“I heard of your exploits. Your methods were brutal, and without honor.” —Lord Shimamura
“I did what I had to.” —Lord Sakai
Hagakure was written nearly 300 years ago by Yamamoto Tsunetomo, a man who catalogued teachings about the samurai passed down to him from his daimyo, Nabeshima Mitsushige. It was written during a time when samurai like Tsunetomo weren’t allowed to duel or kill or be “samurai” in the traditional sense, and so grappled with the position the warrior-class held in the absence of war. What did it mean to be a samurai? How were they to conduct themselves? To answer these tough questions, the book offers helpful koans like “knowing the way is to know your own faults.” However, the book is crystal clear on assassinations, trickery, and general ninja stuff—it is cowardly, and beneath the samurai.
Ghost of Tsushima, the new PlayStation 4 game out Friday that takes place during the Mongol invasion of Japan in the late 1200s, begins with this way of life drawing its seemingly final breaths on a bloody, briney beach. You are the noble Jin Sakai, nephew of the revered Lord Shimura, ready to face down the odds with all of Tsushima looking at the straightened backs of you and your fellow samurai. The Mongols advance in overwhelming numbers from the sea, from the West, and bring with them all the cruelties and vagaries of the modern era: An affecting scene in the early moments of the game shows your fiercest champion lose horribly before the fight even begins for his antiquated ideals surrounding decorum and forthrightness. Seeking single combat, he approaches the enemy camp and calls out his opponent—then he’s doused in wine and burned alive. The Mongols laugh, and then they rout your honorable, valiant forces.
This tension between what’s noble and what is effective is established early on in Ghost. As you work tirelessly to take back Tsushima Island from the invading Mongol forces, you’ll have the option of going into missions either stealthily and with caution, or with your sword raised above your head literally screaming “WHO WILL FACE ME FIRST?!?” The latter is called the “standoff” tactic, and although Ghost is essentially a story about a broken samurai learning to wage asymmetrical warfare, I cannot stop using it to step out into the open and face large groups of enemies head-on.
Like with 2019’s Sekiro, the platforming and stealth elements hardly feel as agonized over as the hand-to-hand combat in Ghost. The fighting is brutal, gory, and animation-heavy, but unlike Sekiro, deflecting an enemy’s attack doesn’t feel like rolling the dice. You won’t survive without the composure to discern whether an attack is blockable, and to remember where that attack will leave your opponent open next. An enemy’s “guard” bar is still more important than their health, and thus the biggest, hardest fights are still won through a measured combination of skill and unabating, decisive action. It’s just that it’s not a painstaking skill and the ultimate outcome doesn’t lean so much on luck. Also, the fighting animations are much more eye-catching.
There are ultimately four “stances” or styles you can learn with your katana—as of writing I’ve nearly mastered two. The first, your foundation, is Stone Stance. This is the two-handed grip, and the manner in which it’s taught in the game should be familiar if you’ve seen any samurai movie. It’s just dusk, and you, Young Jin, face bruised, are flailing your bokken around wildly at imaginary bullies as fall leaves settle to the ground. Lord Shimura walks up and teaches you first to control your emotions, then to stand your ground, and finally that a samurai always looks their enemy in the eye. Then the two of you watch the sun set.
Much has been made of Ghost’s lush, natural beauty and minimized loading times—these two conspire to make time for the player to experience genuine moments of wonder. The game’s “compass” actually makes up a part of its emotional center—Jin’s late father is “the wind at his back,” and so swiping up on the PS4’s trackpad will summon a gust of wind that will point you in the right direction. The wind causes your surroundings to breathe in the pale moonlight—I may be headed to the beachfront to ambush reinforcements positioned just off the coast, but I can stop for a minute to watch the fields of reeds sway in the breeze, and the fireflies dance off their fingertips.
Though the fights tend to be fraught, gross, and short, Ghost is an astoundingly beautiful game, down to the loot system. You pick flowers and bamboo and yew wood to make your clothes and upgrade your weapons—occasionally a songbird or a fox will cross your path and lead you to a hot spring to increase your maximum health, or a whetstone where you can strengthen your resolve.
I’ve found that no harm comes to you when you follow these guides off the beaten path, but peril is never far. No sooner had I reflected on my inner strife and dried myself off than a Mongol patrol came around the bend. They do have one of those heavies with them—the annoying kind with the giant glaive and the combo chain I can’t quite figure out.
Instead of a standoff, I dart back up the pass and find my way to a cliff jutting out over it. I lie in wait until the heavy rolls by and I drop in to assassinate him first. I killed the other six heads up, though.
I wonder what uncle would think.