Ghost of Tsushima is a love letter to samurai cinema and feudal Japan

Upcoming PlayStation 4 game Ghost of Tsushima is an ode to samurai movies in the kind of way Red Dead Redemption is an ode to cowboy movies.

However, Sucker Punch's new game is also a love letter to feudal era Japan in perhaps more of a way than Rockstar's is a love letter to America's Wild West.

Ghost of Tsushima appears to be extraordinarily cinematic but it also boasts a vast, open world to explore at one's leisure.

"There's been a lot of great samurai games, especially recently, but there hasn't been an open-world game with the sense of a wandering samurai," creative director and art director Jason Connell told Newshub.

"You have the ability to go and do what you want in Tsushima. Of course there's a story, you're not just wandering, you have a clearly defined mission and set of goals. But there is a sense of you getting to choose whatever you want to do in the game's world.

"I love the game's art and the beauty of it all, as well as the frickin' amazing music. But I think the open world exploration will be the top highlight of it. Years from now, I think people will look back on this game and think that was very special."

Sucker Punch's biggest claim to fame before Ghost of Tsushima was the studio's Infamous games. It's an American studio and those were very American superhero games, set in America.

Ghost of Tsushima is a bold departure.

Ghost of Tsushima screenshot.
Photo credit: Sucker Punch/PlayStation

The game, while fictitious, is set on the real island of Tsushima in the late 13th century, when it actually was invaded by Mongolian forces.

Players will take control of a warrior named Jin Sakai, one of the last surviving members of his clan. He's committed to do whatever it takes to win a war for the freedom of Tsushima.

That real, historical setting, along with the extremely high regard Japanese people have for their own culture and the samurai era in particular, put a lot of pressure on Sucker Punch. 

History versus fantasy 

"We want to be as faithful to the history as possible. As a creator trying to make entertainment for people, it's hard to imagine coming up with a cool, original story without a solid foundation of what really happened," said Connell.

"You have to immerse yourself in the facts as much as possible. Then you can understand when you're sometimes leaning away from some of those facts, because in the end, the most important thing for us is to create a game that appeals to people and then feels good when they're playing it. 

"We're trying to strike a balance between history and what really happened to lay a great foundation, then carefully decide what elements we introduce for entertainment purposes."

This looks to be an epic game and it's been in development for around six years. A lot of that time was spent researching, with Sony's Japan Studio assisting on what Connell described as "awesome" reference trips to Japan.

Ghost of Tsushima screenshot.
Photo credit: Sucker Punch/PlayStation

The care taken in accurately depicting natural foliage and man-made structures in the game is obvious in all footage of it shown so far and Connell said a lot of sound recorded in Japan has also been put into the game.

But really understanding the historical and cultural background of the setting was paramount and in addition to the research trips, expert consultants and historians were hired by Sucker Punch, too.

"We learned a lot - not just about Tsushima and the Mongol invasion, but about Japan as a country, the history of it, the culture," said Connell.

"That was actually a really fun part - capturing the feel of Japan, and specifically feudal Japan, was one of our main goals and I feel really proud of what we've been able to accomplish."

The divine wind

When the Mongols were invading in the 13th century, on two separate occasions a massive typhoon is said to have obliterated the invading forces - miraculously saving Japan.

The Japanese believed the typhoons had been sent by the gods to protect them and called them kamikaze (divine wind).

Fittingly, wind forms a crucial part of Ghost of Tsushima, cinematically guiding the player to their next goal instead of displaying text or visual waypoints that would take them out of the game world.

"The wind is one of my favourite features in the entire game. It's such an innovative, inventive way to get through the world in an immersive way," said Connell.

"We're not displaying a compass or a big flashing arrow on the screen or a mini-map, it's an interesting new thing that keeps you immersed in the game world."

Connell added it was not just visually tying kamikaze to the game, but also "thematically and mechanically".

Ghost of Tsushima screenshot.
Photo credit: Sucker Punch/PlayStation

"Also, I'm a big fan of Akira Kurosawa and anyone who has seen his movies knows there's always motion, there's always something moving in every frame. Wind is a big element in some of his most dramatic scenes."

Having wind guide the player instead of a flashing arrow or other on-screen prompts speaks to one of the key goals Sucker Punch had with Ghost of Tsushima:

Maximum immersiveness

"I don't want to be taken out of the really beautiful game world by a bunch of UI (user interface)," said Connell.

"It felt like a good design goal to try and keep you in the world as much as possible. Some of those experiments turned into realities like the wind, but also the foxes and birds that help you."

