Review: Ghost of Tsushima masterfully balances beauty and bloodshed

Ghost of Tsushima is a stunning ode to samurai cinema that showcases the very best of open world gaming while occasionally leaning on some of its tired tropes. 

Despite minor missteps, the story of Jin Sakai - a broken samurai struggling to free his home from an invading Mongol horde - is epic, heartfelt and one of the most memorable games of this console generation.

Balancing frenzied action with moments of quiet contemplation, Ghost shines with love for Japanese history and theatre while providing players an exceptional, consistently spectacular adventure.  

The Island

The standout of Ghost of Tsushima is the titular island itself, which is hands-down one of the most beautiful game worlds I've ever experienced. It's a vast, diverse landscape riddled with collectibles, battles and vistas of jaw-dropping wonder.

Thankfully, the game guides you through gentle nudges instead of pointed fingers, allowing players the joy of discovery by not overtly pushing them in any direction.

The display is minimalist - in lieu of traditional minimap or compass, direction to your next point of interest is shown only by the wind's direction. A simple swipe over the touchpad will usher a gust guiding you towards your goal. 

This frees up your attention to appreciate all the beautiful details of Tsushima and what a sheer joy it is to traverse. From golden light spilling through treelines, to fog creeping over ancient battlefields, it's hard to overstate how good this game looks, particularly running on a PS4 Pro. 

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

The aesthetic is consistent not just in gameplay, but in a haunting musical score and even the small details of menu and loading screens. It all combines to keep you immersed, wherever you are and whatever you're doing.

Even something as simple as beginning a new mission yields an artfully composed scene with the quest's name displayed in the style of a film's opening credits.

It's in a thousand small touches like this that developers Sucker Punch productions showcase their love for cinematic storytelling, and legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa in particular. 

There's even a full Kurasowa movie mode available at any time which switches the game into black and white, complete with film grain and an audio filter. 

While pushing the mongol horde back from the shores of Tsushima comprises the game's central narrative, you'll be unsurprised to know there are dozens of side questlines - or 'tales' - to explore along the way.

Completing tales gradually fills a 'legend of the ghost' bar, unlocking gameplay benefits at set intervals and giving you a tangible sense of Jin's mystique growing.

A beautiful swan-song to the Playstation 4 era, Ghost of Tsushima was worth the wait.
Ghost of Tsushima screenshot. Photo credit: Sucker Punch/PlayStation

Unfortunately, not all quests are created equal, and as often happens with open world action, some missions become repetitive. No matter how beautifully presented, there are only so many variations possible on 'go to enemy camp, kill everyone in it, collect reward'.

However, what keeps that repetition from becoming a full blown slog, is exceptional combat. 


Players can tackle encounters through a mix of two distinct styles, Samurai and Ghost, each with their own skill trees. These are complemented by multiple collectible armour sets which provide different bonuses to suit your preference. 

Samurai gameplay is about facing your enemy head on, moving fluidly through four sword stances based on what weapon your opponent wields or singling foes out for tense 'standoffs' where a split second button press rewards you with an instant kill. 

Playing as a samurai feels both elegant and impactful, beautifully garnished with tiny flourishes, like Jin calmly cleaning blood from his katana before sheathing it. 

This style is for fans of Sekiro, Dark Souls or any gamer who appreciates timing, precision and technical mastery. The best of this style is showcased in the game's boss encounters, which take place as tense, marvellously theatrical duels.

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

By contrast, the Ghost style - my personal favourite - is about sowing fear and discord using every dirty trick available. Throwing knives, smoke bombs, hallucinogenic darts or just straight up stabbing fools in the back makes for chaotic and bloodsoaked fun. 

Ghost tactics will also terrify your enemies, causing the more cowardly to drop their weapons and scramble away in fear, giving you the satisfaction of looming over them before landing a single killing strike.  

Unfortunately, Ghost abilities can prove too much of a good thing, with some of the auxiliary weapons becoming so powerful I could eventually slaughter entire camps of Mongols without breaking a spectral sweat. 

This is compounded by extremely forgiving stealth mechanics and sub-par enemy AI, which, even on the game's hardest difficulty, allow Jin to chain multiple instant kill assassinations and escape relatively easily. After a halfhearted search most enemies will return to set patrol routes, forgetting all about their recently murdered compatriots, allowing the grisly cycle to repeat.

This never stops the combat being enjoyable but did remove a sense of jeopardy once I realised I was only ever a smoke bomb away from safety. 

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

The Ghost and the Samurai

What gives Jin's journey emotional weight is the tension between these two personas, the noble Samurai and savage Ghost. 

Following a crushing defeat where most of Tsushima's samurai are slaughtered during the game's opening, Jin first embraces the Ghost's shadowy tactics only when needed - but then he slowly comes to question the rigid code of honour which once governed his life. 

Where many games, including Sucker Punch's own Infamous series, feature a binary morality system of pure good and pure evil, Jin's story is more nuanced. There is no 'honour' meter slowly filling/depleting based on your actions and it's a much better game for that omission. 

Sometimes Jin, and by extension the player, gets to be a hero and sometimes he's forced to be a villain, but the line is never clear-cut. While this story doesn't break new ground, it's a powerfully realised version of a familiar tale - a soldier realising that to fight true monsters requires becoming one. 

Ghost of Tsushima is an excellent title made by people who clearly have a cohesive vision and deep reverence for both the game's cultural setting and its cinematic inspirations.   

While not every aspect is a home run, the level of love, detail and craft evident from the opening scene to closing credits make this a fitting swansong to the PlayStation 4 era. 

Four stars.