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Design analysis excerpt from my video review of Ghost of Tsushima, focusing on combat, stealth, open-world design.

Stanislav Costiuc, Blogger

February 28, 2022

40 Min Read

The following are Design-specific excerpts from my Ghost of Tsushima YouTube video, which I thought would be the sections of most interest for discussion on this site. If you want to listen more about Context, Aesthetics, Cohesion and Emotions feel free to watch the full videos.

"The entirety of Ghost of Tsushima revolves around the Samurai fantasy in its romanticized form, but in the Context category we will talk about how the game tackles the more complex questions regarding historical Samurai. But this is not just a Samurai game, this is a title where to save people of Tsushima from an overwhelming invading force, the protagonist Jin Sakai has to abandon his code and make use of tactics and weapons one could find dishonorable, - stealth assassinations, dirty tricks, explosive tools, and so on, thus grappling with his transformation into the titular Ghost persona.

What’s really curious about Ghost of Tsushima is that it’s not a game with the two thematic pillars standing beside each other - Samurai and Ghost. No. Ghost of Tsushima starts with one core pillar - that of the Samurai, with a number of sub-pillars within it like Combat, Stealth and the like. But at the beginning you can use stealth only to avoid being seen and have absolutely no tools that you can use in combat or outside of it. There’s only you and your sword, and that’s the only way you can deal with the invading Mongols - openly and directly. The game even makes a point of that in the tutorial section where Jin outright refuses to hide and calls out the Mongols to fight him, and the stand-off mechanic becomes an important part of that behavior.

But, as the game progresses, the pillar of the Ghost slowly and gradually overtakes the Samurai pillar, and that affects all the gameplay aspects within. Stealth is no longer just about avoidance, you can now actually assassinate from behind, with the first such kill being an incredibly difficult moment for the character. And even after gaining this ability, the assassination animations are quite long. Until you upgrade your Tanto blade which eventually will make stealth assassination kills incredibly fast. And then you get all those tools and moves in combat that allow you to be even more efficient.

And this is how the game makes the Ghost pillar overtake the Samurai one. Not by forcing you to use tools like smoke bombs or kunai or any other dishonorable method through adding enemy immunity restrictions or something like that, but by making these tools incredibly effective. Most of the time, you will be alone against dozens of Mongols or more, with the enemies having increasingly better armor as you progress. And sure, you can fight them honorably just with your sword and bow every time. Or you can throw down a smoke bomb and instantly chain kill assassinate three of them. And then use kunai to stagger other warriors and kill them faster. Maybe finish everything up by attaching a sticky bomb. And now suddenly, what could have been a pretty long fight transformed into a short skirmish.

Of course, there is still balance involved - the game makes its Ghost actions and tools either consumable or contextual, so you can’t just always use them… but at the same time it gives plenty of opportunities to do so, and as you progress through the game those tools only become more powerful in nature. So Ghost of Tsushima not only makes the transformation from a Samurai into the Ghost the premise of the entire character arc in the narrative, that is also the premise of the entire player arc in gameplay, and that happens naturally. This is an absolutely fantastic representation of a central concept through gameplay.

That said, are the actual gameplay mechanics, the moment to moment actions, any good? Well… as a matter of fact yes, and we’re going to tackle all the most important aspects starting with Combat.

The romanticized Samurai fantasy once again is at the core of how the systems are designed. Combat in Ghost of Tsushima is about discipline and precision. Your standard melee attacks strike only one enemy at a time, and the light attack is very quick - you can do multiple strikes within just a couple of seconds. However, not only does spamming quick attacks make each consecutive strike slower, enemies tend to get into defensive mode after several hits, blocking your weapon.

The most straightforward way to get enemies out of that defensive state is to use heavy attacks, which are actually not slow. They’re not as fast as normal attacks, but they are still pretty quick. Heavy attacks do stagger damage, meaning that by using them several times you will break through the block and stagger the opponent, - they’re rendered inactive for several seconds, allowing you to make deadly strikes as a staggered enemy receives more damage. That’s the basic pace of combat, and Ghost of Tsushima puts layers upon layers on it to add the aspects of depth and skill mastery.

First, of course, you are incredibly rarely put into a 1v1 situation, it’s usually fights against a group. So while you’re attacking one enemy, another will for sure try to strike. In this situation you can either parry or dodge, and in some situations you absolutely have to dodge as there are attacks that you can’t block or parry. Both moves allow you to get some extra hits in, but if you press L1 just before the enemy weapon connects, you perform a perfect parry which instantly staggers the opponent.

