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Sat 22 Aug 2020

We need to talk about Ghost of Tsushima ...

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Gorgeous tribute to classic samurai films or a jumped-up ‘Assassin’s Creed’ clone? We discuss Sucker Punch Productions’ PS4 swansong set in medieval Japan. WARNING: Contains spoilers!

As we prepare to bid a fond farewell to this generation of videogame consoles, Seb Chan (Chief Experience Officer) and Arieh Offman (Programmer) take a closer look at one of the medium's triple A swansongs, Ghost of Tsushima, Sucker Punch Productions' and Sony's action-adventure stealth game set in medieval Japan at the time of the Mongol invasions. Does it fill the Assassin's Creed-sized hole in the hearts of gamers pining for a Japanese incarnation? Does it strike out on its own as a gorgeously rendered tribute to classic samurai films? Or does it fall flat on both accounts? Let's find out.

WARNING: This contains spoilers, so stop reading if you're thinking of playing Ghost of Tsushima. This isn’t a review, it’s a chat.

Seb Chan: It's now all done. I'm not playing it again [this was recorded before Sucker Punch announced the new multiplayer mode ...] I've done all the things.

Arieh Offman: Done all of the things?

SC: Well, pretty much all the things. I mean, I haven't got 100%. I think I got to 72%, finished the main story and almost all the side quests and most of the collectibles. I was like, “That's enough now”. What about you? Where are you in the game?

AO: I am literally halfway through the second act castle, so, I'm just about to finish. I was about to finish up the second act last night but then it kept throwing one of those stealthy parts at me in the middle of the thing. It was around 10 o'clock at night, and I thought, "You know what? I'm not feeling stealthy right now. I need to come back and attack this tomorrow morning”.

SC: Fair enough.

AO: But yeah, I finished off a few of the side stories. Patted all of the foxes. Done lots of the onsens.

SC: It's pretty funny. What do you reckon? I mean the last game we did was Last Of Us Part II and it's such a different vibe.

AO: It is a very different vibe. I think this is also an interesting one to talk about following on from LoU II, given that there is quite a high level of violence in this game as well, but I had a very, very different reaction to it. I think it's treated in a very different way.

SC: Yeah, I mean, it gets pretty violent particularly towards the end of Act Two, Act Three. 

AO: But it's one of those games that treats the violence in a very cinematic way and in a way that definitely pays homage to all of its roots within the samurai film. So, it's got the bleakness that we had within LoU II as well as very exciting hero moments that you have being that samurai.

A screenshot from 'Ghost of Tsushima' (2020) - Jin slays a bandit

A screenshot from 'Ghost of Tsushima' (2020)

AO: Before we get into the game, are you a fan of a samurai films? 

SC: Yeah, look, I guess I've always wondered why there aren’t many samurai games. I mean, there have obviously been some. I remember way back – and this came to me through some of the videogame preservation stuff ACMI is doing – Melbourne House, many years ago, for the Commodore 64, did Samurai Warrior: The Battles of Usagi Yojimbo, which was like this Samurai bunny rabbit side-scrolling, beat ‘em up, Karateka-style sort of thing. But then, like everyone else, I've always wondered why there hasn't been an Assassin's Creed set in Japan. It would seem obvious.

So, I came to Tsushima like, "Oh, finally there's this thing", and I have to say it surprised me that it was as good as it has been. As I've been playing it, my kids have been watching some of it. This has got elements of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt but it's got a much tighter story. Whilst I loved Witcher, it felt endless. I must've spent 60–70 hours finishing it, and I think I got through Tsushima in maybe 35–40. So, it felt like a tighter story and all those homages are really obvious.

Also one of my kids was like, “Oh, it's much more like the Horizon Zero Dawn story”. It's quite neat in a way Witcher isn't. And I think some of the Assassin's Creed games aren't either. They're these open worlds where there’s a main story, but you kind of get sidetracked and burnt out by all the side quests. Whereas in Tsushima the side quests seemed quite, quite tight. Even the mythic quests, where you get the extra weapons and other excellent stuff, don’t go on for hours. They're like 30 minutes.

AO: Bite-sized chunks.

SC: Yeah.

