The Slax Tax? or Slax's Game Corner - Ghost of Tsushima

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You can find the previous entry of this game diary on Donut County here!I wanted to keep a chronicle of the games I’ve played either to the end or have stopped playing because I’m not having fun, and also I find that I have trouble remembering which games I have finished and enjoyed over a year, so keeping a running ranking seems like fun. I’m not sure what form these entries will take, and if it will be reflective of an end of year list, since I will be ranking any game played regardless of year it came out, but that’s not the point, I’m here for nonsense and I hope you are too. Also fair warning, there may be spoilers within, since we are talking about reviewing a finished game, they may come up, so just, FYI I suppose. With further adieu:

Further adieu: Just one more quick warning, this one has some spoilers since I delve into some story specifics. So, here's your last chance to get out of here! I still am not sure what form this blog will take long-term, instead of Donut County's compliment sandwich style, I tried a more traditional style, while still trying to highlight things I liked in a game that, spoilers, I may not have fully enjoyed.

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Ghost of Tsushima is a great game stuck in a mediocre game’s body. Is that even fair? I’m not sure. Remember how Shadow of Mordor was a relatively generic open-world game for it’s time. It had a solid take on the Batman Arkham combat, the story was...there. You got to hug-assassinate your wife at the beginning I think? But it was all elevated by the Nemesis system. A system that generated characters and would promote them if they killed you, creating this fun game of trying to avenge your own death against an orc that just loved fire or hated spiders or whatever. The game played well and the nemesis system was special enough that it was the driving force getting me through that game. Now, Slax, you may be thinking, what does the nemesis system have to do with a game that, if I recall, does not have the nemesis system or anything like it? Right you are friend, Ghost of Tsushima is a relatively generic open-world game that feels like in many ways it came from the past, and it can’t quite find it’s unique hook, certainly not it’s grappling hook amirite?, to set it apart.

This man seems upset.
This man seems upset.

Let me say this, GoT (Game of Thrones. Ghost of Tsushima. God of Thor 2 Ragnarok…) has an overall enjoyable combat system, and the standoffs and duels really highlight what is great about it. At a certain point when you are gallivanting through Tsushima having unlocked your basic skills, when you approach an enemy camp you get to make a choice for yourself, do you want to try to sneak in and play a perfectly fine but relatively easy stealth game, or do you want to ride up to the front gate yelling that you are here and begin a standoff against the enemy, which objectively is the correct way to handle things. It’s cool as hell and while the mini game to win a standoff is simple, hold triangle until the enemy starts attacking and then release before you get hit, the result is instantly killing that enemy and, with upgrades, multiple more and looking like a cool swordsman in the process. Now this mini game evolves with some of the harder enemies spending more time trying to juke you, or running at you faster to attack, limiting the release window and at a certain point just running into a camp and fighting all the enemies in there became quicker, so I guess I lied about standoffs being objectively the best way to go in a camp, but I do think it’s a game play and visual mechanic that really works. And then the duels, those blessed duels. They take away all of the stealth and even gadgets that you can usually use during combat and lock you into a one-on-one sword vs whatever they have duel set to a beautiful backdrop. I was disappointed that you couldn’t replay these, or that there were no repeatable duels, because I had a lot of fun going through them. I played through this game on hard, and they were virtually the only part I had to restart multiple times (except at the beginning of the game, the beginning of the game is kind of punishing if you leave the beaten path) and they felt really rewarding when I finally beat them. I’ll also say at first I didn’t like balancing the different outfits and having to change the charms all the time, but once I turned on charm sets in the settings (why was this defaulted to off) and found out you could change outfits basically at any time (“It’s me the Ghost, I know we just started the duel” strips off his traveler's garb, is naked, “but just give me a second while I slip something on” puts on a samurai helmet and armor while everyone else taps their feet) it all started to work much better. Overall the melee based combat, even with some of the tricks and gadgets at your disposal, mostly just upgraded kunai all day, felt good, and honestly is probably the only thing that propelled me through the game.

Norio was pretty alright, but his story line felt strange and rushed.
Norio was pretty alright, but his story line felt strange and rushed.

The story and a majority of the characters, on the other hand, did a lot of work undoing the good will of the perfectly enjoyable combat system. The story is a tale of honor versus survival done…poorly. The game seems to insinuate that you/Jin have a choice, to fight honorably or deceptively, but this is a false choice. You cannot play this game in a way that would make your Uncle, who turns out to be the only one who is really as hardcore about this idea of honor on the whole island of Tsushima even though at the outset of the game they really make it seem like more characters will care, will be happy with your choices. In the same way that a Last of Us or Bioshock may berate you for the violence that the game is forcing on you, this game gives the expectation that Jin could forge his own path, either with his Uncle or as the titular Ghost, but that turns out not to be true. And at one point your Uncle sneaks, but it’s okay because he doesn’t stab anyone or something. The rules to this honor are arbitrary at best, and since you cannot affect the outcome, it feels really jarring for you to run around dueling everyone then get a cut-scene that’s like, “Oh, seems like your nephew doesn’t have honor since a bunch of our men died stabbed in the back” which, rant, is like a main way that samurai in this game kill people, when they flee in terror or you don’t kill them all the way and they try to crawl, it’s like cool to just stab them in the back. The dude should’ve said, “Hey, noticed a lot of my men died from being stabbed in the neck with a note next to them saying, ‘I don’t care about honor, I’m the ghost now’” or something. Speaking of the Ghost, the entire process of gaining the mantle of the Ghost, which happens fairly early in the game, doesn’t feel earned, nor does it feel like it flows with what is going on, which may be the fault of this being an open world game suffering from you potentially having hours between story beats. But essentially one of your friends just tells some farmers, “You got saved by the Ghost, so that’s cool” and that’s it. It’s around the end of the second act that the title starts to actually make sense, but by then I was so incensed by being forced into this role that it didn’t matter. The final two boss fights of the game were actually cool and that 30 minute stretch of the game I really enjoyed, and there was a good melding of gameplay and story that had I cared about anything that had come before, I think would’ve landed really well.

