I went into this game with fairly low expectations, thinking “Eh, it looks cool I guess but there’s no sci-fi or magic elements, so it’ll probably end up being boring”. However I ended up liking this game so much more than I thought I would. I’ll have to delve into spoilers to elaborate on why, but I’ll start out with the general stuff, though this might also have semi-spoilery stuff such as locations and abilities.
The island of Tsushima is beautiful, though I feel like this is achieved more through the vistas or smart use of color than pure graphical fidelity – a lot of textures are somewhat mediocre, especially compared to last month’s The Last Of Us Part II, without a doubt one of the most graphically impressive games ever made. I think my perception of Tsushima would be better had it not been for playing TLOU2 just a month ago. In any case, Tsushima is a delight to travel through, and I’ve many times stopped to just take in the sights. While the traversal is mechanically very simple, being just running and riding with the occasional climbing, it looks good and doesn’t take too long between other parts of gameplay to become a detriment. Though it’s criminally underused, the grapple hook especially feels so good to use and could have been implemented in a lot more ways, for example combat or regular free movement.
I really like how the game doesn’t rely on a mini-map but instead has the player use the wind and survey their surroundings, be it watching for smoke on the horizon, steam from an Onsen, the glistening of a Fox Den tree or searching for Bamboo near a settlement. A tiny gripe I have with this is how easy it is to just wait for a bird to come by and lead you to these – I kind of want to look for them myself, but I understand that some people appreciate it, even if I think the bird should only lead you to Haiku. I also think we should not have had the question marks on the map, as it undermines the upgrades that let you use the wind to guide you towards collectibles. I unlocked them all very last, as I would instead just head straight for Mongol camps and unlock all the question marks instead.
The combat is amazing, and while it can be very challenging at times, especially on the hardest difficulty, it’s never unfair – I did think some of the duels do that thing I dislike where the boss has so much more health and does more damage than you, except once you’ve got enough upgrades and Resolve going in, it feels like the odds have indeed evened out, and it does make sense to get a challenge when you consider many of these duelists to be more experienced than yourself. The normal group combat is great too – there are numerous different enemy types that all use different moves and have different weaknesses, though I personally think the combat relies a bit too much on switching stances every time you hit a new enemy, and I would have liked to see these moves be their own thing instead, for example with one move doing a ground sweep, another doing a stab, a disarm and so on, kind of like we see the Batman games and old school Assassin’s Creed doing. It feels somewhat cheap to have one type work only against one enemy – well, they all work on all enemies, just more on certain types, so it’s not absolutely crucial to switch every time, but it does strike me as odd that we don’t instead use some sort of chorded press instead of switching between stances constantly. I don’t know if there’s any game I can properly compare it to – I don’t even want to say it’s a hybrid of all sorts of games, because it does feel like something worthy of standing on its’ own – entering a camp using the Standoff, then picking up the rest with Heavenly Strikes, a Dance of Wrath or the Ghost Stance, is some of the most badass I’ve felt in gaming in a long time. Since Doom Eternal, at least.
The stealth plays fairly close to what we’ve seen in games like Batman, Shadow of War or even recent Assassin’s Creed games, as you crouch to move silently while hiding behind cover or climbing around the environment to get the drop on enemies and take them down using your Tanto or Bow. Since Ghost of Tsushima does not feature futuristic gadgets and supernatural elements, it does feel a bit more grounded than the afore mentioned games, which isn’t a bad thing at all, and it is useful enough to make you always consider both the stealth or the standoff entrance when running into enemy camps. The interesting twist in this game is how the Stealth, or rather Ghost tactics tie into the narrative – Terror is not the weapon of a Samurai, but in order to dismantle the Mongol invasion, Jin must take up “dishonorable” tactics, ranging from stealth kills and smoke bombs to kicking enemies off ledges and poisoning entire platoons of Mongols. Everything is permitted.
I guess this is where we really delve into spoilers. I was floored at how much I ended up liking this game’s story. At first it comes off as a simple revenge story; Khotun Khan comes to the island and his forces kill almost every samurai, leaving Jin with the responsibility to gather an army and strike back to save his island. But it’s so much more than that. This is an insight in both the glory and the pitfalls of the Feudal system and the Way of the Samurai, how the walls set up by a class society can eventually close in on you. The Samurai of Tsushima were technologically outmatched and outnumbered, and they were wiped out for their inability to adapt. Battlefield honor is really all they had, but their pride and stubbornness resulted in them losing almost everything, and even after being taken captive and later freed, Lord Shimura Shimura would still rather see himself and his entire army die fighting than adapt to the Mongol’s ruthless tactics, which leads to Jin defying orders and using his cunning to defeat the enemy at the cost of his honor alone, though we also see how this action may not have been the best either, as it allows the Mongols to discover the poison and use it against the islanders as well.
