When the Mongol Empire invaded the Japanese island of Tsushima in 1274, the occupation was nothing short of a massacre. The Mongol army had no reason to respect the island's samurai and their desire for traditional, honourable warfare, and so the natives were quickly and decisively overwhelmed. It was a brutal and bloody chapter in a campaign that would ultimately end in disaster for the Mongols, as the empire would be driven from the Japanese mainland before it could establish any kind of foothold.

Ghost of Tsushima is based on the initial invasion of Tsushima island. It opens with the battle of Komoda beach as roughly 80 samurai make a doomed attempt to stand against hundreds of Mongol invaders, fresh from their voyage across the sea. The game's overall tone is more samurai cinema than it is an accurate recreation of historic events, but this is still a grim and often tragic depiction of war.

It's a serious and sombre tale, and quite a far cry from the comic book nature of the inFAMOUS series. Ghost of Tsushima tells a surprisingly dark and unapologetically bleak story, and this is reflected in Jin Sakai, its protagonist. Throughout the game's entire 30 hour or so runtime, Jin barely cracks a smile -- and who can blame him? He spends his days slaughtering the invaders that ravaged his home, desperately trying to find some kind of meaning in all the bloodshed.

And boy is there a lot of bloodshed. Sucker Punch is clearly proud of the combat system that it's created here, and with good cause. Battles are intensely satisfying affairs, full of deft movement and precise swordplay. Pulling off a perfect parry for the very first time feels incredible -- like you've instantly become a part of the most badass samurai movie that your brain can conjure.

But for all of its style, combat is reasonably grounded. It walks a fine line between the contextual one-hit kill counterattacks of old Assassin's Creed games and the skill-based action of something like 2018's God of War. Enemies don't come equipped with overly long health bars -- they will die in a flurry of steel like any normal human would, and a swift slice to the side of the neck is usually enough to get the job done. It's a welcome and refreshing change of pace from the many action RPGs that would have you chip away at your foes for minutes at a time.

The only thing that stands in the way of Jin's sword is an enemy's defensive stance. Similar to how things work in Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, breaking an opponent's guard opens them up to often fatal blows. Jin has four different combat stances, each of which boast techniques and attacks that are effective against specific foes. If your opponent has a sturdy looking shield, the water stance, with its fast and fluid combos, is ideal. Switching between these stances is as easy as holding down R2 and hitting the corresponding face button, but the system gives each fight a noticeable and rewarding rhythm as you ebb and flow between Jin's various movesets.

Things get even more tactical as Jin's 'Ghost' weapons are introduced. Throwing knives, smoke bombs, sticky explosives, and other deceptive tools give the vengeful samurai a real edge in battle -- especially when you're surrounded by a group of armour-clad Mongols. Combat as a whole is reactive, but it's not Batman Arkham or Shadow of War. You're not just hitting the right buttons at the right time -- you've always got options, free movement, and combos to consider. Any stance can win out against any enemy with patience and timing -- it's just that choosing the right one can make your life a lot easier.

As you progress through the game, Jin's abilities develop at a steady pace. Skill trees are linear, but you feel the impact of every technique point that you spend. Every perk has a purpose and adds something new to Jin's arsenal, whether it's the ability to deliver a powerful kick mid-combo or have smoke bombs restore some of your health. Ghost of Tsushima's initial few hours can be rough as you learn the ropes, but watching as Jin slowly blossoms into the island's most feared warrior is character progression done absolutely right.

Jin's ascendance into legend is reflected in the story, too. Following the samurai's horrendous defeat at Komoda beach, Jin begins to realise that the honourable martial arts of his people aren't going to cut it against the Mongols. He constantly wrestles with the idea of throwing his samurai code to one side, betraying everything that he knows in order to satisfy his lust for revenge. This is where stealth enters the equation.

Equipped with a bow and an especially sharp knife, Jin is capable of wiping out an entire Mongol war camp without being seen. While there are times where you simply can't avoid direct combat -- particularly during the game's fantastic one-on-one boss fights -- remaining stealthy is a very viable strategy, and it all works just as you'd expect. Isolating enemies, observing your foes from the nearest patch of long grass, and striking from the shadows is the name of the game. It's exciting, satisfying stealth, but we dare say that Ghost of Tsushima's combat is so enjoyable that stealth almost feels like a side dish. It can be tasty, but it won't fill you up like the main course will.

