I recently hit a bit of a lull in my backlog: I’d made it through the recent games that had particularly caught my eye, and wasn’t sure what to do next. It had been a while since I’d done a random AAA game, so I decided to play Ghost of Tsushima: I don’t have a lot of experience playing open world games, what I’d heard about it made me think it was reasonably up my alley, and multiple coworkers really liked it.

And I’m glad I played it! In fact, it might be the only game that I’ve ever gotten a Platinum trophy on; that honestly says as much about the developer’s choices as to what to base trophies on (e.g. there wasn’t a New Game Plus trophy) as it does about the extent to which I was hooked on the game, but I do approve of a philosophy of trophy design that’s more along the lines of nudging you to dive into different areas of the game rather than asking you to be obsessive.


Mostly I liked the way the open-worldness played out. The world of Ghost of Tsushima is a very pleasant world to travel through: I enjoyed riding my horse, the landscapes felt natural, the settlements were tiny to small but pleasant.

And, as befits an open world game, there’s stuff to do everywhere: I’d figure out where the next mission was that I felt like doing, I’d plan out a route more or less in that direction that either passed through some question marks or else passed through an uncharted area of the map, and by the time I’d gotten to that mission, I’d probably have made friends with a fox, and I might have climbed a shrine or liberated a settlement or something. It’s always a good sign when I enjoy traveling in a game enough that I basically never use fast travel; the fast travel in Ghost of Tsushima is actually very well done, with some of the fastest loading times I’ve ever seen, but despite that I almost never used it.

And of course it helped that, in general, I enjoyed the side activities. The fox shrines were charming: I like the way the fox jumps when it sees you, and I was always happy if the fox wanted tummy rubs at the end. And the regular shrines were pleasant enough platforming puzzles. (This isn’t the sort of game where you can make it up the side of mountains by jumping on random rocks, instead there are explicitly marked areas with platforming affordances; a little silly, but I enjoyed it just fine.) The battles to free settlements were okay on an individual level but I wish the game had had a little fewer of them? The only activity that I thought was kind of bad was the haiku spots, because the poems there just weren’t very good (games, take writing seriously!), but at least those were short.


And I generally enjoyed the missions themselves, too. There are four basic kinds of missions: the primary plot; chains of side missions for five separate sidekick characters; one-off side missions; and missions where you’re following up on a legend. The last kind were pleasant enough excuses to travel from place to place, and each of them ended with a duel, leading to some of the harder battles in the game, which was a good change of pace. The one-off side missions had you travel a bit in a more geographically restricted area, and had you solving somebody’s problem and learn a bit more about what’s going on in that area. And the sidekick missions were a chain of missions leading to that sidekick’s primary goal, I liked learning more about the characters that way.

The main plot, though, wasn’t so great. I mean, the missions were fine as missions; it’s just that the main plot was also trying to tell a story about what it meant to be a samurai that I just wasn’t into. Basically, you have this uncle with a rigid code of samurai honor; but the game teaches you various techniques to use as it progresses, and many of those techniques go against your uncle’s code.

So the game builds up this narrative where you turn into “The Ghost”, causing more and more distance between you and your uncle. The problem is, though, that your uncle is going to say what he’s going to say no matter what you do. So there’s no talking with him about the matter; but also, early on, there was one mission where I assaulted an enemy encampment in exactly the way my uncle would prefer, and after that the cutscenes treated me like I’d done all sorts of backstabbing stuff. Which is fine in a way, it freed me up to actually do backstabbing stuff, I liked that as a change of pace; but then later on there’s one mission in particular where the game forced me to poison an entire encampment, which I didn’t particularly want to do, I agreed with my uncle that that was a bad idea, but I didn’t have a choice!

So it’s this weird combination where the game decides what sort of character you are narrative-wise but then the game gives you freedom of choice in your actions that don’t match the narrative. It wasn’t awful or anything, it was just a little off in how it fit together.


And then there’s the combat. You learn some number of moves for fighting with your sword, but also get access to a decent number of items that mostly work to support stealth-based combat but also can be used at times in a supporting role for sword-based combat. Also, you have access to bows, both for distance attacks and for shooting stuff in the environment to cause havoc.

That all adds up to combat that I enjoyed more than in most games. This isn’t the sort of game that requires hardcore fighting mastery, which is good, because in general that’s not what I’m into. (It does ask you to parry sometimes, but it’s okay if you don’t get your parries consistently right, situations where parries are important are telegraphed explicitly, and the parry window is pretty large.) But I did end up approaching battles in a few different ways; I didn’t use all the tools, but probably more of them than I would in most games?

Having said that, there was a bit too much combat for me. At first, I managed that by skipping most of the “this settlement needs to be liberated” markers on the map. But then I decided that I probably was going to try to get the achievements, so I started doing more of those, and then I realized that they also helped me uncover more of the map, giving me more access to the kinds of side quests I enjoyed a bit more. And the liberation missions ended up being fine; by the time I decided to stop avoiding them, I was good enough at combat (and/or had gotten enough tools and leveled up my gear enough) that they didn’t take me very long.


All in all, I enjoyed the time I spent with Ghost of Tsushima. Maybe if I’d played more open world games, more of it would have seemed excessively cliched to me, but I kind of feel like Ghost of Tsushima is some combination of being a relatively well done open-world game and of being a game that uses the genre in ways that are fairly well targeted to my tastes? Ultimately, it’s an open world game where I enjoy spending time in that world, and that’s a good combination.

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