Review: Ghost of Tsushima (PS4)


Despite the name, Ghost of Tsushima isn’t a game about Tsushima Island. It’s not really a game about the attempted Mongol invasions of Japan, either, despite that being the premise of the story. Ghost of Tsushima is, instead, about a very imaginary, artificial version of these things. 

There’s nothing wrong with historical fiction, but such works still need to take care to do that history justice. Even if something isn’t historically accurate, it still needs to be authentic, otherwise there’s a risk of trivialising the history that’s being drawn upon. This is infinitely more necessary for creators working with the history of a culture that’s not their own, looking at it through a different cultural lens that values and prioritises different things.

Case in point: Ghost of Tsushima, a game ostensibly about a critical moment in Japanese history made by an American studio who seemingly made no effort to actually understand what they’re trying to depict, and the culture they’re drawing from, in anything but the most superficial way. It’s a game that manages to reduce the complexities of Shinto spirituality to ways of earning prizes from an open-world checklist. It’s a game that thinks bushido is a concept that begins and ends with fair duels between honourable warriors. It’s a game that thinks you can capture the nuances of haiku—a form of poetry that one can dedicate a lifetime to studying—through a game of Mad Libs, and in a game set some 400 years before haiku existed.

A screenshot from Ghost of Tsushima showing a character on horseback looking out over a battlefield

It’s a game that manages to take a moment in Japanese history so significant that it’s influence on the nation’s identity can still be felt centuries later and reduce that to a story about a samurai running around an island playing superhero.

First, a history lesson. In the late 13th century, the Mongol empire, having conquered most of China and Korea, set its sights on Japan. After veiled threats in the form of requests for friendly relations went unanswered, the Mongols launched their first invasion in 1274, quickly sweeping through Tsushima and Iki islands and making landfall at Hakata Bay in Kyushu. Faced with military tactics they weren’t familiar with, armour their swords couldn’t cut through, and deadly new weaponry like an early form of grenade, the Japanese forces struggled to put up much resistance. The Mongol force ended up retreating after one of their commanders was injured, but on their way back to Korea, storms destroyed a large number of their ships.

A second invasion in 1281 saw a much larger Mongol army making the journey. Japan was better prepared this time, and a more heavily fortified Hakata Bay made it difficult for the Mongols to land, forcing them to instead anchor off the coast and regroup for further attempts at the landfall. That’s when a typhoon swept through, devastating the Mongol fleet and putting a lid on Kublai Khan’s ambitions on Japan once and for all.

(If you want to know more about the Mongol invasions, Stephen Turnbull’s The Mongol Invasions of Japan, 1274 and 1281 is a very worthwhile read.)

A screenshot from Ghost of Tsushima showing two warriors back to back with swords held ready

That typhoon came to be known as “kamikaze”, meaning “divine wind’. For Japan, it was “proof” that theirs was a nation protected by the gods, a belief that would persist at least as far as World War II, when it became a cornerstone of the Empire of Japan’s nationalist propaganda. “Kamikaze” became a rallying cry, hence the nickname “kamikaze pilots”.

That’s the sort of weight and historical significance that Ghost of Tsushima is trying to reinvent. Setting aside the relatively minor role that Tsushima Island actually played in the Mongol invasions—it was a brief stop on the way to Kyushu—the whole purpose of Ghost of Tsushima is to try to personify that whole concept of kamikaze in one generically heroic samurai. It’s a blatant misunderstanding of what kamikaze represents, of Shinto beliefs more generally, and of Japanese culture and history as a whole.

Another problem that arises is that this will be many people’s first—and probably only—exposure to the Mongol invasions, and Ghost of Tsushima is very good at selling the idea of authenticity. Backed by a triple-A budget and a pool of extremely skilled artists, the depiction of the game’s world feels lifelike. Masterful performances and finely-tuned animation make the story that Ghost tells believable. In pre-release interviews, the creative leads have been careful to avoid suggesting that this game is historically accurate, but absolutely sold the idea that it’s authentic with stories about consultation with “real samurai” on combat design and using birdsong recorded in real-life Tsushima as part of the soundscape of the game. If you don’t know any better—and most people picking up this game won’t, through no fault of their own—it’d be easy to believe that Ghost‘s depiction of the Mongol invasions is authentic, even if it’s not strictly accurate to history.

A screenshot from Ghost of Tsushima showing a samurai looking out from a clifftop while playing a flute

That’s compounded with a particularly Orientalist vision of Japan. The whole game is basically an amalgam of the most easily-recognisable motifs of “Japaneseness”, with little regard as to how they fit with each other or with history, all seen through a particularly Western lens and bound by the functional requirements of an open-world action game. There are Inari shrines dotted around the island with cute little foxes to guide you to them, despite the fact that Tsushima… doesn’t have foxes. When you happen upon a hot spring, you’ll be prompted to choose an aspect of life to ponder in order to gain a health upgrade—mimicking a scene often seen in Japanese media while also utterly missing the point of it.