And this leads us to one of our only gripes with the game -- forced stealth sections. Although they're quite rare, there are moments where raising the alarm results in an instant game over. Thematically these scenarios make sense -- they're situations where secrecy is paramount, and being spotted would ruin Jin's plans. But that doesn't stop them from feeling tired in terms of design. It's not even that these objectives are particularly difficult -- they just feel like a relic from a bygone age of stealth titles, like the Mary Jane missions in Marvel's Spider-Man. Ghost of Tsushima gives you a lot of freedom in how to fight and how to approach your goals -- having all of that taken away feels unnecessarily restrictive.

Speaking of freedom, Ghost of Tsushima's open world is a joy to explore. It's without a doubt one of the most picturesque open worlds that we've ever traversed, and it's all brilliantly put together. There's no minimap, so you're always looking for landmarks and following the wind -- an ingenious guidance mechanic that directs you towards your goal with gusts that bend surrounding trees and sweep leaves across the ground. It's beautifully implemented, and together with the game's other weather effects, the wind makes Tsushima feel like a living, breathing place.

It's a gorgeous game that demands a top class photo mode -- and Sucker Punch has delivered. Boasting a huge range of editing tools, filters, and more, you'll be snapping the perfect shot in no time at all. And it helps that Ghost of Tsushima likes to embrace quieter moments, despite all of the sword-clashing carnage. Peaceful locations such as hot springs and haiku-inspiring views let you enjoy the relative tranquillity of the island, immersing yourself in the natural sights and sounds of Tsushima.

There's something special about stumbling upon a nice place to sit and relax in an open world game. If this were a Ubisoft title, these contemplative spots would be replaced with yet another enemy stronghold. In Ghost of Tsushima, you're actively encouraged to seek out these peaceful places -- and contrasted against the blood-soaked intensity of the game's excellent main story missions, finding them becomes a genuine highlight of the experience.

If it wasn't already clear, Ghost of Tsushima is a superb open world title. It takes obvious cues from the likes of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, Red Dead Redemption 2, and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, but its feudal Japan setting, consistent tone, and thoroughly enjoyable combat system set it apart from the competition. While there is some open world padding at work here -- there are enemy camps to clear, largely meaningless collectibles to find -- you're never forced to stray from the main story. Every diversion feels natural because of the world's clever design, and the game's character-driven side quests are always worth the effort.

Having said all of that, the release can be a little rough around the edges. Its presentation is largely immaculate, but it seems that even Sony's first-party developers can't avoid open world jank entirely. Significant bugs are exceedingly rare, but little hiccups like clipping and glitchy animations aren't uncommon. The game also lacks the kind of extreme detail that we've come to expect from PlayStation Studios. There are times when scenes will simply cut to black rather than show Jin perform a one-off action, for example.

Fortunately, performance is rock solid -- at least for the most part. The title offers two graphical modes on PS4 Pro: better resolution or higher frame rate. The latter guarantees a smooth experience, while the former provides super crisp visuals at the cost of some slight frame rate dips during busy scenes. It's perhaps a shame that there's no middle ground, but it's nice to see that no matter how you play, load times are almost non-existent. Loading up a save takes just a few seconds -- a rarity for any open world experience.

Last but not least, the game's audio is more than worthy of its own paragraph. For starters, the musical score is fantastic. Battle themes have pounding drums that get the blood pumping, while stealthy segments opt for whispy woodwind melodies. Elsewhere, on the acting side of things, the release can be played in English, or in Japanese with English subtitles. We tried both, and we're happy to report that the English cast do a fine job. In fact, it's the Japanese dub that feels just a tiny bit off -- although it does add a certain authenticity to the title, given the setting. Whichever voice track you choose, you can't really go wrong.

Conclusion

Ghost of Tsushima is a joy to play and a joy to behold. Sucker Punch has crafted one of the most memorable open world games of this generation, buoyed by an immensely satisfying combat system and an engaging, dramatic story. Unlike many of its open world peers, it's a refined and focused experience -- gripping and immaculately presented at its best. A fitting first-party swansong for the PS4.