Ghost of Tsushima is a love letter to Japanese samurai films (or chanbara).
Think tense bloody duels amid falling red leaves and stoic characters struggling to cleave to bushido, the samurai code of honour.
A black-and-white filter with a film grain effect, dubbed Kurosawa mode after the legendary Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, further adds to the vintage feel of the game.
At the heart of the story is Jin Sakai, a lone samurai who survives a Mongol attack on the island of Tsushima in 1274. Faced with overwhelming odds, Sakai adapts by striking from the shadows, a less than honourable way that brings him into conflict with his uncle and father-figure Lord Shimura.
Modern audiences, though, are unlikely to be overly perturbed by Sakai's win at all cost approach. And the body count, while high, involves only enemy combatants, not civilians.
Translated into gameplay, the samurai way is to confront enemies directly. During these "standoffs", the enemies come at Sakai one at a time - hitting a button at the right moment instantly kills an enemy.
The stealthy approach would be to sneak up behind enemies and assassinate them. The game offers an assortment of tools, from bows to smoke bombs to throwing knives, to kill or distract enemies.
While I usually prefer the sneaky way, the game gives you the freedom and the gear (a variety of armour sets and charms) to make either approach viable.
Combat revolves around Sakai's katana. There are two types of attacks, as well as the ability to parry or dodge. Certain attacks (they have a red visual cue) can only be dodged, while a successful parry can lead to a killing blow. You can also switch between four combat stances to counter the four main enemy types (the types are based on the weapon they wield, like a spear or a katana).
Overall, the combat rewards precision and the switching of stances over button mashing. It is also accessible enough that even casual gamers should find it enjoyable.
Ghost follows the open-world formula perfected by games such as Far Cry and Horizon Zero Dawn. Gather resources such as bamboo and hides (from killing bears and boars) to upgrade your gear. Explore the island to find special locations that improve your character - for instance, baths permanently increase the health bar by a small amount.
But Ghost does introduce a new trick in the form of the Guiding Wind. Instead of having an always-present map with arrow indicators to guide a player to a quest location, the game has a "wind" that blows the player in the right direction. It is brilliant as it streamlines the game's user interface to make it feel more like a movie. And you can further upgrade the wind to guide you to specific types of locations, like baths and shrines that offer gear upgrades.
There are several longer, more memorable side quests involving supporting characters that span the story's three acts. But most of the quests in Ghost are more forgettable and involve rescuing locals from Mongols or destroying a Mongol camp.
By completing most of these quests, I was able to unlock every skill by the middle of the third act. This made my character too powerful for most encounters. The game seems to acknowledge this as the number of side quests dry up significantly by the third act. Thus, the pacing could be better done.
With its cinematic feel and stunning visuals, it is perhaps fitting that Ghost of Tsushima is one of the last games for the PlayStation 4 console. Even though I have completed the game, I can't wait to see how it looks on the upcoming PlayStation 5 (assuming it is supported).
Freedom to choose combat style
Standard open-world gameplay
Uneven pacing of the game
Price: From $79.90 (PS4 only)
Genre: Action adventure