An excellent book or movie can leave you feeling a bit sad when the story finally comes to a close. You turn the final page and realize that you’ll miss the people or the well-crafted world you’ve recently been a part of.
Every once in a while, a reallygood video game can have that same effect. And except for a very large and central caveat that can’t be overlooked, Ghost of Tsushima is one of those games.
Ghost depicts the Mongol invasion of Japan in the 13th century. And it’s set in a breathtaking world of gusting winds, crisp falling leaves, fields of white waving grass and incredible mountain vistas that you’d normally see from the best of films about feudal Japan. In fact, there’s even an optional Kurosawa mode filter in this game (mimicking the black and white visual style of the famed Japanese director) that’s flat-out gorgeous.
This is a game that welcomes you into a gloriously detailed ancient world and quickly takes your senses by surprise. It’s a construct of stark contrasts: anguish-filled, yet idyllic; calm and serene, yet raging and incredibly bloody.
Gamers play as Jin Sakai, a young noble and samurai who is left near death after Mongols swarm the beaches of his Japanese island of Tsushima. Khotun Khan, the Mongols’ skilled leader, has studied every aspect of the Japanese samurais’ stiff-backed and rigid way of war and honor. And he easily and brutally crushes their defensive efforts.
In the aftermath of that slaughter, beleaguered Jin must bind his wounds, gather what few surviving fighters he can locate, then forge a new way of thinking and a new mode of guerilla warfare. He must find a way to weaken the Khan’s overwhelming forces … before all of mainland Japan is crushed beneath the invader’s savage heel.
To that end, this winding, 40-plus-hour adventure game has you following the winds on quests that not only gather warriors, weapons and tools, but also train you up as a samurai with a ninja twist. Assassin’s Creed-like climbing, grappling and sneaking moves are all a part of your martial arsenal. And as Jin learns those athletic moves and a number of specialized katana-wielding samurai stances, you must choose what technique to use when in an effort to parry, dodge and cut your way through the scores and scores of enemies who sport shields, spears, and swords.
And here’s where we get to that caveat I mentioned.
Ghost of Tsushima’s ever-unspooling historical and cultural story is filled with failures, heroic victories and surprising twists. And all of that is paired with Jin’s ever-evolving skills and dancelike moves. Suffice it to say it’s never boring. And the various Japanese characters tenderly wrestling with loss and the changing social mores of the day make things emotionally compelling. But this is definitely a game of war. And a graphically intense one at that.
The same graphics engine that draws your eye to a realistic bead of sweat dripping down a character’s tired face also enlivens the gush and hack of razor-sharp blades as they zing through flesh and bone in swift slices. Blood flows in rivers on these gory battlefields. Limbs and heads are lopped clean off. Bodies are ferociously impaled. Sneaking attacks rip open jugulars before a gurgling death. Men lit on fire writhe and scream. Or they might be beheaded in a merciful finishing blow.
People spit gore after being poisoned. Battlers are repeatedly spackled with crimson goop. They’re tortured, tied up and used for archer target practice and utilized as brutal tools of hacked-open terrorism by both sides of the conflict. And then the game goes on to employ them as emotion-tweaking fodder for lessons about revenge, loss, grief and the horrific choices we make in every age.
On top of that there are a few uses of “d–mit” and “b–tard.” And one scene depicts a man’s bare backside as he steps into a hot spring. But frankly, those negatives feel comparatively inconsequential in light of the bloodbath that players regularly wade through.
There is no question that Ghost of Tsushima is an artistic masterpiece, an unlikely swan song for the soon-to-be-replaced PlayStation 4.
But even art can be blanch-worthy at times. And that’s very much a centerpiece of this gaming experience.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.