Those elements also hope to achieve another goal beyond immersion, too.

"Tsushima is Jin's home. He's fighting for his home, which he loves and he's willing to sacrifice a lot in order to keep it safe - even his own honour and the things he believes in, his own code," said Connell.

"If we can get you playing the game to feel like the island is important and special, that its wind and animals are helping you, hopefully that means you identify with the island in a way that's very positive, like Jin does."

Sucker Punch wants that sense of immersion to be enjoyed by all kinds of players of the game - whether they're just in it for the action, they want to peacefully wander around Tsushima or they want to rush through the narrative like it's a long movie.

"People like me, we want to explore - I could spend a whole afternoon just looking for beautiful spots in the world. If I get into a fight, cool, but I'm not looking for all the fights," said Connell.

"Someone else might be super story-oriented, they don't care for any of the stuff I'm into, they just want to go play the story. It's important we make a game that affords both of those players. 

"We want everyone to enjoy playing our game and it helps that at Sucker Punch we have people who enjoy different things in a game."

He said this was challenging to pull off while also trying to achieve their immersion goals - but generally, the in-game functions they came up with worked across the different playstyles.

"The wind can guide you to the next story moment and we don't make it hard for you to figure out where to go for the next story part of the game - because that's very important to people," said Connell.

"But if you want to use the wind to go find some rare collectibles for a little while, you could totally do that too. That one feature exists for two different types of players."

Ghost of Tsushima screenshot.
Photo credit: Sucker Punch/PlayStation

Ghost versus samurai

Catering to different players' playstyles also means offering multiple ways to combat Jin's enemies.  

During the 18-minute State of Play video released recently, it was revealed there's two major modes the player can use - 'samurai' and the ninja-like 'ghost'.

"The samurai is about lethal, quick, precise movements. He usually goes in head first and bites off more than he can chew, so it can get a bit over your head if you're not careful. But starting a battle with a stand-off is like the most samurai thing you can do. That playstyle is more for people who like to go in chest thumping and thinking 'I've got this'," said Connell. 

"The ghost playstyle is quieter, sneakier and stealthier. It's about sneaking around on rooftops, throwing smoke bombs, doing assassinations - this way, people are dead before they even know you're there."

He added that players won't be locked into one combat style or the other - they can swap between them however much they like and when they like, even mid-battle.

Ghost of Tsushima screenshot.
Photo credit: Sucker Punch/PlayStation

Cinematic in the extreme

Japanese cinema, and samurai cinema specifically, is more influential than non-fans often understand. If you've ever watched a movie from Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, Sergio Leone or Quentin Tarantino, you've watched a movie made by a person who cites Akira Kurosawa as a direct influence.

And that's barely scratching the surface.

Kurosawa's impact on international film cannot be overstated and, rightfully, his influence on Ghost of Tsushima is significant - but a more modern film from Takashi Miike also played a big role.

"We were heavily influenced by Kurosawa films such as Seven Samurai. Then Ran is one of my favourite movies, from a visual perspective. Kurosawa's Dreams, I quite like that one and also Kagemusha," Connell said.

"Switching gears, [Miike's] 13 Assassins is a really cool story that was also a big inspiration, particularly the way it deals with brutal violence. Especially toward the end of that film, it gave us good inspiration for handling violence."

Seven Samurai versus 13 Assassins.
Seven Samurai; 13 Assassins. Photo credit: Toho

13 Assassins is something of a spiritual successor to Seven Samurai - as the titles suggest, they're both films about small groups of warriors facing much larger forces, just as in Ghost of Tsushima where Jin Sakai battles a much larger force.

When you watch both films, there are plenty of similarities - but the look and sound of the 1954 film is vastly different to the 2010 one.

"For the biggest fans of samurai movies, most of them have seen black and white films. Creating a cinematic experience was important to us for the game in general, but then we realised it would be pretty easy for us to create the Samurai Cinema mode," said Connell.

This mode applies film grain and a black and white filter among other effects to emulate '50s-era samurai films.

"We tried it out and it works in the game during every time of day and all the different weather types. It all works great. It makes it look, sound and feel like you're playing an old movie, which is a unique experience and our game is one of the few that can offer that."

So samurai movie fans can, essentially, play the game in either Seven Samurai mode or 13 Assassins mode - and jump between the two whenever they like.

Ghost of Tsushima is released for PlayStation 4 on July 17, which leaves plenty of time to watch both films in preparation.