Basing a piece of entertainment on events of actual history is often a double-edged sword. It is a treat to be able to visit such events in real-time and play out potential fantasies in ways never previously imagined. Smash hit franchises such as Assassin’s Creed and Call of Duty are renowned for dabbling with historical fiction throughout their games’ narratives. Ghost of Tsushima is one such game.
However, choosing to take the historical fiction route confines many elements of the game to the period in which they occurred, potentially limiting the direction and liberties a title could take. Inaccurate portrayals and anachronistic elements come under intense scrutiny from casual and hardcore history fans and can make players question the quality and integrity of the narrative being told on-screen.
Sometimes, creative liberties must be taken to deliver on good gameplay. Historical accuracy must be sacrificed for the sake of fun. Enjoyment trumps strict adherence to history after all. Even from a developer’s standpoint, player convenience should take precedence,
Ghost of Tsushima dances between the lines of being historically adherent and downright inaccurate. This piece will be tackling the game from multiple angles and analyzing what Ghost of Tsushima gets wrong, but also what it gets right.
Examining the History
As the game makes clear, Ghost of Tsushima takes place during the Mongol invasion of the Japanese islands in the late 13th century. Tsushima Island was indeed the first location Mongol forces landed, serving as a strategic crossroad from the Asian continent to the Japanese mainland.
At the start of the game, Jin Sakai, Lord Shimura, the jitō of Tsushima (his uncle), and their retinue of 80 samurai warriors organize a hasty defense along Komoda Beach to intercept the invaders arriving ashore.
Clans Sakai and Shimura are fictional, but among the names of Tsushima’s defenders, several actual clans are mentioned. A notable samurai clan, Clan Kikuchi, is among them. Though the clan is thoroughly wiped out in-game, the actual clan was not on Tsushima at the start of the invasion. The clan and its leader, Kikuchi Takefusa, would leave their mark on history in later battles and invasions from the Mongols. (The Mongol Invasions of Japan 1274 and 1281, Stephen Turnbull)
The number of samurai who stood their ground against the Mongols is consistent with the number from history. It was 80 samurai against a force of around 8,000 Mongol warriors, making it a near hopeless battle from the start (The Mongol Invasions of Japan 1274 and 1281, Stephen Turnbull). Yet, the samurai stood their ground.
What the game glosses over at the start is that the jitō of Tsushima wasn’t so readily about to throw his and 80 other samurais’ lives at the get-go. When the Mongols initially landed, negotiation attempts were made but were promptly rejected by a hail of arrows (The Mongol Invasions of Japan 1274 and 1281, Stephen Turnbull). The defenders were forced to retreat but the actual fighting lasted much longer than the game portrays.
While the Mongols quickly cut down all opposition at the start in-game, Tsushima’s samurai would last from early morning to nightfall, all but perishing in a desperate final cavalry charge, which was what the game chose to start with—and like what happened in real life, the charge ends in utter disaster (The Mongol Invasions of Japan 1274 and 1281, Stephen Turnbull).
What the game tries to drive home is the fact that Jin and his forces were the major driving force that ousted the Mongol invaders and prevented them reaching the mainland. However, that wasn’t the case. History doesn’t like giving out plot armor.
With all its guardians fallen, Tsushima would follow suit. In but a few days, the entire island is under Mongol control, like how it was in-game (The Mongol Invasions of Japan 1274 and 1281, Stephen Turnbull). However, the Mongol forces didn’t dawdle on the island for much time. Ghost of Tsushima actually stretches out the Mongol’s stay on Tsushima—otherwise it would have been an incredibly short game.
After arriving on November 2, 1274, the invaders set their sights towards Iki Island, Tsushima’s southeastward neighbor which was a stone’s throw from mainland Japan, and embarked on November 13. Iki would meet the same fate as Tsushima.
The Mongols eventually reached Hakata Bay by November 19, a bay on the northwestern part of the Japanese mainland island, Kyushu. It was here where the winds of fate blew in favor of Japan.
Amassing a sizable defense force of 6,000 strong, compared to a pitiful 80 and 100 of Tsushima and Iki respectively, the Japanese defenders put up a rather poor fight against their invaders (Kublai Khan’s Lost Fleet: In Search of a Legendary Armada, James P. Delgado). Mongol weaponry and tactics caught the Japanese troops off-guard and scattered men. Uncoordinated and rattled, the Japanese suffered heavy casualties, losing a third of their forces and were routed from Hakata (The Mongol Invasions of Japan 1274 and 1281, Stephen Turnbull).
