Akira Kurosawa may be hailed as one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, but outside of a film studies university course and a few film buffs, you’d be very hard pressed to find anyone who’s actually sat through a whole one of his movies. I studied film and I’ve only managed two of them all the way through (Ran and Seven Samurai, if you’re interested). But regardless of whether you’ve watched even a single one of his films, the influence of the samurai on the west is undeniable.
You’ve seen the more modern films that have taken his style and his palette, his iconography and music, and made it their own. Tarantino’s Kill Bill movies especially Part 1, The Magnificent Seven, and the original Star Wars movies all owe an incalculable debt to these old samurai epics. What else is a Jedi than a robed samurai with an honour code? What else is a lightsaber than a katana? And what else is Darth Vader’s helmet than a black plastic samurai war helm? The Mandalorian has taken the massive influence Kurosawa had on westerns and reawakened that side of Star Wars that was so sorely missing in the recent trilogy. Jeez, there’s even an episode where Mando arrives in a village being attacked regularly by bandits, and helps clear them out. Yeah, it’s Magnificent Seven, which is Seven Samurai!
Samurai have been a gaming staple since the earliest consoles, they occupy a place in gaming’s cultural imagination akin to fast hedgehogs and fat plumbers. From retro beat’em’ups like Samurai Showdown to hyper modern pixelart slice’em’ups like Katana Zero; from demon-infested action adventures like Omnimusha and its sequels, to the hard as nails Dark-Souls-aping Nioh and Sekiro; from unrealistic hack’n’slashs like Samurai Warriors, to strategically accurate sims like Total War Shogun. Ninja’s are often along for the ride too, from violent action in Ninja Gaiden, to more stealth based old school favourites like Tenchu and the recent beautiful Commandos clone Shadow Tactics.
But I think we are about to play the best samurai game there’s ever been.
There has never been a samurai game quite like Ghost of Tsushima. Coming from Sucker Punch on July 17th, Ghost seems to be everything from the above list, yet wonderfully singular in its direction. It combines the historically accurate with the Kurosawa stylisation, the natural beauty with the hardcore combat, the vast open world with incredible attention to detail. Ghost doesn’t just feature samurai action either; lead character Jin is also proficient in ninja stealth tactics and throwing shuriken. Its heavy in narrative, but also looks to be incredibly designed, working to hide mechanics and gimmicks in the natural space of the game, to draw you in and not let go.
Last week we were treated to a gameplay reveal to rival the best of the last generation or so. Not since Aloy crept out from the bushes and took down a Thunderjaw in all its apocalyptic robotic glory have I been so struck by the notion, that this is something we have never seen before. Sucker Punch’s demo also manages that which the great Red Dead Redemption gameplay trailers did; drawing attention to what gamers actually want. And I’ll tell you a secret, it’s not flashy cinematics and explosions. It’s gameplay, direct from the engine; it’s immersive, true to life details; it’s the ability to get lost in a new world and forget I’m playing a game.
Before we continue, I must commend Sony for their attitude to gameplay trailers in recent times. This is the way to guarantee a purchase.
So let’s take a little look at the gameplay and story trailers we’ve had, some of the new features, and why this game looks quite so exciting.
The Rich Well of History
So, fair warning from here on out, potential spoilers abound. I don’t know how many, it’s all guesswork at this point, but the game is based in history, so there are plenty of story beats we can guess at.
Let’s start with some facts. Tsushima Island is real. It’s nestled precariously in open sea, on its own, in the gulf between Japan and Korea. The game is set in 1274, the year the Mongols, whose leader at that time was the infamous Kublai Khan (who you may have seen on the tragically cancelled Netflix series Marco Polo) invaded Japan for the first time. I say first time, because they did it again, less than a decade later. Tsushima Island was the site of a great many of the battles and atrocities of that brief war during both invasions.
The first invasion was led by a number of Mongol generals. The game’s villain is a Khotun Khan, who is likely a fictional stand-in either for these generals, or for one in particular. There’s a few famous ones including a Liu Fuxiang, a giant tyrant of a man whose injuries led to the withdrawal of the first invasion. There’s also the possibility that Suckerpunch have taken some artistic license here, and that its meant to be Kublai Khan himself, but there is no historical evidence that he sailed with the invasion force.
Some 500-600 ships set out from Korea, and arrived on Komodahama beach on Tsushima. That is the fleet and the beach you see in the story trailer. They attacked and took Tsushima, killing its samurai defenders on the beaches and then occupying the island, taking many women and children as prisoners and slaves. From there they would get ambitious, and go on to invade the mainland however they were repelled through massive sea and land battles in and around Hakata Bay. When Liu Fuxiang was injured, the Mongol forces quickly retreated back to Korea but were decimated by a freak out-of-season typhoon. Less than two-thirds of them made it back to Korea in disgrace.
