Like clockwork, certain friends of mine text or IM when a big video game is about to launch. I’m the guy they know who gets games like a new Smash Bros. or Half-Life before the general public, and they love to push my embargoes to the limits with questions like “does it live up to the hype?” or “no spoilers: should I buy it?”
With Ghost of Tsushima, likely the last major new first-party game for Sony’s PS4, I got a surprising number of these questions over the past few weeks. You might say they were surprising because Tsushima is an entirely new game series, not a hotly anticipated sequel. But the surprise came in a different form, as all of my friends came out of the woodwork to essentially ask me the same question: “Is this new Sony game hopeful?”
PS4 fans are likely still reeling from the console’s last major exclusive, June’s brutal Last of Us Part II—a game that revolves around the biological and social devastation following a global pandemic. TLOU2 is a brave, challenging, and compelling game, but the consensus I’ve gathered is that people are hungry for a different kind of adventure right now.
So I’m starting my review of Ghost of Tsushima by loudly and emphatically saying yes, this game is hopeful in all of the best ways. The latest adventure game from Sucker Punch, makers of series like Sly Cooper and inFamous, has come out of nowhere to blow me away. I’m stunned in part because I nearly wrote the game off as an Assassin’s Creed clone when its gameplay was revealed in April. You wouldn’t be blamed for doing the same; we’re now roughly 400 years into the “open-world adventure” trend, and these games sure do blur together.
There’s no blurring here, though. Tsushima stands out for many reasons, perhaps most crucially because it does something I haven’t seen in the genre since Grand Theft Auto San Andreas: it nails the world-building relationship between the player, the protagonist, and the supporting cast. I rarely lost my sense of purpose or place while striving to bring honor back to my family and country as Jin Sakai, the game’s hero. When he made friends, formed alliances, meditated on loss, or faced tragedy, I was there with him every step of the way, and this feeling was aided by a smartly paced stream of new samurai superpowers.
Ghost of Tsushima is by no means a perfect game, but it nails the important stuff: its 30-hour quest will make you feel like the star of a story about revenge, principle, and inner peace.
Gorgeous visuals, ambitious “Kurosawa filter”
Before we dive into how the game plays, we should start with how it looks, because, goodness:
See how diverse and gorgeous that gallery is? What if I told you that all of the above images are captured from the game’s first 12 hours and that there’s even more beautiful stuff waiting for you in the final game?
The complete game is stuffed with moments worthy of screen grabs, which might be why GoT dedicates a d-pad button to a photo tool, as opposed to burying it beneath a pause menu. Freeze the world midgame, and the photo tool will give you total camera and visual-filter control while leaving the animation systems live. That part is crucial, because GoT follows the legacy of PS4 exclusive Horizon: Zero Dawn in terms of unbelievable grass, tree, and foliage animation—then goes further with an unbelievable lighting-and-shadow system that bathes any region, indoor or out, with appropriate, attractively saturated sunlight (or moonlight).
Those windy, floaty-particle effects matter in this game, by the way, and I’ll get to them in a bit.
In even better news, you can expect a mostly locked 30 fps refresh, much like with TLOU2, whether you play on standard PS4 or on PS4 Pro. PS4 Pro owners also get to choose between a 30 fps lock at 1440p and an unlocked frame rate at 1080p. However, the frame-rate difference between these Pro options is hardly perceptible, since the frame rate never seemed to jump beyond 40 fps in my testing. I opted for the locked 30 fps option to avoid frame-pacing judder, and I wonder if this option was left specifically as a quick-and-dirty bonus for eventual PlayStation 5 players (assuming it’s forward-compatible, which Sony hasn’t yet confirmed).
Performance on a current-gen console isn’t just about the frames per second, however, and GoT is a beast in one other department: loading times, or lack thereof. This open-world game lets you run or ride on a horse through its worlds, but if you just want to tap an icon on your map and fast-travel—or if you die midmission and try again—the wait time is rarely more than 10 seconds and usually far less.
GoT also includes a dramatic and compelling “Kurosawa filter” as a visual option. This homage to the iconic Japanese film director (Seven Samurai) works as you might expect: all in black-and-white with a film-grain effect and a mild audio filter. The best thing about this filter is that Sucker Punch has gone to great lengths to adjust the shades of backdrop objects and the contrast of foreground ones. Foliage-lined paths, crowds of foes, and towns carved by dramatic moonlight all look clear and are easy to navigate with the black-and-white filter enabled, and that’s quite a technological feat.
Unfortunately, as of launch, this handsome filter disables a crucial color-flash system during combat, which helps players react to attacks based on whatever color flashes. (Coincidentally, players also cannot choose which colors flash during full-color gameplay; bad news if you’re colorblind.) I wish Sucker Punch had come up with an alternative visual tell for these attacks, like a giant series of flashing icons. But thanks to that issue, I had to disable the Kurosawa filter so that I could survive the game’s later combat sections.