No character in this game is written in a way to even attempt the charisma and humor of “Seven Samurai." A trailer of the 1952 film exudes more energy than the entirety of the dour performances in the latest from Sucker Punch, a celebrated Sony studio. Nate Fox, the creative director of the game, told the Los Angeles Times in May that the studio hopes that purists would appreciate what they’ve done.
With all due respect to Fox, his pitch is more ambitious than the game he helped make. And it was Fox’s other comments about the game that clued me in on the best way to enjoy it. In a 2017 developer diary, Fox called Ghost an “awesomely simple" concept, and that "to hear about it is to want to play it.” It’s because the game is best enjoyed as its elevator pitch illustrated; it’s a pretty simple, open-world samurai game, complete with fun collectibles to hunt.
“Ghost of Tsushima” is disappointing if you’re going to compare it to some of the greatest cinematic works ever made. But as fallout from this misguided ambition, “Ghost” is also a wonderful culmination of the best ideas of open-world adventures of the last two console generations, all wrapped up in very pretty, albeit superficial, samurai clothing. It’s a great Xbox 360 game, and I mean that as a compliment.
It’s a problem of competing priorities. No samurai cinephile will ever recall the lengthy scenes of samurai clambering alongside a cliff’s edge during a 15-minute Mario-style platforming sequence to pray at a shrine, all just to receive the ability to equip more charms. Jin Sakai, the titular Ghost of Tsushima, never once reminded me of Toshiro Mifune, and usually reminded me of Nathan Drake. As a samurai, Jin can look like a fool.
But as a player, I was justly rewarded with a fifth slot to equip one of the many defense charms I’ve discovered around the island, and a great view of the scenery to whip out my wind flute while I activate the game’s Photo Mode to capture that perfect, tweet-worthy landscape shot. Also, the platforming is clever and Jin is impeccably animated to clamber along those branches and ledges. The entire process was a dumb video game thing to do, and also totally worth my time.
Sony’s studios are talented, but also seem to have a predilection to offer us games in “prestige” wrapping, like a high-budget HBO show. But unlike Sony’s other big studios, games by Sucker Punch Productions (like superhero shooter series “Infamous") always seemed more comfortable in the trappings of video games. “Ghost of Tsushima” continues this trend. You need supplies to upgrade your gear, so simply go up to the item marked “Supplies” and press a button.
Unlike the lumbering, laborious animation cycles of more recent big-budget open-world games like “Red Dead Redemption 2,” Jin Sakai will simply swipe at the “Supplies” in less than a second. If you are traveling by horse and spot some “Supplies” and a “Flower” for armor dye, there’s no need to get off the horse. The R2 trigger will vacuum up any piece of litter in Jin’s path.
Yes, this game is basically “Assassin’s Creed but with samurai." But free from the narrative pretense of that series’ shaky adherence to historical fact, this game isn’t interested in telling us why Jin can slice three separate men with a single slash in split-second magical speed. The Ghost of Tsushima is just that kind of video game samurai. He doesn’t need to be “blessed” with any powers from any magical lore beings, not when you, the player, already spent hours looking for bamboo poles to increase your super meter.
The fighting, then, is what will keep players in this windswept virtual 13th-century Japan. Jin can fight and switch easily between four different stances that are ideal to handle different enemy types, whether they’re armed with swords, shields, spears or are literally just plain big. Switching stances is not required, but optimizing each stance to each enemy type ensures faster fights. The game starts slow as Jin grows in power. By the end of the game, you’ll be able to dispatch six enemies in less than that many seconds.
For samurai fans, especially ones who grew up on anime, this is a thrill. If “Ghost” really did have grander samurai ambitions, Sucker Punch nails the speed and silence in which these mythical heroes dispatched foes, much like the tense final fight of “Harakiri," the 1962 film directed by Masaki Kobayashi.
It can’t be overstated how nice it is to feel powerful again in an open-world game without the trappings of levels and loot grinds. Jin’s power is almost purely based on a working, instinctual knowledge of these four stances, as well as a keen eye for parrying and defense. One-on-one sword duels with “Straw Hat Ronin” (not a real, historical group) can be tense and down to the last sliver of health. They’re very often a beautifully animated ballet of blood and clanging blades, often against some stunning backdrops. I often hate “snow levels” in games, but sword duels in Tsushima’s northern mountain region pops with blood red splatters across the white of snow-powdered battlefields.
“Ghost” also boasts the most beautiful wind effects ever in a console game. The Kurosawa influence is also easily seen here, with every wind-swept frame quivering with grass, flowers, leaves and trees. While the character model and animations fall short of other big budget efforts, it’s easy to see that most of the work went into the environments. Tsushima is large, teeming with life, and scattered with just enough activity to feel populated, but not as congested and stuffy as other, busier games.