AO: Which I think works really well to keep you engaged, because I knew each one was just going to be one more bite sized chunk. I have found myself over the last few nights, staying up later than I intended, doing just one more bite-sized–

SC: “Just one more! Just one more!”

AO: What you said there is really interesting and totally relevant to the way that I'm engaging with these side quests; they are tied closely to the actual narrative within the game. They actually feel like they are progressing the story and it doesn't feel strange for your character to be doing those things at certain points in the narrative. Whereas often with an open world game, you have that weird disjointed disconnect where you're on some epic world saving mission, but you’ve just stopped for a second to help an old lady go get her washing or something like that. I really like that I haven't come across any of that weird disconnect yet.

SC: Yeah. I think playing this straight up after LoU II; that sense of the open world being done in a way that kept you in the story … yeah, it was an interesting contrast. I mean, I expect when Watch Dogs: Legion or Cyberpunk 2077 arrives, I would hope that they manage to keep that narrative coherence going now. But yeah, I guess the bite-sized chunks made that play mechanic work really well. And the photo mode too, it's crazy.

AO: Which leads us to talking about the visuals now. I have to say, I've been absolutely in love with all of the visuals in this game. I mean, it’s just such a beautiful game to look at. It's like they used influences going back even further than the moving image. Influences from traditional watercolour and Ukioy-e woodcuts. It comes across in every shot. And you've got to say that a game has done something pretty impressive with the visuals when, as I’m riding my horse in between objective points, I'll just stop for a second and go, "Wow. This is actually really pretty right here”, the light cutting through the trees of this forest. It's just really lovely to look at.

SC: Yeah, it's super cool. I think the light is interesting, as well as the super saturated colours after the third act (which takes place in the snow; you've come from this really colourful place into pretty much a white area, mountains and such. I guess the other side of the visuals is the ridiculous amount of particles. Everything is falling leaves, falling forever–

AO: [laughs] Yeah, and bits of fire and embers floating up …

SC: [laughs] It’s hilarious.

AO: I’m excited about getting into the third act because of one of my favourite samurai film series, the Lady Snowblood (修羅雪姫 Shurayuki-hime, 1973 & 1974) films, which obviously influenced Kill Bill, with that whole red blood on white snow ethos of the 1970s filmmaking.

A still from 'Lady Snowblood' (修羅雪姫 Shurayuki-hime, 1973)

A still from 'Lady Snowblood' (修羅雪姫 Shurayuki-hime, 1973)

SC: It's very pretty. The other thing to mention is the wind mechanic for leading you to places. When I first saw that I thought it was really over the top, it always gets in the way. But then you realise it's much nicer than having a flashing dot or whatever.

AO: Yeah, I really loved that. The fact that my trails were being embedded for me within the game world, within the gameplay and didn't require another UI (user interface) overlay, is a really great way to do it. I think that's a trend we're seeing more and more with games – wanting to invest us into the game world and removing some of those UI elements in order to do that. I think this was done really effectively.

SC: Yeah. Less interface, less “chrome” on the screen, more just being in the world. I wonder whether that trend is also partially driven by the last couple of years of VR and the fact that now we have devices that can immerse you in a world. The last thing you want is the interface put on top of it, as well as of course, for people streaming gameplay – you don't want the interface sitting there when you're streaming. I wonder whether those trends are also pushing that removal of the interface chrome from the screen.

AO: I think that's a good point. 

The combat forms the central construct of the game. How did you feel about it?

SC: I think it's really good. Actually, I'm pretty old now, so I've been playing it on whatever the medium high setting of difficulty is and it was fine. The bamboo strikes [mini challenges] were ... crap … I'm not that fast anymore, but I finally got through them all. I think the combat has been great, particularly as you go through [the game]. I think the parry and dodge mechanics can be annoying in other games, but dexterity, of course, failing with age, means that those dodges or parries are so critical to that health and “resolve” mechanic. I think it’s really cool.

I think switching between the weapons and the modes of fighting and the stances is really clever without being overly Street Fighter where you've got to learn a billion different button combinations to do anything. That was kind of cool. I was a bit worried I would hate that [the stances] because I think there was another samurai game that came up in PlayStation Plus recently [Nioh] that I was excited about playing, but the combat was just so fiddly. I was like, I don't want to do this. 

