Ghost of Tsushima Director’s Cut Review: The unbearable weight of compromise

Tsushima Director's Cut

Ghost of Tsushima Director’s Cut marks the second time this game has come along at the right moment. Originally arriving at the end of the PlayStation 4 era, it was an amalgam of the ways game design had changed since the console’s inception. It was the last hurrah, a way to bring the PS4 era to a close in a way that leveraged the wisdom of many lessons, bidding it farewell.

Coincidentally, Tsushima is also a game ABOUT an era coming to a close and the hope for what may lie ahead. With the Director’s Cut, Tsushima launches on the PS5 to serve as a bookend for a new generation.

End of an era

Ghost of Tsushima Director’s Cut is set in feudal Japan against the backdrop of a real-world historical event — the invasion of Tsushima Island by Kublai Khan’s Mongol forces in November of 1274AD. You are Jin Sakai (played by Daisuke Tsuji), a young samurai who survived the onslaught and now seeks to regain control of his homeland. Jin is conflicted, however. His mission presents a steep moral quandary.

To be a samurai is to be committed to the ideals of bravery, honour and true respect for one’s opponents. Samurai insist that they take any grievance, of any scale, directly to their enemies. They must issue a clear, public challenge, and face one another in equal combat. This dignified worldview is of little use against the Mongols. They have no problem using tactics any samurai would consider unbecoming to win a fight. Jin is caught between the only way of life he’s ever known and the certainty that it will fail him.

In the aftermath of the attack, Jin meets a woman named Yuna (Sumalee Montano) who urges him to loosen his rigid worldview. Their island is no longer their own. They are in a guerilla war now. Yuna is a thief, and reasons that adopting a clandestine approach is the only sensible way forward. She’s a cut-purse and a scavenger, happy to slide a dagger into the neck of any Mongol fool enough to turn his back on her. She can move silently, gut her foes in the shadows, and secure their resources for her own benefit.

Her tactics are the opposite of everything Jin believes, but he can also see the sense in it. Attacking the Mongols head-on is suicide. Embracing an assassin’s approach is a necessary evil, but one that will stain Jin’s legacy. It’s a grave dishonour and he will bear it for the rest of his life. If he can rescue his captured family and allies, they will shun him for his methods.

But if that’s the price of a free Tsushima, Jin will pay it.

Live by the creed

Ghost of Tsushima feels like a game caught in a similar identity crisis.

In the six years, the game was in development at Sucker Punch, the open-world genre evolved substantially. The tropes and mechanics of 2014, when it first went into pre-production, are no longer in vogue. Games like Dark SoulsThe Witcher 3 and Red Dead Redemption 2 have changed the way designers think about designing open worlds, RPG progression and combat. Even Assassin’s Creed, a series Tsushima takes direct inspiration from, has been rebooted and reborn in this period.

Thus, Tsushima Director’s Cut finds ways to include touches of modernity without having to sacrifice its original goals. It does this by lifting inspiration from more recent open-world games. This is nothing new — PlayStation’s first-party titles frequently wear their inspirations on their sleeves — but Tsushima is overt even by this standard.

As mentioned, its clearest inspiration comes from older Assassin’s Creed games. It involves a lot of uncovering the map, section-by-section, and taking fortified territory back from forces that never attempt to reclaim it. It’s sneaking and assassination mechanics are almost identical to AC. It has you work with numerous figures to complete short, character-driven quest chains. Though Jin is not a parkour expert by means, he’s no slouch when it comes to climbing cliffs and onto rooftops. Even its combat bears a resemblance to older AC titles.

There is an argument to made that Ghost of Tsushima is the Japanese Assassin’s Creed Ubisoft have never got round to making. Given Tsushima‘s level of quality, one wonders if such a game might now be off the table.

“What do you want with Hattori Hanzo steel?”

There are two main ways to play Ghost of Tsushima Director’s Cut — samurai or ghost. While it’s possible to adhere to Jin’s strict samurai creed and tackle every fight in the open, the game is a great deal easier when you stick to the shadows. Stealth kills award resolve points that allow Jin to quickly heal in a fight or take a second wind when knocked down. A range of consumable weapons like kunai and smoke bombs allow him to remove foes at a distance or create a distraction to slip by unnoticed.

So much of Tsushima‘s combat is wrapped up in footwork and positioning. Counters and parries are crucial to opening up defences. Just as important, knowing which attacks must be avoided entirely. Though your katana is deadly and can fell most basic enemies with a few blows, patience remains key. It’s always better to take your time, darting in to land a strike or two before resuming a stonewall defence. Repeat until every last foe is dead.

This is sometimes easier said than done and not because of overall difficulty. Ghost of Tsushima eschews a hard enemy lock-on. Jin will simply focus on any enemy you point the left control stick at. Where it gets hairy is the camera doesn’t rotate or follow you in combat. Instead, it must be manually moved during the fight. When it works, it’s fine, you can manage the situation. When it doesn’t, and the camera gets stuck in a spot that keeps you from seeing foes behind you, it’s frustrating. The lack of a lock-on isn’t an oversight. You don’t create a AAA open-world game with combat like this and simply forget to put it in. It’s a specific design choice, one I understand but still don’t know that I necessarily agree with.

