Ghost of Tsushima: Honoring Japanese Cinema

The Island of Tsushima
Jin Sakai looks over the island of Tsushima

I love open world games. When done correctly, an echoing vista or hellish landscape generates a kind of excitement in me unmatched by side-scrollers, FPS’s, or arena battles. I choose my own fate. I’ll go as far as the map allows me. I will find every secret the game can show me. Ghost of Tsushima is an unflinchingly beautiful standout among the genre.

Creating a system where the way you play affects the weather in the game, Tsushima tunes the gamer to its environment. Hot springs heal and increase your health, writing a haiku over lavish surroundings get you new clothing items, following foxes increases charm slots and power. The guiding wind brings you to each stunning location.

The wind as a waypoint system is brilliant. There’s no need to follow an onscreen map. Flicking your finger on the touchpad or looking at the sway of the tall grass sends you towards an objective. The result is a less clunky screen for better engagement.

ghost of tsushima cover art

The Plot

The game commences with Jin Sakai and his uncle, Lord Shimura, already in battle. Mongolians are invading, and this could be the last stand for the island of Tsushima. Leading men on the beaches of Komoda, Jin’s horse rushes through the beach until met with a deadly explosion.

Pinned down, Jin desperately reaches for his weapon on a beach full of enemies. As an invader closes in, Shimura strikes him down and saves Jin. They continue down the battlefield together engaging all adversaries as they make their way to the Mongol leader, Khotun Khan. The pair close in. Explosive fire meets them, leaving Jin unconscious and Shimura taken by Khan.

Jin awakens to find he’s off the beach above a small village crawling with enemies. Infiltrating the village to find his armor and weapons, he meets Yuna, the thief who saved him. She escorts him out through the Mongol camp to retrieve his lost goods. Yuna finds the Mongolians have taken her brother from the village and act I of the game begins as she entrusts you to find him, as you build your character and put a crew together to save your Uncle and liberate the island of Tsushima.

Jin Sakai faces off against a Mongol invader in a field of purple flowers.
A field of purple flowers provides the location for Jin Sakai’s duel.

The Analysis

From the start, Ilan Eshkeri and Shigeru Umbayashi craft one of the finest in-game scores to grace the gaming world. The music is astounding. It completely envelops the player in the world they’re traveling and is a huge help in determining if enemies or collectibles are nearby. Tenderly crafted with tension and emotion, the compositions navigate the balance of the character’s journey. I wholly expect to see this soundtrack among the nominees at this year’s game awards.

The characters in Tsushima are mostly fantastic. None more so than that of Lady Masako. Lauren Tom does a brilliant job bringing her tales to life. A settled down noblewoman, Masako picks up her sword to fight alongside Jin after her family is tragically slaughtered in their home. Bold and brash, her methods are to charge into just about every situation.

Through the various storylines, the player sees small changes in each character episodically, culminating in larger changes at the end of their journeys. The same can be said for Jin of course, though since it’s the player deciding when to take on the main story mission, many will not see the opposite bookend of his character arc. You start the game a nobleman loyal to your uncle, then slowly evolve your techniques to become the Ghost, finally drifting from your uncle at the end, sacrificing all Jin once knew for his people.

I have read some user reviews that felt the main story was less than they’d hoped for. As for me, I didn’t find that. I was fully engrossed and didn’t want it to end. When I arrived for the final showdown with Khan I had to calm myself down. When it turned out my journey didn’t exactly end there, I was ready, but bereft of my excitement. Yet there was still beauty in that final showdown at Jin’s father’s grave.

Sakai Family graveyard
Jin Sakai and Lord Shimura under the red tree of the Sakai family graveyard.

Some of the other problems friends have addressed to me are that of being trash in combat and standoff situations. I ask them, “Are you in the right stance?” The answer is usually they have no idea what I’m talking about.

The stance system in the game doesn’t do a wonderful job of introducing itself. There are four stances meant for countering the effects of the opponent’s weaponry you’re facing. Holding R2 and pressing one of the four buttons will put you in a different stance. In my playthrough, I banked skill points so when i unlocked a stance my skill points went to that. I honestly didn’t realize the importance of that at the time but being able to break shields with a fully developed water stance was crucial early on. No longer was I dying during every middle of the road bandit battle.

My only gripe with the game was the camera. Many times I’d corner an enemy or get cornered myself and have my camera get stuck behind a rock or in a tree. During these moments I’d either have to roll away from the enemy to have enough time to change my camera angle or try to block attacks and do it, which didn’t always go well for Jin. A button to change angles would really have come in handy a few times.

The Kurosawa Effect

Players will notice at the beginning they can play in Kurosawa mode, a black and white cinematic mode in tribute to the man who inspired the game. The Sucker Punch team did a really great job making this by downplaying the visual and audio qualities, which gives the game the feeling of a movie made in the 50s. While I found this mode added little to such a vibrant game, the homage to Akira Kurosawa is felt throughout the themes within.

Deriving many of its settings and attire from Seven Samurai, Tsushima’s plot points also involve bandits roaming the countryside and robbing villagers of their food stores, an old man strumming a shamisen in the movie looks much like the old man that sends Jin on his mythic quests in the game. Hints of Kagemusha and Throne of Blood can be seen in some of the epic battle sequences of the game as well, and the last blow in the duels is very much taken from the bloody final scene of Sanjuro.

