength of Ghost of Tsushima and is often something which open world games tend to struggle with. This would not be possible without the incredible quality of voice acting in the game. Each character feels perfectly cast and the voice actors deliver every line with conviction, emotion and passion. Lip synching is exceptionally well done when playing in English, something which games with a lot of dialogue can often have a hit or miss relationship with. Mongol enemies have also been given convincing, powerful voicing, with enough variety to make enemies feel somewhat unique. Archers will give you a sound cue to allow the dodging of arrows and this is the only way to identify them; there is no visual cue in the game. We won’t spoil the details, but there are a number of more powerful enemies (akin to mini-bosses) present in the game for you to fight against and these characters are equally well written as the protagonists of the game.

I was shocked at the amount of dialogue present in every single mission. Not only do the main quest lines and the character-specific side quest arcs have a huge amount of recorded dialogue throughout the course of the mission, but even the smaller, once-off missions will generally be introduced with a few lines of unique dialogue by a random NPC in the world. I have never heard a repeated line of dialogue in any of these numerous side missions, nor have I noticed the same voices repeated often. In the larger missions involving recurring characters, the journey between locations on the map will be filled with interesting lines of dialogue, which serve to develop either the mission plot or the overall background narrative of the game as a whole. The dialogue never felt like filler to me, despite the huge amount of it.

There are some other little touches which I would compliment regarding dialogue options through the game, however, I do not want to spoil those so I will omit them from the review. The recurring theme present in Ghost of Tsushima’s presentation is an almost obsessive attention to detail which justifies Sucker Punch’s claim that it has been their labour of love and the results of that dedication are nothing short of spectacular.

Conclusion

I’ve been incredibly excited to talk about Ghost of Tsushima since I started playing and this is a game that I could continue to laud praise on every aspect of ad infinitum, however, I think my message has been clear. Sucker Punch have produced their finest experience to date, one which is the best of both worlds: a vast, breathtaking open world teeming with life and things today, complemented by a level of narrative depth, world building and a diverse cast of charismatic characters rarely found in such expansive titles.

All of this is backed by an incredibly satisfying combat system, core values of authenticity and an exquisite attention to detail which overall delivers an adventure ranking among the best open world games ever created. I don’t know if Sucker Punch will continue to explore this world in the future, but I do know that I will be the first in line if they choose to do so.

Our Ghost of Tsushima content does not end here! Later today, we will be publishing a photo gallery with some additional screenshots which we took in the game’s photo mode! Follow us on Twitter @Inside_TheBox to stay up to date!