Ghost of Tsushima: Good, But Not A Masterpiece

It’s been about a year since Sucker Punch’s Ghost of Tsushima was the recipient of the Player’s Voice Award as the fan-favorite game of the year as a part of The Game Awards last year. The game was widely praised by the gaming community and was nominated for an impressive eight awards, which was third-most of any game nominated. Despite these nominations, Ghost only came home with one award, winning Best Art Direction.

Many praised the game as a masterpiece, and in some aspects, I agree. There’s a convincing argument to make that Ghost of Tsushima is one of the best-looking games on Playstation consoles. It also has some of the most satisfying and impactful combat I’ve played in a video game. However, I disagree with other aspects of the game.

I wrote a narrative analysis already, but reading it back, it feels more like a plot summary with commentary than analysis or review. I’d like to amend that, so we can consider this piece a remaster of sorts for my initial narrative analysis. My goal here is to convey how the narrative of Ghost causes the game to fall short of truly being the masterpiece that it had the potential to be.

The story isn’t terrible. It isn’t boring, either. I was engaged and intrigued throughout. However, the story of Ghost of Tsushima undermines itself throughout the game. Consider this your spoiler warning for Ghost of Tsushima’s main story. I will not discuss the Iki Island expansion, that will be its own article.

The Ghost’s Dilemma

Photo Credit: Sucker Punch/Sony Interactive Entertainment

The story of the game centers on Jin Sakai, a samurai who is defending his home island of Tsushima from invading Mongol forces. Jin starts loyal to the samurai’s honor code that his uncle, Lord Shimura, has instilled in him since he was a young boy. He has reservations about attacking the Mongols from behind. He wants to rush their camps and face them head-on, etc.

Over time, Jin strays further and further away from this honor code. He becomes more comfortable “striking from the shadows,” and because of his friend Yuna’s tales, Jin becomes known as The Ghost. “A vengeful spirit back from the grave to slaughter the Mongols,” Yuna explains during one section of the game. With the birth of this legend comes a dilemma for Jin: does he continue to abide by the honorary code of the samurai, or does he embrace The Ghost and defend his home by any means necessary?

There is no issue here. The dilemma raised is interesting. My issue stems from how the game handles this dilemma, and how the game presents its ending.

My Main Problems

Photo Credit: Sucker Punch/Sony Interactive Entertainment

The way this dilemma is depicted is pretty shallow. The game not only actively supports Jin embracing The Ghost, but they also show the main villain justifying Jin’s path. Ghost uses the first two acts to build up to Jin embracing The Ghost and then attempts to question whether or not he’s gone too far in the last act.

The game believes Jin is correct in embracing The Ghost, but it pretends as if they don’t and that there’s a massive conflict of interest. Jin decides not too long after the prologue that he needs to break his honor code, and yet the game acts as if he struggles mightily with it because he has a flashback here and a short line of doubt there. Hell, Jin poisoning the Mongols is supposed to be the moment he officially embraces The Ghost, but he was comfortable using poison way earlier in the story. So comfortable with it, in fact, that Jin uses the poison in front of everyone, without a second thought, during the battle that precedes his poisoning of the Mongols at the end of Act II.

Jin never questions his actions. As I mentioned, Lord Shimura admonishes Jin about his actions and warns him about embracing The Ghost at the end of Act I. Jin responds to this with, “I did what I had to.” There’s no question, there’s no contemplation, nothing. Jin just says that it sucks, but he had to do it and that’s that. During Act II’s final battle, Jin uses his poison and decapitates a Mongol general. Shimura admonishes him, and Jin responds with “it’s all they know.”

After Act II’s battle, Jin wants to poison the enemy. “Honor died on the beach,” he says, “the Khan deserves to suffer!” It isn’t until Act III that he questions anything, but even then, Yuna just tells him it sucks, but it was necessary. The closest they get to questioning anything is when they acknowledge that the poison could kill the thousands of lives they tried to save, but then Jin just goes “we need to kill the Khan before that happens,” and they drop it. Where is the conflict here? I don’t get the feeling that Jin is conflicted at all.

The game wants to tell this story of Jin embracing The Ghost, so much so that they have the Khan nudge the player towards embracing The Ghost as well. The logic that Jin gives for embracing The Ghost is that the Mongols don’t respect honor, so trying to fight within the samurai’s honor code does nothing but sends people towards certain death. His way of The Ghost might use dishonorable tactics, but it’s unpredictable and won’t mindlessly send people to die in a battle. On its own, this is fine. However, this cutscene shows the Khan telling the player and Ryuzo that he doesn’t fear the samurai because they’re so stuck in their honorable ways that they’re predictable and easy to kill. The Ghost, however, isn’t stuck in these ways, so he’s dangerous.

