(Pocket-lint) - Anyone who has an older brother or sister – especially one that's better looking, smarter or just generally cooler – will understand what it's like to live in the shadow of someone (or something) more popular.
This is the issue faced by Ghost of Tsushima. In any other year, this would be the PlayStation exclusive of the summer – the top tier game that would fly the flag for the PS4 during a traditionally quiet period for gaming.
But as it stands, not only is the summer of 2020 about as non-traditional as it could possibly get, GoT is overshadowed by what is quite possibly the best game of the entire generation. And let's face it, The Last of Us Part 2, released just one month beforehand, is an extremely tough act to follow.
Still, Ghost will undoubtedly have its own legion of fans – and rightly so. It's a very different kind of game to TLOU2 and therefore has its own appeal. Some may even prefer it.
It is a massive, open world action-adventure game that is crammed to the rafters with missions, collectibles and encounters. And it has a fast and fluid combat system that feels as intuitive and natural from your first fight with a Mongol raider to your last.
So, putting Last of Us 2 to one side, Sucker Punch has created one of the slickest, most enjoyable games around in its category – one that provides many hours of exploration and discovery, heated battles and moments of true tranquillity. And it has wrapped it all up in a gloriously realised game world.
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Of course, as a third-person open world title, it does also fall into some of the traps that plague others in the genre, even the developer's own Infamous series – namely repetition in both side tasks and enemy types – but it offers so much more besides that you can forgive it. Not least its setting.
Land of the Rising Sun
It is clear from the outset that the development team is in love with Japanese cinema and, specifically, samurai movies – especially Seven Samurai by Akira Kurosawa. That love affair even extends to the option of a Kurosawa mode that turns the entire game in black and white, ramps up the contrast, and changes the audio to Japanese with English subtitles.
This genuine affinity for the subject matter runs right through the game, even down to the choice of navigation tool (a directional wind that shows you the way to travel rather than a clumsy on-screen map) and it sets the scene perfectly. You can even turn on an expert HUD mode that reduces distractions to the game's majesty.
It's brave for a Western studio to make a game so steeped in Japanese history, but the Tarantino-esque attention to detail means it pulls it off with aplomb. And, not knowing as much about feudel Japan ourselves before playing, gives it an air of uniqueness and unfamiliarity that kept us hooked.
You play as Jin Sakai, who is one of very few samurai who survives an extremely one-sided battle on the island of Tsushima against Mongol invaders. The battle was lost, but Jin is alive and able to gather a new team of fighters to take back the land from the evil Khan. Cue the game-spanning plot.
There's not really that much to the story, but it is well-told and in-fitting with the theme, as the material on which it is based is generally single-minded and, often, light on dialogue. It is also believable – rare for open-world games these days – and beautifully presented.
As well as the main story missions, which appear across the vast map as you complete each part, there are many side quests and 'tales' that can reward you with new weapons and modifications. They, along with random encounters, also increase your Legend – an RPG-style level-up mechanism that improves your health and other statistics while also giving you a new title each time.
You can also increase your Legend by completing set tasks, such as clearing out a Mongol logging camp and raising it to the ground, or annexing farmers from their captors.
These are possibly the least interesting bits of the game, lacking variety at times and reminding us of the checkpoints in Infamous Second Son, or just about any settlement in any Far Cry game ever. You can skip them, but we found we needed the boosts their completion added to our character's abilities. And, to be honest, they presented decent challenges – especially early doors – that honed our skills.
It's just we long for a day when a third-person open-world game doesn't have yet another fort to conquer by killing the leader, or village to clear of bad guys. Oh well, we'll get there one day. Besides, GoT's fighting elements are at least fun enough to keep interest levels high, mainly thanks to the many layers of customisation options that allow you to mould your version of Jin to suit your style of play.
Customisation and role-playing elements are hugely important in Ghost of Tsushima. Just about everything in the game can be tweaked or improved, giving you better fighting abilities, stronger armour, or simply a smarter look aesthetically.
You can collect flowers around the island to exchange for new colour schemes or designs for your various types of armour or swords. You can also spend gathered resources on sharpening your katana and tanto, enhancing your bows, and adding extra abilities to your armour. You can even get additional saddles for your horse, if you are so inclined.
Charms can be won to enhance your abilities further, adding bonuses like extra damage, more health and less chance to be spotted by enemies when employing stealth tactics. In short, there is a vast system to adapt your main character depending on how you want to tackle the game. You might even find yourself swapping armour types or charms depending on mission objectives.
