In popular culture, samurai are often portrayed with a mixture of romanticism and chivalric honour. They are presented with a strict code of honour that’s thought of as heroic, but in reality, the life of a samurai was far more complex. The absolute devotion they had to their code could make them ruthless and cruel to the people they considered to be beneath them.
In many ways, a samurai was a walking contradiction. A warrior who was expected to draw their sword at a moment’s notice, but was also meant to compose haikus, arrange flowers and be the living embodiment of Japanese virtues. This complexity is on full display in Ghost of Tsushima, a game I’ve been waiting to play for a long time and that allowed my inner history geek to run free.
A complex story of honour, betrayal and sacrifice
Ghost of Tsushima follows the story of Jin Sakai, a 13th century samurai who must save Tsushima Island from a Mongol invasion, led by the grandson of Genghis Khan, Khotun Khan. The story takes inspiration from the real-life invasion of Tsushima Island during the same time period, but the game isn’t bound by historical accuracy.
After the samurai are defeated and Jin’s uncle, Lord Shimura is captured, Jin does everything in his power to save his family no matter the cost. He becomes the Ghost of Tsushima, a larger than life figure that terrorises the Mongols and gives hope to the common folk.
Jin’s transformation from samurai to the Ghost is one of the most compelling parts of the game. He’s forced to reassess what the meaning of honour is and resort to tactics that are considered ‘dishonourable’ for a samurai. This change affects his closest allies and Jin must decide how far he’s willing to go to save his home.
The Lord of Clan Sakai’s supporting cast is an intriguing band of misfits and outcasts. There’s the legendary samurai archer Sensei Ishikawa, an onna-bugeshia called Lady Masako, the cynical thief Yuna and an irreverent sake merchant Kenji. Completing the companion side missions are welcome diversions from the main story, revealing multi-faceted characters who’re just as damaged as Jin.
Breath-taking graphics and gameplay
A lot of Ghost of Tsushima reviews involve praising the look of the game and I can’t praise the graphics enough. The game is beautiful. A wondrous Japanese fairytale landscape of cherry blossoms, Shinto shrines, Buddhist temples, towns and villages. Several times throughout the game I had to stop and pause to take in the beauty of leaves falling in a forest and the simplicity of a waterfall crashing into a river.
The gameplay is just as enjoyable, a dynamic mix of samurai sword swinging and ninja-like stealth attacks. Jin can engage enemies head on and fight in epic katana battles. He can also stab them to death in a bush, blow them sky high with black powder bombs and poison them with a blowgun. The player isn’t restricted by either style and can switch effortlessly between samurai and Ghost combat.
Ghost of Tsushima is the samurai game the world has been waiting for. Packed full of rich historical context, complicated characters and beautiful aesthetics, the game is worth checking out.