It’s only 20 seconds, but this cutscene takes all the tension and doubt out of the dilemma the game presents. Jin’s antics threaten the main villain as The Ghost. The Khan views the samurai as easy to kill. And this cutscene, which you can see at the beginning of Act II’s last mission, comes before the scene where Jin makes his argument to save the samurai and honor dying at the beach. It honestly feels like they came up with a reason for the Khan to be threatened by The Ghost and then just applied that logic to Jin to justify him embracing The Ghost.

I feel like I’ve made my point. There doesn’t feel like a genuine conflict here. It feels like the game wants you to embrace The Ghost because it wants Jin to embrace The Ghost. They suck any tension and doubt that may arise out when the game just tells you that Jin’s way works and the samurai’s code doesn’t. You know, there’s a term that’s oft overused by a lot of gamers and critics that I think applies to this game, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention it in this article.

Ludonarrative Dissonance

Photo Credit: Sucker Punch/Sony Interactive Entertainment

I know many people just rolled their eyes, and if they weren’t on their way to write me an angry comment, they’ve started the first draft now. Just hear me out first, and if you still feel the need to leave that angry comment, I’ll read it in its entirety. I feel the need to touch on this, however, because for all the controversy the internet kicked up about ludonarrative dissonance in The Last of Us Part II, I feel like there are glaringly obvious examples of it in this game, and it’s been largely ignored.

For those who don’t know, ludonarrative dissonance is a term that describes a conflict between the narrative told through a game’s story and the narrative told through the gameplay. A common example of this is with the Uncharted series. In the story, they show protagonist Nathan Drake as a heroic good guy, but in gameplay, he mows down everyone he comes across without a second thought. This creates a conflict because killing everyone in your path doesn’t seem like something a heroic good guy would do.

In Ghost of Tsushima, there are a few examples of ludonarrative dissonance. The first I’d like to mention comes early in the game. Jin’s companions mention how brutal he is in combat. His brutality in combat gives rise to the legend of The Ghost. However, his gameplay isn’t any more or less brutal than any other NPC that uses a sword. He stabs people through the chest just like Lord Shimura; he slices their throats just like Shimura; he cuts off their arms just like Shimura. Why is he being called brutal and Shimura isn’t? And these comments are made after he fights enemies head-on, so stealth isn’t considered here.

During the story, Lord Shimura admonishes Jin about going down the path of The Ghost. However, this is not reflected in the gameplay. Shimura never admonishes Jin in gameplay for assassinating enemies or using ghost weapons. Hell, there’s a mission in Act II called A Message In Fire where Shimura spends a good amount of the mission telling Jin how proud of him he is. You can use your ghost weapons or use smoke bombs to kill enemies from behind. It doesn’t matter. Shimura just talks about how proud of Jin he was. Later on, in the ending battle of Act II, you can use the poison darts in gameplay, and no one says anything. However, when Jin uses it in a cutscene, suddenly it was a problem.

There’s a powerful theme of Jin needing allies and those he can trust around him, but often, you can complete a lot of the combat areas all by yourself. You spend all of Act I gathering allies to storm Castle Kaneda to rescue Shimura, but you honestly could do this mission all on your own. Hell, there’s a part of this mission where you’re supposed to open a gate to allow Yuna to help you clear out an area of Mongols, but you can do this without her help. The only ally that makes much of a difference is Taka, and it’s only because he makes the grappling hook that allows you to scale the castle walls. He’s not even there when the assault on the castle happens, but he’s the only one that contributes meaningfully. It’s not just this last battle of Act I, there are so many missions where you either gather allies because the story says you need help, or you’re telling everyone how much you need them. And despite that, I only ever felt the need for allies during the ending battle of Act II. Other than that, I legitimately believe Jin could’ve gone at this entire game alone after getting his grappling hook, and I feel the gameplay supports this with how a lot of these missions play out.

I haven’t even touched on the biggest example of ludonarrative dissonance in this game. The game prides itself on allowing you to play however you want. You can play as the honorable samurai or the dishonorable Ghost. This is idea was a point they used in marketing, which you can see in the game’s State of Play showcase (“Jin, The Samurai” begins at 7:12 and “Jin, The Ghost” begins at 9:39). In the section about customization, they talked about how the different armor options give you “different mechanical advantages to help accent your chosen play style.”

