I never allowed myself to get too excited for this, and I kept my expectations low because I never imagined I would have every single box ticked for my dream game. Sucker Punch, just like the name applies, caught me right off guard from the moment I first started up until my wife made me put the controller down so we could “watch something we both like”. This game, for me and many others, has been the most incredible addition to the roster of current gen games, and it’s been sitting there seducing me as I work from home, like some sultry succubus.
If this paragraph isn’t enough of an indicator of my feelings toward GoT then let me tell you, this game is now one of my most favourite games of all time. We all know the story by now; GoT is set in the year 1274, and is loosely based on a real event, where the Mongolian Empire settled on Tsushima in order to stage a full invasion of mainland Japan. However, most of the game takes liberties by creating fictional characters, so as not to be tied down by historical accuracy, but giving them more sway in how the game plays out.
Our hero is Jin Sakai, the head of his clan, and the nephew to the lord of the island, Lord Shimura. The game doesn’t exactly wait before kicking things off at the beginning with the invasion already underway, and Jin charging into battle beside his uncle and a meager force of 80 samurai from various clans. The first hour or so of the game is linear, acting as a tutorial but also as a means to show us the gravity of the situation. The samurai are easily overwhelmed and we get a glimpse of the big bad that is leading them, another fictional character known as Khotun Khan. After the devastating defeat Jin must recover and find allies to help him rescue his uncle, who was taken captive after the battle. Jin makes a failed first attempt, which is also a clever means to show us just how ineffective he is against his enemy with his current skillset, reinforcing the idea later on that he needs to adapt or die.(“Maybe if i lit it on fire…..”)
Once the intro sections are done, we are then free to roam around the first section of the island to our hearts content. Of course, I stuck with the main missions first, because it would unlock additional core abilities that would make things easier for me, with the land now filled with bandits, Mongols and a lot of distressed civilians. I won’t say much more about the details of the story, it can give away too many spoilers, but I thought it was a pretty tight narrative, with a lot of cutscenes but they felt necessary to give some substance to the characters and their interactions with one another.
After I unlocked some extra abilities, I set off to points unknown just to get a feel for the game, and to get myself into some fights too. The environments and landscapes are some of the most beautifully picturesque I have ever seen in a game, really pushing the PS4 to its limits. The amazing palette of colours, rays of light breaking through the branches, the light of the moon reflecting off of the lake, the leaves billowing through a forest and so much more that I would use up my word limit telling you everything. I have literally spent a lot of game time just walking to my objectives, because I just couldn’t justify rushing past everything. From bamboo forests, to marshes, snowy mountains and fields, everything just looks incredible, and I have never had texture pop ins, frame rate drops, nothing like that. It ran so smoothly, even if my PS4 used the warp drive every now and then, I didn’t care.
To match the visuals, the ambient sounds are superb. Just listening to the rain splatter on a rooftop when you stand inside, hearing the animals screeching in the distance, or the branches creaking against a strong wind puts me in the world, and makes me a part of it. In order to navigate, as there is no mini map or HUD, so nothing gets in the way of what you see, there is a more natural means to find your way around. Using the world map, or your journal, you can select available missions which will highlight where you need to go, but instead of following a line shown on the corner of the screen you just follow the direction of the wind. There will be subtle breezes, with some leaves, petals and other airborne vegetation, to keep you in the right direction, but you can also call a larger gust of wind if you’re unsure. A similar means of finding points of interest, still presented naturally, occur whilst travelling as some animals will try to get your attention, namely foxes and golden birds, so just follow them to find something nice in return. There is a bit of a backstory as to why Jin follows the wind and these little creatures, but it demonstrated how Jin is spiritually connected to this island in more ways than just being a resident.
So, to drive them off you must start killing them, free your people and start your legend that will grow into an awesome tale. Which means, using a very effectively cinematic combat system. On paper it sounds simple, with blocking, dodging and parrying for defense, and a mix of light and heavy attacks for offense. That is, until you start unlocking additional techniques and implementing different styles of engagement, and using different stances to fight against different enemy types. Due to the difficulty in fighting against a fearsome enemy, Jin will evolve his standard tactics and eventually start using more “dishonourable” means of taking out his foes.
