“Ghost of Tsushima,” the last PlayStation 4 exclusive game, arrives on Friday. “Ghost” stands among the ranks of other PS4 exclusives, including “The Last of Us Part II,” “God of War” and “Spider-Man.” It delivers on a cinematic adventure based partially on Japanese history and embellished with mythical details.
“Ghost” is a new open world stealth game set in 13th century feudal Japan. You play as Jin Sakai, one of the last samurai, who must battle the Mongolian invasion to free his uncle and retake Castle Shimura.
CNN Business played the title — from American studio Sucker Punch Productions, which previously made “Infamous” and “Sly Cooper” — over the course of two weeks, uncovering different parts of the game, from reclaiming invaded towns to collecting flowers for a new outfit pattern.
As Jin travels across the Japanese island of Tsushima, he encounters enemy Mongols, idyllic nature scenes, and villagers who regard him as nobility. The scenery is crisp and features a blowing wind that helps guide players to their next quest. Innocent deer and foxes run through the landscape.
Combat in the game is fluid and thrilling. Jin’s movements are based on motion capture of real-life swordsmen, and as a result the role-playing feels more believable. Throughout the course of the game, he obtains more rare combat and stealth abilities, like throwing a smoke bomb that has the power to assassinate multiple enemies at once or diverting their attention with a wind chime.
As players move forward in the game, Jin must rely on stealth assassination techniques to take down his foes, who greatly outnumber him.
This results in one of the core conflicts of the game. Jin is an honorable samurai who has been trained to fight in open combat, but assassination attacks are easier. Players therefore have the choice in most battles to engage in a dignified showdown or to sneak behind each Mongol to kill them in secret.
Jason Connell, creative director and art director at Sucker Punch, told CNN Business in an interview that the studio gave a lot of thought about how to portray Jin’s story.
Jin was taught the way of the samurai as a child, but once he grew up, those traditions were challenged and it forced him to question his upbringing, said Connell.
To depict that was difficult, said Connell. Sucker Punch ultimately decided to show Jin’s evolution by exploring the influence other characters he meets on his journey has on him. Jin encounters a thief, for example, who first encourages him to use stealth, and he interacts with others who express more traditional views on samurai conduct.
Make sure to accept the side quest
While “Ghost of Tsushima” has received mostly favorable reviews, some critics contend that the game’s main campaign feels a bit too familiar and straightforward, much like any generic hero’s arc. And some of the minor characters Jin stumbles across throughout his journey lack depth.
That could potentially not matter for sales.
“The main complaint has been it is too much like other games and not original enough. But that isn’t always a bad thing. It goes after a tried and true formula and is clearly a well-designed open world adventure that many people love,” said David Cole, an analyst at research firm DFC Intelligence.
Cole predicts that “Ghost” could sell ten million copies within a year, comparing the game to the success of “The Last of Us” (2013), which was released on the PS3 just before Sony’s next-gen console launch.
Connell explained that the developers’ emphasis was not on character development. He said that his favorite part of the game is climbing mountains and taking photos of the scenic view.
To have players experience “rich exploration” and “find content in the wild,” the game developers focused instead on telling a whole anthology of stories, rather than developing a single story and small cast of characters alone, he said.
The true uniqueness of “Ghost” comes from exploring beyond the main story. The side quests are diverse: in one of them, Jin helps a queer woman who wants to avenge her family’s massacre, and in another, he aids a legendary archer who has trained a woman with great skill.
“There are instances of, when you look through history, that there were female samurai, and even in this time period, there were these stories, so we wanted to make sure that they exist,” said Connell. “I think that was an important thing to put in to show that the world is real and they’re humans.”
And Jin is able to bathe in hot springs, pen thoughtful haikus, pursue mythic quests that unlock supernatural abilities, and even pet a fox, if he’s lucky. When taking the vastness of the world into consideration, more completionist players could linger for 90 hours or more, while others may power through the main narrative on a 25-hour run.
Sucker Punch relied on cultural consultants to verify the historical accuracy of the game’s contents, including Mongolian artifacts and calligraphy, actors’ mannerisms and details like whether a child’s toy would have existed in that time period.
“We are a part of Sony and Sony’s a Japanese company,” said Connell, who explained that the studio drew on Sony’s Japanese resources to gain better feedback on the initial pitch for the game. “I think we realized we’re sort of in the best position possible.”
“Ghost of Tsushima” also tries to deliver for fans of samurai cinema, offering a black-and-white “Kurosawa mode” in which a vintage-looking filter is applied to the game’s graphics, allowing players to mimic the look of Akira Kurosawa’s classic samurai films, such as “Seven Samurai.” Players are also able to customize and choose either English voice acting from a mostly Asian American cast or Japanese voice acting.
As the last PS4 exclusive, analysts believe “Ghost of Tsushima” ends the console generation on a high note, even if some critics may not like the one-dimensional quality of the main narrative.
“Ghost of Tsushima is really going to be the capstone on a generation-defining bet that PlayStation has made on the power of exclusives to win gamer loyalty,” said David Pucik, an analyst at business strategy company Magid, “If Ghost lands as strongly as early reviews indicate it might, PlayStation will have essentially re-affirmed that audience faith right as the PlayStation 5 becomes a tangible part of the consumer conversation.”