On top of all of this, you’ll have to remember to mix up your fighting style. Jin can adopt one of four fighting stances as a counter to specific foes. Stone stance is most effective against other swordsmen. Water stance is strongest against enemies wielding pikes or polearms, and so on. Like a game of rock-paper-scissors, if you can remember which counters which, you’ll be tearing foes apart in short order. I honestly struggled to remember to use it, and consistently forgot to switch my footing or got it entirely wrong. Between listening for archer cries, watching enemies for parry or dodge opportunities, managing my resolve, tracking my health, and manually moving the camera to clock every foe around me, I was often left overwhelmed and something had to give.

かかって来いよ!(or, Come at me bro!)

What I did like about the samurai gameplay was the ability to challenge unwary Mongol troops, either as they passed by in the countryside or holed up in a fortress.

Marching up to a camp and beating your chest to attract attention feels great. The Mongols assemble, the first of them trying to size you up. You hold the triangle button until they make the first move. Release it and Jin will cut them down in a single strike. This move can be upgraded to create an orderly queue. As many as four more Mongols will happily present themselves for a slicing.

This mechanic recalls the best moments of great samurai cinema — the long silence, eyes locked on one another as the wait to see who will blink first drags on. A sudden movement, the flash of a blade, and the loser crumples. It’s honestly my favourite thing to do in the whole game. If you’re stealthy enough, it’s possible to draw fortress leaders into your orbit. If you can cut them down in a standoff, their troops may flee in terror before your attack has even fully begun.

Another small design quirk I liked was that character-based side quests aren’t locked to one specific point on the map. Quest giver NPC’s will move around the map relative to where you are. This means that there’s always one of them within the range of a five-minute ride. This contains sprawl and ensures there’s clearly always something for you to do next.

What’s new?

Ghost of Tsushima: Director’s Cut introduces an entirely new area to the game. Iki Island has fallen under the control of a Mongol shaman called Ankhsar Khatun, the Eagle. When The Eagle announces her intention to cross into Tsushima with a scouting party, Jin realises that Iki Island needs his help. She is driving the people there to madness, through means Jin has never encountered before. Through a bit of a plot contrivance, he bumps into her almost immediately. The Eagle quickly establishes a kind of psychic link with Jin so that she can haunt the corners of his mind and bother him telepathically. The particulars of how she can do this I won’t spoil here, but it’s explained in-game fairly quickly.

I kind of expected this aspect of the new content to play a bigger role. If Jin is bothered by the Eagle’s presence in his mind at all, I certainly couldn’t detect it. He is unmoved by the Eagle’s continual taunts and asides, and utterly incurious as to how she has performed the feat.

This strange character turn for Jin comes up again and again. For a short story about someone getting into Jin’s head, his interiority feels oddly stifled. Jin is such an open book in the main game. You always knew what he was thinking. You felt his every pang of remorse. On Iki Island, Jin feels remarkably closed off about almost every new piece of information he’s presented with. It all just washes over him, and he barely seems to bat an eyelid. There’s an entire arc about Jin’s father and framing his family’s legacy in a new way, something that would have rocked Jin in the main story. Here, it barely raises an eyebrow.

It’s hard to tell if Jin is closing himself off on purpose, or if it’s the result of writing that doesn’t hit the mark. Either way, having a villain of the mind clash with a hero who is always getting in his own head should be a bit more interesting than this.

The Iki questline becomes available once Act 1 of the main quest is completed. If you’re loading up your old PS4 save file and you’ve completed the game, you’ll automatically be asked if you’d like to visit Iki Island.

Anything else?

If you’re playing on PS5, you’ll be treated to quite a few new features. The Director’s Cut adds 4K resolution and 60fps support, along with ray-traced lighting. The combined effect takes an already beautiful game and puts it firmly into Prettiest Game Ever territory. Honestly, if you have the TV to really appreciate it, this will be your new PS5 demo reel whenever you’re allowed to have friends over again.

There’s also haptic feedback and trigger resistance added to the DualSense controller for an extra layer of immersion.

By far the most important addition, for me at least, is that Ghost of Tsushima can finally be played in Japanese, with subtitles, and Japanese lip sync. In the PS4 version, you could switch to Japanese audio but the lip sync was pre-rendered in English. It was a huge bummer for many but was a limitation of the hardware. To maintain performance on the PS4, cutscenes had to be pre-rendered. This would have meant creating two versions of every cutscene in the game and Sucker Punch simply didn’t have the time and the resources to do that. These performance concerns evaporate on the PS5’s more powerful hardware. Sucker Punch can now render cutscenes in real-time, which means Japanese lip-sync is back on the table. And thank god it is.

Final thoughts

Ghost of Tsushima: Director’s Cut remains one of the great PlayStation exclusives. It’s an original IP with a three-dimensional hero, something that already sets it apart in the AAA space. It’s a visual feast that serves as both a capstone for the previous generation and the starting line for the next. It leverages tried-and-true open-world design while running a few experiments of its own. With additions of the Director’s Cut, the game now feels complete. Given its success, a sequel is all but assured. I would hope though, that between this and Returnal, Sony’s studios are emboldened to create new, original works of their own.

FOUR-AND-A-HALF-STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Highlights: Stunning visuals; Jin is an amazing lead; Director’s Cut improvements are welcome
Lowlights: Iki Island section simply can’t stack up against the tremendous main campaign
Developer: Sucker Punch Productions
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Platforms: PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4
Website: PlayStation.com.au
Available: Now

Review conducted on PlayStation 5 using a retail code provided by the publisher.

David Smith

David Smith is the games and technology editor at The AU Review. He has previously written for PC World Australia. You can find him on Twitter at @RhunWords.

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