Curious to take him up on this advice, I led Jin to a nearby overlook — with a view of the forest in the distance — where he sat down. Using the right thumbstick of the controller to pan the camera back and forth, I was able to focus Jin’s attention on specific parts of the landscape by pressing the X button, and compose a haiku: “Whispers through the trees/Protected from the harsh sun/A sturdy defense.” In all my years of gaming, this was the first time I helped the protagonist in an action game reflect on the theme of serenity.
“Ghost of Tsushima” is a game that abounds with such nifty elements. Rather than depend on an unsightly compass, or a mini-map, on the screen for navigation (as is typical for most large-scale open world games), you can swipe your finger across the touch pad to rustle up a breeze — the Guiding Wind — to point you in the right direction. In fact, you can discover points of interest in the world without consulting a map at all. From time to time a golden-colored bird or a fox will cross your path. Following them will lead you to convenient locations such as shrines or hot springs where Jin can pray or bathe to increase his stats. Details like these help connect the player to the world in a way that feels more or less organic, and I expect other developers will crib some of these innovative features.
Though it is often said of the best open-world games that the environment is like a character itself, the cliche is borne out in “Ghost of Tsushima.” Set during the time of the Mongol invasion of Japan, this visually stunning samurai epic tells the story of Jin’s quest to repel the invaders who, at the start of his journey, wipe out most of his fellow samurai and capture his uncle, Lord Shimura, the leader of the region. For much of the first act of the campaign, Jin focuses on raising an army to help him free his uncle. Along the way, he encounters Yuna, a no-nonsense thief. Over time, she comes to exert great influence on his life. She counsels him that to defeat the Mongols, he will have to put aside some of his samurai ideals, such as always confronting enemies head-on rather than taking “the coward’s way” and sneaking up on them from behind. She also seeds an idea among the peasants that Jin is a ghost or an avenging spirit whose destiny will lead the haggard population to victory.
I enjoyed watching Jin grapple with the need to loosen his own moral framework. The story skillfully cuts back to scenes from his youth where his uncle instilled in him the value of the samurai code. All of the main characters I’ve encountered so far have interesting backstories that show how the circumstances of their lives shaped their perceptions of the world. This is an easy heroic fantasy to fall into if one has a weakness for samurai tales.
As Jin makes his way across the island, he meets all manner of foes, including dual-wielding swordsmen and wrathful spirits. There is a fairly deep combat system to learn, but this is balanced by generous quality-of-life features. For example, you can adjust the difficulty at any time, even midway through a boss fight.
By defeating a set number of Mongol leaders, Jin can increase his repertoire of sword poses. Each of the four stances — Sun, Wind, Water and Moon — are useful in particular situations. Water stance, for instance, is effective against shield-bearing foes while Wind stance is good for handling pikemen. Switching between stances requires one to hold down the right trigger and press one of the face buttons on the controller. Doing so slows down time so there is rarely cause to panic even when juggling different types of foes. (It’s worth mentioning that on a number of occasions, I found it relatively easy to exploit the enemy AI, outside boss fights. Crawling beneath an elevated house, for example, is a good way to lose pursuers.)
By defeating enemies, Jin builds up “resolve,” which is represented by small yellow circles in the lower corner of the screen. He can tap into his resolve to heal himself or perform special moves, which can be acquired by tackling the game’s supernatural or Mythic Tales. He can add to his stock of resolve by visiting stations where he can practice his swordsmanship by trying to strike through a row of bamboo branches with a single slash. Doing so requires one to input a chain of button presses in a short amount of time, the catch being that once one begins the sequence, the visual prompts vanish from the screen. I found that the easiest way to do this was to close my eyes and use my memory rather than look at the screen; I like it when a game flirts with meditation.
“Ghost of Tsushima” is a vast game. I have poured at least a couple dozen hours into it but have much left to see. I suspect it will keep me enjoyably busy until the leaves fall from their trees and the next console cycle begins.
Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer. His work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the New Yorker and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.