What’s pretty cool about the way group combat is set up in Ghost of Tsushima is the fact that enemies feel aggressive even though underneath it all they actually attack the player 1 by 1 as to not overwhelm them. This is achieved through pretty long initial wind-ups. You can see that before starting an attack, the enemy usually needs time to run up to the player, and then the first animation of their combo attack is pretty slow too. This gives players enough time to respond, while retaining the feeling of enemies being aggressive and not just standing there doing nothing while they wait for their turn to attack. And the game can sort of stack these long wind-ups on top of one another, so while one Mongol is still in the process of initiating their attack, another one can already start their approach, but they won’t strike until the situation with the first one is resolved.

What’s not cool about the way group combat is set up in Ghost of Tsushima is how the camera works there. A big complaint regarding the original release of Ghost of Tsushima was the lack of a lock-on button, which was added in a post-launch patch, but I would go as far as say that the lack of lock-on was never the problem. In fact, lock-on makes the style of combat which revolves a lot around switching often between different enemies more cumbersome to play. The actual problem is the fact that the camera is not dynamic, or rather not dynamic enough. In most cases it will zoom out just a tiny bit, but very rarely will it show the proper full situation with most of the enemies on screen. It also doesn’t try to push itself in the direction of enemies, and your opponents don’t seem to prioritize getting into screen view before attacking, which can lead to cases where you literally lose sight of enemies or don’t know that some are participating in a group fight.

The exceptions are archers, which are handled very elegantly. First they make an audio cue before firing, but also, since for accessibility purposes using only audio is not enough, enemies duck when archers are about to fire, so you know when you have to dodge. There is also an accessibility option available in the menu should you need even more explicit visual cues. So archers add another layer to combat, but that’s not the end of it.

There are also stances. You start the game only with one fighting stance, but as you progress you unlock more. And these stances not only give you access to new moves, like for example holding the heavy attack button in the default Stone stance leads to a piercing attack, while doing the same action in Wind stance activates the Typhoon Kick, but also they make you effective against different types of enemies.

So for example the Stone stance heavy attacks are very good at staggering only swordsmen, but won’t be effective against other types of soldiers. If you want to stagger shieldmen faster for example, you have to use the Water stance. Not only that, heavy attacks interrupt enemies if you’re in the stance that’s effective against them, so with enough skill and timing you can actually stay in the offensive quite a lot. And of course when you need to change stances time slows down so you would have a moment to properly process which stance to select. The advantage of this system is that the game can create interesting combat situations just by sending different combinations of soldiers your way.

But what’s great about stances is that, because what they affect is stagger damage and not actual damage, they don’t trivialize enemy archetypes to a matter of always matching the stances, as the special moves can be useful against a variety of enemies. Typhoon kick for example works against all normal-sized soldiers, not just spearmen. And later you can get a skill which adds a stun to the kick, allowing you to perform a one hit kill after. It’s a widely applicable tactic, not just against spearmen. So stances have the basic goal of providing you as a player clear strategies you can use against enemies, but also on a deeper mastery level they actually increase the amount of choices you can do in fighting situations, which is incredibly important.

So with that in mind, Piercing Strike is a powerful attack that can be used on anybody who doesn’t have a shield or can’t use one against you at the moment. And you don’t have to use Flurry Strikes only on shielded enemies. Yes, it staggers shieldmen best, but it is still a good way to deal considerable damage quickly on any type of opponent. In fact, you might want to use it against brutes for example, as even though Moon Stance is great at staggering them, it’s not always great at dealing damage to them. Not to mention there are Brutes with shields, so you don’t even need to switch to Moon Stance for those.

And this aspect gels so well with the overall fantasy of a Samurai becoming the Ghost. Stances are introduced as something that has concrete rules - use a particular stance against a particular type of opponent. But the depth and mastery of this system comes from learning when and how to break the rules - as that’s what ultimately will make you a more effective fighter.  

The next layer of combat is Resolve. In the beginning, you can use this resource that you gain by parrying and killing enemies only to heal yourself during combat, but later on in the game you unlock special powerful combat techniques. It’s a consumable resource that has a symbiotic relationship with core player actions. Because you don’t lose it between encounters like usually happens with an adrenaline-like system, you can wait for the opportune moment to utilize Resolve, but also it can be connected to pretty powerful abilities as to get resolve back you would need to participate in the core combat or stealth loops.

