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As I walk across the battlefield stabbing the Mongol soldiers struggling to get up after being blown to the ground by my sticky bomb, I can't help thinking: "My uncle is going to give me an earful about this." He's the samurai lord overseeing the island of Tsushima, the last stronghold between the Mongol armies and the Japanese mainland, and he bloody hates it when I fight without honour.
That said, it's definitely much easier to fight my enemies with a little dishonour - staggering them with throwing knives, ducking out of a fight with a cheeky smoke bomb, or stabbing soldiers in the back while they sleep. Throughout Ghost of Tsushima you'll be faced with the choice to either fight honourably, or use your full set of gear and have a much more fun time. Except, it's not, as you'll find, a choice really - as whatever way you play, the story doesn't branch and your character will do things in cutscenes that you have no control over. So you may as well embrace being an evil, dishonourable ghost, you'll be told off for being a bad samurai whatever you do.
Ghost of Tsushima is set on 13th century Tsushima, and you play as Jin Sakai, the last samurai of his clan. Following a failed assault on the Mongol forces landing on the island's beaches, you're one of the last Japanese warriors standing between the invaders and the Japanese mainland. Making matters worse, your uncle has been taken captive by the Mongol's leader, and you'll need to rescue him before taking the fight to the rest of his armies.
As a samurai, you're supposed to fight honourably, walking into battle with your enemies openly - inviting them to a standoff, never stabbing them in the back or using dastardly techniques like poison. But, these are trying times and Jin, along with the allies he makes on Tsushima, are happy to adopt new methods if that's what it takes to win the war.
Combat is certainly where Ghost of Tsushima stands out from the open-world crowd. The katana you start the game with is the weapon you end the game with. While you can upgrade your sword, increasing its damage, your focus is mastering this one blade over learning how to use lots of different weapon types.
Holding L1 will deflect most attacks, unless the threat is marked with a red flash - those have to be dodged. If the attack is marked blue then you will only block the attack with a well-timed tap of L1. Circle is your dodge, square is for light attacks, and triangle is for heavy attacks. These are all pretty straightforward. Though, you'll also want to lean on the heavy attacks when your enemy is blocking; break the block and you'll stun your opponent, opening them up for serious damage.
Those are the basics, and they'll keep you in good stead throughout the game. Though, as you complete missions and gain technique points, you'll unlock counters, perfect dodges, and most importantly, stances. In Tsushima you'll face soldiers with swords, shields, spears, and tank-like brutes who have huge health bars and big weapons that knock you off your feet. You can fight them in any stance, but you get perks for switching stances to match your opponent. For instance, if you face someone with a shield, hold L2 and tap circle and you'll switch into a stance that not only does more damage and stuns shieldbearers more quickly, but has special moves that'll help you kill them in a few strikes.
In later fights, when you're facing ten enemies at a time, you'll need to be changing stances between combos, switching targets to keep enemies back - and when you do it faultlessly you feel like a samurai straight out of an Akira Kurosawa movie. However, there will be many times when you can't get into that flow, because there are too many enemies around.
Your ghost equipment is great for evening out the odds. Your throwing knives, for instance, stagger the enemies they don't outright kill, making it easier to thin out the crowd. Your sticky bombs, too, are a great help. Tap R1 and you throw a lit bomb at an enemy - it'll stick to them, doing not only a load of damage to the individual, but knocking anyone nearby to the ground, too. You can then execute anyone stumbling to get up, making quick work of a group of soldiers.
This focus on mastering one type of combat does have its drawbacks, though. The combat you face in the first hours of the game is basically the same as what you'll see all the way through the campaign. The enemies have more health, do more damage, and get faster and more aggressive in the later game; but broadly they fall into the same roles as they did in the first few hours. On the one hand you get better at fighting them and have more moments where you look like a slick samurai, and on the other combat stops being surprising and battles become repetitive.
It's not just the combat that becomes repetitive in Ghost of Tsushima. Quests, too, feel like they all come from a small set of moulds. Of course, with a Mongol invasion going on, most of the stories are going to be about getting revenge on the advancing armies or the people taking advantage of the confusion, but I had two side quests in a row where I was helping parents retrieve kidnapped children. It was an unfortunate coincidence that those were the sidequests I played one after the other, highlighting the repetition, but even in the multi-part companion quests there were awkward repeats.
