To say I enjoyed TLoU2 would be an understatement. It would also be inaccurate. I mean, it's the most miserable video game ever made. I don't think anybody could actually enjoy that amount of relentless anguish and anxiety. It was like being strapped into a gnarly chair, with your eyes forced open by a couple of uncomfortable metal hooks, while Twitter scrolls in front of you on a big screen.
Also: the room is full of hungry rats. And you're not wearing shoes or trousers.
It probably didn't help that I binged it in three days, by the end of which I emerged bow-legged from its unrelenting emotional pounding. That isn't a criticism; it just shows you how effective The Last of Us 2 was at making me feel stuff. In my view, there's no doubt it's one of the greatest video games ever made, its lustre dimmed only by the radicalism of bigots.
While I accept it may have driven its development team to near collapse, it doesn't so much raise the bar for the right way to achieve video game storytelling and characterisation as strap it to a rocket it and fire it into the moon.
Tsushima, therefore, had a tough act to follow. Regardless, there's no bar-raising here; they keep it firmly on the ground, surrounded by all the predictable comforts we've grown accustomed to. For a game so full of horses, it is perhaps understandable that it did so little to scare them.
Whereas TLoU2 had a story that could never be easily summarised in a single sentence, Tsushima can be encapsulated thus: a samurai man does some things, because the Mongols have invaded the pretty island where he lives.
Wait. Two sentences: sometimes he gets a new hat!
And you sometimes see his bare bum.
Three sentences, then.
As you'd want from a game in which you play a samurai man doing some things, the combat in Ghost of Tshushima is its strongest element.
Though it starts out pretty basic, as you progress your character gains abilities that border the supernatural, acquiring 'stances' that you can switch between mid-battle, and which give you an advantage over certain enemy types. Pretty swiftly, your character reaches a point where he's virtually indestructible. I think I probably died three, maybe four, times throughout the entire game. Who needs challenge when you've got a really big map?
Naturally, there are assorted weapon types, which won't raise too many eyebrows; aside from swords and daggers, you get bows, smoke bombs, and grenade-like things. Including one of my personal video game bugbears; sticky bombs.
Now, let's get this clear; sticky bombs were a form of demolition ordinance developed during WW2. They didn't exist before that point. Indeed, they weren't even widely distributed during the war, as they were considered unreliable; something which the classic BBC sitcom Dad's Army made a virtue of in that episode where Lance Corporal Jones gets one stuck to a dustbin lid he's holding.
I think most of us first heard of the sticky bomb in Saving Private Ryan, when Tom Hanks' character improvises some during the climactic battle scene. Almost immediately, they became as ubiquitous in video games as health packs. In short: they certainly didn't exist in feudal Japan, and they certainly have never been thrown at enemies mid-melee.
But... Ghost of Tsushima, for all the reaching it does to provide an experience that somehow transcends video games, can't escape what it is. If video games were a sticky bomb, it's stuck to Ghost of Tsushima's face, and no amount of running around in circles, shrieking out haikus, can shift it. I mean, the inclusion of fast travel isn't exactly breaking the mould.
While it tries so hard to be different, Ghost of Tsushima's structure is as predictable as modern games get. For all its developers claim that they eschewed the worst tropes of open world design, all they've really done is disguise them slightly.
The map unfurls gradually, revealing story missions, side missions, and various secondary objectives that allow you to upgrade your character. Some of these upgrades are cosmetic - complete this mission, and you can get some funky red trousers - while others will reward you with new weaponry, or skill points. There are enemy bases to liberate, and a sprinkling of light detective work, but rarely does it stretch beyond the usual go-here/kill-these-people formula that we're all accustomed to.
What it tries to do to set it apart from all the other open world map-mopping out there is its wholesale embracing of 13th Century Japan. How much of it is accurate, and how much of it is trying to evoke what we imagine it to have been like, I cannot say. But expect plenty of shrines, healing hot springs, petting of foxes, haikus, and a whole lot of talk about honour. Which swiftly gets dropped once the main character realises that some objectives can only be completed using stealth.
Somewhere in there, it's trying to connect your character to nature; instead of a GTA-style GPS, you summon gusts of wind to direct you to your mission waypoint. This, like much in the game, is just window dressing; it's a re-skin of game mechanics we've seen countless times before.
It's a shame, because one of the most interesting elements of Tsushima early on is how it seemed to be going against gaming's tedency towards stealth missions, by having your character stride into enemy bases, and issuing a challenge. This remains an element throughout - providing you've not been seen, you can call out a group of enemies, which results in a sort of one-on-one, face-off mini game, where you need to time the unsheathing of your katana. Unfortunately, some missions demand you do the stealth thing, lest Mongol captors start slaughtering the prisoners you're trying to rescue.
More often than not, it's just easier and quicker to burst into an enemy camp and start slaughtering Mongols, rather than faff around distracting them with wind chimes and firecrackers.
This discrepancy is what I found most frustrating about Tsushima; how it sort of wants to be something other, embracing a slower pace, but snaps back to predictable gaming tropes before it ever gets a chance to really explore territory that is legitimately different and new. As if they went so far down a certain path, and then bottled it. They even seem to have tried to balance out the measured rhythms elsewhere, by making your character's movements almost superhumanly fast.
