15 November 2020

Post Thoughs: Ghost of Tsushima...



While I've played a few of Sucker Punch's previous releases, I was never 100% a fan of their mechanics and action - they were always a bit middle-of-the-road and pedestrian in their content despite being well-made pieces of gaming art. Ghost of Tsushima is bold in practically every way that matters; from the mis en scene introduction and colourfully vibrant environment to the unforgiving but empowering combat system. I've been loving this game almost all the way through, with only minor niggles. With that spoiler out of the way, let's dig into this...

As usual reader beware - thar be spoilers ahead!

The game makes good use of dynamic shadows and light sources... there's also some sort of ray tracing-esque reflections on characters and light sources.

Story & Setting:


GoTs is a love letter to Japanese cinema and mythical storytelling, succinctly capturing the aesthetic of celebrated film maker, Akira Kurosawa, in the process. To this end, the vistas of Tsushima are expertly crafted to look dreamlike, painterly and super-real. Sucker Punch have achieved that in a manner that has also resulted in extremely fast loading times and minimal LOD pop-in. It seems to me that a lot of world texture detail is created in a fashion similar to that of Dreams - where decals, particles, texture and lighting effects are layered on top of each other to create the complex and often beautiful environmental effects in order to reduce the load on the I/O from the HDD from highly detailed textures and it's noticeable when a texture has to be loaded into memory (such as skins for your armour) as it can be slower than fast travelling between vastly different locations.

Instead, some of the non-geometric detail appears to be calculated and compiled at runtime on the APU. In fact, one aspect of the engine that can be observed when using the screenshot editor is the heavy reliance on particle effects to produce a lot of the game's visuals. This also shows how efficient these solutions were for SuckerPunch to run on the relatively underpowered (by today's standards) PS4 hardware. Though the one caveat to this is that my PS4 is basically constantly screaming when playing the game, though to be fair - the ambient temperature has been constantly in the mid-to-low thirties during my playthrough.

The story settles itself, mis en scene, literally from the title screen, on the shoulders of Jin, the scion of his clan and member of the venerated samurai warriors comprised of the noble families on the island. The samurai are assembled to meet the landing hordes of Mongol invaders on the shores of Tsushima but soon find themselves decimated as the waves of the invasion wash against them.

After Jin's uncle, and preceptor of the island, is captured, Jin is left for dead after archers pepper him with arrows. He is rescued and his wounds healed by a thief named Yuna before being gradually convinced by her that the way of the Samurai cannot win this war and that he must employ more devious tactics in order to prevail against them, despite the personal sacrifice that he must make on a social level and against his own morals.

This motif is the backbone of the story: the question of whether one should adapt and change in order to survive or whether they should remain true to their beliefs and values.Obviously, Jin grudgingly accepts change and, in actuality, this mirrors the actions of the player as they effect change in the world of Tsushima through enabling various factions to reach a point of inflection - whether that is re-kindling belief in the Samurai and nobility from the common folk, turning hatred to respect in the alienated remnants of a rebellion, or helping spiritual centres to re-connect with their secular population.

While the writers never really address the idea of "winning at any cost", the personal cost to Jin's actions and choices is presented throughout the story, looking at this from the opposite perspective - he doesn't lose himself in the process of changing and being victorious but instead becomes more and, in a way is shown to be, more pure than the base human condition and strict Japanese Samurai code allow for other characters that inhabit this world. He is a social rule-breaker that is rewarded with an otherness (that could be said to be spiritual in nature given the way in which the "universe" guides him to locations and items within the world) which transcends that which he loses throughout the story on a corporeal level.


A proposed "modified" Hero's Journey, as experienced by Jin in Ghost of Tsushima...


In a way, Ghost of Tsushima is a bitter-sweet tale where Jin's acceptance of change brings him enlightenment at the cost of his earthliness. This gives a unique twist on the normal hero's journey - he is resurrected right at the beginning of the game, with the call to adventure occurring before the game begins. Jin's resurrection by one of the game's mentors also acts as the point at which he crosses the first threshold to the main part of the game experienced by the player, which also acts as a composite test, allies and enemies along with the approach to the inmost cave. Due to the open-ended nature of the player's experience, Jin's transcendence never leads back to the ordinary world, instead leaving him in a sort of dreamlike suspension for the player to be able to dip into again at any point.

Everything about GoTs emphasises the importance of change in a very obvious manner: even completing map elements such as enemy strongholds results in a very pronounced "turnover" on the next viewing of the map with strong visual and audio cues. Each "level" of character development results in a new "title" for Jin and a new image, representing his journey of change.

Even the enemies within the game usually have their underlying motives based on the idea of change. Jin's childhood friend is filled with jealousy which leads to ill-advised betrayal, which leads to the inflection point where they realise they made a mistake and learn to accept their prior lot in life... though, with this being a game centred around killing and combat, this does not end in a firm handshake.