In one questline you're helping your companion through the campaign, Masako, track down the person who executed her family. One mission begins with Masako arguing with a priest, trying to get him to reveal the location of someone she wants to interrogate. The priest refuses to help her, but will speak to you. The very next mission, which takes place in a completely different location, begins again with Masako arguing with the very same priest about helping her find someone she needs to interrogate. The sense of deja vu takes you right out of the moment.
There's a great variety to Tsushima's world. You'll travel between irrigated farmlands, gloomy swamps, snow-capped mountains, and cherry blossom-filled monasteries, all which change the tone with the weather and time of day. The designers are using the quests as breadcrumbs to draw you into travelling to as many of the island's sights as they can, but it's a shame that the quests aren't as polished as the island.
The quest design at points actively makes the game look worse. For instance, in one quest you need to duel with a ronin to get his mythical armour. Rather than face just him, you have to first duel five other ronin dotted around the islands. Each duel takes place in a scenic spot and in isolation these are engaging fights. But when you have five duels in a row (not including the final boss fight), you'll watch the same duel intro animation every time, before taking down enemies that are largely the same. The location changes, but it makes duels less special and highlights their artifice.
The busywork of Tsushima isn't just down to its quests, though. For a samurai trying to drive out a Mongol invasion you can spend a huge amount of time collecting things. There is armour to unlock, charms to collect, cosmetic headgear, masks, and sword scabbards to find. If you want a new saddle you'll need to find samurai clan flags dotted around the island. There are spots to compose haikus in exchange for headbands. Foxes to follow to shrines to unlock new charm slots, and bamboo challenges to gain more resolve points. Mongol artifact collectibles to find and read about in your journal. There are even crickets to find in the island's cemeteries. Tsushima is busy with stuff to do, but it boils down to hundreds of items to find and activities to repeat, a tired trope of open-world game design.
While most of these collectibles are optional, you will want to collect all the crafting materials you can find because you need them to upgrade your gear. Even in one of the game's final boss battles I was picking up little supply bundles, because I wanted to upgrade my longbow after the fight.
That disconnect between your actions in the game and the story it tells is frustrating, particularly in the main campaign. At the heart of Ghost of Tsushima is a story about choice and sacrifice. Jin must choose to sacrifice his own honour to drive the Mongol invaders from Tsushima. He must choose to slip into camps in the dark and stab unawares soldiers in the back; choose to use poison, bombs, and throwing knives in fights; choose to become a fear-inspiring figure instead of remaining an honourable samurai. That's fine, but it's frustrating that you, as the player have no choice in this, and the game doesn't recognise how you choose to play at all.
As you gain fame and experience, completing missions and saving peasants from the Mongols, you unlock new ghost equipment - such as smoke bombs and poison blow darts. But you don't have to use them to win fights. From game start to game end, in most instances you can rely on your katana and enter enemy camps through the front door, announcing your intentions and calling enemies to come face you in a standoff. But, even if you do this, the characters in the main cutscenes will still call you dishonourable, and they'll still tell you off for stepping away from the samurai code.
There are also points in the story where control is taken out of your hands to force you to do the dishonourable thing. During a raid on a Mongol fortress, in a cutscene Jin uses poisoned darts to kill guards while being watched by samurai forces. The leader of the assault then tells Jin off for abandoning his code of honour, but this grated all the more because I hadn't used the blow pipe since it was given to me. It's not new to have your character do something in a cutscene that you then have to deal with in the main game, but having a constant refrain of people telling you off for things your character did is annoying.
There's nothing wrong with a linear story where you don't have branching narratives, but it's not fun to have characters repeatedly tell you off for things you didn't do - even if your character did them. But, also, taking a step slightly further back: if the developers have spent so much time and energy crafting these ghost abilities, why then make a story that actively criticises you for using them?
Ghost of Tsushima is a fine open-world game. It ticks all the boxes of what you would expect it to do. Multiple biomes, a skill tree to unlock, hundreds of collectibles, crafting, a 20-hour campaign and lots of side quests. But it doesn't do anything more than that. The story it tells in its campaign seems to be actively at odds with what you do in the game, and not in a way that develops to a point. Indeed, it reads almost like a mistake. This is one of the last exclusive games for the PlayStation 4 and it's disappointing that it has nothing new to say.
Ghost of Tsushima is out on July 17th for PlayStation 4. PlayStation 4 code for review was supplied by the publisher. Find a guide to GAMINGbible's review scores here.