Previews

A time machine to 13th century Japan – Ghost of Tsushima E3 2018 preview

There were some real highlights at E3, and it’s not a surprise that one of the bigger ones came from Sony veterans, Sucker Punch.  With Chris Zimmerman, Co-Studio Head and the primary force behind the combat in the game as narrator and guide, and Aaron Beecher as our demo pilot, we got to see the demo that was presented at the Sony press conference, but with a bit of a twist — we’ll be doing it live, and in Japanese.

Given Sucker Punch’s pedigree, it’s no surprise that the game is gorgeous.  Seeing it running on the platform on a TV instead of the projection screen showcased the incredible detail in the game. Put simply, it’s like a Kurosawa movie come to life. There is continuous movement in the environment – the trees, gigantic grass reeds, small flowers, underbrush, the hair on the horse, and the banded reed armor of the protagonist, Jin Sakai, are all flowing in the wind, creating a painting in motion.

Everything in this scene was in motion….

Ghost of Tsushima is an open-world game set in Japan during the year 1274.  The people of the island of Tsushima are fighting against the first Mongol invasion, and unfortunately, the other 79 Samurai on the island are dead.  To save the island, and despite his steadfast adherence to his Bushido code, Jin will have to make a crucial decision — is he willing to break with Samurai tradition, engage in stealth and espionage and stealth, and use guerilla tactics to save the island he loves, even if it costs him his honor and place in the hierarchy of the Japanese hegemony?

Using the natural barriers of Japan (the sea, mountain ranges, winding rivers, etc.), the team has unshackled the player — if you can see it, you can reach it.  We choose to go to a dilapidated temple in the distance. Mounting our horse, we ride down the hillside and through the grass reeds, scattering deer and birds in our wake.  The music swells like a Hans Zimmer score, and it simply couldn’t be more perfect. Cresting the nearby hill and riding down into the nearby forest, we see the lush greenery of Japan.  Moss covers every surface (almost oppressively so), and it’s very clear that the team has spent a great deal of time ensuring that they’ve nailed every little detail.

Horse riding has a real weight to it.

We are looking for a monk who is helping the local people (though our demo didn’t specify exactly how) and in that pursuit have run across two women running in the opposite direction screaming.  Stepping into the clearing, it’s immediately clear as to why. Four ronin are trampling peasants, executing them and robbing them for their worldly possessions. This will not stand.

Ghost of Tsushima is built around several mantras of combat — “mud, blood, and steel”. Mud is easy as the dynamic weather wets the ground, tracking mud around as we step through the accumulating puddles.  Blood plays into the equation the moment we engage the first ronin, parrying his blade and executing a gyakukesa strike (a reverse diagonal cut from hip to opposite shoulder).  The blood is cast in a jet from the chest and neck of the ronin, splashing on the ground, and on Jin’s armor.  Steel is obvious as Jin settles his sword in the gedan no kamae, pointing his sword low, ready for the next strike.  In Ghost of Tsushima, all three of these concepts come together as a metaphor for the Mongol invasion itself — nobody will get out clean.

Death is a single well-placed strike away.

As we reverse, parry, thrust, and dispatch the four ronin, it becomes very clear that parrying and reversals are the keys to successful combat.  It’s also immediately obvious that a successful strike can be instantly fatal.

Continuing our approach towards the abandoned temple, we get to see some of the locomotion methods in the game.  The land space is far larger than the previous games, and while there are no skyscrapers in the game, obviously, there are larger cities on the island, and Sucker Punch is promising “many” ways to traverse the larger world, as well as “fluid and interesting navigation methods”.  We see one of these beyond the horse riding courtesy of the grappling hook.

There is beauty, even in an abandoned shrine.

Meeting up with our fellow Samurai Masako, we see a divergence in approaches.  Masako wants to simply execute the nearby temple guards on the spot, and Jin wants to take them out stealthily.  They compromise as she uses arrows, and Jin uses his dagger to quietly dispatch them. Using the open-world approach, you can blast through the open door, or you can use the grappling hook, as we saw in the demo, to crawl the side to look in the roof to be more stealthy about the approach.

Using the grappling hook opens up the verticality of the game.

Back to the storyline, we find our monk, crashing into the room where he’s been captured and quickly dispatching his captors.  As we walk out the door, the monk is hit in the shoulder with a arrow. This monk who is inspiring the locals has (possibly inadvertently) caused the death of Masako’s family. Naturally, Masako is unconsolable, regardless of whatever good this monk may be offering, and she wants to execute him on the spot.

Stealth is an option, but not always the best option.

As Masako and Jin square off over the monk, their conflict boils over – we send him packing and engage Masako with steel.  Two friends who, unable to resolve their differences, see no way forward other than combat. As the Mongol reinforcements close distance, we best Masako, but rather than destroying her in defeat, we redeem her honor and close the demo by handing her her sword back to face the Mongol horde.

There can be honor in defeat.

Ghost of Tsushima offers a wealth of potential as an open world game with a full progression engine, but how that engine is applied is what will make it interesting.  Sure, there will be mechanics and powers to earn, as well as fighting styles and upgrades, but Jin’s shift from a strictly Samurai approach to something completely different will be the growth that makes it memorable.  Changing from his aristocratic roots to something more humble will guide his story and evolution. Sure, he’ll always be Samurai, but Ghost of Tsushima will be about becoming something more.

Ghost of Tsushima is coming to PlayStation 4 exclusively when it’s good and ready.  From the amazing demo I’ve seen, they can take their time — it’ll be worth the wait.

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