And then of course there’s the stand-off mechanic, where before you start an encounter you can call out enemies to try and defeat you in a single sword strike. Timing is everything in this Risk vs. Reward mechanic - if you strike too early you will lose almost all your health, but if you attack at the proper moment then you gain a lot of resolve. At first you can do this only with one opponent, but later on you can upgrade this ability enough that you can kill five opponents through stand-off.

And it’s another great way Ghost of Tsushima combines its fantasy with a mechanic that has different potential reasons for you to use it.

Plus of course there’s the ghost tool layer which we have already touched upon when we discussed the game’s pillars so I’m not going to repeat myself here. But, I should mention that just like with all other game mechanics here, every Ghost Tool is something that gradually unravels itself. Sticky Bomb for example - it’s an effective tool but at first it also damages you, so you have to make sure to not be in its radius after throwing. However there’s an upgrade that makes you immune to the bomb’s damage, and after purchasing it you can immediately become much more aggressive with the bomb’s utilization, adding more choices to your evergrowing arsenal of tactics.

And all this is without me even mentioning a myriad of little details that help make the combat so consistent. For example you can cancel out absolutely any animation except that of the finishing kill, but also you will NEVER be attacked while doing such an animation.

You might have noticed I said ‘unlock later in the game’ or ‘unlock as you progress’ quite a lot. That’s because Ghost of Tsushima really eases you into its combat systems, at first you have only the absolute basics available to you, which are satisfying enough, and then the whole breadth of this system unravels as you master the mechanics available.

And the progression is so gradual that you don’t even have access to ranged combat at the beginning - you receive your bow only in one of the first main missions after completing the whole prologue that is quite lengthy. I don’t have as much to talk about archery as I had about melee combat though. It’s a quality system.

Your arrows travel in an arc so you need to take distance into account, and the game’s UI with the little stripes beneath your targeting reticule can help you learn to understand where they need to be located for the arrows to hit. The head hitbox on enemies is quite large so you don’t need to be incredibly precise when doing headshots, but some enemies wear helmets and your default bow is ineffective for piercing them, but will still work if you hit the part of the face not covered by the helmet.

Again, there are different mechanics that open up as you progress - like various arrowhead types or the slow mo concentration action. There’s not as many as with melee combat but enough to add more to your choices and playstyle. If there’s one thing that’s problematic with archery it’s the fact that when you switch up weapons or arrowheads while holding the firing trigger, you have to put the bow back down and up again to draw the arrow, which messes up the flow a bit but it’s a very minor issue.

Archery of course can be used not only in combat, but stealth as well, which is the second big gameplay aspect Ghost of Tsushima implements incredibly well. Stealth is always a tricky beast, because it needs to have extra clear rules to feel fair, otherwise it can be frustrating. Ghost of Tsushima is a great example of such crystal clear rules.

For example, no unalert enemy will detect you if you’re crouching one story above them. So you can be sitting on a yurt, which is not a tall structure or anything, but still remain undetected by people below you. The only way they will detect you is if they’re in alert state after noticing a dead ally or searching for you after you have escaped, in which case you need to stay at least two stories above to remain undetected.

Then, a detection by a lone enemy won’t actually alert people in the vicinity immediately. If you manage to silence them before they yell, which can be done either by shooting an arrow to their head or quickly killing them in melee combat before they can react, you will stay stealthed. This also naturally means that if they detect you while you are killing them, you’re safe. And even if it takes too long for you to take care of an enemy and the ones nearby do become alert, they won’t actually know your position until they have a direct line of sight with you.

If an enemy is not in a hostile state yet but sees a body of one of their allies they will first approach them and then after several seconds will take out a horn to call everyone to their location and set an alert state. Again, the rules for this are extremely clear, so when it’s happening you not only know how to prevent this, but also can use it to your advantage and lure enemies that way.

Clear rules also apply to your stealth tools. For example, a wind chime is going to attract only a single enemy regardless of how many others there are near them. Though of course, to add some believability, other enemies in a group will still turn around if you throw it too close to them, but only one enemy will approach regardless. If you want to attract a group of people then you need firecrackers for that.

There are other types of little mechanical affordances, for example air assassination doesn’t have to be performed only from a static position above an enemy when the prompt is available. If a guard is a bit too far, you can actually jump towards them and press the air assassination prompt on your way down.