As the story progresses you begin to see the inner conflict Jin has, as he reflects on the teachings of his very strict uncle, someone that lives and breathes direct confrontation and always facing an enemy head on, starts updating his résumé with assassinations, smoke bombs and other tools of murder. Thankfully, the game never forces you to play a specific way (unless it’s integral to a main mission), and you get a lot of freedom to approach a horde however you want, but it will sometimes be crucial to use the less than favourable options to get the advantage, because it’s you against them. One samurai, against the Mongolian vanguard.
The combat was tight, tense, fluid and just downright fun. I can’t think of a better system that was as satisfying, with blood spraying everywhere, bodies crawling along the ground in pain and the satisfying clash of steel. The animations are very artistic, with a certified lethality to the sword. You are just as dangerous to the enemy as the enemy is to you. It can take one or two clean hits to kill someone, and if you’re careless then you may be the victim of the same. Killing them is very stylistic and they will sometimes stand there for a few seconds before collapsing, as it takes a little time to even realize that they have been defeated, and just flicking the blood away, or wiping it on your sleeve, when sheathing it afterwards is so badass.
The stealth wasn’t mind blowing, but it wasn’t bad either. There is plenty of tall grass to hide in, rooftops to climb and you can even crawl through some spaces (under floorboards too) to maneuver around a camp and stab anyone in your way. Alerted enemies call out and blow a horn to gather reinforcements, and then they search for you, but thankfully only those close by will come. Only the enemies that see you will make chase, and when hunting they will swipe at the long grass, walk back to back and follow sniffer dogs to find you.(“Tag! You’re it!”)
Completing missions, clearing settlements, winning battles and more rewards you with technique points. As your legend grows, so too do the obstacles. However, there is a very simple menu with multiple skill trees assigned to stances and both samurai/ghost playstyles, with technique points used to purchase and expand your skills. The missions are nothing we haven’t seen before, they usually require speaking to NPCs, tracking people, and eventually killing someone, but they never get boring. They are an excuse to go around murdering bad guys (like we need an excuse).
Some of the best missions come in the form of “tales”, where you tag along with an important NPC and help them accomplish their goals, because you are not the only person affected by this invasion. As much as Jin wants to send the Mongols home, or to the grave, others have their own agendas as a result of the invasion, their own battles to face. The companions are wonderfully voiced with a sweet dialogue. I didn’t mind sitting back and just listening to them discuss things it felt like watching a cool samurai movie. The only downside is that I chose to have Japanese voices with English subtitles, but the lip synching did not match correctly. The English actors sound great, to be fair, but I prefer the Japanese voice track. It can break the immersion a little when the lips are not moving and they’re speaking, but it sounds so good that I can manage.
At the beginning you also have the option to view the game in colour or, in paying homage to famous film director Akira Kurosawa, you can have the samurai cinema setting which puts a black/while filter and some grainy animations, in order to make it like an old movie. There are some nice armour sets, which can be upgraded by gathering materials such as bamboo, linen and metals, and they will change the visuals of your armour/clothing, adding new pieces and so on. You can still alter the appearance to an earlier piece without removing the buffs granted by an upgrade.
The katana, tanto and bows can be upgraded in the same way, improving their effectiveness greatly, but you can’t rely on stats, you still need to be focused. There is no money, but there is a means to purchase new items. By picking up supplies and flowers, depending on the vendor, you can purchase materials and dyes for your armour/clothing, with even a single change of colour making it seem like you have a new outfit. Putting together different sword kits, hats, masks and armour with adjusted colours can give you the look you want, whether it be heavily armoured god of war, or wind battered ronin, there are a lot of good combinations.
Keeping this review short is near impossible, so I have left out so much that still deserves to be mentioned. It is not flawless by any means, as mentioned the lip synching with the Japanese option, and my only other gripe is that when arrows are fired, they do not appear in the bodies of your enemies, nor do they stick where they land. They turn into a white light trail in the air before disappearing. I hope that changes, just so I can leave a trail of headshots, and the evidence to prove it (and allow me to recover arrows). Besides those points I have had no issues, and only one glitch that made me piss myself laughing. GoT isn’t reinventing the wheel and the developers never promised that. They promised a romanticized and grounded samurai experience, with no supernatural shit, and I believe that they over delivered. This is a very polished, and visually gorgeous, action experience with a large world to travel in, plenty of enemies to fight, a lot of skills to learn and one of the best combat mechanics I’ve seen. Honestly, I would love other games to allow you to be as lethal (looking at you Ubisoft). All I want, besides the arrow thing, is a new game plus. If I haven’t said enough to convince you of this game’s worth, it’s because you would be reading a book.