Ghost of Tsushima doesn’t really have an original thought in its head.
That’s not a complaint or critique so much as it is a fact; Sucker Punch’s PS4 swan song starring a samurai named Jin Sakai who has to repel Mongols that have invaded the titular island doesn’t so much wear its influences on its sleeve so much as it wears them all over its body. Set in 1274 during a very fictionalized version of the real life invasion, Tsushima is a AAA game down to its core. You explore the open world on a horse, alternating between story missions and optional side quests to build up your skills. You sneak around or, when that inevitably fails, engage in melee combat and get a chance to see if whatever attack or gadget you spent those upgrade points on was worth it.
This, of course, is largely the formula Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed franchise has built its name on since 2007. You’ve played a game like this plenty of times during this console generation, largely from Ubisoft, and Sucker Punch doesn’t stray from what works. Instead, they simply decide to use Sony’s time and seemingly endless amount of money to fill a niche that hasn’t been catered to in some time: old school AssCreed fans.
In the last 13 years, Assassin’s has taken on various forms, with its most contentious being as an action-RPG with the release of 2017’s Origins. Dialogue choices and skill trees have replaced pulling off one and done assassinations, to the chagrin of many who just want a stealth game with no fuss or muss. Those who own a PS4 and also wish that Ubisoft had ever taken the series to Japan will find themselves sated here. Though the stealth is perhaps too clumsy compared to its contemporaries, Tsushima nails its gameplay loop quite well. The combat is fun, and using the plurality of gadgets and sword stances against enemies is consistently engaging. In moments where the game throws a decent amount of enemies at you, it can be exhilarating as you blow through your gadgets, pull off parries and stanche switches on the fly, and use powerful mythic moves to ensure victory.
At times, Ghost of Tsushima feels like a hypothetical Assassin’s Creed in ways that go beyond its game mechanics. Assassin’s sequels following ACII have all had an air of self aware absurdity about them in some shape or fashion. (To give you an idea: 2017’s Odyssey let you slide down pyramids, and the upcoming Valhalla allows you to engage in Viking rap battles.) Tsushima has similar moments of self awareness, such as duels beginning in silence before Jin flicks his sword open as a way to start the fight, or each mission beginning and ending with a title card written in Japanese. Locals and Mongols have taken to calling Jin the Ghost, because like everyone in the real world, they know this is gonna be a franchise. After slaughtering a band of bandits or Mongols, you can use the trackpad to clean the blood off your sword and give a short bow before walking away and playing a song on your flute. Standoffs, where Jin must wait to kill his enemy in a single strike, are also both cool and hilariously absurd, especially when you get a skill that lets you kill up to three enemies in this method. Flourishes like these convey the personality of the game much better than its director repeatedly claiming to be inspired by the works of acclaimed film director Akira Kurosawa, because they feel endearing and cheesy like power fantasies are meant to.
Tsushima is so deliberate about how much it indulges in its own nonsense and when, that you honestly wish it was willing to do so with its story. The plot as it is is perfectly fine, but like early Assassin’s games, it takes itself a little too seriously. By either the hand of the writers or the game’s consultants from Japan, its view of the samurai feels overly romanticized. Strong voice actors do what they can, but they’re really only allowed to be very solemn or very sad a lot of the time. This isn’t a game as miserable as The Last of Us Part II; in fact, there are moments of beauty, such as a short thread of quests involving Jin’s former maid Yuriko that resolves in a touching way. But in the same way Ubisoft figured out how to make lead Assassins charming and fun, I come away from each session with the game wishing Jin were allowed to smile and emote more, or that he wouldn’t bring up his uncle so much.
The time of the PS4 and the Xbox One may be coming to an end, but Ghost of Tsushima is worth picking up as we wait for the next generation of consoles. What it does well, it does very well, all while looking and sounding great. Instead of spending the summer hedging your bets on how Assassin’s Creed Valhalla will turn out, this is a throwback that may be more your speed. Sucker Punch has made the game in such a way that you’ll want more even before you’re done, so why not step into some armor and into the shadows for throat slashing fun?
Ghost of Tsushima is available now for the PS4.