And yet, the story only reflects one of these play styles. If you play through this game as the honorable samurai, this isn’t reflected in the story. The story forces you to become The Ghost, even if you don’t want to. You’re forced to assassinate an enemy early on, you’re forced to poison an enemy in the middle of Act II, and you’re forced to poison the Mongols at the end of Act II. Nothing you do changes any of this. This is another example of the game wanting to tell the story of Jin embracing The Ghost, because it doesn’t give you the option of rejecting it. You must become The Ghost because that’s what the story demands, but also let’s give off the illusion of player control by giving them these meaningless fucking dialogue choices at random points during the game.

Despite this, the game still pretends as if the choice in playstyle is meaningful because they give you a bunch of pointless dialogue options and an option at the end to do the “honorable” thing. It makes no sense because the dialogue options change nothing, and the “honorable” choice at the end makes zero sense in terms of the story. It feels like Sucker Punch had a story they wanted to tell but they wanted to avoid player complaints about a lack of agency, so they tried to find a middle ground and got lost.

Since I’ve touched on the ending, I might as well get into it with more depth.

The Ending

Photo Credit: Sucker Punch/Sony Interactive Entertainment

After killing the Khan at Port Izumi, Yuna tells Jin that his uncle is looking for him. Jin travels to the red oak tree by Omi Lake. Shimura arrives and tells Jin that the shogun has disbanded Clan Sakai, and Jin is no longer a samurai. Jin says he needs to say goodbye to his home, and they ride off to the Sakai family cemetery. During the ride, Shimura admonishes Jin for teaching the people to disobey their leaders. “When the new clans arrive, will they bow to their samurai, or betray them in the name of The Ghost?” he says.

Once at the cemetery, they pay their respects to the fallen members of the Sakai family. Shimura reveals the shogun has declared Jin a traitor and that he was ordered to kill his nephew. They go back and forth about their actions, with Jin remaining adamant that he was right to use the poison and stop his uncle from “throwing away our people’s lives" and Shimura admonishing him for having no honor. They write a haiku, meant to be the final words of their clans, and duel. Jin wins, and you’re given the option to either kill Shimura and give him an honorable death, or spare him and simply walk away.

The choice at the end feels shallow. Jin has no honor. This is something he acknowledges moments before their duel. Why on Earth would Jin choose to commit an act out of honor? I’ve seen some people view this as “Jin’s final honorable act,” but even that makes little sense to me because Jin also doesn’t want to kill his family. Why would he do an honorable thing when he had no honor, and why would he kill his family when he didn’t want to?

This choice feels like the game being stuck between their desire to allow the player to choose how they play and their desire to tell the story they wanted to tell. It feels shallow, almost as if they felt like I wouldn’t have caught on to them forcing us to embrace The Ghost. This choice doesn’t feel natural, and it honestly takes a lot out of what otherwise would’ve been an amazing ending.

What I Liked About Ghost of Tsushima

Photo Credit: Sucker Punch/Sony Interactive Entertainment

I’ve been pretty negative here, so I figured I’d inject some positivity here and talk about the things that I did like because there was a lot that I liked. The most obvious thing would be the visuals. This game is breathtakingly beautiful. The exaggerated colors of the tree leaves bring an overwhelming sense of beauty in a world being overrun with tragedy. The grass blowing in the wind looks incredible. I could go on and on.

The weather adds such a neat layer to the duels too. I plan on writing an article about how impactful weather can be in video games in general, but just watch the final duel. The setting sun is such an interesting touch, as this duel signifies that the sun is setting on Jin’s time as a samurai and his relationship with his uncle. The falling leaves add to the tension as the game’s beautiful soundtrack commands every bit of your attention and makes each swing of your katana more impactful than the last.

The combat in this game is impactful, but I found the game easy, even with the higher difficulties. I think my most difficult playthrough was my very first one, and I played it on easy to experience the story. Enemy attacks are not that difficult to scout, and honestly, the more I play the game, the less I felt the need to even switch sword stances. The dodging and parrying window is pretty forgiving, so it isn’t difficult to counter any offense. Mythic abilities and the ghost weapons just make it easier to control a crowd of enemies. The combat loop also doesn’t change as the game goes on. Despite all of that, when you or your allies kill an enemy, it is incredibly impactful, and it prevents it from becoming too boring.