Kurosawa mode in Ghost of Tsushima
The Black and White Kurosawa Mode in Ghost of Tsushima

Kurosawa loved stories pertaining to perspectives. In Rashomon, Kurosawa tells the story of a dead samurai found on the side of the road. The samurai’s wife, a thief, the ghost of the samurai himself and an eyewitness all recount the events that led to the murder. Ghost of Tsushima never enters into this storytelling outright, but we do get individual tales from a thief named Yuna, a happy-go-lucky warrior monk Norio, a ne’er-do-well sake salesman Kenji, an unraveling noblewoman Lady Masako, and an embittered archer named Lord Ishikawa. Through their stories we get varying levels of Tsushima’s class system and the plights of the people in it.

Most of Kurosawa’s films have to do with struggling classes and political discourse, making Tsushima a perfect catalyst for these themes. The game’s central plot is Jin’s struggle to maintain his uncle’s lessons of honor while fighting a ruthless enemy for his people. Throughout the game you can choose to stand and battle like a samurai or assassinate your enemies from the shadows. Should Jin stay duty bound to his uncle at the cost of his people’s lives?

Prior to the final battle in Seven Samurai, a young apprentice commits an (arguable) act of dishonor in the village. The villagers’ morale sours. Rain begins to soak the campfire and a downpour muddies the ground of the samurais’ last stand. As stated previously, Ghost of Tsushima implements weather patterns based on user’s honorable actions. Playing “without honor” or stealthier causes storms and lightning while playing “like a samurai” or more direct and standoffish will result in clearer weather.

I’ve found that references to other Japanese cinema is lacking in other articles I’ve read online but I heavily believe they exist. Kurosawa is the most notable, obviously, but as a fan of Japanese cinema i wanted to know if other people were seeing the same things i saw while playing. Kineto Shindô’s Onibaba is a perfect example.

Onibaba depicts a masked warrior coming between two women who enter the business of seducing men, killing them, and selling their weapons and armor. The plot itself has little to do with the game. However, when we meet Yuna at the start she’s left Jin for dead at the top of the village with every intention to sell his belongings. Not an odd coincidence then, since after that Jin dons samurai masks and is labeled a demon, something also in the film.

I also see some references to the Lone Wolf and Cub series and The Samurai Trilogy, particularly in duels taking place in beautiful locations. Lone Wolf and Cub became Shogun Assassin for western audiences, featuring a trailer taunting “The man who became a demon.” You may also recognize Lone Wolf and Cub, as it has seen a resurgence in popularity since it’s a direct influence on The Star Wars spinoff The Mandalorian.

Tsushima v Sekiro

The hardened gamer will make obvious mention to 2019’s Game of the Year, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. To call Sekiro challenging would be an understatement. Calling it infuriating would be more accurate. By doing so, however, you’d also garner yourself some laughs by the Dark Souls fans who love the trudge of a From Software title.

I have never been the type for this level of challenge. I’ve got nothing against Sekiro or its never-ending crusade to mold players towards accomplishing something of supreme difficulty, it just wasn’t for me. I prefer games that I can blow off steam and allow me to seamlessly adapt to without wanting to throw my controller through my television and lose all of my progress. Tsushima opts for a less frustrating level of gameplay.

This isn’t to say that Tsushima isn’t without its challenges, the most innovative and exciting of which being duels, which are an infusion of Mortal Kombat style combat happening within the most beautiful scenery in the game. These high intensity showdowns engross the player and winning your first makes you feel like a champion.

The first duel I encountered I was nowhere near prepared for. I was strolling through the map and came across a large enemy camp with no idea what I was doing. Feeling it was similar rules to Assassin’s Creed or Far Cry camps, I went in and systematically took out the enemy and blew up their black powder stash. A heavily armored man approached me cinematically and my first duel ensued. I had no health and the beating commenced.

About ten or so rounds later I finally defeated him. I felt great. So I can only imagine how the Sekiro fans feel when they’ve gone through the same area a thousand times and finally finished off a boss. That has got to feel damn good.

Sekiro faces a monster-like creature in a less-realistic world.
Sekiro faces a monster-like creature in a less-realistic world.

The other notable difference between the two games is that Sekiro uses and adheres to a mythology. Tsushima, on the other hand, is deeply rooted in history, telling the story of the island’s invasion by Mongols in 1274 and the forces that drove them back. The myths that lie within the game are all based in reality and have a very Dana Scully scientific debunking method. Sekiro uses powerful monsters to forward its story, the Fox Mulder of the two.

The one aspect i did find a lot better in Sekiro then Tsushima has got to be the grappling hook. I was very frustrated by the grappling system of Tsushima early on, whereas Sekiro‘s hook makes you feel like you’re playing Spider-Man.

The Future

Ghost of Tsushima was the first game I’ve played in a long time that I actively thought about during downtime. I couldn’t wait to get back to it. I logged a little under 40 hours into the game and I’m actively waiting for DLC to play, the first of which was just announced. “Legends” will be available this fall.

Ghost of Tsushima Legends
Ghost of Tsushima’s first DLC “Legends” will drop this fall

The trailer for Legends looks to be more outside the realm of reality and a little more into the Sekiro fantasy. Boasting online co-op and terrifying landscapes, this DLC will be available to anyone who purchases a copy of the game.

Written by Sean Parker

Sean lives just outside of Boston. He loves great concerts, all types of movies, video games, and all things nerd culture.

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