I went into this game with middling expectations. I have enjoyed all of Sucker Punch's titles but Second Son was "good" not great. Like most OW games, it had generic map-collectible-do-it-all-gameplay. Not too different from Spider-Man or your typical Ubisoft title, for better or worse. But I love Samurai, the art looked great, and I'm unemployed, so… day one buy!
Turns out, GoT is brilliant. It elegantly combines the best aspects of BotW, Red Dead Redemption II, and Assassin's Creed. In many ways, it improves on those titles (though I wouldn't go so far as to say it's definitively superior to Zelda or even RDR- that comes down to taste). I apologize in advance if this rant isn't perfectly worded but, as someone that has a love-hate relationship with this genre of games, I need to gush.
First of all, the game takes bold steps to keep you focused on the world- not a map, not a compass, not waypoints. The menu map itself gives away very little and following your objective means literally following the wind, pollen, leaves, and grass as they sway towards your goal. Not only is this a beautiful and ingenious way to tell the player where to go but it keeps your eyes on the horizon, on the roads, and on the space your character is occupying. This sensibility of limited UI, organic storytelling, and an emphasis on immersion weaves into every other aspect of the game. Also, the little touches that make games like RDRII so famous? Yeah, this game has that in spades (though the balance of realism and fun is a bit more thoughtful in my opinion).
The world is rich. Obviously, the game is beautiful but nothing is copied and pasted and every single area has unique narratives, characters, factions, etc. The story is wisely broken up to accommodate the world and maximize the time you spend in each area. You get a chance to become familiar with specific temples and villages. You don't just pass by a mindless clone of a location to collect some macguffin or kill x enemies and then move on. Instead, you immerse yourself and you actually pay attention to the little details. It's the best of BotW and RDRII's exploration rolled into one. The sense of discovery is there, y'know? This is a real, lived-in world with rich history, politics, religion, and people.
Then there's the narrative, which is cleverly constructed in a way to flawlessly sidestep the typical narrative dissonance and keep player freedom in mind, while still telling a traditional mostly-linear hero's journey- something I admit I didn't think was possible. The secret genius of BotW was how its narrative (you just woke up, now go adventuring until you're ready to kill the big bad) kept every aspect of the game relevant to the central goal. In Zelda, you could help people in side quests, solve shrine puzzles, fight monsters, gather weapons and armor, cook, etc. and, no matter how mundane, it all served the larger purpose of allowing the player to "train" until they're ready to defeat Ganon. Without spoilers, GoT takes a similar path while still allowing for various branching narrative paths.
Additionally, the quests or "tales" are broken up so that you get to enjoy an anthology of secondary characters' stories. Typically, in the main tales, you meet a new character that serves the larger goal. Then, if you're interested, you can further that character's somewhat self-contained narrative in the side-tales, which remain high in production value and polish. Like in The Witcher 3, they don't really feel like "side" content. On top of that, there are tertiary quests that follow myths and legends of the island which, again, remain high in production value and cleverly feed into player progression. Not to mention the bite-sized world events that seem to be around every corner and make the island feel truly alive. You're welcome, family I saved on that bridge that one time. I should note that, as of my current place in the story, it isn't a masterpiece of writing or anything but it gets the job done, is well-acted and presented, isn't overly cliche, and certainly doesn't cringe. It's no-nonsense samurai goodness and it's better than 95% of its competition.
The progression system is exceptional as well. There are several small-ish skill trees based on traditional XP you get from, y'know, fighting Mongols and doing samurai shit. However, there are also several different layers of upgrades, skills, tools, moves, tactics, etc. that all have their own distinct systems for progression, not to mention visual customization options. For example, find relaxing hot springs dotted around the world to increase your max health. Now, as an example, these hot springs could be frustrating silly collectibles like the typical Ubisoft fare… but no. They don't appear on any map and if you want to "follow the wind" to the nearest bath, it's an unlockable skill- amongst half a dozen other similar ones. Then, when you find the bath, there's even a cool narrative touch where the protagonist will internally reflect on important narrative beats and you get to choose what he thinks about. Will you hear his private thoughts on his father or uncle, for example. And all of this is just one "collectible" amongst many others that all make narrative sense and feed into a well-rounded progression system. To top it off, these upgrades you earn are all meaningful visual and gameplay alterations- not lazy numeric buffs.
Of course, for any of this to work, the combat has to be good, right? It is. It's outstanding in fact- possibly the best part of the experience. To me, there's a spectrum when it comes to third-person combat in games. On one end, there's Assassin's Creed, which prioritizes making the player feel like a badass with cool animations and style. On the other hand, there's Dark Souls, with precise, tight, challenging gameplay that isn't as sexy to look at but feels amazing. I think GoT has nailed a balance between the two. The combat is actually surprisingly deep but I'll just say that it feels great, looks great, and is an actual challenge, though not on a FromSoftware level. On medium difficulty, I died a lot in the beginning before becoming more confident. Now, death is still a possibility and, in most encounters, I feel a need to keep my guard up and, y'know, actually try. Also, there's an insane variety of enemy types for a game featuring almost exclusively human enemies. The stealth is straightforward but satisfying and it means a lot to kill enemies quietly because in a head-on fight, large numbers are legitimately dangerous.
Okay, this is long enough. I wanna close by saying, to me, this scratched every itch I have while playing an open world title. Exploration, discovery, world-building, and the power fantasy you hope for are all present. Every system is exceptional and although the game may seem very basic and Ubisoft-esque on paper, the quality of the experience is much greater than that. This is a refined, adult game for people who take their immersive experiences a little bit seriously…
…and you get to be a badass samurai that composes haikus and jumps off buildings to stab dudes. 9.5/10
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