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Jin even has four different fighting stances – styles that can be unlocked through playing the game and switched on the fly. And they too can be loaded with different moves and add-ons to tweak their impact. Each is better at defeating one specific type of enemy over the other and hot-swapping between them makes swordplay more exciting that just mashing a couple of buttons.
Stone, Water, Wind and Moon stances look different on screen and can be switched through a tap of the right button plus any of the selection buttons on the DualShock controller. By doing so, you can hit with more power to break through a shield, for example, or better strike a spear-bearer.
Not only does this help the flow of combat once you've gotten the hang of it, it becomes essential in later skirmishes. Soon you'll be tapping away at different stances, combining move patterns, and much more, often without even realising how much more proficient you've become. The game is cleverly geared towards teaching you new skills, almost to the very end, and it is this smoothness in design that allows us to overlook the more grindy sections.
As well as swordplay, Jin learns both ranged weapon use – mostly through either a long or half-bow – and assassination (Ghost) techniques, which can be adapted and improved through customisation further still.
These latter talents run contradictory to the teachings of the samurai way, and therein lies the subtext for the entire shebang. Throughout the early stages of the game, Jin is conflicted by having to resort to dishonourable practices, and it makes for a more interesting adventure. That said, he's still more than happy to leap off a tall house, skewering two unsuspecting guards underneath if needs must. Which, to be completely honest, feels just as satisfying as a player.
Our only concern with the assassination mechanics and themes is that they can't help but fuel troll-fuelled comparisons with the Assassin's Creed series – especially the most recent outings, Origins and Odyssey. And, admittedly, there is a fair few familiarities in Ghost, with its historical setting, rebellious lead, and stealth-friendly gameplay. You even ride a horse across the map that appears each time you whistle.
However, the voice acting and general mood of GoT is more considered and sombre than Ubisoft's series. And, as we loved both Odyssey and Origins, the similarities are welcome.
The numerous differences are also significant enough. For example, Ghost has samurai duels, which are major boss fights that play slightly differently to the general fights in the game. You have fewer climbing sections too – although there are some. There is also very little humour in Ghost of Tsushima, being more thoughtful and focused than most games of its ilk.
The combat is much more complex than in an Assassin's Creed too – yet still reasonably easy to master. So, while fans of the Creed franchise will find much to enjoy in Ghost of Tsushima, it is far more than a carbon copy. In fact, you can argue that Sucker Punch has created Assassin's Creed+. And that's plenty enough of a reason to enjoy it for us.
You got the look
It may not be light in thematic tone, but in graphical terms GoT offers an explosion of colour and brightness. There are darker sections, with thunder and lightning to boot, but the Japan on show here is so jaw-droppingly beautiful that you'll spend half the time just stopping and taking in your surroundings.
High dynamic range (HDR) is used to perfection. There is great visual variety across the map, with different hues and saturation employed depending on the region. One has a grove of trees that have scattered their luminescent yellow leaves on the ground to stunning effect. Another uses greys and a dulled pallet, with bodies hanging from trees. The graphical contrasts are used to convey emotion throughout, and it works wonderfully. It certainly looks superb on an OLED TV.
Sucker Punch also plays a master card with the audio, which is similarly thoughtful. The soundtrack is accurate to its inspiration and there are more options in the menu for different audio output types than you can shake a stick at.
As well as the Kurosawa mode, you can also choose to play with Japanese language and subtitles using the normal, colourful graphical scheme. And there is an in-depth photo mode to take great screens and video from within the game.
Essentially, the developer has thought of everything, both in and around the game experience itself. So, whether you are a home cinema nut or play on a small LCD TV in a bedroom, you're covered.
Sucker Punch took a big gamble in straying so far from its Infamous series and creating an all-new intellectual property in Ghost of Tsushima. Sony has too, by scheduling its release so soon after The Last of Us Part 2. But both have pulled it off.
Indeed, it can be argued that a massive open-world adventure – one that takes many hours to complete – is exactly what we need right now. Something to get our teeth into while we continue to spend more time in our homes than usual.
Yes, the game exhibits the same caveats common to the genre, with many side elements being formulaic, but the overall theme and style elevates even those to forgivable levels.
Then there is the combat system and customisation, with enough complexity to never grow tired, yet also being intuitive enough to suit all-manner of play styles. It puts GoT on a pedestal of its own – away from the button mashers – and forms the bedrock of what will likely be an all-new series for Sucker Punch to continue. And we're certainly down with that. After all, we always have time for Jin.