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PLATFORMS: PS5, PS4
RELEASE DATE: August 20, 2021
DEVELOPER: Sucker Punch Productions
PUBLISHER: Sony Interactive Entertainment
MSRP: $59.99 ($19.99 upgrade for owners of original game/ $9.99 upgrade to next-gen)
ESRB: M for Mature
You just can’t keep a good thing down. Ghost of Tsushima took the gaming world by storm last year when it was released on Sony’s Playstation 4 console. In a market full of countless open-world adventure games, encompassing varying degrees of quality, Ghost of Tsushima managed to stand above its competition with a fantastical, breathtaking setting; fluid, responsive combat; a captivating story...and a whole lot of pettable foxes.
As such, it was inevitable that this masterstroke of design in Sony’s impressive catalogue would be revisited. And so it is, in an all new expanded edition, including all of the bells and whistles that were added to the original release after launch via patches addressing player feedback.
Now that a year has passed and we’ve gained some new perspective as the gaming industry expands, does this revisit to the island of Tsushima shine like it did the first time? Was this re-exploration of the Ghost of Tsushima warranted?
Yes. By God, and all winds divine, yes it is.
To say that Ghost of Tsushima is 'just another samurai story' would be doing the game a massive disservice and oversimplifying just what makes it work, play, and feel so good.
Yes, it does feature the tried-and-true, stereotypical samurai tale of vengeance and lost honor in the shoes of its protagonist, Jin Sakai. However, the game doesn’t entrench or hold itself too strictly to those standards and ideals, diverging instead into a unique and compelling story of its own as it follows how Jin transforms from samurai to the titular Ghost over the course of its tale.
The Director’s Cut further compounds upon this idea, giving some much needed backstory and character development regarding Jin and his past, which rounds out the narrative in a much more meaningful and rich way than what was experienced in the original release. To highlight the changes and their importance, this review will be focusing heavily on the new region, Iki Island, and its features, story beats, and overall atmosphere.
Accessible at any point once the player reaches Act 2, the Iki Island expansion explores themes that were relatively untouched in the base game. Without delving too deeply into spoiler territory too much here, the tales of Iki Island begin when Jin receives word that a horde of Mongols called the Eagle Tribe is wreaking havoc on the region. Despite the island’s reputation for being a hub of raiders, bandits, and all things anti-samurai, Jin prepares to go on a quest to repel the invaders and save his southeastern neighbors, regardless of how eager they may be to have a samurai on their shores. However, within the first hour of embarking on this mission, both Jin and the player realize that this task is not as cut and dry as it initially seemed.
Waging warfare on a scale much different from the barbaric methods of Khotun Khan, Tsushima’s conqueror, the titular Eagle, matriarch and head warrior of said tribe, uses poisons and hallucinogens, attacking the minds of the captive people rather than just their bodies, which breaks their spirits and their will to resist. Jin, too, isn’t spared the drugged attempts on his sanity (and for the player, it’s a good thing he isn’t).
The expansion explores traumatic events Jin experienced in his past - events that shaped him into becoming the man, samurai, and eventual Ghost he becomes. Many of these events are seen through the lens of Jin’s constant hallucinations, which are discovered in the form of specific prompts found all over Iki, triggered by the player’s performance, good or bad, and discovered in key locations related to Jin’s past on the island, each of which are laced with flashback sequences.
Warped in a devilish purple hue, a cacophony of fleeting flocks of birds, and the scattering of wisteria flower petals, every hallucination seen is an event the player and Jin played witness to - or executioner in - throughout Ghost of Tsushima’s original lengthy campaign. As such, it is highly recommended that Iki Island be explored AFTER completing Act 3 to truly appreciate the wealth of possible hallucinations players can experience, with some even depending on Jin’s course of actions throughout the main story. These hallucination events add so much more to the experience and storytelling, and we are glad the developers had the foresight to script all of this accordingly.
While having to deal with his trauma haunting him, Jin must also contend with the raiders of Iki, who are the only line of resistance against the Eagle Tribe and also super not big fans of samurai, especially Jin's clan Sakai. Though not as visually striking as the hallucinatory moments, the raider side of the story is one that is also rooted in Jin’s past, playing a pivotal role in Jin’s development and relationships with the inhabitants of Iki. The raiders’ story also serves to give a new perspective on the perception of samurai in Ghost's world, depicting them not as honor-bound warriors but savage butchers, feeding further to the conflict and tension of the narrative.
Overall, the story of Iki Island is a well-paced, self-contained, thought-provoking adventure that touches deeply on the burdens of trauma and its effect on Jin, while also simultaneously giving way to healing in the form of a dramatic conclusion, providing Jin and players a much longed-for catharsis. It is a worthy addition to the Ghost of Tsushima campaign, taking well over 10-15 hours to fully complete, and one that I was sad to see end.
Ghost of Tsushima plays like a samurai fever dream brought to life. Sucker Punch knocked combat out of the park for both Ghost and Samurai playstyles, making each rewarding, fluid, and, most importantly fun to play in their own unique way.
Embracing the path of the samurai comes with all the tropes expected of a Hollywood/ Kurosawa-inspired romanticized warrior, including honor duels, tense standoffs, and varying sword stances meant to handle specific foes.
The way of the Ghost promotes a more dishonorable path to approaching fights, encouraging players to assassinate enemies from the shadows and use unorthodox weaponry and tactics to win the day. The wealth of tools Jin has at his arsenal allows players to take on enemy patrols and camps in whichever way they please.