There is a level of detail in this game that I love, but it is inconsistent. For example, I mentioned earlier how the story tells this tale of Jin struggling to beat the Mongols on his own, but the gameplay often shows that Jin can slaughter hordes of Mongols on his own. However, sometimes this dissonance isn’t present, which frustrates me and excites me at the same time.

At the beginning of the game, you duel Khotun Khan. The fight ends with you losing and being thrown off a bridge, but it is possible to get the Khan down to zero health. However, it’s not possible to kill him. That drives home the point that Jin needs help. He has the Khan dead to rights, but he can’t finish him. In Yarikawa, you can see the Mongols camped outside of the stronghold, ready to attack. If you attempt to take these Mongols out before they attack in the story, you get told that you’re facing overwhelming forces and are killed in seconds. This is to service the point that Jin needs help from the people of Yarikawa. He can’t do it alone. I wish the rest of the game serviced the story beats like this.

When Jin first starts assassinating people, he struggles to do it cleanly. He’s inexperienced in killing like this, so it makes perfect sense he’d struggle, and that they animated that is cool. It’s only when he’s more experienced, and when you make the necessary upgrades, that Jin’s assassination animations become quicker and cleaner. That is another amazing bit of attention to detail that I just love in video games.

While I hate they show little of a conflict within Jin, I do like the idea of an honorable samurai becoming a dishonorable figure, driven by a desire to defend those who can’t defend themselves and save his home. I think Jin is an interesting figure, and his relationships with Yuna and Taka are incredibly well done. Taka’s death is painful to watch. It works to serve the story of Jin embracing The Ghost that they wanted to tell. Kenji is also a fun character, and I felt he was always entertaining.

While the content in the open world can get repetitive, it’s not empty. There’s always something to do and explore, which is something I don’t see that often in other open-world games. There’s always a shrine, combat encounter, a fox den, etc to find and interact with, and while it’s not engaging enough to complete all in one sitting, it is enough to keep you coming back to the game even after the main story. I love the guiding wind. The wind made me want to pre-order the game because I loved I didn’t have to use a HUD or a compass. I don’t mind pausing to set a waypoint so long as I can keep my eyes on the game itself to reach that waypoint.

Conclusion

Photo Credit: Sucker Punch/Sony Interactive Entertainment

Ghost of Tsushima is undeniably a good game. It looks great; the combat is impactful; the soundtrack is incredible. However, the story has some awkward moments, and it feels as if the writers weren’t confident enough to just tell the story they wanted to tell. They wanted to avoid the complaints about a lack of player agency that Naughty Dog faced after The Last of Us Part II, but they also had this story in mind. This obvious conflict of interest brings down the quality of the story for me.

For the life of me, I don’t understand why this game didn’t do branching narratives. Don’t give me these bullshit dialogue options that change absolutely nothing within the story. Let me decide if Jin assassinates the Mongol in the beginning, if he fights head-on, or if he sneaks through killing no one. Let me decide if Jin either goes along with his uncle’s plan at the end of Act II or if he poisons the Mongols. Let me make these kinds of decisions and let them affect the story. Have the narrative branch off to tell the story of an honorable samurai who’s a slave to honor or a dishonorable Ghost who commits terrible acts but saves the people he loves.

If you’re so set to tell the story you want to tell, then just tell that story. I’ll respect a game so much more if they tell the story they want to tell instead of trying to play it safe. TLOU2 wasn’t the story I wanted, but part of the reason I love and respect that game so much is that it told the story it wanted to tell. It didn’t shy away or try to pull back to placate people, and I love that, even if there are parts of the story I’m not fond of. I don’t feel like Sucker Punch went for it in the way they should have.

This is my opinion. If you played through this game and you find it to be a masterpiece, then I respect that. I’m happy that the game worked for you in ways that it didn’t for me. Don’t let my words ruin your enjoyment of the game. However, I don’t see it. I believe that a game cannot truly be a masterpiece if there are areas in which the game isn’t good to great, and for Ghost of Tsushima, I don’t think this story is all that good. I believe this would have been closer to a masterpiece had it been linear or included a branching narrative. However, it isn’t, and because of that, Ghost of Tsushima is just a decently good game.

If you enjoyed this article and would like to support the work I do, please consider donating to my ko-fi! Thank you for reading!

Featured Photo Credit: Sucker Punch/Sony Interactive Entertainment

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I am pursuing a bachelor's in communication, and am using this blog to write about an array of topics such as sports and video games.

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Tristin McKinstry

Tristin McKinstry

I am pursuing a bachelor's in communication, and am using this blog to write about an array of topics such as sports and video games.

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