This is where the term Kamikaze comes from. It means ‘Divine wind’ – the Japanese believed for centuries afterward that the heavens had destroyed the Mongols rather than allow Japan to be invaded. Remember that divine wind, we’ll come back to it.
There’s a rich cultural and historical context to Ghost of Tsushima, one that is still relatively rare in video games. Many games recreate time periods and famous historical events, especially the Assassin’s Creed franchise, but rarely with this kind of accuracy and to this degree. The authenticity level is *chef kiss*. It’s also not just the same tired Warring States period that you find in Total War Shogun and Samurai Warriors, nor is it the Oni’s and demons of Sekiro, Nioh and Omnimusha. This is new, this is different – we’ve never had a piece of AAA games media touch this period before.
Here’s my guess for the story, broad strokes. The Mongol fleet invades Tsushima, Jin and the arrayed samurai forces fight and die in their thousands on that beach, and the commander of the first fleet occupies the island. But Jin survives. Of the samurai that stood on that beach, he is the only one left. Over the course of the game you become the Ghost of Tsushima, waging your own single-handed guerrilla war against the invaders of your island. Your legend grows, through fear and word of mouth, until eventually a frustrated Khotun Khan manages to get the better of you and you are captured and uncovered. We can see in the story trailer Jin tied to a post talking to Khotun Khan, about his legend as the Ghost of Tsushima.
It’s a first to have something so historically accurate. It means that we preview writers can actually speculate on a story without complete guesswork. It’s rare in games to have such foreknowledge because of historical knowledge. Clearly there will be plenty more to it, he’s got beef with samurai on the island too, not just mongols, but we’ll see if that’s not how this plays out.
It seems likely Jin survives and drives off the mongols, straight into the freak typhoon that destroys them. There is also something of a possibility for a sequel, or extensive DLC – this was just the first of two invasions by the Mongols, the second being just seven years later, and vastly bigger in scope. I could see a sequel, possibly set on another of the Japanese archipelago islands, were the Ghost once again defends Japan single-handedly.
Last little fact for the history lesson. Up until the Mongol invasions, Japanese tachi swords were long, thin often brittle blades, unable to slice appropriately through the boiled leather armour of the Mongols. Following the invasions, these blades were shortened and thickened with the famous metal folding technique, and the Katana that we all know and love was the result. I don’t mean to bring attention to a possible historical inaccuracy, in that Jin has one already, but hey it’s true.
The Island of Dreams
Tsushima Island is 68 km long in reality, so those who are concerned with big open game worlds this is one for you. If Sucker Punch are going for real size, that will be a huge game world to explore. That’s longer than the diameter of London. The Island is only about 16km wide though, so expect a long thin map. We saw a split second of it on that gameplay trailer, and it’s a beautiful ink blot painting like the wonderful opening sequence of Marco Polo on Netflix, with the Mongol throat-singing.
Sucker Punch have said that they want to remove waypoints and gameplay mechanics that draw you out of the world, and remind you that this is a game. ‘How can we let the island guide you, as immersively as possible?’ There’s no satnav mini map, only the barest of HUDs in combat. And though you can set a waypoint on your map, it won’t appear as a guiding overlay on the main world. Instead you need to call on the divine wind. Remember that? Kamikaze. In Ghost of Tsushima, one button press will call on the divine wind to guide you, directing you to your destination without anything so garish as a waypoint.
They also say that there is a whole heap of secret content on the island, just waiting to be discovered. Small birds and gentle foxes will stray into your path from time to time and guide you to caches and secrets, shrines and powerful weapons.
Tsushima in reality is a beautiful, almost tropical island, so they have taken some artistic licence in making as many different locales and areas as they have, but they can be forgiven when they look like the sublime artistic scenes from a Zhang Yimou film, like Hero.
I love that you do not hunt these creatures. Supposedly there is no hunting mechanic, that instead we are to exist in Buddhist zen-like harmony with nature. We don’t yet know how this will work with more dangerous creatures like the bear spotted attacking an unfortunate mongol soldier in the demo, but I hope any encounters are few and far between. I rarely enjoy killing heaps of defenceless animals to create new items such as on Red Dead Redemption.
Instead of the fauna, it looks like flora will be your crafting ingredients. In the demo, we saw Jin pick flowers, bamboo and a few sturdier plants, that will all factor into the crafting system. You can dye your clothing to blend with your surroundings, and use other found items to craft smoke bombs and arrows, and probably a lot more besides.
