I have been playing Ghost of Tsushima for quite a few months, starting last year, with a break when Cyberpunk 2077 released and back on early this year. I enjoyed exploring the world and playing the Tales of Tsushima. Though one of the main pulls of the game was the protagonist, Jin Sakai. We accompany him in his journey to help his people and liberate the island of Tsushima, while transcending from a honorable Samurai to the more shady Ghost.
Choosing to playing as a Samurai or Ghost is a gameplay mechanic in Ghost of Tsushima. It is something I have written about prelaunch and was really looking forward to checking out in the game. The game does deliver on it's promises and the choice does matter in how each combat encounter can be approached. You can choose to challenge your enemies or stealth your way through.
The symbolic death of the samurai and the old way is portrayed in the opening battle, when the Mongol lord, Kotun Khan brutally murders the samurai lord without honor the tradition of the honorable one-on-one duel. It would require more than honor to defeat the Mongols. The ability to assassinate enemies is one that we do not start out with and is earned through an early mission. It is interesting to see Jin's conflicted thoughts on when he has to resort to such tactics.
As we learn more and more ghost tactics, the game leaves it up to us to decide to go the honorable way of challenging all enemies to a duel or sneak through their camps and take them out one by one.
Tales of Tsushima
Ghost of Tsushima takes inspiration from many open world games of this time and makes it's own unique tweaks to it. This is most evident in it's side quests in the form of Tales of Tsushima. These start out as part of the main quest when we set out to recruit a myriad of people to our cause. Sensei Ishikawa and Lady Masako serve as starting points to tales, where you help them with something personal in return for their allegiance.
Each tale is played out throughout the three acts of the story with a few parts connected to each section of the island. The progress of the tales feels natural with the progress of the main quest and delves deeper into the characters, who assist you in your journey to liberate Tsushima island. There are sombre tales like that of Lady Masako, who is looking for justice and vengeance for her family's massacre to funny ones like that of Kenji, who gets himself into weird situations involving sake and trying to pull one on the Mongols to really short ones like that of Yuriko.
A note on the tales...
Sensei Ishikawa and Tomoe
Sensei Ishikawa is a veteran archer and is looking for his old student, Tomoe, who seems to have been captured by the Mongols. Turns out she has defected to their side and is helping them train their archers. We follow the trail of Tomoe throughout Tsushima island as we find the camps where she trains her archers and the bloodshed that it entails.
Finally, when we do catch up with her, she does not seem the demon she is made out to be, even engaging and assisting Jin in a part of the tale. She claims that her defection was a choice made for survival and even helps us foil a plan of Mongols to attack the pirate cove, in the end slipping away from us. In Tomoe, we see represented a character who would do anything to survive. Life was not kind to her and in return, she made work with what she had.
Lady Masako's vengeance
Lady Masako wants help in her vengeance against the ones, who orchestrated the slaughtering of her family. We help her through her journey of discovering the identity of the perpetuator. Who would use the opportunity of war to attack so close to home? It should be someone close to the family. It is the enemy that wears the mask of the friend that is most dangerous.
In this case, it turns out to be her own sister, Lady Hana. Lady Hana felt cheated of a better life by Lady Masako, when the Lord Harunobu Adachi chose to marry Masako instead of her. Lady Masako, in turn, had her sister wed to a lesser lord in hopes of having her get settled, but ended up dooming her to an abusive relationship, which pushed Lady Hana to seek vengeance against her younger sister.
This tale felt very personal, instead of the overarching connection to the Mongol invasion. Lady Hana saw an opportunity for vengeance and took it despite the impending threat. It is a portrayal of the extremes we humans can go to extract vengeance. It is rightly said: "Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned."
The Master Thief, Yuna
Yuna is our companion from the start of the journey. She save Jin from the battlefield and nurses him back to health. It is through her that our journey of being a Ghost begins. We help her rescue her brother, Taka from the Mongols. Of course, we have our own motivations to rescue Taka as he is a great blacksmith. But as we progress through the story, our relationship with Yuna and Taka evolve into a friendship.
Through Yuna's tale, we learn of her dark past in a slaver's camp. One of the most interesting missions comes as part of her tale, where we have to identify and take out the slaver brothers who run the operation. It makes for a great stealth mission and as it is the only one in the game, I am glad the format was not repeated else I am sure it would have not been as memorable.
Kenji, the sake merchant
Kenji is a sake merchant, whom we enlist early on in the game. He seems like a sleazy guy, who is always ready to swindle the people. He expresses his fear at joining our cause but is convinced to join us by Yuna in the liberation of Azamo Bay. Soon, we see that his loyalties lie with the people of Tsushima. Though, more often than not, he gets into trouble later on for trying to pull a double on the Mongols or Straw Hat Ronins. It comes down to Jin to rescue him from these sticky situations. Unlike the other tales, Kenji's seem to have a breath of lightness and a comedic edge to it that helps is relieving the tension of the main story and other tales.