One could even make the argument that the primary enemy of this game is not the Khan or the Mongols but "change" itself. I would argue that the central ordeal in the hero's journey schematic above is actually the point at which Jin poisons the mongols in the castle, gaining the victory but losing his adoptive father and acceptance in Samurai soceity. His reward is actually being freed from those earthly hindrances and the death of his fallen childhood friend at Jin's own hand cements the perception that he has reached a level of justice and righteousness that lies above that which bound him before. 

At the end of the day, the game is about facing change, learning to accept it and then adapt to it.

An interesting thing that reflects this underlying spirtual tone is that Jin faces these challenges and changes with a certain amount of calm bhuddist-like acceptance. I really feel like this is a comment on how change can be overcome or moved through by just getting on with it and remaining calm. Yes, underneath the surface you may feel emotional turmoil and there will always be setbacks but by not panicking and taking things step by step you will eventually reach your goal.

Coincidentally, this is a perfect message for the current times in which we find ourselves in 2020.


There's a lot to keep track of in combat, sometimes least of which are the enemies... the white bar is the defence/stance and the red bar is the health bar.


Mechanics:


Let me just say that I'm in love with the combat in this game. It's simple to understand but difficult to master and is very reminiscent of the Arkham Asylum/City games in terms of "style", i.e. you have attacks and dodging along with blocking, deflection and counter attacks as well as several gadgets for dealing with larger groups of enemies. The two big differences in terms of combat mechanics are that there is no score or unbroken attack chain counter and that the way the player character deals with different enemy types is quite different.

In the Arkham games the different enemies have to have their defences "broken" by using the correct starting attack (basic, counter, cape stun, dodge/evade) and the defence remains broken as long as the enemy is staggered through attacks. Enemies in Ghost of Tsushima all have a block or balance/stance bar which indicates their defence is enabled and stops the player's attacks from being completely successful. While protected by this, enemies can block and deflect the player's attacks, disrupting the flow of the player's movement and attacks. However, each hit (no matter the given attack's effectiveness on the enemy type) depletes this bar by a certain amount, eventually resulting in the defence of the enemy breaking and thus staggering the enemy and leaving them open to unfiltered attack on their health bar for a few moments before their defence is raised once more and the bar recharges.

Combat is feels more deadly than in the Arkham games, with fewer hits potentially downing both the player character and enemies, alike. What is nice in GoTs is that the block and parry abilities enable the player to recover from potential instances of runaway damage-taking and even turn the tide by performing a perfect parry which enables the player to significantly deplete the defence bar of the enemy in question.

Adding to this is that it is very easy to become overwhelmed by large groups of assailants. I found myself unable to keep track of more than around 5-6 enemies, leading to taking more damage during combat which then interrupted the progress of the "Ghost meter" (which is the sort-of equivalent [but not really] of Batman's combo meter) which then enables a short period of 1-hit kills for the player to whittle down the pack. This so-called Ghost meter (the name of which is confusing because there is nothing unseen or subtle about it!) does not deplete with time or between encounters - unlike Batman combo meters and that means you can begin a fight through quickly defeating three enemies.

This difficulty in handling more than one enemy is actually the biggest deviation from the Arkham games: In those games, enemies would be more likely to patiently wait whilst Batman performs the current combo action, or even while their comrades attack Batman. At the same time, on the normal difficulties, there would also be an indicator briefly pop-up on the screen showing who is attacking, the type of attack and the general location of the attack (on/off screen, for example). I never played at the hardest settings but I imagine those aides were dialled back somewhat.


Here you can see the telegraph for a parryable attack, along with the interface for changing stance and switching secondary weapons...

In GoTs, with the exception of unparryable attacks and parryable "strong" attacks, the player has only animation and audio indications to cue them into whether and when an enemy will attack. Therefore, when the player is distracted during combat (e.g. concentrating on attacking after an enemy's defence is broken), they can be injured by an unforeseen attack. In a way, this really encourages a mix of strategies in playstyle - it's always best to whittle away the enemy numbers through stealth or stand-offs if the player wishes to have the cleanest "version" of the encounter. Otherwise, a messy fight will likely ensue which can, in my experience, result in a Benny Hill-esque chase around the larger encampments.

Where a bit of leniency and randomness comes into play in this combat system is that the defence bar does not need to be completely depleted for damage to be inflicted on enemies, attacks can be interrupted through judicious use of offence (with temporary staggers being enabled through use of the strong attack). It's also possible to do a good amount of damage from behind an enemy during combat, even if their defence is up. IMO, this enters a bit of realism to the combat - there's no such thing as a perfect defence!

