It’s as clear as ever that there’s an art to maintaining a player’s motivation through the latter part of a modern open-world game. Over-large worlds and endless side-quests can easily lead to fatigue when they’re forced upon you.
Never has the drop-off felt quite so apparent as during the second half of Ghost of Tsushima, which demonstrates exactly how far the same gameplay loop can actually take you – halfway.
Playing as the barely reluctant Samurai Jin Sakai, Ghost of Tsushima tasks you with the gradual liberation of this real-world Japanese island from an invading Mongol horde after the destruction of the isle’s clans and noble families. It’s a solidly-delivered tale of Samurai redemption, told without much innovation but also without unnecessary complication.
As is typical in open-worlds, the first half of the game gates you into one half of the island, before two more chunks are unlocked later in the story. That first half felt like a magical-realist masterpiece, painting impressionistic landscapes straight out of Hokusai etchings.
Tsushima is gorgeous, whether you’re in livid red maple forests, huge fields of brushing wheat, or navigating rugged cliff-sides, and its cutscenes make full advantage. This is confident and beautiful stuff, and the joy of visual discovery powers much of the motivation to explore between missions.
However, it doesn’t take long to realise that Ghost is stretched a little thin – you’ve got a main questline, and five or six optional storylines to pursue as well. Exploring the world outside of these, though, yields a set of almost meaningless rewards in the form of cosmetic items and tiny stat boosts.
Nonetheless, the world’s beauty had me exploring nooks and crannies, and enjoying it all – tense combat against Mongol foes, basic but reliable stealth and weapon systems. It felt most reminiscent of the early days of Assassin’s Creed, the Ezio days.
When the rest of the island unlocks, though, the spell breaks quite suddenly. Visual variety is toned right down, with massive swamps suffocating progress for too long. The same rote icon tasks on a map become too fiddly to bother with. The story wraps up quickly, but does so without ever properly demonstrating the new biodiversity that’s been unlocked.
This is not to say that the story itself ends badly – in fact, it makes the best use of the normally trite “choose one of two options” conclusion that has come up in years. Here the choices both feel canonically valid, both have upsides and downsides, and neither leaves you feeling purely heroic. It’s genuinely stirring, and offers a rare genuine dilemma.
It’s a crying shame, then, that Sucker Punch couldn’t finesse the game’s pacing as a whole to keep things fresh in the hours before that ending. Ghost of Tsushima does a great many things right, but the size of its open world and the paucity of things to do within it sadly undermine things.