And speaking of assassinations, what is really appreciated in Ghost of Tsushima and is really easy to get wrong is the consistent length of animations. Now, I’ve already mentioned closer to the beginning that when your Tanto is level 1 your animations are longer than if your Tanto is level 3. However, what I also should mention is that all animations of a particular level are practically the same length. So when your Tanto is level 1 your stealth kill will take about 5 seconds to perform. But on level 3, when your blade is extra sharp and Jin feels more comfortable with this type of tactic, it’s quick, effective stabs, practically 1 second in length. It’s not exact of course, but absolutely close enough so you always know how much time is needed for an assassination to succeed whichever level your Tanto is. Which by the way can still work as a move even a little bit AFTER enemies enter combat state, as yet another affordance to make sure all these mechanics feel very consistent.

And there are many. Shoji assassinations have a pretty generous range and will always teleport the enemy close to the door upon activation, smoke bomb effect lasts a little bit after the actual smoke disappears, and so on. Honestly, the only real criticism I have of Ghost of Tsushima’s stealth is the fact that standard assassination and chain assassination require two different initial inputs, as opposed to a single input that is then either continued in a chain or stopped depending on if you keep pressing the buttons or not. Though the activation ranges are generous, sometimes it is possible to overestimate how close enemies are and instead of killing at least one of them, you just do a heavy attack instead and enter combat. But, for the purposes of fairness, despite assassinations being considered a dishonorable method of dealing with enemies, putting single and chain assassinations as two different button prompts is in line with the overall Samurai gameplay fantasy focused on discipline and precision, which means being attentive and deliberate with your actions.

Another interesting aspect of stealth is the fail condition. Unless it’s a quest with a specific narrative connotation, usually you don’t lose by getting detected. However, you can lose if the Mongols kill a prisoner or hostage, and this once again is something that works from multiple perspectives - first of course being the reasoning why Jin as a character would start using the dishonorable sneaky method, so the Mongols wouldn’t be able to execute anyone, but also from gameplay perspective the hostage is not killed immediately when you’re detected. A soldier is chosen randomly to run towards the civilian, but you can always intercept them on the way if you’re fast enough. And even after they reach the hostage, the enemy will wait for a while before striking, to make sure that before losing the game due to a hostage’s death, you have to fail multiple times. Like stand-offs, it’s another cool combination of fantasy and mechanics.

When it comes to other core gameplay mechanics, they’re not as advanced as combat or stealth. Horses are needed mostly for navigating long distances. While there are mounted combat mechanics, they’re very basic and honestly not that comfortable to utilize. The enemies themselves try to dismount before entering combat, and even a single hit kicks you off your horse. Ghost of Tsushima itself prefers you to fight on foot.

With navigation things are a bit more detailed. You have a pretty free reign in terms of controlling your jumps and their distance, and Jin is magnetized towards branches, ropes, and ledges so you don’t need to be very precise. It’s basic but it feels like you have a lot of control, which makes it enjoyable enough. As opposed to actually climbing cliffs, which feels very floaty. The thing is that to climb cliffs you need to only push the stick in a particular direction and wait for Jin to jump where needed, and it just feels like you are not in control, in strike opposition to literally the rest of the game where you have precise control over every Jin’s action. To be fair, sometimes you do need to press jump manually while climbing, but it would’ve been better had it been a regular action.

However, just like with most other systems, there is a bit of progression there - at one point you receive a grappling hook which adds more engagement to navigation because you have to time at opportune moments when to use it, although also with very generous windows because the game doesn’t focus on navigation as a core gameplay aspect, but a means to an end.

Now, despite us talking about combat and stealth for quite some time, there’s still a considerable number of mechanics related to them that I haven’t mentioned. I don’t want to spoil those openly though throughout the video you will notice their existence in the UI. Ultimately, detailed discussion of these mechanics won’t add anything I haven’t already mentioned - how Ghost of Tsushima clearly defines its Samurai fantasy being overtaken by the Ghost one through addition of very qualitatively done powerful mechanics that add layers upon layers of depth and player choice without forcing to use any of them.

Which leads us to a more detailed discussion about the game’s progression. Ghost of Tsushima starts out with a set piece where you’re one of 80 Samurai fighting against an overwhelming Mongol invasion force. This is purely a section about moving and basic fighting. You don’t have a health bar, Resolve, none of that. Just you fighting enemies.

