Ghost of Tsushima is not shy about its influences. Before you begin the game – an ambitious open-world adventure set on the Japanese island of Tsushima during a 13th-century Mongol invasion – it asks if you would like to view it in “Kurosawa Mode”. In practice, this only amounts to a grainy, black-and-white filter (the Akira Kurosawa of Yojimbo and Throne of Blood rather than the abundantly colourful Ran), but as a statement of intent, it’s resounding. Washington-based games studio Sucker Punch has crafted a game that perches itself, gracefully, on the shoulders of giants.
The story begins with a battle, as the Mongol army storms the island. A resistance force, led by the venerable Lord Shimura (probably another Kurosawa nod, to the actor Takashi Shimura), sets out to fight them on the beaches of Tsushima. It is a bloodbath. You play, throughout the game, as Shimura’s nephew Jin Sakai, a noble samurai saved from the carnage by a local thief, as he rescues his captured uncle and reclaims the island from the invaders.
With a huge, gorgeous map to explore, mostly on horseback, and a plethora of side quests and collectables, Ghost of Tsushima often feels like a samurai-themed Red Dead Redemption 2. Its combat mechanics fit the Soulslike mold, specifically the stance-switching swordplay of Nioh. Unlike in Nioh, however, you do not get bogged down in the obsessive collecting and replacing of different weapons. It is also – mercifully – less difficult. As Jin, I died more times than I could hope to count, but the checkpoints are forgiving, and the learning curve pleasantly sloped.
Ghost of Tsushima doesn’t quite have Red Dead Redemption 2’s dementedly thorough polish, but its peaks are no less high. While the game’s smaller cutscenes lack dynamism, its bigger ones can really soar. The animation that plays every time Jin prepares for a duel, for instance, is delightfully stylish, and quests (or “Tales”) are artfully bookended with title cards and evocative images. Riding your horse through the Tsushima’s wind-swept, flower-carpeted fields is nothing short of sublime.
As you might expect, there is a lot of talk of samurai codes and the natural world. Punctuating the action are moments of quiet contemplation, such as when you assemble haikus through multiple choice to obtain a type of collectable. Thankfully, there is no punitive “honour” system – it would contradict the message of adaptation and compromise, as Jinn bends the rules of samurai tradition to become Tsushima’s ghost-like saviour.
The great samurai films, such as Seven Samurai or Masaki Kobayashi’s Harakiri, are not just thrilling, but profound. Though Ghost of Tsushima’s waters don’t run quite so deep, it’s still a dextrous piece of work – one in which violence and beauty can effortlessly co-exist. This is no ghost, but an enlivening tribute to a genre too often mistaken for dead.
Ghost of Tsushima is out on PlayStation 4 on 17 July