The armour supposedly performs a function akin to a job system rather than just looking bad-ass. Stockier, thicker armour for battle, thinner materials and leathers for stealth. Some armour helps with exploration too apparently. Whatever you want to be doing in the game, there’s an armour for that, and you better be wearing the right one.
The Beauty of Movement – Combat
Combat in Ghost of Tsushima seems to fit into two broad brush strokes.
First comes the honourable samurai side of Jin that fights in showdowns, complete with their own move-sets and dodge commands. We’ve yet to play anything so we don’t know whether this will be reaction-button based, or a simpler mechanic, but we know that the person playing the game in the demo was the best at the studio, and that it is meant to be hard to pull it all off that seamlessly. Good then that Sucker Punch have confirmed difficulty levels, so that it’s perfectly possible to experience this treat of a game at all skill levels.
Normal combat outside of showdown looks more akin to your usual Assassin’s Creed, God of War, hack and slash, but with tons of depth and customisability. Jin has a number of stances that he can use, each suited to different situations. With skill you can deflect arrows in the heat of combat. And most beautiful of all, the samurai movie lover in me smiles when I see him flick the blood from his sword after a heated battle, before sliding it back in its saya, or scabbard.
Like Aloy, you can swap between sword and bow on the fly in the midst of battle. I’m glad to see a bow once again in a Sony exclusive, continuing their love-affair with green-lighting protagonists with bows. I’m looking at you, Lara, Aloy, Atreus.
Second is the corrupted dishonourable Ghost (read ninja) that Jin must become over the course of the game in order to succeed against the mongol invaders. With this skillset comes the fascinating fear mechanic. Its invisible but as your legend grows on the island, as you become the deadly assassin in the night, the mongols become more and more scared of you. If you appear in battle, darting in and out of the shadows, dispatching their colleagues, many will take the choice to run for their lives rather than face you. This is something we’ve seen in small doses before, such as in Arkham Asylum, when enemies start to get very agitated the more of their mates you string up, but not at the level that it’s claimed in the trailers for Ghost. Your legend also affects how the survivors on the island treat you, either with reverence, avoidance, or showering you with thanks and grateful praise. Its an interesting system and we shall have to wait for release to see if it works in a convincing fashion.
As a ninja you also have the tools of their trade; shuriken, smoke bombs, assassination methods (I’m hoping for a Hitman-esque garrote) and a grappling hook. Unfortunately they have said the grappling hook is not useable in battle, but it will help you maximise that favourite of stealth scenarios ever since Arkham Asylum; grapple up to a roof, watch and spy on your prey before leaping down onto them, then grapple away again before anyone knows you are there.
Ghost of Tsushima looks to combine the best of famous stealth games; the open-world structure of Metal Gear Solid Phantom Pain; the world, weapons and lore of Tenchu (how many years have I waited for Assassin’s Creed to fulfill my Tenchu cravings only for Ghost to come along instead), and the freedom and verticality of Arkham Asylum.
Kurosawa mode – A case for playing the game four times
Like everyone here at Finger Guns, I’m a bit of a trophy hunter and I will gladly play good games a few times through for those prestigious platinums, though if your game has multiplayer trophies, then I’m out.
My favourite and final thing to talk about is that the developers at Sucker Punch have designed what I can only describe as a samurai-film lover’s wet dream. There is a mode – we are dubbing it ‘Kurosawa mode’ – where you switch the entire game not just into black and white, but high contrast film grain with enhanced sound effects and wind textures. And you can play the whole damn game like that. Add the Japanese voice track option and Ghost allows you to literally play out your own samurai epic in all the atmospheric greyscale glory it deserves.
I don’t want to miss the vibrant coloured game either, so I’m going to have to play the entire game twice. And I want to maximise samurai and ninja skills, so I will probably need to play the entire game through once as mostly samurai, and again as the Ghost. I would be happy if Sucker Punch wanted to put in a trophy for completing the game under each of these criteria.
Kurosawa’s legacy, every samurai game you’ve ever played, and everything you’ve pretty much ever seen of samurais in the west, is represented in Ghost. If you want to get yourself fired up even more, the BFI British Film Institute is offering a 14-day free trial of their film archive, and right now, as if in anticipation, they have a handpicked array of Kurosawa epics for you to enjoy. Give it a go, then complain that these films are really long and hard to get through, and then be grateful that Ghost of Tsushima has distilled everything you need into what looks to be the best samurai game ever made.
We are just a month away from the release of what looks to be Sucker Punch’s masterpiece, five years in the making. With the depth of its combat, its incredible open-world design and its rich historical authenticity and cultural legacy, it’s a heady contender for the most incredible release of 2020.
The legend of the samurai is here to inspire the world all over again, and I for one cannot wait.
If you enjoyed this article or any more of our content, please consider supporting our Patreon.