Sometimes you’ll find a particularly moving vista and be inspired to compose a haiku, which amounts to selecting from a few different options for each line, resulting in some particularly woeful poetry whose only resemblance to the real thing is a 5-7-5 syllable structure—I’m no expert on haiku, but 30 seconds on Google is enough to tell me that theme, tone, and seasonal elements are every bit as important. And, because it’s an open-world game where every action has to come with a prize, you’re awarded a headband for your efforts.

You’ll encounter legendary artisans who craft you immaculate equipment, only for you to take that new piece of armour around the corner to another craftsman so that they can “improve” it. Legendary craftsmen feature heavily in Japanese storytelling, but the idea that you’d just take their creation and upgrade it is a complete failure to understand the significance of those artisans and their creations. But the formula for this sort of game demands upgrade systems, so who cares about that, right?

A screenshot from Ghost of Tsushima showing a man bathing in a hot spring. A text box says "Reflect on..." with two different options, "My father" and "My uncle"

The very heart of the story is the main character’s struggle between trying to uphold his honour as a samurai and the need to abandon that in order to become the hero his people need. It’s a decidedly utilitarian view of “honour” that channels the myth of the samurai without really understanding it. And even then, it does a poor job with the theme that Ghost of Tsushima is supposedly trying to explore—the first time Jin has to dishonourably stealth kill someone, he has the briefest moment of doubt, followed by a flashback to a childhood where he learnt that a fair fight is everything, and then he just jumps straight to the kill, like a highly-skilled assassin who’s been doing this his whole life. From that point on, the conflict between samurai and ghost is almost entirely forgotten, aside from the occasional haphazard flashback. The conflict that’s supposed be the core of Jin’s character gets cast aside, just like that, as soon as it becomes inconvenient.

Ghost of Tsushima‘s creators haven’t been shy about taking Akira Kurosawa’s films as inspiration. They even went as far as naming a special black-and-white, grainy filter that’s available in the game “Kurosawa Mode”, with the endorsement of Kurosawa’s estate. That endorsement is little more than a marketing gimmick, though, because it seems like Ghost‘s creator’s failed to understand their inspiration on anything but the most superficial level. Kurosawa is famed for his samurai films, but dig even just a little deeper than the excitement of a sword fight and you’ll find plenty of criticism of what samurai were and what they represented. Kurosawa’s “heroes” are typically far from—they’re petty and self-interested, a burden on the people they’re supposedly trying to protect. More often than not, it’s the peasants who are the real heroes, even if—or, perhaps, precisely because—they aren’t the ones who hold the power. Ghost of Tsushima has none of that; it’s a romanticised vision of the mythical samurai that goes unchallenged, which is exactly what much of Kurosawa’s body of work rejects.

The thing is, there’s a decent enough game underneath all this. Sucker Punch know their way around action games, and it shows in the combat and stealth systems that drive Ghost‘s moment-to-moment. Fighting your way through a horde of assailants unscathed, parrying and counterattacking every incoming strike, will always be satisfying. Sneaking through a fort, taking down unsuspecting foes one at a time without giving anyone a hint of your presence until it’s too late never gets old. Ghost manages to make every little moment of action feel rewarding, with enough tools to allow a creative approach to stealth.

A black and white screenshot from Ghost of Tsushima showing a close up of a samurai getting ready to draw a sword

The world is expansive and encourages exploration, with plenty of stunning sights and interesting collectibles to discover. Taken on its own merits, Ghost of Tsushima‘s world is gorgeous and full of fascinating people. Quests are numerous, but far more captivating and worthwhile than the checklists you typically see in these sorts of games, and all work to build a cohesive vision of this Ghost‘s fictional view of Tsushima.

Which begs the question: why not just make something original? Why didn’t Sucker Punch just create their own fantasy setting, inspired by the real world only to the extend that they actually want to explore, and with the full creative freedom that comes with that? Why not make it Ghost of Tatsushima or some such, drawing on the history but making it clear that they’re not trying to rewrite it? That wouldn’t solve all the game’s problems, but it would at least temper them. There’s a decent game at the heart of Ghost of Tsushima, so why not let that shine, instead of burying it under cultural appropriation and a misguided idea that Americans should be the ones telling Japan’s stories?

That’s how Sucker Punch could have lived up to their inspirations and done them justice—by channelling the ideas that inspired them and building that into something of their own.That’s how Ghost of Tsushima could have been the “Akira Kurosawa: The Game” that its creators so desperately wanted to make, instead of the Last Samurai that they landed on.

Ghost of Tsushima is developed by Sucker Punch Productions and published by Sony Interactive Entertainment. It launches 17 July 2020 for PlayStation 4.

A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.


About Author

Matthew is a writer based in Wellington. He loves all things pop culture, and is fascinated by its place in history and the wider social context.