I wasn’t expecting to fall in love with “Ghost of Tsushima.” Sure, the Sucker Punch game was on the gaming world’s radar as one of 2020′s most anticipated titles, but it’s also the kind of game I rarely play.

Now in my 40s with two kids and little spare time outside of work, open-world games that demand dozens of hours to complete need to clear a high bar to get my attention. At first glance, there wasn’t much from “Ghost’s” trailers to suggest it would sweep me off my feet and put me on a path to 100-percenting the game.

Now a year since its release, I’ve long since completed the campaign, vanquishing the Khan and moving on to oust the lingering invaders that seemed to not get the memo that the war was over. I’m also very much anticipating the upcoming expansion/PS5 update in August. But why did I fall so hard for a game I was looking forward to about as much as an average Tuesday?

It’s manageable

The love affair began in part because acclimation was easy. Simple controls allowed me to master attacks and parries easily. While you can add to Jin’s arsenal and abilities by acquiring new fighting stances, the player doesn’t actually have to learn them. That stands in contrast to “Assassin’s Creed Valhalla,” where there’s a distinct learning curve for fighting with, say, a hammer versus a sword and shield versus a pair of daggers.

The skill tree is likewise uncomplicated. In “Ghost,” simply unlock the ability you want to add to your repertoire. There was no need to track how many points you’re leveling up your melee attack compared to your defenses or a magic attack or whatever. Click a box and now you can throw smoke bombs. Done and done.

Crafting and resource management are also minimal, and you can usually upgrade your gear without grinding to harvest materials. In short, I didn’t feel like I needed to labor in order to properly enjoy the game. I could just fire it up and play the way I wanted.

It’s stunning

The visuals — from the very first trailer — always looked radiant, but even that didn’t adequately prepare me for the way things look in the game: riding through fields of pampas grass or scaling craggy peaks to reach Shinto shrines, drinking in the panoramic views from on high.

To me, the mark of a beautifully crafted open-world map is when it makes you want to explore even when there’s no quest or even a clear reason pushing you in a certain direction. You just want to see what the world looks like “over there.” There have been dozens of times I’ve scaled down cliff faces to investigate deserted beaches below, just 'cus. Some of those unheralded corners of the island inspired as much as awe as major points of interest like the Golden Forest, Hidden Springs or Mount Jogaku.

It’s fun to travel

My biggest gripe about open world maps is getting from one place to another. Walking or riding can feel like a slog if the only reason you’re moving is to fulfill a required quest. This was part of the reason I was very much “meh" on the open world-lite maps in “Star Wars: Jedi Fallen Order.” I was mandated to go somewhere. With “Ghost,” I’m enticed.

Part of that stemmed from the stunning setting, but also from its engaging, story-rich side quests (the Tale of Lady Masako is exemplary). There were also plenty of simple, rewarding tasks like tracking cuddly, petable foxes to Inari shrines. Such stations were evenly and thoughtfully distributed around the map in a way that always led to unplanned pitstops on my route to the next main line objective.

It’s even more fun to fight

The game’s blend of stealth and melee provides an almost endless array of ways to engage with foes. Want to sneak up and assassinate unsuspecting guards? You can do that. Want to challenge everyone in a war camp to glorious, frantic combat? You can do that, too. And you can fire an array of arrows and darts, and hurl knives and makeshift bombs.

But what makes “Ghost’s” fights so extraordinary is the smoothness and seamlessness of shifting from one type of attack to another. It feels powerful, and when you nail the timing, it looks almost choreographed. Engaging Jin’s special Ghost Stance is downright cinematic.

The characters are compelling

While the story revolves around Jin and his relationship with his unyielding, traditional uncle, it’s really the game’s supporting characters that keep driving me to take up every side quest I can find. Whether it’s the resilient and determined Yuna, the conflicted sensei Ishikawa and his fallen-from-grace pupil Tomoe, or the aforementioned Lady Masako, the arcs of these characters had me riding from coast to coast to reveal the next piece of their story. And for that matter, I still am.

Even in my world, where free time is at a premium, a year later I’m spending some of it on the Island of Tsushima. And I’m savoring every second.

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