AO: Yeah, I think you're right. They've ridden that line of difficulty versus challenge really well in this game. I've been playing it on the moderate to high settings as well. Look, I have yet to come across anything that stopped me for too long in my tracks. There are some points within the game where I might have to retry something a few times, but not to the extent that would get me frustrated and want to put down the game for a little bit. I think it's also quite clever with the way that it uses its stances.

I'm trying to put my finger on exactly how they've done it, but I see myself getting more integrated with how things flow, fight by fight, minute by minute. At first switching between all the stances was a very, very conscious thought. I think they build it in a really great way, where at a certain point I suddenly realised that I'm flipping through stances and getting all of the different enemy types down. There's that real sense of satisfaction, I think.

SC: You're sort of physically levelling up because you play through it. Nioh - it was just too hard.

AO: It's the Dark Souls of the samurai genre.

SC: Yes, yes.

AO: What was the other samurai game that was released last year? Oh, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, which I'd love to play, but I've thrown my fists and head against the Dark Souls series a couple of times now and have just to come to the accept and realise that I'm just not that good of a gamer. 

SC: Exactly. We're too old ... On the resolve and health mechanic, I think the way you get more of those as you go through the game also is nicely balanced with the difficulty of the bosses and the new weapons you come up against. I don't know if you've got to the sections yet with the big “Hwacha” rocket launcher–

AO: Yes, I just got onto that. You've got to fire at all the pirate ships and that kind of stuff.

One of the mechanics that I think works best is the samurai standoff. I mean, it's such a simple mechanic of just holding and releasing a button, but it trains you to watch for all of those fake out, feinted movements of your enemy. Again, it feels very cinematic while playing. I feel like I am Yojimbo or Zatoichi standing there, about to enter into the fray.

SC: Yeah, that's been super good. I like how that's balanced; you've got the option to do that or do the stealth modes and there are different moments you might choose different modes. I think the stealth works pretty well for the most part – there are obviously some clunky glitches, which are kind of annoying at times – and also the camera that follows you in the battle sequences works surprisingly well. I was also, again, worried when you're fighting like eight or nine others that the camera would be spinning everywhere, but it seems to hold its own reasonably well.

AO: Yeah, it does, particularly given the amount of enemies that you can have on screen at once all coming at you from different sides. There's been very few times where I felt the camera has done me wrong within a fight sequence.

AO: So, we were talking a little bit about the ... what's it called, the mechanic for your health again?

SC: Resolve.

AO: Thank you. Yes. We were talking just a bit about the resolve mechanic. The other thing I really like about the game's structure is that it really does seem like you can tailor your character and tailor the way that these mechanics work according to your play style. Because, look, I have to confess, I am embodying the samurai spirit in the way that I'm playing this and you know what? I'm attempting not to go in and assassinate people by the shadows, but to just crazily run in the front door screaming. Like every time. I've got to maintain that honour. How have you been playing? Have you been using the stealth mechanics?

SC: I went down the stealth path, I think. Yeah. I think the way the story evolves, your character needs to give up the old ways. I just went down that path. Plus, I liked the way the stealth allowed you to navigate a space and scope it out and move through it systematically. I think later in the game, it becomes pretty important. There are some wind chimes and later on firecrackers that were very similar to the little decoys, the bottle throws and other things, that you could use in both Last Of Us games. But I really didn't see a use for those until quite late in the game. The other thing I'll spoil for you are the poison and hallucinogenic darts that get characters to attack each other, which have been a lot of fun too, in a bizarre way.

AO: Amazing. Yeah. Thinking again about these encounter moments, the level design is incredibly cleverly done because there are multiple routes. For example, when you're going up to a location like Kaneda Castle, there are multiple routes and multiple ways you might choose. I think it guides you gently enough that I still felt clever for figuring out a way through, but it was never too obtuse.