After that you have a section that’s only about stealth movement. Now, sometimes the game doesn’t quite make it clear enough where exactly you have to go in this segment which can lead to unfortunate situations related to opening the wrong doors… but, the point is, the game doesn’t try to overwhelm the player with mechanics. And only after the player is familiar with those, Ghost of Tsushima introduces the health and Resolve mechanics, as well as teaches all the combat basics like parrying, dodges, and the like.

Only after the prologue does the game introduce different open-world related mechanics like the navigational wind and calling your horse. This is also when the game introduces the XP point system, represented as how wide spread your Legend is across Tsushima. And only then do you get access to the Skill Tree for which you get Technique Points.

But, the Skill Tree is far from full at the beginning - you can upgrade essentially only skills that you already know. To get new skills like Archery or Assassination you have to complete story missions, and to get access to a lot of new Ghost Tools you have to increase your Legend - in other words reach a certain XP threshold.

Now, I gotta say… I love this, especially considering that all this is very neatly connected to the game’s narrative and main character’s arc. Very often, especially nowadays, there’s a tendency to try and introduce all mechanics as soon as possible, but Ghost of Tsushima spaces everything out, allowing you to properly take in absolutely every new development.

The game also handles its RPG progression very elegantly, allowing you a great deal of freedom in customizing your character and approach to problems without having a front-facing level system and focus on character sheets and the likes.

First, in terms of enemies, they do have different level tiers but they’re never represented numerically on HUD, but rather through the color of enemy clothing combined together with the amount of armor they have. So you can clearly visually see which enemies are more difficult to take down.

And enemy tiers are not just about them getting harder to kill - they gain new moves, longer combos, special abilities. This ranges from a simple numerical change like more skilled archers firing three arrows in a row rather than one, to passive abilities like setting weapons on fire to new attacks like a polearm sweep. So as you progress through the game you have to keep adapting to new enemy tactics you will encounter.

Then, even though you have weapon upgrades as well as character stat modifiers through charms and armor, there’s never a concrete number that is shown to the player - either abstract bars or just a text representing the overall change. You feel everything through gameplay rather than through what number pops out of an enemy.

It should be noted that there’s another system in place - every enemy has a maximum amount of hits they can take regardless of their internal health stat or player’s damage stat. So for example, the strongest archetype of Tier 1 will die from 8 unupgraded sword hits regardless. And as you upgrade this maximum will eventually become 4 hits. And this process is propagated towards all enemy level tiers, which means that as long as you upgrade your sword by collecting resources in the open-world, you will never have to hit any enemy more than 10 times before they die, avoiding that bullet sponge feeling.

This is also applied to Duels, which are essentially boss-battles. The difference between Duels and standard combat is that you can’t use your Ghost Tools throughout the battle - only your sword and its different combat stances and moves. And enemies are made more dangerous not by amplifying their health, but rather by making them faster, more aggressive, and taking longer to get staggered, but such bosses will still go down after a pretty small amount of successful hits. It is very intense, and definitely a gameplay highlight every time due to the contrast in pacing and camera position.

There’s a relatively small amount of armor in this game, but each has different gameplay properties. Ghost armor, for example, increases the chance of enemies getting terrified after you kill someone. Terrified enemies are essentially incapacitated by fear for a very long amount of time, and usually run away but sometimes can get back into combat. Though not unless you finish them as they lie in fear. Ghost armor also increases detection time. By upgrading it you can increase the effectiveness of these modifiers, and one thing I would like to note which is great is that upgrading your armor doesn’t permanently change the way it looks, but rather adds a different visual option - so you’re still free to change its appearance while retaining all the upgraded stats. Just a very nice quality of life feature there so you wouldn’t have to sacrifice aesthetics you prefer for better stats.

Every armor is designed for specific purposes. There is a set that’s best suited for archery, there’s armor that transforms you into a sort of tank in combat so even when taking damage you get resolve, but there’s also armor that has less protection but makes you strike harder in combat. And each set has many particular situations where you can find them useful, you don’t have to stay with one armor the whole game.

All these stats can be augmented even further through Charms. Now, I must say that in the base Ghost of Tsushima charms, even the unique ones you get by completing Shrines, aren’t anything particularly interesting - just an additional way to modify your character stats towards the playstile that you prefer. So if you want you can make the aforementioned terrify tactic even more efficient by equipping a charm that increases the likelihood of enemies getting terrified from skills and armor that cause that state. Or maybe you would like to focus on quickly staggering enemies, or on a wider amount of stats jack-of-all-trades kind of situation. The choices are there. 