Unlike, say, Far Cry, when you really feel it when you pick flowers or strip bamboo, or skin a dog, here it happens instantly. There's none of Red Dead's weighty grounding in reality, which allows the player to really embed themselves in that world; your character glides through Tsushima like Pac-Man. It hurries along, until you smash face-first into one of its many cutscenes.
This weird discrepancy, this mix of good and bad, extends to the visuals too. Given all the pre-release hype about what a beautiful game it is, I found myself disappointed by the graphics early on. They seemed to be trying too hard to look lush, but often the sparse, clean, scenery felt painfully last-gen, and same-y. Once it gets into the second act, though, things really picked up, and I started to see what everyone was talking about; it is a beautiful game, no question. Plus, its setting gives it a unique atmosphere. Yes, we're back in forests and climbing up mountains, but often those are bamboo forests, and the mountains look like ukiyo-e paintings.
What continued to be an issue for me was the animation; once characters are in motion it looks great. Riding across a field of flowers is never less than gorgeous, but the transition from one animation state to another can be jarring and clunky. NPCs all run the same, they turn like robots, and the issue is compounded by the way every character pretty much has the same move cycle.
The cut-scenes - of which I'll say more shortly - veered between spot-on Kurosawa pastiches (you can even play the game in black and white, for added authenticity), and bland talking heads.
For me, though, where Tsushima almost crumbles entirely, is its narrative. God, it's boring.
The way Ghost of Tsushima tells its story feels very old-fashioned. And not even old-fashioned in a good way, like harkening back to some halcyon period. More like it's harkening back to stuff that we've been growing tired of for some time. It's not so much yearning for Spangles, as sighing because Michael McIntyre's on the telly again.
Released in the wake of The Last of Us Part 2, Tsushima's bland, petri dish-deep, characters, stand out as little more than ciphers. Nobody feels real, nobody has the sort of human concerns most of us can relate to.
I think - but can't be sure - that they were trying to tell a story about stories, legends... but that's less interesting than exploring the reality behind those legend. Your main character, Jin Sakai, is an empty vessel into whom we can pour our fantasy of becoming a legendary samurai. Or at least, that's the intention, I think. Aren't we all a bit more clued-up these days? We know our heroes, our legends, are as flawed as the rest of us.
If we'd been afford the opportunity of playing as the real Jin Sakai, the man behind the myth, rather than the myth itself - somebody trying to live up to his legend - I might've felt it easier to relate and engage with the game's narrative. Regrettably, here's no attempt to humanise this stoic, revenge-driven, man. He has all the layers of a single sheet of A4.
I mean, none of this would be a problem were Tsushima able to accept what it is; an action video game. We never needed Q*Bert's inner struggle. We accepted Mario's simplistic goals. But that's because those games knew what they were, and left us to create our own adventures.
Unfortunately, in Tsushima, the cut-scenes are piled on thick, and you can't skip them. They force you to watch the story rather than interact with it. Worse still, most of the non-interactive moments are also completely unnecessary.
Example: you'll travel to a mission start point to speak to a character. You'll get an interminably dull cut-scene, that lasts a good 20 seconds too long, and then he'll ask you to follow him. Good. Back into the game. Except: you and he walk somewhere 10 feet away, and you get another cut-scene that drags on. Then some more walking. Then another cut-scene. Walking. New character. Cut-scene. Walking. Now go somewhere else; get on horse. Oh, you've bumped into a group of Mongols holding a prisoner. Rescue prisoner by slaughtering Mongols. Talk to prisoner. New cut-scene.
Given the sheer number of them, I'd wager that 75% of the cut-scenes in Tsushima are extraneous. They're not even interesting. They don't reveal anything about character; it's usually about the mission. It's just bad writing, and worse storytelling. They slow the pace to a crawl. That'd be fine, but as I said before... they seem to have then overcompensated with Jin's spritely movements. It actually felt more like they're always hurrying you towards the next cut-scene, so they can show off their watery screenwriting skills.
If games are to force a story upon us, that story needs to engage us. We need characters we care about.
Arguably, The Last of Us 2 might go too far in the other direction - piling on backstory upon backstory, heaping misery upon its protagonists (and antagonists) - but at least I cared about all of it. For all its side missions, Tsushima is a far more linear experience, purely for its A-B character journey. There's a bit of a late-stage twist, but it doesn't really feel earned. Despite spending hours exploring a vast, Japanese, island, I didn't feel like I'd been on any sort of journey.
I've always argued that if you're going to tell a story in a video game, make sure it's a story that can only be told in a video game. Some of my favourite moments in The Last of Us 2 are where characters are simply talking, but... in those moments I've often got control over a character. I'm interacting with the world. I'm invested in who they are. I know no moment will be wasted. It treats cut-scenes as story beats, not mission briefings. Characters are motivated by deeper concerns, driven by emotion, not externally-imposed game rules.
Because Ghost of Tsushima fails to do any of this, because it can't rationalise its need to be a video game, with its creators' desire to tell a story, it feels achingly out of step. It might be the last big PS4 exclusive of this generation, but it already feels like it belongs in the past.
Still, at least you get to see his bare bum.
SCORE: 1274 out of 2020