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Ghost of Tsushima: A Kurosawa Samurai Movie You Can Play

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Fight with or without honour on a beautiful island in 13th-century Japan.

Ghost of Tsushima — Reviewed on: PS4. Release date: July 17, 2020. Price: Rs. 3,999 (India), $60 (US), £55 (UK). Director: Nate Fox, Jason Connell. Cast: Daisuke Tsuji, Kazuya Nakai, Patrick Gallagher, Minae Noji, Hira Ambrosino, and Keisuke Hoashi. Rating: 18 (PEGI), M (ESRB). PS4 Pro Enhanced: Yes.

Yellow ginkgo leaves blow across the screen and tall pampas grass swirl in an unrelenting wind. A murder of crows circle a battlefield drenched in blood. Giant waves crash onto rocks along the shore, spraying water in every direction. Including the faces and armour of two warriors facing each other and standing perfectly still. Their respective katanas hang on the left side of their hips — one has his right hand hovering over the hilt, while the other’s left thumb rests on the edge of the handle — both ready to unsheathe it at a moment’s notice. These scenes aren’t from a movie, they’re from a game: Ghost of Tsushima, the latest — and quite possibly, the final Sony-produced — exclusive for the PlayStation 4, from Sucker Punch, the makers of the Infamous series.

These cinematic flourishes are quite obviously inspired by classic samurai movies, something the makers — creative directors Nate Fox and Jason Connell — have acknowledged, having name-checked the legendary Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa. Ghost of Tsushima even offers an optional “Kurosawa Mode”, a display setting that applies a black-and-white filter, throws in film grain, and infuses more wind into the proceedings. Just like Kurosawa’s famed works. Ghost of Tsushima complements that with Japanese dialogues across the length of the game, which can be paired with subtitles in English. You can also choose to opt for English audio, among many other choices, but anything non-Japanese feels like a disservice to the experience.

All that is backgrounded by a fantastic mellow soundtrack provided by composers Shigeru Umebayashi (In the Mood for Love) and Ilan Eshkeri (Shaun the Sheep Movie). With the use of shakuhachi (bamboo flutes), koto (a long zither), shamisen (three-stringed lute), taiko (Japanese drums), and biwa (short-necked fretted lute), Ghost of Tsushima sets itself apart from the score of most video games — and even most mainstream movies. The calm it instils is disturbed by the fires of combat, where the score serves to augment the violence. Of course, that depends on how you choose to play, with Ghost of Tsushima allowing you to sneak around your enemies like a ninja or charge them head-on like the honourable samurai the character has trained to be.

In certain situations, Ghost of Tsushima literally allows you to declare a “Stand-off”, where the protagonist announces himself as he approaches the enemies. This is a bold move, as every single combatant present in the vicinity is now ready to fire upon you. Stand-offs begin with a mini-game of sorts where you face one opponent, before you’re thrown into the mix with the others.

Jin Sakai (voiced by Kazuya Nakai in Japanese, Daisuke Tsuji in English) is that aforementioned samurai and protagonist on Ghost of Tsushima. Sakai lives on Tsushima Island — about halfway between the Japanese mainland and the Korean peninsula — in late 13th century. Japanese history buffs will know what that means: the Mongols are coming. Though the game draws off a real-life incident — the first Mongol invasion of Japan in 1274 — it’s entirely fictional otherwise. When the Mongols under Khotun Khan (Patrick Gallagher in English), a fictional grandson of Genghis Khan, take over Tsushima, Sakai’s first instinct is to walk in the front gate. After all, his code instructs him to value honour over everything else. But he soon realises that it’s not going to work.

“When you’re up against someone stronger than you, you must find other ways to defeat them,” a supporting character tells Sakai. If he really wants to rid his homeland of the Mongols, Sakai must betray the noble samurai code that he holds so dear and become a stealth assassin. Hide in the grass, jump on rooftops, and kill enemies from behind — everything he believed to be the ways of criminals, Sakai must now adopt to stand a chance. It’s an ethical compromise, one that could draw severe punishment were his master, Lord Shimura, to learn about his new antics. But due to the backdrop of the story and how it’s told, Sakai comes across as a classical hero, even as he’s swayed from his principles. In that sense, Ghost of Tsushima is no match for a Kurosawa film, which were far more morally complex and had you questioning whether the protagonist was a hero at all.

Part of it has to do with the fact that Ghost of Tsushima doesn’t try to make you feel uneasy or uncomfortable when Sakai is springing from the shadows. Sakai must feel guilty, but it doesn’t show. This is exactly where its recent counterpart — The Last of Us Part II — fared so well. If anything, playing as a ‘ghost’ is more thrilling than strolling into the front gate as a samurai. The game helps your efforts with “Focused Hearing”, which works quite like “Listen Mode” on The Last of Us. The screen is desaturated save for the living, with enemies behind objects outlined in red. You can assassinate them quietly with a knife or an arrow, but you can’t move bodies around. If they’re discovered, the alerted enemies will begin to hunt you down. If you’re spotted, you’ve a short window to take them out or get back into cover, before it turns into an all-out battle.