The Japanese prepared to make a final stand at a nearby fort and dug their heels in their fortifications. Their aim was to hold on as long as they could before reinforcements would arrive. In a surprise move, the Mongol forces declined pursuing the retreating Japanese further, giving the defenders time to fortify their positions (The Mongol Invasions of Japan 1274 and 1281, Stephen Turnbull).
The reason for this sudden halt in movement was due to two factors: Troop exhaustion and the severe injury of a Mongol commander. These prompted a rest for the Mongol host. Fearing an ambush in the evening, they retreated to their ships to rest (Kublai Khan’s Lost Fleet: In Search of a Legendary Armada, James P. Delgado).
The next morning, the Japanese prepared to fight to the last, just as it had been on Tsushima and Iki, but the winds were quiet. The unstoppable horde had all but disappeared. In the early morning, a sudden, terrible wind from the east blew the Mongol fleet back. Ships were sent back toward Korea and others were smashed apart across the rocks, killing all on board (Kublai Khan’s Lost Fleet: In Search of a Legendary Armada, James P. Delgado).
Reports say that of the 30,000 strong force, only about half returned home.
The serendipitous storm had saved Japan, giving rise to the fabled “Kamikaze”, divine winds.
A storm does appear in the penultimate act of Ghost of Tsushima, which causes the Mongols to halt their advance onto the mainland, but plays no pivotal role in wiping out the invaders like it does in history. That right is reserved exclusively for the players.
The game starts off in line with what went down historically but deviates almost immediately. Within the first ten minutes, players have already entered the space of alternate history. The real-life conclusion also wasn’t as clear-cut like it was in-game: The Mongols would come again seven years later.
As a medium of historical storytelling, Ghost of Tsushima leans more in the fictional and fantastical than being grounded.
Observing the Tactics, Tech, and Culture
Ghost of Tsushima instantly starts off with the stark contrast of the samurai and Mongols in a shocking yet poignant opening scene.
Under the jitō’s orders, Lord Adachi, a samurai warrior of utmost skill, rides ahead of the vanguard to face the Mongols in single combat. The noble and brave samurai demands the Mongols send out their strongest warrior to face him. The Mongols oblige happily and proceed to immolate and decapitate the foolishly brave samurai lord.
What is shocking about this scene is not its graphic nature; it’s that it actually happened.
In an account written by a Japanese defender at Hakata Bay, he writes:
“According to our manner of fighting, we must call out by name someone from the enemy ranks, and then attack in single combat.” (Science and Civilization in China Vol. 7: The Gunpowder Epic, Joseph Needham)
This lines up identically to how the samurai and Jin go about engaging the Mongols, reflective of the stand-off option players have in-game. While players have the benefit of gear, AI manipulation, and skills to turn overwhelming odds into their favor, the actual samurai weren’t so lucky.
The writer quickly follows up his statement explaining how the Mongols ignored such conventions of “honorable dueling”, rushing up en masse to any individual trying to do so and slaughtering them before giving them a chance to retaliate. Some records state the Mongols would laugh at such provocations, considering what the samurai were doing to be foolish and outright ridiculous (Science and Civilization in China Vol. 7: The Gunpowder Epic, Joseph Needham).
Interestingly, this is also reflected in-game when engaging a large group of enemies outside of scripted duels and stand-offs. Enemies will relentlessly mob players, giving little breathing room on higher difficulties due to the smarter tactics of the AI and increased damage taken. Coupled with the enemy’s wide arsenal, gamers need to stay on their toes to survive against a horde. The beginning hours of Ghost of Tsushima are tough for this reason. With barely any gear or skills to work with, Jin can quickly turn into a Mongol punching bag, honor notwithstanding.
On top of employing tactics that went counter to the Japanese style of fighting, the Mongols had a technological advantage over the Japanese.
Like certain enemies encountered in-game, the Mongols made clear and effective use of bombs, hand-cannons, and large shields to overwhelm their foes. (The Origins of the Lost Fleet of the Mongol Empire, Randall J.Sasaki) Gunpowder explosives and weapons served two major functions: Immediate, lethal force of the greatest quantity and thunderous cacophony to break apart enemy formations and morale. Bombs would scatter the defenders and scare their horses, sending them all into a frenzy and panic. (Relics of the Kamikaze, James Delgado)
Though the Japanese did possess primitive cannons, they had not developed nor employed workable and effective gunpowder weaponry during the late 13th century. It wouldn’t be until the 16th century where firearms would have wider use and appeal. (Giving up the Gun, Japan’s Reversion to the Sword, 1543-1879, Noel Perrin)
The only cannon-like artillery weapon encountered in the game is the notorious hwacha. Literally meaning “fire cart” in Korean, it is a wagon mounted organ gun that dispenses one-hundred to two-hundred rocket-powered arrows, capable of reaching distances up to 2,000 meters. (Fighting Techniques of the Oriental World, AD 1200-1860: equipment, combat skills, and tactics, Michael E. Haskew, Christer Jorgensen, Eric Niderost, Christ McNab) Like its portrayal in-game, the hwacha was mainly used in a defensive manner and, in Jin’s hands, is wicked fun to use.
