An ode to Ghost of Tsushima’s katana

Ghost of Tsushima is a game with many facets: a gorgeous open-world adventure, a Kurosawa-inspired samurai tale, and so many side quests where you hear people talk to you while you walk toward an objective. But while Ghost of Tsushima has its pros and cons, it does nail one thing: samurai warrior Jin Sakai’s katana. It’s the best video game sword in recent memory.

From the moment you start Ghost of Tsushima, the game impresses on you that Jin is an elite warrior, one who has been studying for years to hone his skill at wielding his family blade (officially called “the Sakai Storm”). And that’s clear from the moment you draw your sword. Jin’s blade is whip-fast, cutting through foes effortlessly and parrying blows with ease. He’s so fast, in fact, that Sucker Punch co-founder Chris Zimmerman explains that it actually caused an imbalance in the game’s combat early on, since Ghost’s enemies couldn’t keep up with the player’s speed.

At first glance, the swordplay system is a fairly standard hack-and-slash setup: Jin has light and heavy attacks (bound to the square and triangle buttons, respectively), and he can block attacks — which turn into parries when timed correctly with L1. A dodge button for special “unblockable” attacks rounds out the system.

There’s also a “standoff” system. When approaching an enemy encounter, players can initiate a samurai-film-style showdown, which has players stare down their opponents and unleash a perfectly timed blow to fell them in one strike, which offers a more cinematic flavor to combat.

Unlike other modern RPGs — like more recent Assassin’s Creed titles, which give players a wide array of different weapons to use — the story elements of Ghost mean that Jin uses the same family katana from start to finish with only damage upgrades to help scale the combat along the way.

But Ghost of Tsushima adds unexpected depth to the setup with its stance system, which has players switch between different styles of combat suited to different enemies. Players start the game only knowing “Stone stance,” a stabbing style designed for swords (which makes sense, given that Jin, a samurai, has largely only trained to fight other sword wielders). As the game progresses, though, Jin learns new stances by fighting Mongol leaders. There’s Water stance, a flowing style that focuses on quick slashes to overwhelm shield-bearing foes; Wind stance, which adds new parry options and a distance-creating kick to avoid spears; and Moon stance, which emphasizes powerful blows for the bigger brute opponents.

The stances can be seamlessly switched between in combat, and they shine in smaller group fights. Jin can start by staggering a shieldman with a quick flurry of Water stance attacks, pivot behind to parry a swordman with a quick stab, before ending the combo by dispatching both foes in quick succession. Each style looks visually distinct, too, turning battles into an almost balletic dance as you switch back and forth between stances.

The benefits of each stance really come through in Ghost’s one-on-one duels, though, which take away all of your other tools and leave you with just your sword. Where the group fights generally let you get away with button mashing, you really need to learn each stance’s nuances and techniques to succeed. You’ll need different tactics to defeat a Mongol general (with a sword and shield) than you will when you face down a disgraced ronin wielding his own katana.

And while Ghost doesn’t let you change your sword itself, there are plenty of cosmetic upgrades available to change up the style of your weapon, in addition to gameplay upgrades. Each stance has its own skill tree to increase damage and improve combos, and there are a variety of special skills that can be unlocked through optional quests, too. A late-game upgrade even lets you set the katana on fire, and it’s easy to forget your gripes about boring side quests when you’re unleashing a samurai with a sword of blazing flame upon your foes.

The game tries to walk a tightrope throughout gameplay, constantly putting players in the conflicted shoes of Jin Sakai, a samurai warrior who must decide whether he’d like to use more dishonorable tactics like smoke bombs and stealthy assassinations. My Jin Sakai, though, doesn’t need to stoop to such levels. He is a proud samurai, and he strolls boldly into each Mongol base or bandit hideout, katana in hand, as he calls out a challenge to fight.

When the sword fighting is this good, what else do you need?

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