Ryuzo, the Straw Hat Ronin
Recruiting Ryuzo is part of the first act. A childhood friend of Sakai Jin and the leader of the Straw Hat Ronins, his alliance seems to be crucial in the first assault. However, he does not turn up when we begin our assault on Castle Kaneda. Turns out, he sells out to Khotun Khan. His primary goal is to keep the Straw Hat Ronins fed and than is why he choses to side with the Khan.
Even though there are no tales with Ryuzo, he turns up at multiple places in the main story, first dueling Jin at Castle Kaneda. We later see him conflicted, having no choice but to support the Khan, in front of Castle Shimura.
It was surprising for me to see Ryuzo's betrayal. I did expect for him to have a redemption arc ending with his death of course, but in the end it as not so. Though he pleads with the Khan to give the Ghost a second chance to turn him, he is indirectly responsible for Taka's death. Thus, when Jin makes the killing blow, it does not seem bitter-sweet but just right. Even though Ryuzo was doing what he did for the good of the Straw Hats, he had indirectly cause more harm.
The Last Warrior Monk: Norio
Later, we rescue Norio, one of the last warrior monks, who had been trapped by the Mongols. Norio idolized his brother, Enjo, who gave up his life to protect him. We help Norio to defend the temples in the north and the monks, while he tries to live up to his brother's title of the Guardian. In an unfortunate twist, we find Enjo kept to the brink of his life by the Mongols. It was through torturing him that the Mongols were able to plan the assault on the temples.
Norio, in a fit of rage, seeks out and burns alive the Mongol leader responsible slaughtering a horde of Mongols and burning their camp in the process. Later, we see Norio express regret on his actions and doubt his ability to be the Guardian like his brother.
Through Norio, we see the extent one can go to avenge one's family. The impact of the Mongols' invasion on Norio and his brother seems to be a personal story again and yet, it goes to show the extent the Mongols were ready to go to get the information they wanted. Here they made use of Enjo's responsibility to protect his brother against him and tortured him to extract more information.
Yuriko's tales are one of the more calmer and rewarding tales of Tsushima. After all, you get the poison and hallucination dart recipes from her. But it is not only that, it is the fact that she knew you as a kid and your father as well. When accompanying her, we get to relive stories from Jin's childhood. It helps fill in a past for this character whom we have spent so long playing as. There is also her implied romance with Jin's father after the passing of his mother.
Yuriko was like a second mother to Jin and through her short tale, we grow close to her. It is all the more painful when she actually passes away in the end. It did look like it was going to happen with her wandering away and mistaking Jin for his father, but it still is a blow when it actually happens.
In Khotun Khan, we see exemplified the tactics used by the Mongols. He learns the Japanese language and even of the traditions of Japan before beginning his conquest. He cozies up to Lord Shimura in hopes that he will accept the Mongol rule in return for being allowed to remain a lord. Being the samurai that Lord Shimura is, he rejects this offer. He plans to make moves against his cousin, Kublai Khan, after the conquest of Tsushima. To further convince him, Khan also tells Shimura of the Ghost tactics that Jin is now employing. Here we can see how the Khan tries to sow discord between the two.
When convincing Shimura doesn't work, he bribes the Ryuzo and gets the Straw Hat Ronins on his side. He then uses Taka against Jin in hopes to convince him to turn, but when that fails, he brutally murders Taka. Here is a man who is ready to do anything to get what he wants. He even adopts Jin's poison against him, further planning to use it against the mainland of Japan.
The Ghost & his choices
The choice of use Ghost tactics is not a straightforward one for Jin. He is a Samurai and has been raised to fight honorably. So, he starts out with a distaste for any stealth tactics. But soon after the defeat of the samurai at the hand of the Mongols, he is forced to adopt such techniques.
As we progress through the game and gain a better understanding of the Mongols and their tactics, we see how Jin evolves and adapts to fighting the enemy. He understands that the Mongols use dirty tactics and force in their conquests and will not hesitate to decimate everything in their path. Hence, he is ready to do anything necessary to defeat them.
Many a time, Ghost of Tsushima feels like a role playing game. We are not given any major choices to make and the story is set on a linear path and yet it is the small things like the ability to use Ghost tactics or be the honorable Samurai that help get us into playing the role. I can see how the choices if given to us would have impacted the fate of Tsushima. However, instead of telling a tale of hollow choices, Suckerpunch chose to make a compact linear story with a vibrant open world that makes for a great experience.
Ghost of Tsushima ends on a strong note. I was glad to be given the choice to spare Uncle Shimura because I wouldn't have had it any other way. Yes, Jin Sakai had deviated from the honorable path of the samurai, but he was not a monster. He was the Ghost of Tsushima, the hero they needed to fight against the Mongols.