The only issue with its appearance is that the weapon itself did not exist at the time. It would be developed two centuries later by Korean scientists of the Joseon Dynasty. Sorry, Jin.
Large shields also played an important role during the invasion. (The Mongol Invasions of Japan 1274 and 1281, Stephen Turnbull) They had an individual use, as seen on the regular sword and shield warriors and the gigantic brutes, but the shields were used in certain Mongol military formations not seen in-game. Tightly-packed together and supported by polearms, these dense shield formations were able to break through Japanese lines effectively.
The Japanese weren’t the only ones writing about the strengths of the enemy. Despite ridiculing the Japanese style of fighting, bolstered by the code samurai lived by (Bushido, though, the term had not yet been coined), the Mongol writers and intellectuals at the time spoke of how dangerous Japanese swords were. (Song, Yuan, Japanese History, Michihiro Ishihara) Various contemporary books state Japanese swords were long and sharp. Paired with a violent samurai, the two were a deadly combination. Players will be intimate with this fact.
However, the Japanese sword wasn’t perfect; far from it. Swords of the 13th century, tachi, were forged to be thick and heavy, having an emphasis on hardness. This same hardness made the blades inflexible and easily damaged. The reason behind these designs was because these older swords were meant for single combat. (The Connoisseur’s Book of Japanese Swords, Kokan Nagayama)
Though the weapon was strong, it lacked the ability to take on groups of multiple foes. The sword players see in-game is not actually the type of sword that would have been used by the samurai of the era. In fact, Jin’s long and short sword pairing didn’t even exist at the time.
Called a daishō, literally meaning big-little, the stereotypical samurai loadout commonly seen became popular between the 14th and 16th century, nearly six decades after the invasion of Tsushima. (Samurai: The Weapons and Spirit of the Japanese Warrior, Clive Sinclaire) Jin wouldn’t have been supplementing his sword with a shorter one, but instead would be using the aforementioned tachi.
That isn’t to say the samurai didn’t bolster their arsenal with other weapons. It is not known if the Japanese repurposed Mongol weapons like Jin did in-game, but the weapons he arms himself with were the tools of the trade for the samurai of the time, being primarily the sword and bow. Polearms, naginatas, were also common choices, though, Jin does not wield one. (The Samurai Swordsman: Master of War, Stephen Turnbull)
All-in-all, the tactics displayed in Ghost of Tsushima are remarkably faithful to how fighting would have gone down between the Mongol invaders and samurai defenders, aside from Jin’s whole Ghost shtick. Creative liberties were taken with the weaponry and tech involved but such concessions are excusable in the grand scheme of the game, as they are inoffensive and make the game more fun.
Ghost of Tsushima plays a fine balancing act of keeping itself in line with historical authenticity while also taking dramatic license to deliver fun gameplay. It definitely isn’t the first game to do so nor is it egregious in its display of the era.
Though embellished, Ghost of Tsushima gives a more or less accurate snapshot of a brutal, bygone time, marrying itself well to the digital medium. There are fewer, finer avenues to take if one wants a gritty and exceptional samurai experience.
The Mongol Invasions of Japan 1274 and 1281 — Stephen Turnbull
Kublai Khan’s Lost Fleet: In Search of a Legendary Armada — James P. Delgado
Science and Civilization in China Vol. 7: The Gunpowder Epic — Joseph Needham
The Origins of the Lost Fleet of the Mongol Empire — Randall J.Sasaki
Relics of the Kamikaze — James Delgado
Giving up the Gun, Japan’s Reversion to the Sword, 1543-1879 — Noel Perrin
Fighting Techniques of the Oriental World, AD 1200-1860: equipment, combat skills, and tactics — Michael E. Haskew, Christer Jorgensen, Eric Niderost, Christ McNab
Song, Yuan, Japanese History — Michihiro Ishihara
The Connoisseur’s Book of Japanese Swords — Kokan Nagayama
Samurai: The Weapons and Spirit of the Japanese Warrior — Clive Sinclaire
The Samurai Swordsman: Master of War — Stephen Turnbull