The game’s main story is its weakest point. To start, its simplicity is refreshing, with easy-to-hate cartoonish villains in the form of the invading Mongol army. Jin Sakai is a samurai lord, and has to rescue his uncle from the clutches of the evil Mongols. Along the way, he’ll have to compromise some of his samurai values in service of saving Japan, or at least saving the game from being too monotonous and adding some decent stealth gameplay that reminded me of “Tenchu: Stealth Assassins,” the first 3D stealth game alongside “Metal Gear Solid.” It’s not a bad story, and in fact it does a good job in telling a tale about the kind of society that would require self-sacrificing, stubborn warriors like samurai at all.
But here’s where the storytelling really falters: The performances are simply too stiff, much like a Western game. When the game cuts to telling its story, Jin and all the other characters are animated too stiffly, like “Skyrim” NPCs with better limb movement and eyes that work. While it should be applauded that the English voice track is mostly populated by Asian American talent, the work is too bland. After several weeks, I can’t help but compare the noodle-limp performance of Jin Sakai to Connor of “Assassin’s Creed III,” another game about a native man fighting against an invading force.
It’s a shame that the animation doesn’t match, or even lip sync, to the Japanese audio track. While in English, Jin Sakai sounds perpetually unsure of himself, his Japanese voice has a darker, deeper and more assertive intonation that feels much more natural to the genre. It’s a directional misstep, especially if you’re going to so earnestly cite Japanese films as inspiration. And it’s especially jarring as Jin grows into a more reckless warrior throughout the story. It’s a satisfying arc, but one with little electricity.
There’s a historical and cultural reason for this distinction and misunderstanding. Kurosawa’s studio, Shochiku Co. Ltd., was founded in 1895 as a production company for kabuki theater. Kabuki theater is known for exaggerating features and stereotypes of character archetypes to tell its stories.
Thus, much of early Japanese filmmaking, including Kurosawa’s samurai films, were built from this foundation of kabuki-style acting. We see this in the wild, violent and humorous antics of Kikuchiyo, the iconic and tragic samurai figure Mifune played in “Seven Samurai.” Everyone in “Ghost," on the other hand, still acts and moves like they’re in an “Assassin’s Creed” game, a pretty low bar when it comes to storytelling. “Ghost” thrives when it remembers it’s simply a video game where you play as a samurai with superhuman strength and speed. It sinks when it tries to be anything else.
Credit where credit is due though. The much-touted “Kurosawa mode” adds a black and white filter to the game meant to evoke watching the old films. When the feature was unveiled a few months ago, a few samurai cinephiles (myself included) were disappointed with its first look. It looked like a lazily applied Instagram filter over the game’s graphics. But it looks like Sucker Punch did the work to adjust the blacks and whites and contrasts. While the game simply has too many gorgeous colorful areas to hide in the binary, the mode looks about as good as the engine could allow. The “sound on film” audio effect also works well to mimic the tinny sound of those early pictures.
But authentic color filters do nothing to hide awkward, stilted animations and the lifeless storytelling of the main campaign. It’s only when you ignore these faults, and even the main campaign, when you start to appreciate what “Ghost” offers. When I later found that the game’s side quests are written much better, I realized that “Ghost” works better not as a long epic campaign, but as a world filled with some pretty good samurai short stories. Many even have twists that surprised me. If anything, the game would’ve worked better as a series of short stories. Developers of big, expensive open-world games seem obligated to produce an overarching narrative to a genre that discourages it. “Ghost” would’ve been a far more interesting game if it was simply about Jin Sakai, a traveling ronin who gets into trouble and adventures here and there.
These side missions aren’t at the level of what “The Witcher 3” offered. That game had the benefit of long-beloved characters and the freedom to play with mythology and fiction. But the “Ghost” side missions are much better written than the recent output of “Assassin’s Creed Origins” and “Odyssey.” There’s a sad poetry to them that’s effective in ways that the grand war narrative isn’t able to carry.
Despite popular belief, there’s actually a dearth of samurai games lately. The “Way of the Samurai” games were small, “Fallout”-style adventures that were more authentic to the culture, but technological constraints held back an otherwise ambitious series. The aforementioned “Tenchu” series turned into the award-winning “Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice” from last year.
We’ve never had a samurai game as big as this. Absent any compelling story or characters, “Ghost” is still a terrific stand-in for the free-roaming digital ronin game I’ve always wanted.
Sure, it’s not the “Seven Samurai” of video games, but who’s really asking for that? There’s a great, captivating open-world samurai game here, only if you strip away the pretension. If only Sony and Sucker Punch did the same.