I think the moment that cemented this game as one of the best I've played this year was the mission "The Ghost of Yarikawa" – cutting the head clean off General Temuge and finally unlocking the titular Ghost Stance, cutting down Mongols paralyzed from sheer shock and fear, then watching the remaining forces shocked and fleeing in terror, was such a hype moment, one that I didn't quite feel the height of until the final boss battle, and my god, what a fight. The build-up, the haiku, the setting and THE MUSIC. This scene really took the classic Kurosawa feel and just cranked it up to 11. I won’t lie, I’d already spoiled the game by watching Twitch streams, so I knew what I was getting into. However, I didn’t think it’d be so easy; I defeated Lord Shimura in my very first try, and for a second I thought I could even do it hitless, but I must add that I did walk into the boss fight with full resolve and Ghost stance, and I’d probably have upgraded the Ronin outfit if I knew that was what I would need to wear. Make no mistake though, I almost did die, but the way the fight went for me only improved the experience overall, as it gave the impression that Shimura didn’t really want to win anyway, but wanted to see the man he raised as his own son live end his life in a final act of honor. I, however, chose the “Spare” ending; I did watch the other ending on YouTube and it still works well enough as a conclusion, I really wish we had seen more raw emotion like that from Jin throughout the game, but in the end it only made sense to me that Jin would no longer let the notion of honor and the traditions of the Samurai rule his actions.
What this game teaches us is that the foundations of society are fragile, and we must be the shepherds of our own civilization, but we are also the architects of our actions, and must live with their consequences, whether glorious or tragic. Sounds familiar? That’s because this is basically the Assassins' Creed; Nothing is true, Everything is permitted. This game’s entire plot and theme fits perfectly with this creed from a game series that practically abandoned it years ago, and arguably takes it even more literally than any Assassin's Creed game ever did. Gameplay-wise this game also outshines every AC game, with the exception of the Ezio trilogy's parkour, but that's another discussion entirely, and Ghost truly does make you feel more like an assassin than I've felt in an AC game since… ever, maybe? I am not at all a fan of the direction the AC series has chosen, but I have still played every mainline Assassin's Creed game to completion, and I once considered the franchise one of my favorites, up until the end of ACIII, a game which you could argue tried a similar theme with abandoning the ways of your clan in order to protect it from an outside danger, though it didn't at all succeed in the ways Ghost of Tsushima did. I actually think Ghost of Tsushima contains more of that classic AC feel and ideology than any game in the franchise since ACIII – There's no dead family members to avenge or long lost brother to save, in the end what Jin is fighting for is not honor or to be recognized as someone’s adopted son, but to ensure the safety and liberty of his entire island’s population, including the peasants so far removed from his sheltered upbringing as a Samurai, even though some of them outright hate Jin for being part of the upper class authority that has so long ruled over them and sometimes even used force to keep them in check.
My last point might be a bit controversial and put off a lot of people, but you know what, if this game taught me anything, it’s to hold on to what I believe in, so I’ll just say it: I think the story could have worked even better if Jin was gay. Hear me out; I know a lot of people believe there’s been a push for “forced diversity” in games recently, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with a traditionally heterosexual male main character, but I think Jin’s “romance” with Yuna was weak at best, if not entirely non-existent, whereas I think his friendship and backstory with Ryozo could have been very interesting to explore, and a literal romantic relationship between the two would have deepened this even further. I also believe there would have been a chance to set up a budding relationship between Jin and the character that ended up being Taka, though this would have required Taka’s character to be less cowardly from the start and more ride-or-die, before being brutally murdered in front of Jin. It would make both Ryozo’s betrayal and the subsequent revenge so much more impactful. But lastly, I think Jin being gay could have served as another point of disillusion with the Feudal Samurai society; the Samurai would likely have frowned upon homosexuality, making Jin a black sheep from the very start and his journey to assemble an army seem even more hopeless and thus more rewarding when it succeeds, but it would also mark Shimura’s plan of formally taking in Jin as a lie, a pipe dream, from the very beginning, as Jin would likely never pass down the name anyway, despite Lord Shimura’s wishes. But this is all just my personal opinion and observation, and if you don't agree with it then that's totally cool.
In conclusion, though it's not the most technically impressive, Ghost of Tsushima has quickly become one of my favorites this year, and surprisingly takes the Assassin's Creed more literally than any of the titular games ever did. I've already gotten the Platinum and even chased down all additional collectibles that don't have a trophy to them, and I can't wait for a NG+ option so I can replay it and take in all the key parts once more. I thank you for reading my insane review and rambling on this game and hope you will all share your own thoughts and observations with me!
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