This game feels like it would have benefited from most of the character specific tales should’ve been incorporated into the main story path so they could have weaved those stories together better knowing that you had progressed to a certain point on a characters path and maybe cut out some of them, because some of those characters were boring. As is, you have mad modern day RPG problems, where you go on a very personal quest for a person, but when they show up in the main story, none of that is brought up or matters, even when it would be pertinent. My problem with the story can be summed up in the following example. You learn early on that Jin, as a child, watched his father, who called out for help, die and didn’t do anything to save him, thinking that his father died believing Jin was a coward or even dishonorable. Now you might think that this traumatic event in Jin’s life would be why he now forgoes honor to save the people of Tsushima no matter what. You even have a throw-away line at some point that maybe your Dad wasn’t as bad as you thought, and in fact, disagreed with your Uncle on in what ways this capital H Honor should affect a samurai’s actions. None of this, in my recollection, is ever explicitly used to justify Jin’s actions. Jin and his Uncle never have a discussion about Jin’s father and what he would’ve wanted. Jin arbitrates justice to the people of Tsushima in a way that is inconsistent over the course of the game, even executing a farmer for not stopping the Mongols from kidnapping some women, a perfect parallel to him not saving his father and could’ve been a reflective moment. In a game that literally has you reflecting on past and current events, naked in a hot spring, it really doesn’t seem to have much to say about it’s characters or world.

That little ribbon up top shows that you can grapple to that, but don't worry you may have to jump first and sometimes it still won't work and you may fall to your death and if you can't tell I do not like this system.
That little ribbon up top shows that you can grapple to that, but don't worry you may have to jump first and sometimes it still won't work and you may fall to your death and if you can't tell I do not like this system.

here are multiple expectations that can occur between a player of a game and it’s developer. One, I think, is pre-release. The hype cycle if you will. A player, fairly or not, through trailers, gameplay, demos and whatever else gains an expectation for what a game can be. When they play it, if it exceeds or meets their expectation they are happy, and if it doesn’t it can often negatively affect their enjoyment of a game in a way that someone with lower expectations wouldn’t feel. The other is expectations a developer may set up in a game itself to the player. Now these can be created and subverted for some interesting effects, but largely the beginning of the game is setting expectations for what a player can expect going forward. It’s one of the contributing factors to the “honeymoon period” that players can have with games, you are learning and figuring out what the game is bringing to the table and that can be exciting if done well. I bring all of this up to say, that when a game promises a grappling hook, and shows you plenty of examples, through the cliffy (b) environment that isn’t particularly fun to navigate, and how a grappling hook could be helpful in navigating the world, and then you get one and it doesn’t at all meet that expectation, it doesn’t feel good and is as remotely useful as it seems like it should be. Mobility in this game could’ve been so much better, by having a more free grappling system. Instead the grappling hook comes into play only for some very specific events, and then you essentially do not have to use it in the rest of the game. The game knows you have the ability to grapple in Acts 2 and 3 yet the environments don’t seem to incorporate it any better than Act 1. If the grappling hook was better, it would have alleviated the problem of having a sub-par climbing system that in many ways reminded me of early Assassins Creed games where you can input the same commands multiple times in the same circumstances and sometimes your characters leaps to their death and sometimes they do what is intended. The grappling hook could’ve been used more in the stealth sections besides, gotta climb this mountain that no one thinks I should be able to climb, but I have a grappling hook so that’s cool. The horse moves fine though, so I guess that’s okay.

I have a lot of nitpicks about this game, like how it is being lauded for its graphics but I thought it looked fine, which maybe was on me for playing in performance mode and not fancy graphics mode. The art design is nice, especially in the backdrops for duels, but the rest is just serviceable. Or how it makes me kill dogs and they whine when they die which all games should stop doing. Unless the dogs are undead or demons or something, just leave them alone. Or even how there is no dive animation for Jin as you jump into water, which is a weird critique I know. Ultimately, I just think this game is disappointing, and I didn’t come in with particularly high expectations. This game feels like it might’ve changed multiple times in development too. I don’t know for sure, this is all speculation, but it feels like there might have been some morality or splitting story beats incorporated into this game at some point but was taken out for whatever reason. I don’t know that those systems would’ve made the game better, but it certainly would’ve made the game feel more cohesive and that it was trying to do something. As is, it seems like an average open world game that maps too many controls to the same buttons (ha, just sneaking little nitpicks in left and right) and I left feeling really conflicted about it.

Now what did I learn from this? Maybe that all games don’t need to be open world. I thought about that alot as I played this and really felt that if this was a more linear game, focusing more on the combat, stealth, and story and less on the foxes and shrines you could climb (although that could still happen once or twice, and I did like petting the foxes) I think this could’ve been a better game. I know that open world games are big, as they up play hours and can make room for DLC that takes place in the world already, but it just felt like a mostly hollow experience. To be fair, the straightforward nature of this game and it’s open world makes it very easy to see everything and check everything off a list, and honestly, between that and the swordplay, may have been why I made my way to the end of the game. So maybe I’m making their point for them.

This was a tough one. I wanted to like a lot about this game, but it just ended up feeling disjointed and a bit lifeless, which is a bummer. It’s cool for games to be good, and it’s cool for games to be different, and this game didn’t do either.

2021 Rankings

#1 Donut County

#2 Ghost of Tsushima

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