There’s an argument that crops up frequently in the world of gaming criticism—especially in the present environment, where the human cost of the industry’s obsession with ever-bigger, more beautiful worlds has never been more apparent—about the value of graphics. Terrible visuals can sink a good game, the old saw goes, but perfect ones can’t save one that stinks.
Ghost Of Tsushima doesn’t stink, as it happens. Sucker Punch’s new, wide-ranging love letter to samurai movies is a perfectly enjoyable riff on the Far Cry/Grand Theft Auto/“map game” genre, with an enjoyable story and some pleasantly chunky combat. And yet it still sometimes feels like there’s a trick being pulled here, a subconscious seduction that operates entirely in those moments when the game’s world designers suddenly flex, and the player’s jaw drops at the sight of another lush meadow of crimson flowers, lit with a perfect approximation of just-before-a-rain-shower sun. Or a cloud-wreathed mountain, looming far off in the distance. Or a golden forest, shot through with sunset light as the wind lifts and spins the amber leaves. It can’t be denied: Ghost Of Tsushima is one of the most beautiful video games ever made. It’s other things, too—not all of them good. But its beauty is irresistible, ostentatious, almost rude. It’s a preening peacock of a title, one that knows exactly how hot you think it is. And yet, that awareness doesn’t stop the jaws from dropping anyway, the next time it decides to take a twirl.
That focus on finding the perfect, solemn vista with which to blow your mind is just the most successful symptom of the game’s overriding obsession: Samurai films, and especially the carefully composed contributions of Akira Kurosawa. (The game even features a literal “Kurosawa mode” that renders the whole world in subtitled black and white; a neat, slightly too-self-serious gimmick that also ironically robs Ghost of many of its most impressive visual flourishes.) The word “films” in that description is incredibly important, too, because, despite claims of authenticity, Sucker Punch has decidedly not made a game about the Mongol invasion of Japan’s Tsushima Island in 1274. No, this is the Western studio’s video game approximation of what a movie about that historical event might look like, complete with obvious villains, pat narratives, and plenty of raw spectacle. Our lead performer is neophyte samurai Jin Sakai, who responds to the crushing defeat of his warrior brethren in the initial invasion by taking on the mantle of the titular Ghost—a.k.a., medieval Japanese Batman—and tormenting and cutting a bloody swathe through the invading ranks. Massive setpiece battles, castle assaults, and endless conversations about the value of honor (i.e., all the hallmarks of classic samurai cinema) all subsequently ensue.
Credit is due, though, for the game’s handling of that last topic, so easy to imagine eyerolling its way into the garbage can of cliché. If Ghost Of Tsushima has a narrative focus (beyond “Hey, I saw this shot in Ran one time”), it’s in interrogating, both through its narrative and its play, what the hell honor is actually good for in real-world situation. Jin begins his crusade to single-handedly repel the Mongol invasion both massively outnumbered and badly underpowered, and the game makes it clear early on that a fair fight is often a sucker’s bet; far safer to slit a throat than to face its owner in open combat. The game contrasts these object lessons on martial pragmatism with frequent lectures from older samurai, grumpy as all get out that you’re murdering your opponents—depicted, to a man, as savage, cruelty-driven monsters—in a way that’s less nice than their preferred methods of dealing death, which are all about yelling a challenge, then cutting the bastards down.
Which isn’t to say you can’t fight fair, if you want. Ghost Of Tsushima’s combat, while not especially robust, is perfectly fluid and fun, relying on a mixture of parrying blows and switching stances to keep your advantage in a fight. (Also, killing dogs. This is the summer of fighting extremely annoying video game dogs.) Many of the more useful techniques are only unlocked over time, though, as Jin earns skill points by enhancing his legend of bloody retribution. This has the odd effect of making the “honorable” path far easier to hew to the more unfairly overpowered you become. (If there’s an actual critique here of the way systems that put an emphasis on “fair play” quietly benefit the powerful over the marginalized, it’s not obvious that the game grasps its own inadvertent point.) But whether you’re stabbing the Mongols in the back, or the face, the game is happy to grant you a steady stream of new tools to make said stabbing feel ever more enjoyable. And unlike this summer’s other big game about seeking revenge in a battle-ravaged wasteland, Ghost never stops wanting you to be having fun. Despite its nods to solemn authenticity, this is an extremely video game-ass video game, a theme park ride designed to keep the dopamine dripping.
Hell of a theme park, though. Besides being gorgeous—have we mentioned that this game is gorgeous?—Tsushima is also packed with all the little map markers and glittering distractions you’ve come to expect from a game of this genre: Collectibles, crafting materials, side missions, and more, all spaced out across the geography in appealing, “Walk for a minute, get a treat” fashion. One of the game’s cleverest touches is that your pointer to these myriad distractions is not some guiding line laid on top of the visuals, but the world itself. The game employs the “Guiding Wind” to direct you toward your chosen destination, meaning that hunting down the next hot spring or power-granting bamboo strike is less about walking a straight line, than it is seeing which way the game’s luridly animated grass is now blowing. It’s an elegant touch in a game that’s often desperate to seem elegant; there’s a reason that the map’s bevy of icons includes a special set for places where Jin can sit down and meditate, writing haikus about the beautiful scenery—and scoring a new hat in the process, because Ghost Of Tsushima always seems to think baby needs some candy in order to do almost anything.
And if that all sounds very, possibly terribly, familiar, well: Yes. The truth is that there is very little new in Ghost Of Tsushima, except in an aesthetic sense. The plot is an American rehashing of 50-year-old tropes of Japanese cinema; the game design has been solidly in place in the titles it’s copying for more than a decade. But the craft on display is undeniable: This is a big, beautiful world to explore, absolutely filled with things to do and see. In a time when our own personal worlds have only gotten smaller, that’s probably more than enough for most players. It’s a game of consistent, small pleasures—at least, until you round a corner, and see something so beautiful you’re forced to just put down the controller and stare for a minute at the rippling effect of wind on grass. There’s a reason we build theme parks, after all.