Quite early on in Ghost of Tsushima, you’ll be introduced to its dramatic, one-on-one duels. Two warriors, a dozen yards apart, face each other down across the divide. Up close: narrowing eyes and crumpled brows. Hands hover at hips, knees bend, feet press down into the earth, muscle, sinew and fingers tighten. Then – bang! – combat. It’s a cracking moment, especially the first time you give one a try, and it’s also a cracking example of what Ghost of Tsushima’s all about. These heightened standoffs begin with shot-for-shot facsimiles of that famous scene from Yojimbo, an Akira Kurosawa classic that’s both a mirror of older westerns and an inspiration for the ’60s greats.
They’re also, once you’ve done a few of them, slightly flat, the enemies you battle mostly re-using the same attacks and movements of ones you’ve faced before, and the concept quickly becomes a little overused, predictably occurring at the end of certain quests, and generally lacking the complexity to require more than a few tries each time. Like the game itself, they go for authenticity through facsimile – recreating moments without the requisite weight and context. And, like the game itself, they’re lacking a little depth. Despite the immediate and undeniable thrill, the gloss can be just a little too quick to wear off.
Still, much of Ghost of Tsushima is enjoyable enough. Developer Sucker Punch has definitely aimed high with its first full-length effort since InFamous Second Son, way back at the start of the generation in 2014. The much-trumpeted inspirations here are the stirring epics of samurai cinema. It’s a tough genre to crack, nevermind the potential for awkwardness in an American realisation of feudal Japan. Namechecked directors like Akira Kurosawa, who gets his own grainy, black-and-white mode in Ghost of Tsushima, are known for their lengthy epics of extraordinary nuance, adapting – and arguably mastering – the works of Shakespeare, or chipping away at the great problem of the human condition. Next to inspirations like that, Ghost of Tsushima is never really going to compare. It lacks the nuance and the depth, or the dedication, even, to telling a good story itself – as opposed to telling a story that simply keeps out of the way of the mechanics – and the slack left by its story isn’t picked up in those mechanics, either. But it has a kind of Hollywood, popcorn charm, which shouldn’t count for nothing.