I must say that the most useful charm is definitely the one that gives you additional resources from the open world - it streamlines the process of upgrading your weapons and armor, though honestly I’ve got to say that it would’ve been better had this charm been cut and the whole economy balanced like it would’ve been constantly activated - as then you’re able to comfortably upgrade everything you have by the time Act 3 comes to an end without being to overzealous with resource collecting. But anyway, despite their lack of uniqueness and a lot of very similar ones that you will receive throughout the adventure, charms are quite harmless. Their inclusion doesn’t make the game worse, and they are still useful in helping to tune the character towards your preferred playstyle.

So if we take a look at everything we have discussed so far - the game lays a very strong thematic foundation on which a set of really intricate and well thought out systems are built, all connected with very good progression and way to customize and finetune everything to be in line with your preferred playstyle at any moment in time.

Where Ghost of Tsushima actually stands on shakier grounds is in how it handles its open-world design, where the game can’t quite decide which principles it wants to follow and sort of hurts itself in the process.

You might have noticed already that Ghost of Tsushima tries to be as minimalistic with its UI and HUD as possible. This leads to a number of decisions focused on crystal clear visual language. For example, dens where you find foxes that lead you to Shrines of Inari that increase your charm capacity are all located near golden trees bustling with fireflies - which you can easily notice in the distance.

Locations where you can compose Haiku, an incredibly serene activity where you have to choose lines inspired by nature around you… and sometimes the butt of your horse, should it decide to stand in a particular spot… they’re all signified by songbirds flying over them.

Enemy camps all have very thick black smoke coming out of them which you can see from a very far distance. While side quests and survivor camps tend to have smaller, thinner, white smoke.

All these points of interest have very clear visual identifiers. And in case you happen to not see any but are near an undiscovered location, a yellow bird will appear to guide you to that place. The way this bird works is very clever, as first it tries to capture your attention regardless of your movement or camera direction, and only after you start following it around will it move towards the point of interest. Though sometimes sadly the bird moves in weird paths that you can’t follow directly, so you have to learn to understand how it moves. However, if you need to take a longer way around, even backtrack a bit, the bird will try to stay close to you.

There is also a very cool waypoint system that works for any location you’ve pinned on the map as well as all active quest waypoints - it’s not a compass nor is it a line on a minimap. Rather, it’s wind. And I gotta say, this is very impressive on many levels. First, it’s elegant from the design standpoint - the wind always pushes in the direction where you have to go, and besides the grass and tree movement you always see different leaves and other types of particles moving towards your goal, but also if you swipe up on the touchpad the wind gets stronger with very clear line effects. Second, this wind mechanic is very impressive both from visual and technical perspectives - the amount of objects, cloths, particles in the world that are affected by it is just so huge, it is not an easy task to implement.

But anyway, combine that wind with the fact that in every camp or settlement there’s at least one person who is going to give you a hint towards a side quest, marking its start point on the map after that conversation, and we have on our hands a very great open-world focused on discovery and diegetic clues.

The dichotomy within Ghost of Tsushima is that despite these principles that are very clearly focused on HUD-less design and exploration, the actual open-world progression is very icon-based and completionist in nature.

First, there’s a menu entry for absolutely every activity type that tracks if you have completed all of them in the game or not. While of course this doesn’t force you to do all of them, it still pushes you towards that goal.

As does the fact that whenever you clear a Mongol camp you reveal part of the map around it alongside all points of interest in the vicinity that appear as question marks. And if you free the whole region, then absolutely all question marks in that part of the island will appear. So now suddenly the explorative gameplay focused on noticing points of interests transforms into going to icons. And quite frankly there’s simply not enough activity types for an icon-based open-world to work.

Following foxes is cute and enjoyable, but when you do it for the 49th time to clear up that question mark, well by that point it becomes quite repetitive as the activity lacks depth. It works in a context where you notice a den on your way and follow the fox, but not when you purposefully go to that location. Same applies to Bamboo Stands - quite nice little activities, but there’s too many of them. Too many Haikus to compose. Too many collectibles to find. Too many shrines with navigational challenges to reach them that are interesting at first but will eventually also become a bit repetitive as the navigational mechanics stop progressing after a certain point. Too many Mongol camps even, though the combat and stealth gameplay that leads to their liberation is absolutely fantastic, even if in time due to the number of said camps their level design can get repetitive - not because the areas are bad, but because there’s only so many ways you can place yurts around an environment. The amount of all activities wouldn’t have been a problem had their discovery be purely dependent on player curiosity, but in the context of everything eventually becoming visible on the map and actively calling players out towards them… Well, there’s a bit much.