SC: Yeah. There are a lot of nudges towards the right way, which again, LoU II was very good at that. In that game, I never felt lost in a building except perhaps fighting the Rat King. That was kind of annoying. But other than the Rat King where I was completely lost in that maze of running around and dodging and stuff, I think there's been no time in Tsushima where I felt lost in a  feeling of “how the hell do I get out of here?” Or “where do I go next?” Or “which rope do I use?” It's been pretty good. There's a part you'll come up to where it's rushing between different bits but again you're nudged enough despite the screen almost whiting out at times.

It's not frustrating and I think that balance is really interesting and something that games generally have got better at. If it's too challenging, you're like, "I can't be bothered”. But if it isn't challenging enough, you don't feel the satisfaction of the reward. The ability to tweak that up and down is a nice affordance that games have now. But that sense that a game can respond to the way you're playing, I think is probably where we're likely to head and I think Tsushima does that pretty well. I mean, to be honest, I didn't think I would finish it as quickly as I did – and I don't mean that in a bad way. But I didn't get annoyed with it, which is quite rare, I guess. Maybe it's also the foxes I patted. The foxes were so cute, it's like, "why am I going to get annoyed with this?".

AO: I mean, I love reading some of the metrics that Sony are putting out, and one of those key metrics is how many foxes were patted within the first month of the game being released. Over 10 million. I mean, there is some hope for humanity yet.

SC: The foxes are the best. The haikus perhaps are the worst, but you know …

AO: I think a lot of what you were just talking about comes down to one key idea with this game that works well, which is balance. The game feels really well balanced at every level. At the open world level there was enough rich and vibrant stuff and I had lots to do, but never so much that I felt overwhelmed and didn't quite know where to go next. Because honestly, that's where I got with The Witcher 3. I really enjoyed it, but I got about 20 hours in and there were just so many things flashing and blinking at me on that giant world map and so many people saying, “Wait, but you've forgotten about this quest”. So I thought it was too much.

With Tsushima, even the way that things are placed on the map is really clever. You'll be finishing up maybe a key story point and then the next one might appear, but there are also a couple of minor events along the way and that kind of thing. You can just plot your journey and do various things without feeling like you're overwhelmed and not knowing where to take your character's journey.

SC: Yeah. That guidedness I think is really, really good.

AO: The last thing I want to talk about is the music and the sound design.

SC: It's pretty great. I had read in some of the reviews that the minimalist sound during gameplay and the taiko drums in the battles was really effective, and it really is. It’s surprisingly immersive. And I think that's been, again, something that I think we've been noticing more in games. We didn't mention this when we spoke about LoU II but the use of silence within that game was amazing. And in this, the minimalist sound as you're going along. The way you can almost pre-empt what's going to happen and the way it uses sound to alert you. Again, I do think that the awareness of great game sound design, but in experience design generally, really got a kick with VR in that sense.

The last five, six, seven, eight years of VR has been all about sound and how do you focus the viewpoint on the action? You do it with sound. In videogames that is obviously super critical, and in this [Tsushima] it works extremely well. Surprisingly so. There's been a couple of annoying ... I can't tell what it is … it's like a scream, but it's an animal scream that happens every couple of minutes. It's sort of a distraction, but other than that, I think the sound's great in the game.

AO: I was thinking about sound and it's this really lovely intersection of the traditional and the emerging. It's chock full of all of the kind of the instrumental sounds that you would expect to hear from a samurai epic. As you mentioned, the taiko drums, but also plucking shamisen strings and the flutes over the top.

SC: Exactly, yeah.

AO: I think it's really cleverly done because these sounds have been used so much in such a particular way within the samurai genre that they actually build up anticipation and expectation, simply by occurring within the game.

SC: Yeah, it's really interesting, the sonic memories that we have, the triggers from the sounds …yeah, it's very cool.

AO: Well, I'll just finish off on, I mean, did you have a samurai film or something you want to recommend to the audience to appear with this one?

SC: I don't, but I think this US Gamer article has a pretty amazing list to get started with.

AO: For me I'm going to go back to a really nostalgic one that I love: The Lone Wolf and Cub series (1972–74). I think that was my introduction to samurai, I mean aside from maybe Shogun Assassin (1980), but if you want to do it properly you need to go and watch The Lone Wolf and Cub series. Six films. Amazing.

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