‘Ghost of Tsushima’ looks like a playable Kurosawa film

Sucker Punch productions is best known lately for its open-world action series Infamous, which it’s been developing for the last decade. Our interest was piqued last year at Paris Games Week, when Sony teased something completely new from the studio. Ghost of Tsushima, a historical action adventure set in feudal Japan, seems like a major departure from Infamous, and an even further one from its prior series, the quirky stealth platforming franchise Sly Cooper; leaving us with a lot of questions about how this game would work.

After seeing a presentation about the game at E3 2018 with developers walking us through the gameplay shown during Sony’s press conference, it seems that, above all else, Ghost of Tsushima is designed to simulate the Samurai experience, as we understand it from watching iconic movies about that now-legendary class of soldier.

Ghost of Tsushima Preview

Yo, Jimbo!

Set in 1274, at the beginning of the Mongol invasion of Japan, Ghost puts you in control of Jin Sakai, one of the last surviving samurai on the island, who must adopt the more shadowy tactics of a ninja to survive and save his homeland. Fox emphasized that the game is grounded in historical reality, and will not feature any supernatural elements, like the superhero powers in Infamous.

That commitment is not absolute, however. As one Twitter user pointed out, Jin’s Katana which Fox said here is his inherited, ancestral weapon, wouldn’t be invented for another two hundred years. Historical elision is obviously allowed for art, but it did strike us as a little frustrating when a developer goes out of its way to emphasize its game’s historicity.

Jin climbs a hill dotted with grave mounds marked by katanas, evoking the ending of Seven Samurai.

The section we saw at E3 2018 was the same as the gameplay shown during Sony’s pre-show media showcase, but with one key difference. All the dialogue was in Japanese — Ghost of Tsushima will ship in every region with the option of a Japanese vocal track, to give players “that complete, samurai film experience.”

As promised, Tsushima island looks gorgeous. The demo opened as Jin emerges from a bamboo forest and climbs a hill dotted with grave mounds, marked by katanas, evoking the ending of Seven Samurai. Jin crests the hill and we see a windswept field of tall grass, rolling down towards the bay full of invading Mongol ships and distant mountains, all of which is accessible in the open world.

Nate Fox, Creative Director at developer Sucker Punch, explained how his team started with the imagery in the films of Akira Kurosawa:

“The absolute first thing we had to nail was the sublime beauty of nature and how it works in so many of these shots of tension … big fields of grass, bamboo forests swaying in the wind, and a samurai, standing proudly, powerfully still in the middle of it. That’s how we’ll start the demo.”

That classic tension between the swaying beauty of nature and the staccato rhythm of stillness and explosive violence in Japanese swordsmanship plays out beautifully in the demo. Riding through the field, Jin arrives in a forest grove where he battles three Mongol soldiers. The encounter begins with that iconic image from samurai films of two still warriors, hands on hilt, eye each other, potential energy building up until there’s a flash of steel and one falls down dead.

Samurai, I am awry

They paused the demo at precisely that moment, rotating around in photo mode to show off the incredible precision with which every drop of blood spraying out of the wound was realistically simulated. Fox explained that their guiding principles for fighting in Tsushima were “Mud, blood, and steel — combat is gritty.” Full of detailed costumes, balletic action, and gorgeous environments, Tsushima lends itself perfectly to photo mode.

A linear story empowered them much more to create powerful and specific moments.

From there, the fight broke out into a more conventional-looking video game melee of blocking and striking. We asked Fox to clarify how the combat system squares these two fairly different modes of sword fighting (iaijutsu and parrying), but he demurred about getting into particulars.

For the more action-oriented back half of the demo it became quickly and unfortunately apparent that they were playing through it in more or less the exact same choreography as the Sony stage demo, blow for blow, which makes it substantially harder to get a read on how it really plays.

Fox talked up the range of tactical choices that you would have for approaching situations, but that feels theoretical without seeing it in practice. By contrast, when we first saw Horizon Zero Dawn several E3s ago they played through the same encounter as the public demo with different tactics to show off the gameplay. Seeing the same sequence of Tsushima again with commentary answered many of our questions, such as how open it actually is (the world is open, but the story is fixed and linear, so, for instance, if you let the monk in the temple die at the hands of those Mongols, you would simply reach a fail state and have to try again.

Branching paths are all the rage in games right now, but Fox explained how a linear story empowered them much more to create powerful and specific moments, such as the dramatic duel between Jin and his friend under falling leaves while flaming arrows rain down from above.

We still have a lot of questions about the moment to moment feel and underlying mechanics in Ghost of Tsushima, but what’s overwhelmingly clear is their studied commitment to the specific and striking aesthetic of samurai media—particularly the films of Kurosawa, though Fox also mentioned Stan Sakai’s long-running comic Usagi Yojimbo as a major influence as well. We look forward to getting a sense of how Tsushima actually plays in the next few years.

Ghost of Tsushima is currently under development exclusively for PlayStation 4, with no announced release window yet.