And the interesting thing about all this is that Ghost of Tsushima has quite a lot of unique encounters, essentially mini-quests, that are unmarked on the map. They might revolve around helping a monk to dispose the bodies of people who have died from contaminated water, saving a village from a trebuchet or a woman from fire, there are a bunch of others that I personally haven’t encountered myself but I read about them online - and they’re so memorable because you don’t find them through markers, there’s no journal entries, it all is fully integrated into the world and fantasy of the game. This is a perfect example of why an extensive use of icons doesn’t work - it robs of that discovery aspect.

But also, there is benefit from the repeatable activities. A number of quests, like one where the Mongols are killing all foxes they can find, just wouldn’t hit as hard if you’d not be doing the related activity.

It doesn’t help the perceived variety that the density of content is spread out unevenly throughout the world of Tsushima. The Act 1 region of Izuhara has the most collectibles, activities and quests. Toyotama, the region for Act 2, is already considerably less dense in that regard, and the final Kamiagata region is outright sparse. This leads to a weird situation where Act 1 barrages you with content so much that it wouldn’t be surprising if in Act 3 you start feeling somewhat burned out.

When it comes to missions themselves, which is really the bulk of content in Ghost of Tsushima, most of them naturally feature a lot of combat and stealth situations - those are after all the most advanced tools the game has to offer. For the purposes of variety, other aspects like tracking, investigating, and tailing are put in the mix.

These other types of goals are done in a much more immersive way than usually happens in similar games due to the absence of any sort of detective vision for finding things in the environment, there’s only a hearing mode for highlighting enemies. So to track somebody you actually have to look for footprints and grass that was walked on, when investigating you have to notice which spots have something you might find interesting. This makes these actions more engaging than they otherwise would have been.

While both main and side missions utilize the same toolkit, they all try to put it in context you wouldn’t see before, in the golden path content especially. For example, there are several tailing missions in the game, but only in a single one during the main campaign will you tail a Mongol Commander throughout the rooftops of a pretty big, enemy-controlled city. Ghost of Tsushima regularly puts in little twists which keep things interesting. However, in that regard, the game has issues recontextualizing footprint tracking. This task also is presented in different contexts - there are times when you need to follow smoke instead of footprints, or search for fields of violet flowers and follow them, among some other ways, but I have to admit that the standard footprints in mud trope is utilized too much for the amount of recontextualization it has.

The best Ghost of Tsushima quests are a perfect combination of core gameplay mechanics and narrative beats. For example, there’s a mission where you have to save a number of captured civilians throughout town, and then after gathering them all in the forge - protect them from an onslaught of enemies attacking you. This mission focused on constant protection in different contexts leads very naturally to the narrative beat of people starting to believe that you are indeed a Ghost, a spirit with the goal of delivering vengeance to the Mongols.

This narrative connection is what separates the better Ghost of Tsushima quests from the less interesting ones. However, since even the latter ones usually utilize the fantastic combat and stealth systems… Well, they are rarely ever outright bad.

What is more questionable is the inconsistent use of some mission design principles. For example, sometimes the mission puts in an artificial area limit even if it’s not needed - the environment is properly limited anyway by using fortifications which you can’t open until certain actions are done in the quest. 

Sometimes you are not allowed to stray far from an ally and have to stay close, at other times you can go around exploring. And yeah in this first example I showed it is sort of justified by the urgency of the matter, but it’s still jarring.

Some quests can be a bit too restrictive with their progression - like you can find tracks that you need to follow but doing so will trigger nothing until you find all objects you had to investigate in the area, so you have to go back.

There are times when you might find a quest related location before the quest points you specifically towards it without taking your previous visit into account so you have to go there again, but there are also quests that even change dialogue because you’ve completed something before starting the mission.

It also should be noted that despite the game’s insistence on using as little HUD and icons as possible, sometimes lack of these hurts the game, as ironic as it may sound. It can be difficult to understand what else the game wants you to find in an investigation area, the clues can be too subtle as are the interaction markers when they’re far away. Sometimes you might get a goal to destroy a powder keg cart in a Mongol camp, but the icon for the cart itself appears only when you’re close. Which, when you have a pretty big camp with quite a lot of carts, only one of which actually has powder explosives, can transform this seemingly simple action into a process of running in circles trying to find in which corner of the camp that damn cart is.

