What makes a role-playing game? Purists would argue that a table is required, along with a sheaf of papers and a clutch of polyhedral dice. Players of video games may prefer a crowded stack of menus, in which characters, like bank statements, are sorted into columns and balanced with numbers. Others consider story to be of the utmost importance—one that you steer and stain with your own choices. All robust answers, to be sure, but have you ever thought about a flute? What about a polite bow of the head? Or a haiku, composed on a peaceful cliff? Such is the handful of fleeting gestures, ultimately pointless yet marked with meaning, available to Jin Sakai: a samurai and errant lord, and the hero of Ghost of Tsushima.

The haiku come in handy for two reasons. First, they unlock new headbands to wear—the adventure bristles with the dollish joys of dress-up—and second, they give pause: a chance for Jin to refrigerate his anger. Not that his frustration isn’t justified; his home has been invaded by Mongols, led by the fearsome Khotun Khan, and his uncle, Lord Shimura, has been captured by the enemy. We are introduced to the Khan in the opening scene, on a battle-soiled beach: “I am Khotun. Cousin of Kublai. Grandson of Genghis.” He is cloaked in fur, sports a down-to-business buzz cut, and a face well furrowed by conquest. Most terrifying of all, he has done his homework. “I know your language. Your traditions. Your beliefs. Which villages to tame and… which to burn.” He illustrates this last point, when challenged by a single proud samurai to a fair duel, by tossing a goblet of oil over the fellow, setting him aflame, and slicing off his head. Thus the game’s defining dilemma is ignited: how do you fight with honour an opponent who is willing to slink below the ramparts of your code?

One answer—prevalent for me during the early hours—is to remain rigid. After being felled, stuck with arrows, hurled from a bridge, and nursed from the brink by a friend, Jin sets about corralling local forces to mount a sortie and rescue his uncle. “I need every ally I can trust,” he says, and some are tucked in faraway corners, fogged over on the map and waiting to be recruited. The first act is a wonder, spent roaming and challenging any passing Mongol patrols. We get a scattering of flashbacks to Jin’s boyhood, filled with those charming father-son chats that warm the heart. “Only cowards strike from the shadows,” the older man says, holding a wooden sword beneath a blood-dark tree. “When a samurai faces a devious foe, he must rise above them—and never sink to their level. No matter how tempting.”

So it was that, on dispatching a group of Mongol soldiers, I would give a deferential swipe on the PlayStation touchpad, causing Jin to gently lower his head in respect (to my delight, he would occasionally utter a stoic blessing). I often did the same when meeting new people. On horseback, I would sometimes play Jin’s flute, planting some lifting notes on the breeze. When on foot, I would walk, not run. And I robed myself in billowy silks, spending hours searching for the perfect straw hat. These flourishes serve little purpose, when juxtaposed against the grand, grim theatre of war, and that is their magic: they root you in the ordinary dirt of the world and coax you to play along. If Ghost of Tsushima is a gripping role-playing game, it’s because it revels in the idea that role-playing is a game.

And so, too, it proves with the combat. Ranged against Jin is the usual horde: brutes bearing house-sized shields, long-reaching spear-wielders, cowardly archers lurking at the fringes, and so on. Ideally, they are not so much fought as rock-paper-scissored, by switching to the corresponding stance from an available four. Each has Jin hold a stylish pose, and powers up his movements with whirls, chops, and lunges. You end up with passages of violence that have the pulse of choreography to them. Those arriving bruised and bolstered from the Japan of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice (a far crueller, rot-darkened isle than Tsushima) will find nothing to injure their ego here. In fact, rather the opposite: the fights seem custom-forged to make you feel cool. Each encounter, from its beginning burst of action to its final, resounding cut, has the quality of a scene—and rarely a sense of depravity or genuine loss. “Not everyone can be a samurai,” Jin says to one of his countrymen, who replies, “But we’re all killers.” For Ghost of Tsushima, the killing is lacquered with the allure of its central proposition: that everyone can be a samurai.

