Ghost of Tsushima and The Last of Us Part II don’t have much in common, beyond the fact that they’re the last two things I’ve played. They’re both big budget games for the PlayStation 4, and their developers both bring up movies when discussing their games. That’s about it. Their relationships with cinema couldn’t be more different, though. Whereas The Last of Us Part II tries to be a movie—at least as much of one as a videogame can be—Ghost of Tsushima is content to merely reference them, specifically the samurai films of Akira Kurosawa. It’s a bit like when a friend who just watched Seven Samurai for the first time won’t shut up about Kurosawa for a month straight. The passion is well-intentioned, but naive, and a little off-putting.
I don’t think it’ll shock anybody to hear that Tsushima is less ambitious than The Last of Us Part II. It’s absolutely okay with being a videogame, which I respect. Tsushima regurgitates design concepts that have been popping up in open world games for well over a decade, at times feeling like the most Ubisoft game that Ubisoft never made. It’s the closest we’ve seen yet to an Assassin’s Creed set in feudal Japan. And that lack of inspiration, that willingness to do what we know games can do instead of trying to chase some sense of innovation (or pretension), is why Ghost of Tsushima is more enjoyable than The Last of Us Part II (and yes, I say that even though Tsushima takes more time to play).
Do you like looking at maps? Do you like it when new icons keep popping up on a map over a period of hours? Do you like systematically tracking each of those icons down, and doing whatever it is the game wants you to do there—killing a town full of bad guys, climbing and swinging around a mountain shrine, playing “follow the leader” with an excitable fox—in hopes of getting skill points, which you can then cash in at not just one, but several different skill trees? Do you like it when that map suddenly gets bigger after you beat a certain boss, or after watching a cutscene, or after hitting a new act in the story?
Be honest: what’s your opinion on sidequests?
That’s how Ghost of Tsushima is structured. It’s deeply conventional, familiar to anybody who’s played this kind of game this century, and thus can be a little boring. It’s also comfortable, though, and that comfort makes this something I could play and enjoy semi-mindlessly for several hours in a row. Games keep adopting this structure because it works. It was a relief when I realized this was the kind of game I was playing, and thus realized how little it would wind up expecting from me. At that point Tsushima and I came to an agreement: I would do the videogame things it asked me to do, and in return it wouldn’t challenge me that much or make me have to really think about anything.
Two years ago I wrote about how Sucker Punch, an American studio, was working with Sony of Japan to treat Japanese history and culture with respect. (That’s a level of care that Sucker Punch didn’t extend to Native American populations when designing its last game, Infamous: Second Son.) I’ll leave it to those more knowledgeable of Japanese culture to decide how good of a job they do, and can’t wait to read those pieces once critics have had a chance to write them. I will say that while Tsushima leans hard into several cliches and tropes from samurai media, it does so with a consistent level of competence. The characters are pulled from a range of stock types, but they’re generally well-performed by a cast of actors of Asian descent. At no point have I noticed Tsushima playing Japanese culture or traditions for laughs, or trying to depict that culture as mysterious or strange. It’s still a very American take on 20th century Japanese artists’ depictions of Medieval Japanese culture, but the attempt to remain respectful is very evident—even with a minigame about composing haiku.
It probably sounds damning to say Tsushima is competent, and to an extent it is. It’s also legitimate praise, though—competence can be hard to come by in big budget videogames like this. At no point during Tsushima did I see something so ridiculous or insulting that I wanted to stop playing on the spot, and I can’t say that about most games from this segment of the market. Ghost of Tsushima is perpetually acceptable, providing enough of the necessary nuts and bolts of videogame business to keep me from turning it off.
Sometimes it’s even more than simply acceptable. Its environments can be gorgeous, especially when bright splashes of color pop amid the green and grey; blossoming flowers and trees abound, bringing life to the scenery, and also occasionally factoring into quests. If timed right most battles can start with a showdown, where you and one enemy stare each other down before slashing your swords at each other. This moment remains tense even after I’ve done it a hundred times. The combat can feel a bit formulaic but the ability to change stances on the fly mid-fight adds another layer of depth on top of the typical striking, blocking and parrying; different stances offer advantages over different kinds of enemies, and during a mission I’d find myself changing stances several times per skirmish. Taking a breather to play my flute (a simple swipe on the controller’s touchpad) or contemplate my life in a hot spring never gets old. Also Tsushima takes a novel in-game approach to guiding the player to a waypoint; instead of an on-screen icon hovering off in the distance, or a giant colored line on the ground, the always-churning winds of Tsushima blow in the direction of my goal. All I have to do is hop on my horse—my favorite character in the game, of course—and see which way the wind blows.
Tsushima doesn’t really do anything poorly, but it also doesn’t try to do anything that we haven’t seen before. It’s a well-produced B movie of a game that lifts the look of actual art—a slick, commercial piece of work using Japanese cinema as set dressing. It demands almost nothing from me other than my attention, and makes sure to have enough clearly defined goalposts and climaxes to keep teasing out my interest. I may not remember too much about it going forward, but I will remember that it exists, which is more than can be said about a whole host of games I’ve played.
Compare that to the last game I played—the last major PlayStation 4 exclusive, which came out a few weeks ago. The Last of Us Part II tries to make a serious statement while thinking it expands on what videogames can do and be. Maybe you think it pulls it off; maybe you think it doesn’t. (I lean to the latter.) Ghost of Tsushima just wants you to play a game you’ve basically already played many times, while also telling you about that cool old samurai movie it watched the other day. Which one sounds more interesting to you?
Ghost of Tsushima was developed by Sucker Punch Productions and published by Sony. It’s available for the PlayStation 4.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.