But all these aren’t consistent problems you will encounter all the time, it’s little flaws here and there that are annoying, yes, but ultimately none of them are met often enough or last long enough to ruin any sort of enjoyment. 

That’s because regardless of how flawed a quest might be, as mentioned it will still have bright highlights focused on stealth and combat. Those systems alone provide so much depth and so many choices that you never feel like you’ve been doing them for hours and hours on end, every time it allows you to be creative in new ways to master your skill set. Since that is the core of the experience, that is what matters most.

And in general, the foundation for the open-world and all the missions in this game is strong. So all flaws I’ve mentioned, even when taken together, don’t have a considerable severity.

And the big reason for that is pacing. When we talk about repetitiveness, it is incredibly easy to think about how these things might waste your time. But in Ghost of Tsushima, whatever aspect can be considered repetitive, doesn’t. I used the Fox Dens quite a lot as an example of something that can get repetitive the more you find. But also, it takes literally about a minute to complete one. So even though it can feel repetitive because going towards a question mark only to find out it’s another Den is not particularly exciting in the icon-based discovery context, it also isn’t outright bad because at the core it is designed to be a nice one minute simple activity. 

This deliberate pacing is seen throughout the whole game. All the small activities take one minute to complete. Something bigger like a Shrine takes 3 to 5 minutes. Every camp and side quest lasts about 10-15 minutes. Each main quest will take you about 20-30 minutes. This adds a certain rhythm to the experience that’s very enjoyable.

Similarly, every flaw with quest design is only a little blip of annoyance amidst content that even when it’s the worst you can find in the game, at the end of the day is fine. And that relativity is very important. I can literally name you the worst quest this game has. It’s called Hidden in Snow, and while it has an intriguing plotline, the design manifests a lot of the problems I’ve mentioned - it’s unclear where exactly in the building is Sota, then you have to investigate the village without knowing what you’re looking for, which is annoying but it also fits in terms of atmosphere, then you need to go around different spots defined by the game some of which you might have already visited during initial search, and then you have an encounter with the Mongols which as we’ve established are always good. This single quest encapsulates all problems that Ghost of Tsushima missions might have, but in the end, it’s not even bad. It’s just… fine. Because the annoyances never stay long enough to considerably damage your experience, the core gameplay systems are still polished, the quest ends on a high note anyway, and the narrative has supported the entire experience. So it’s important to understand that while every flaw I’ve mentioned is something that ideally should be fixed, even when they’re all taken together they are greatly overshadowed by what the game does very well, including all the absolutely great quests of which there’s a big amount.

Ultimately, Ghost of Tsushima is an incredibly focused game. Despite the open world progression flaws that sometimes make the game feel a bit too repetitive, despite the inconsistently used design principles in some quests, this game never tries to be the biggest game ever with the most amount of mechanics and activities. 

Ghost of Tsushima has a clearly defined player role in the world, player fantasy to be embodied. You are a Samurai transforming into the Ghost. Everything the game has is laser-focused on that premise with a purpose, and all that’s most important for it to work is done in a very high quality. The combat and stealth systems are nothing short of incredible, full of progressively unraveling depth with absolutely tons of player choice full of only valid decisions that you select based on your preferred playstyle. All quests are focused on supporting your people in their plight against the Mongols, one way or another. All activities are either based on the notions of hardening one’s mind or body, like Hot Springs and Bamboo Stands, Jin’s personal beliefs like the Shrines of Inari, or saving the citizens of Tsushima. Yes there are too many activities of the same type for the ultimately collectible approach to its world progression the game takes, yes a number of side missions are not reaching the plank the game itself has set with its higher quality content. But none of that makes Ghost of Tsushima excel any less at what it’s really good at."

"It is truly an exemplary game. Exemplary in how to define the core of the experience. Exemplary in how to represent that core through mechanics. Exemplary in how to add layer upon layer of depth to those mechanics. Exemplary in how to teach these systems to players and expand upon them throughout the experience. The way it tackles its RPG-based systems and the really high quality of most of its main quests. There are flaws, definitely. But all of them revolve around mostly supporting notions and none of them make Ghost of Tsushima any less exemplary in what it does incredibly well."

Thank you all for reading. A special thank you goes to my Patreon supporters. If you'd like, feel free to support my campaign at www.patreon.com/farlands

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