I have had an absolutely ridiculous run of amazingly good samurai-themed games lately– in fact, it’s fair to say that it’s nearly all I’ve played this year. First there was Nioh, which completely devoured my life. Then Sekiro, which absolutely ate my life. Then Nioh 2, which ate my life worse than Sekiro did. And lately it’s been Ghost of Tsushima, which …
Holy shit, y’all.
Every so often while playing a video game I will take a moment, look around, and reflect that I started playing video games with Pong on an Atari, and now I play games that look like this:
To say that this is the most beautiful game I have ever played is an understatement, because it implies that there has been competition. I have played games that were graphically amazing. Tons of ’em. But I have never played a game that was anywhere close to as beautiful as Ghost of Tsushima is. The game is set mostly in fall, with the northern part of Tsushima island already gripped by winter, so you’re spending the majority of your time running around in sun-dappled, brightly colored forests or over fresh-fallen snow that glitters exactly the way the real thing does. The human models in this game are like nothing I have ever seen before– and that’s coming off of Last of Us II, which I thought set a very high bar for facial modeling. My first thought upon seeing Khotun Khan, the Mongol general who is the villain of the game, was that the man had an incredible intelligence behind his eyes. I have never encountered a character in a video game who I, personally, wanted to sit and have a talk with. Toward the end of the game, there is a sequence where a character knows he needs to do something that he very much does not want to do, and there are tears in his eyes. I have seen real people crying real tears who were less convincing.
But beyond the graphics: this is an open world game that has managed to keep to the outlines of what is expected of an open world game in 2020 with none of the associated annoyances. It seems like such a minor thing, but if a character has to go with you somewhere, and you start running? The other character starts running. The collectibles and flowers and crafting materials that are strewn everywhere can be picked up on the fly, without getting off your horse. Hell, riding your horse is fun and not an exercise in watching for a tiny rock or copse of trees that will send the two of you flying and kill the horse. (I’m looking at you, Red Dead Redemption II.) Controls, across the board, are tight and fluid, and combat is an absolute Goddamned joy; after the first third of the game or so it’s a little on the easy side on the default difficulty level but there are two or three above that, and I find that feeling like a supreme badass in this type of game is more fun than the challenging combat offered by Nioh 2 or Sekiro. I could have made it harder, but I didn’t want it to be, so it’s not much of a complaint.
(I was incandescently angry about the camera and the lack of a lock-on for about the first 10% of the game, until I got used to it. The reason no one was complaining about how terrible the camera was, which really confused me, was because you do get used to it and the game wants combat to be more fluid than a lock-on system allows. It works, it was just a rough transition coming over from Nioh 2.)
The game encourages exploration, because of course it does; there are things to do and little nooks and crannies all over the place with little bits of story hidden in them. One of my favorite things about the game was the way it used natural elements like the wind (there is an actual gameplay reason why the game is set in autumn), or birds, or foxes, or fireflies, to guide you toward points of interest. I didn’t figure out the firefly thing until maybe 2/3 of the way through the game; it’s subtle, and I’m pretty sure the game itself never mentions it.
You can pet the foxes, a lot of the time, and writing the occasional haiku is part of the gameplay. Being able to pet foxes made this game 22.7% better and it was already a great game.
I enjoyed both the story and the main character more than a lot of people seem to have; I’ve seen some gripes about him being a thin character or the story being a little cut-and-paste and I don’t agree with them. Jin Sakai’s emotional journey through the story feels real, and more importantly, his relationships with the other characters also feel real, and it’s those relationships that pull you through the game. The voice acting is … good, I guess, although you shouldn’t take my opinion too seriously because I listened to it in Japanese. Nobody struck me as goofy, though, which can be an occasional problem in these types of games. It’s possible that if I understood Japanese I wouldn’t like the voice actors as much, but I doubt it.
It would be reasonable, I suppose, to gripe that the game is a bit too dude-centric. Jin is male, and you can’t choose his gender at the beginning of the game or alter anything about his appearance. (Armor, yes. Facial features and hair, no.) His uncle, a major figure, is male. Khotun Khan is male. Nearly every random mook you fight throughout the game is male; all of the Mongols are, although you do fight a couple of duels against non-Mongol female characters at a couple of points. There is one female antagonist during one quest line who you never fight, and three of the major supporting characters are female. But, oh, man, Masako and Yuna, in particular, are amazing, and the sad little story the game tells with Yuriko, Jin’s childhood caretaker, is as nuanced and real as anything else in the game.
Yuna is the closest the game comes to a love interest; there are some very broad hints that she and Jin are developing feelings for each other that are never acted on, and the two of them get drunk together at one point (my God, Jin’s eyes during the bit where he was drunk were amazing) and maybe share a meaningful look right before some hell breaks loose, but she is a grown-ass woman and she is a badass and she has no time for anybody’s bullshit, including several men who at least on paper should be far more powerful than her, and I loved every second of her. She’s also never once used for sex appeal, which was damned refreshing. Masako was fascinating for other reasons– I could write another thousand words on how this game deals with revenge, especially, again, after TLOU2— but while you don’t get a lot of female or non-cishet representation in this game what you do get is definitely memorable.
So, yeah– if this isn’t Game of the Year it is awfully close, and while I’ll get more hours of gameplay out of Nioh 2, on the balance this is probably a better game and it’s certainly a more impressive achievement. If you own a PS4 and don’t pick this one up you are doing yourself a disservice, and frankly this is probably worth buying a PS4 for all by itself. I loved the hell out of it. You should play it.