Video games

Ghost of Tsushima: Video Game Review

Ghost of Tsushima was the last game I beat in 2020 – I completed the game on New Year’s Eve on a launch PS4, and in spite of that console’s age, Tsushima is a title that looks and plays beautifully.

Ghost of Tsushima follows Jin Sakai, a samurai on Tsushima island, during the first Mongol invasion of Japan, during the Kamakura Shogunate. The Mongol Horde has managed to successfully take Tsushima, after a brave but ill-conceived frontal assault on their landing area left the defenders mostly annihilated, ala the Charge of the Light Brigade. Stick a pin in this, we’ll get back to it later.

Sakai survived, and was pulled from the beach by a woman named Yuna. In the past, Yuna was a thief, and is now just trying to take care of her brother and get by in the middle of an occupation. After a spectacular failure on his initial attempt, to kill the commander of the invasion, Kohtun Khan, Sakai will have to become more pragmatic and embrace guerilla warfare to drive the Mongols from Tsushima. However, hot only will this put him at odds with the code of Bushido, it will also put him at odds with the Shogunate itself.

How this plays out in terms of the gameplay is that you’re basically in a Late Ubisoft style open-world game with some RPG elements, like some of the later Assassin’s Creed titles. You ride across the length and breadth of the island, liberating settlements and fighting wandering Mongol patrols, either on their own or doing combinations of those for the story missions (which will often involve some tracking as well).

Ghost of Tsushima's World Map

Where the pragmatism I mentioned comes in is related to the game’s stealth mechanics. For the settlements, while you can just walk up to the front door and just start fighting everyone in the encampment, odds are high you’ll end up dead that way, especially at the start of the game. Instead, you’ll sneak around the environment, draw off enemy soldiers and pick them off one at a time (or later two at a time), until the number of enemies goes to a manageable level, and you can fight the rest of the camp directly.

For those encampments, the penalty for discovery is fairly forgivable – aside from some upgrades to help you quickly get back into stealth, the combat is straightforward enough that if you can manage your numbers of opponents, you can reasonably take down whoever has directly spotted you and get into hiding before reinforcements arrive. The story missions and side-quests will put you into more situations where getting discovered will lead to a mission failure, but those situations will also have the enemy movements designed in a way where you reasonably stealth past all of them.

There are some additional collectables on the world map – outside of hot springs to increase your health, bamboo stands to increase your adrenaline gauge (which is used for special attacks and health regeneration), and various crafting materials for costume and weapon upgrades, there are a bunch of cosmetic items. Haiku points (again, we’ll get to this) will have you craft a poem and will receive a cosmetic headband based on the location, along with weapon color schemes at various points on the map.

In Ghost of Tsushima, Jin Sakai looks out over the island
Ghost of Tsushima features some remarkably gorgeous vistas.

As I mentioned in the first paragraph, Ghost of Tsushima is incredibly pretty – the stock PS4 does support HDR, and that allows for some gorgeous landscapes, that are clearly designed with a striking use of color, and even if you don’t have that option on your TV, you’re still going to get a remarkably pretty game.

It actually makes the games advertised “Kurosawa” mode slightly odd. My first exposure to Kurosawa’s works was his color films, particularly Kagemusha and Ran. Both of those films are not only in color, but also contrasting color to tremendous effect. Consequently, not only does the name of the mode ring false, but because of the game’s use of color normally makes playing the game in Black & White feel off.

That said, probably my big gripe about Ghost of Tsushima is with some of the writing. The Samurai in the game, of those loyal to the Shogunate, like Shimura’s foster father, are written as basically strict adherents to the ideal of the Samurai put forward into the Hagakure.

The problem is, and there’s no beating around the bush here, the Hagakure is bullshit. It’s a book written in 18th century Japan by a Samurai who was working as a scribe, to set down what he thought the ideal form of the samurai in warfare was when there hadn’t been very little warfare in generations, and any sources he would have had in reference would have been works selected by the Shogunate to make them look good.

And if you look at where the Hagakure has predominantly been adopted afterwards, you see it being adopted by fascists who are, like the Nazis and Norse legend, aspiring to an imagined ideal. Same with Yuuko Mishima, who, inspired by the Hagakure, tried to spark a coup to restore the Emperor and eliminate democracy from Japan (when Japan had been a democracy during the Taisho period), and who basically wanted Japan to return to being a fascist state.

Some of how the whole thing applies in total works – Jin Sakai, by ultimately adopting the moniker of the Ghost, and becoming a folk hero to the people of Tsushima through his use of guerilla tactics, is inspiring the people to act independently of the government, and is also using tactics that the populace could use against the nobility.

And, well, this is the Kamakura Shogunate, which historically has had a tendency to go after populist folk heroes who challenge or appear to challenge the authority of the government. Just ask Minamoto no Yoshitsune. Indeed, if they had decided to draw connections to Yoshitsune, you get a companion in the second area of the game who is a warrior monk like Benkei.

However, that’s not the root of the objections of the government and your foster father. It’s because you’re not following the According to Hagakure code of Bushido. And it’s clear they’re using Hagakure here because the tactics that are used in battle are universally frontal assaults. Also, while the Mongols are using anachronistic Hwacha, when you use the Hwacha against the Mongols at several points in the story, you are berated for doing so because it’s violating Bushido to use a weapon like that.

It’s a bad narrative decision, and reeks of lazy historical research – going for lowest common denominator narrative choices because that’s what the writers think the audience knows, rather than taking advantage of the opportunity to bust out some neat piece of history that the audience might not have known about, and surprising players with that. It’s like they saw that the first Mongol invasion was during the Kamakura Shogunate, and assumed that because it was a Shogunate, it must be identical to the Tokugawa shogunate, and fell back on works like Sword of the Beast for fictional reference.

I enjoyed playing the game a lot, but the level of dumb in parts of the story means that I’m going to hold off on playing this game in New Game Plus for a while.

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