Similarly to the Arkham series games, there are skill and other upgrades that the player can purchase with points gained through various activities in the world that accrue a sort of "legend" or reputation. As far as I can tell, no skill upgrades are locked-out except through sequential progression (i.e. you cannot get skill upgrade 1.4 before getting skill upgrade 1.3) or various story or mission requirements - for example, you gain access to the bows through missions.

What is nice is that upgrades (aside from health, damage, etc.) are not incremental percentage additions. The skills actually add new features to existing skills or stances. e.g. the upgrade to make all strong anti-spearmen attacks automatically block spearmen attacks during its long wind-up.

These upgrades add necessary heft to Jin's prowess in battle, enabling the player to deal more effectively with groups, specific enemy types and even the late-game enemies that have a lot of health. However, I can see hardcore players choosing to forego many of these upgrades and then posting their amazing exploits where they fight through the whole campaign without "such-and-such", using only their skill - in much the same way you observe for the Soulsborne games.


I'm doing something totally awesome behind this rack of shields...

Bugs and technical issues:


One thing that bugged me a lot was the relatively poor collision detection with the ground in this game. Many screenshots were made less magnificent due to floating foxes, player character or allies. From the usual position of the game camera, this was not an issue but it was noticeable in a few cutscenes too...

The second biggest gripe is the camera. Now, I've seen some commentators wish for the camera to be pulled back, away from the player character. However, I think that is an artistic decision and is fine for me. What I do find limiting is the lack of transparency applied to objects, meshes and other bits of scenery when the camera goes behind them during combat. Since the combat actions are primarily applied to the face buttons on the gamepad, manoeuvring the camera during combat means double-duty for your thumb whilst limiting the player's ability to monitor what the enemies are doing. It's a huge shame for an otherwise almost-perfect combat system and something that the Soulsborne games manage to avoid by sticking their attacks onto the shoulder buttons.

Saying that, though, it's not as if this is the first game that's suffered a less-than-perfect combat camera. Even the venerated Batman: Arkham Asylum and City suffered from camera issues - though the off-screen indications were a bit better, though more gamey in their implementation. I also am not a huge fan of moving all attacks to the shoulder buttons - I find this uncomfortable over a long period and my fingers begin to ache in a way that my thumb never does.

I didn't have a screen capture of an off-screen attack prompt from an Arkham game, so here's one showing an impending attack (just imagine this yellow icon on the edge of the screen)...

One, I presume, unintentional technical bug I did actually encounter was when entering an area of overwhelming force. I was knocked off my horse and couldn't remount or call the horse. However, this issue was fixed once I fast travelled to a new location.

Aside from this, I had an ongoing intermittent issue during the game which I could not consistently reproduce and which was only a mild annoyance: When switching stances, trying to perform the switch very quickly sometimes didn't register the button press, leaving me in the original stance. I am still not certain if this was a controller issue or a game issue. However, as I said, it was relatively minor and since all attacks are valid (though maybe less potent) it wasn't much of a hindrance.


The particle and shader effects in the game are so excellently done, it's hard to believe it was accomplished on the PS4...

Conclusion:


In case it's not apparent, I really liked this game. One big thing that cropped up towards the end of the game was how tired I became of it: it becomes a chore to explore and complete all the points and stories on the really large map. In this context, the actually-fast, fast travel is a huge saving grace. However, this is a perennial problem in open world games and it's definitely not as bad in GoTs as in Assassin's Creed: Origins and Odyssey or Red Dead Redemption 2.

I think this game is a good middle ground between Arkham style combat and Sekiro-style combat. Yes, it has problems with the camera and there are issues with managing enemies during combat but, overall, I think it's a really interesting system that walks its own path. The skills and upgrades make the game easier whilst the difficulty curve also keeps pace on the normal difficulty and there are easier and more harder difficulty options available for those who want them.

The game world itself is a nice palate cleanser with beautiful vistas and interesting visuals. I enjoyed just moving around the world and discovering new things more than I did in both recent Assassin's Creed titles, despite surface-level comparisons. I also didn't think that the map icon searching and item collecting wasn't as bad as in Assassin's Creed games - though I was tired of it all by around the 4/5ths point of the game. After taking several months to complete AC: Origins and several months to not complete AC: Odyssey, I can safely say that my next few games will be short or more linear experiences.

As a result of all these attributes, I could happily recommend Ghost of Tsushima to a large swathe of the gaming population without feeling that the game might not 100% cater to each and every individual player's tastes.


With all due respect...


Back Seat Designing:


I've thought about this a lot and, really, the only thing I would change is to just add some transparency of objects to the game so that the camera doesn't get stuck behing them, blocking the view of the combat. I don't know if this was a budget, time or engine limitatation but I really feel that this is a solved issue for these types of games and should have been addressed during development.

Other than that, I think the game doesn't need any meddling. Well done, Sucker Punch!

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