What is particularly praiseworthy about Sucker Punch’s implementation of combat is that it avoids promoting one style of play over the other, despite how divergent they seem at the surface. They seamlessly bounce between one another at the player’s own preference, giving players the freedom to integrate whichever technique or weapon they wish into the flow of combat without hiccups.
This fluidity is most tested in the Iki expansion, where enemies are much more relentless than their Tsushima counterparts thanks to a new enemy type, the Shaman. These mystic foes chant songs that boost their allies’ attack speeds and ferocity, which can make quick work of any unsuspecting or unwary players. On top of this, the purple-hued Mongols of Iki now carry more than one weapon type, and they're able to switch them on the fly to adapt to whatever style Jin may be wielding, adding another layer of challenge to fighting the hordes. Players will have to make great use of their stances, arsenal, and skills to come out on top.
All of these skills are learned and upgraded via the game’s Legend system, which acts as a leveling mechanic. When certain points along this grid are successfully reached, the player earns technique points they can spend towards unlocking new techniques or upgrading previously learned ones. Almost every skill, weapon, and armor earned serves a purpose and isn’t overshadowed by latter unlocks, making every avenue a worthwhile venture. Combat itself may not be incredibly deep or mechanically complicated, but it plays smooth as silk and looks absolutely gorgeous. With parrying, blocking, and dodging adding another layer to taking on foes, combat in Ghost of Tsushima is an art form given life via each swing of Jin's sword.
Ghost of Tsushima’s biggest issue when it comes to gameplay is its slow-burning start. When Jin begins his quest, he is practically naked skill and technique-wise. With so many moves and skills locked behind progression, the first several hours of Ghost of Tsushima are widely regarded as its worst, when they should be the most defining period of a narrative-based title.
Still, Ghost of Tsushima is a game that gets better and better as players advance and expand their legend, and this is reflected in both the gameplay and its unraveling story.
The presentation in Ghost of Tsushima is something of a marvel, both in its technical implementation and visual display. Many open-world games suffer from having massive, expansive worlds with little in between zones to make the world interesting to look at. Ghost of Tsushima instead suffers from being the prettiest open-world environment to ever grace the screen - so pretty in fact that players might easily find themselves distracted from their current objective and lured to instead go explore the overworld or wade through the seas of pampas grass (and maybe find a secret or two!).
Sucker Punch proves that it has mastered the inner workings of the PlayStation hardware, making the game run and work fantastically even on aged machines like the standard PS4. Yes, objectively the PS5 is superior in every way, but the game still runs damn well on the older hardware. Load times are sparse, so the players never dally too long from the action, and the game world never loses its luster no matter how many times you might take to the quiet of the fields and forests or experience the cacophony of steel and blood during combat. When everything looks as if it has been torn straight from an impressionist painting, it’s easy to see why Ghost's visuals have garnered so much praise from press and fans alike.
The music and ambience more than keep up with the beautiful environments of the game. The score composed by Ilan Eshkeri and Shigeru Umebayashi blends traditional Japanese and Mongol inspired music together to deliver a truly breathtaking harmony in tandem with the visuals, blurring the lines between epic samurai game and epic samurai movie.
With all the aforementioned strengths, it is no wonder the photo mode in Ghost of Tsushima is so fun to mess around with. Can Ghost of Tsushima’s photo mode be considered a new art form?
The relationship the developers have had with the playerbase is what made Ghost of Tsushima: Director’s Cut the final product that it is. Throughout the original game’s lifespan, Sucker Punch made quality-of-life changes, technical fixes, and content updates at the behest and feedback of the community. New game plus, armor sets, controller remapping, and mission replay would not have been implemented so quickly (if at all) had it not been for the willingness of the developer to listen and respond to their players.
Director’s Cut is blessed by the gift of hindsight and comes with all these bells and whistles from the get-go, making it a much more complete package than its predecessor was at launch. With updates still steadily incoming, it shows that Sucker Punch are still striving to make Director’s Cut the best way to experience the masterclass that is Ghost of Tsushima.
The one aspect where the game falters in this aspect is in regards to its PS5 upgrade. Many Sony exclusives and other titles prior (like Final Fantasy VII: Remake, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, and more) all offered free upgrades of their titles to the next-gen system. Ghost of Tsushima: Director’s Cut, however, required an additional $10 for the PS5 upgrade, along with the $20 fee for players who already owned the game. It is a sore subject but one that is still worth mentioning as it highlights Sony’s greed and dampens the goodwill players have had towards the game until now.
Does it ruin the experience? No. Does it leave a bad taste in our mouths? Yes.
Few games come close to the full package that is Ghost of Tsushima. From its story, gameplay, presentation, and developer dedication, it is a game that seemingly shouldn’t exist in today’s gaming climate - one rife with buggy launches, dishonest presentations, and microtransaction-heavy “features”. It is a breath of fresh air amongst games today and a proper showing by Sony that further strengthens its exclusive catalogue. It’s also a masterclass in technical prowess and display, showcasing Sucker Punch’s mastery and ability to deliver fantastic experiences across multiple generations of hardware.
Just as the original was heralded as the swan song of the PS4 era, Ghost of Tsushima: Director’s Cut can be held in equal measure - a victorious rally cry welcoming great things to come in the new generation, and one that should be absolutely experienced by everyone.