Fights on Ghost of Tsushima utilise a very different set of tools. Every face-to-face interaction with an enemy is essentially a duel, and to succeed, you’ve to learn and master three facets: movement, strategy, and precision. Ghost of Tsushima doesn’t allow you to lock onto enemies, as is the case with the likes of Assassin’s Creed, which means you’ve to constantly adjust your position to face them. Strategy is about picking the right body stance. One’s good against swordsmen, a second is built for shieldmen, a third works with spearmen, and a fourth helps you deal with brutes. Changing stances mid-combat is crucial to maximise Sakai’s skills; otherwise you’re looking at inefficiency and damage. That’s because stances also change how the buttons and combos work.

Sakai performs quick attacks with the square button, heavy attacks with triangle, dodges with circle, and parries with L1. There are multiple ways to break through an enemy’s defence, but heavy attack is the most aggressive, reliable, and easy to pull off. But the way Sakai does a ‘heavy attack’ varies from stance to stance. With shieldmen, he swings from ground to the air to break through. With spearmen, he spins himself to land a blow on their heads. The heavy attack button offers different combos too in each stance, which are again geared towards a certain enemy type. And that’s where precision comes in. For example, a perfect release of the triangle button kills an enemy in one strike at the start of a ‘stand-off’, but pull it off a little early or late, and you’re looking at taking damage yourself.

Doing well in combat has other benefits too. Sakai gains “resolve” with every successful hit and kill, which in turn can be used to replenish your health or perform special moves. Not doing well in combat can create a vicious cycle of sorts, as you don’t have any resolve to regain health, and low health pushes you closer to defeat. For what it’s worth, Sakai can earn “charms” on Ghost of Tsushima that aid him during combat, with some giving him an advantage when he’s on low health. Charms are one of many collectibles — most are useful and help improve your character, while others are merely cosmetic upgrades — that you can discover in the game by way of completing a seemingly endless number of side-quests.

In that regard, Ghost of Tsushima is guilty of too much padding. Sure, an open world game is expected to have side-quests and discoveries off the beaten track. Some do help enrich the narrative, as they deepen the life of supporting characters, with Sakai going on multiple missions with the same individual as part of an ongoing storyline. And if you help them with their problems, they might offer aid for major missions against the Mongols. But most of it feels like an attempt to extend game length. Tsushima Island has been divided into 56 chunks across three sections — Izuhara, Toyotama, and Kamiagata — which can be liberated. Some side-quests are unlocked by talking to a certain individual in a village, and others make you travel to several farmsteads across the island as just one of the tasks.

You can’t completely ignore them either, as they help “grow your legend” and earn Sakai “technique points”, which are required to unlock new abilities and weapons such as chain assassinations and smoke bombs. And depending on how much you plan to tackle, Ghost of Tsushima can run up to 50 hours, according to Fox. That doesn’t mean there aren’t other pleasures to be had. Among our little joys is getting to pet foxes and compose haikus, a short poem made up of 17 syllables that originated in Japan. For haikus, Sakai must be at a meditation spot that are found by following a golden bird — or the guiding wind, after you unlock an ability. Once you arrive and sit down, you get to select from up to three choices for each line. (Haikus usually follow a syllable pattern of 5, 7, 5.) Golden birds and guiding wind help you discover and get to places on Ghost of Tsushima, as the in-game map is only available in the pause menu.

Meandering around the gorgeous open world of Tsushima Island, with no destination in mind and accompanied by a calming soundtrack, has its charm too. The calmness was usually eclipsed by the sound of my PS4 though, which perhaps has been at its loudest while running Ghost of Tsushima. (You can also take it a sign of the PS4 being close to the end of its life cycle, which likely means a “remastered” re-release of the game for PS5.)

By contrast, Ghost of Tsushima offers plenty of blood and gore too, as Sakai severs Mongol limbs and heads with ease. Both his playstyles — as an honourable samurai or a dishonourable ‘ghost’ — have their own fun. With the latter, you’ve to master sneaking around and not being spotted, which means more creativity, strategy, and using the lay of the land. The former is about mastering melee combat and duelling, which means more precision, on-the-fly thinking, and relying on Jin’s repertoire and abilities with a katana.

But as for Sucker Punch’s ambition of creating a Kurosawa samurai movie you can play, Ghost of Tsushima falls a bit short. The narrative blocks and storytelling are too straightforward. To add to that, the side-quest bloat seeps the narrative of its pacing; to paraphrase another film director in Martin Scorsese, they are designed as variations on a finite number of templates.

Pros:

  • Cinematic flourishes
  • Gorgeous environment
  • Fantastic soundtrack
  • Strives for authenticity
  • Strategic, fun combat

Cons:

  • Narrative, storytelling too classical
  • No guilt after ‘dishonourable’ kills
  • Too much padding
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