The developer is Sucker Punch Productions, famous for games where getting around is half the fun. You may find yourself, steeped in slow-paced wandering and faced with vistas of sylvan green, thinking, This is from the studio that made Infamous: Second Son?  True enough, the damp rat run of Seattle’s streets, through which the superpowered Delsin Rowe cheesily romped, seems far off. But look more closely at Tsushima and you can spot the signs. Note the colours: the game is an impasto of outrageous reds, of chrome-yellow clouds and airbrushed blue mornings. At night, the moon is xenon-bright, like a single glaring headlamp. You get the impression that the director, Nate Fox, who also directed Second Son, has comic books in his bloodstream, and the art direction, lead by Jason Connell, blends high and low: plaintive natural beauty with a kind of exaggerated pop sensibility.

I had to stifle a laugh when I stumbled on the “Kurosawa mode,” which veils the visuals in dappled black-and-white and cramps the audio to a fashionably grainy tenor. It’s a boy’s-bedroom aesthetic: a wall-poster depiction of cult style, arresting and hokey. Elsewhere, however, Ghost of Tsushima is fresh—the product of a maturing developer. In place of a mini-map, you summon a gust of guiding wind; collectibles are discovered by following not waypoints but foxes and bright-hued birds. The dull litter of exploration is tucked and tidied away, freeing the screen to pull your attention from the path ahead and plunge you into the wilds. (Sucker Punch takes pains not to bore; should you tire of your thundering horse, any discovered point of interest can be instantly zapped to, with a liberatingly short load screen.) 

I am pleased to report that there were days, in the last couple of weeks, on which I woke excited at the prospect of playing—at dipping back into the fantasy. If your adventuring eyes are tired, I recommend it as I would a cold towel. You’re never as happy as when you’re lost in the early languor—which blankets the most enticing open worlds like a mist, before burning off under the hissing pressure of a plot. The game may never have been as sweet as it was in the first of the three main areas, but, to its credit, that’s because I was swept along by the story.

Soon, Jin’s creed—the thick plating of his beliefs—proves incapable of defeating the forces that besiege Tsushima, and he has no choice but to change. “Your way can’t save our people,” he says to his uncle. A new way must take its place. It was at this point I was put in mind of another errant lord, on a different island, taking arms against a sea of similar troubles and turning himself into something else entirely. Jin becomes the Ghost, covered by a grimacing mask (in the name of theatricality and deception, naturally), shrouded in black, and armed with an array of sneaky tactics—smoke bombs, firecrackers, poison-tipped darts, etc. He’s a feudal-flavoured Japanese Batman, swinging from the trees with a grappling hook, complete with a cape fluttering in his wake. And, just like the Ghost of Gotham, he inspires fear in his foes.

When Lord Shimura, troubled by the transformation, says, “I trained you to fight with honour,” Jin sounds drained, and spiked with regret: “Honour died on the beach.” Indeed, and its ghost now haunts the hills, looking for revenge. The conflict between samurai and Ghost—a proto-ninja, in effect—can be read as an update on the laughable morality mechanics of the Infamous games. The cringeworthy “corrupt” and “redeem” options are gone, replaced with a needling awareness that, by going in quiet, you’re betraying your heritage. The advantages of doing so are palpable; the Mongols murder their hostages when under attack, so stealth becomes important when infiltrating enemy bases. But I didn’t enjoy being the Ghost as much as I did a samurai. Perhaps because the sneaking is unremarkable—overly lenient line-of-sight, with a modern reliance on tall grass (the genre is in need of some weeding, as of late). And perhaps because we have plenty of good ninja games and not enough samurai simulators.

Whichever method you relish, what we are left with is the compelling pursuit of a theme: of old ways assaulted by an uncaring world. The game’s fawning over Kurosawa betrays its quiet failing. While playing, I kept thinking of Sanjuro, of the climactic scene, in which the hero bests a furious rival in front of a captive audience of young would-be samurai. “That was brilliant!” one of them says, as the blood pours out in a silvery stream. “Idiot! What do you know about anything?” snaps the hero, bereft at the squandering of life, before cautioning them: “The best sword is kept in its sheath.” Yeah right, not a chance. Sucker Punch doesn’t reach the melancholy of Kurosawa—the notion that below the elegant framing and wide-shot tranquility is a dribbling run-off of waste and sorrow. Nor could it, in a blockbuster video game that demands a generous supply of action and flash. Still, when you’re cantering through its serene peaks, reenacting your favourite samurai-movie battles, it’s difficult not to come to a simple conclusion. That was brilliant!

Developer: Sucker Punch Productions

Publisher: Sony

Available on: PlayStation 4

Release date: July 17, 2020

To check what a review score means from us, click here.