Title: Ghost of Tsushima | Developer: Sucker Punch | Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment | Initial Release: 17th July 2020
NOTE: This review covers the original release of Ghost of Tsushima on PS4; for an updated version including all changes and updates included in the Director's Cut, follow the link below...
It's not often I open a post with a pun, especially not one as corny as this but I'm going to make an exception; Ghost of Tsushima is Sensei-tional...!
Sucker Punch's Samurai themed open-world action adventure game may have one foot firmly in the historical past as it strives to give an accurate account of life in Feudal Japan, but it also has one very much in the future with a truly innovative approach to modern photo mode capture art that goes some way to advancing the medium. With impressive execution of both counts, this latest best selling Sony title looks like it has lots to teach us.
Taking you back to the Mongol invasion of Japan in the year 1274, Ghost of Tsushima tells the tale of Jin Sakai, one of the only Samurai warriors to survive the assault, as well as those of the friends and allies he must recruit to help defend their island home. With a dedication to historical accuracy, the game represents the time period in a genuinely educational way in what has to be one of the prettiest game worlds ever seen. Period clothing, agriculture, myths and methods of combat are all thoughtfully portrayed, while your presence and onus as a Samurai in this land of natural beauty is made to feel all the more absorbing by the highly respectful culture. As villagers bow deeply and greet Jin with the most reverent salutation of "Sama", be sure to reciprocate with a quick swipe down on the touch pad, you'll definitely feel better for doing it and may even find the occasional surprise.
it's clear to see that the studio wanted to make Tsushima a realistic yet beautiful place to play
This authentic depiction of Fuedal Japan is much more than a mere marketing differentiator though; from the early concept art, it's clear to see that the studio wanted to make Tsushima a realistic yet beautiful place to play and the chosen art direction shows genuine love and respect for the setting as well as other arts which reflect it. If the content can be credited as being accurate, the visuals are like a fantasy with beautiful scenes arriving one after another in storybook fashion. Thanks to this, and some particularly interesting photo mode features, you may well find that Jin's inner conflict between honouring his Samurai code and doing whatever he must to save his home is reflected in your own struggle between actually playing the game and stopping to photograph it.
Key Photo Mode Features:
Beautiful, clean UI with visual functionality indicators
Programmable camera tracking shots
Animated environments with weather and particle effects
Controls and Implementation:
I think it is safe to say that Sucker Punch are a studio that takes photo mode design seriously at this point, there's even a trophy for using it, and their pedigree is starting to show. As the art form grows in popularity and gains added expectations, a good or bad implementation can make or break a photo mode, so it is great to see that Ghost of Tsushima's has been afforded as much thought on its usability as it has on the inclusion of new and novel features. Not relegated to a pause menu, the camera tools are always at hand with a single press of right on the D-pad and, although it does mean releasing the LS and interrupting the walking animation, this makes the photo mode a feature that is just as well integrated into the game as summoning your horse or restoring health.
The inputs are highly intuitive and make it easy for the user to compose any type of shot
Proving my previous concerns to be unwarranted (or were they...? Look out for another post about that soon), camera movement is handled in a way that minimises restrictions and allows you to point the lens in any direction while moving around the ~8.5 m bounding sphere. The LS handles lateral truck and dolly position, L2 / R2 vertical crane and the RS effectively provides 360° horizontal pan and 180° vertical tilt. I say effectively because this technically still is an orbit camera but cleverly, it orbits its own (freely movable) location rather than being indefinitely bound to the character in the ways we have seen limiting other recent releases. Either way, the inputs are highly intuitive and combine well to make it easy for the user to compose any type of shot with freedom and precision.
The final movement control, a camera-centred roll, is isolated on the third UI menu tab and while this doesn't present much of a problem, it is a little surprising given that L1 / R1 remain unassigned and would comfortably handle the task. The UI itself is as artistic as the rest of the game's presentation. A modern and clean overlay separates each photo mode feature into a vertically scrolling list and provides visual depictions of the individual functions that help speed up navigation and should serve as useful reminders for less experienced or casual virtual photographers. It would be nice to have the various settings retained when exiting the photo mode though.
There's even a trophy for using it
As unobtrusive as the elegant UI may be, it is worth noting that a black gradient is included at the bottom of the screen to aid menu readability, so still be sure to hide it for a truly clear view of your image. Handily, one of the better features from inFAMOUS' photo mode makes a return here as each and every setting can be changed while the UI is hidden, something that really helps you to focus on the result and quite simply should be standard in every photo mode by now.
With similar hallmarks of Sucker Punch's previous offerings, the optical behaviour of the virtual camera is pleasingly authentic and makes it easy to apply that real photography look. Field of view settings include a versatile range of lens lengths, from 12 - 300 mm, that cover wide vistas and narrow crops with ease, while depth of field is rendered with an elegant defocus of both the foreground and background. If truth be told, I would say that the effect feels a little more pronounced than the real world equivalents but, with a range from the wide-open f/1.4 to the fairly absurd f/750, there is no problem finding the required focal depth.
Going hand in hand with the above, precise focus control is offered through both a simple auto-focus that locks onto Jin by pressing ☐, and manual adjustment across a large range that compliments the camera's ability to get extremely close to your subject by allowing a minimum focus distance of just 10 cm, great for taking advantage of the detailed models on offer.
As always, a good camera is of little use without light and, along with a capable Exposure Bias that can over or underexpose most scenes, Ghost of Tsushima has a couple of tricks up its sleeve to let you illuminate your shots. Thanks to the game's implementation of dynamic time of day and weather systems, something we see all too infrequently, the photo mode benefits from manual control of both. A 24-hour cycle includes distinct day, night, dusk and dawn with a moving sun that casts directional light and shadows before setting on the horizon while night times are bathed in moonlight from a highly realistic, though unfortunately static full moon. With 8 different weather conditions and movable cloud formations you really do have tremendous influence on how your shots are lit and an interesting assortment of colour grading filters are ready and waiting to complete the mood, though they curiously neglect to include the game's homage to Samurai cinema - Kurosawa mode.
A highly realistic, though unfortunately static full moon.
In contrast, mood is not something that the game's inhabitants really manage to contribute, as both the main and supporting characters struggle to add much feeling to shots a lot of the time. A set of 14 facial expressions for Jin alter his face shape but fail to engage his eyes, meaning that they don't really bring much in the way of emotion at all. With no option to manipulate his direction of look either, and the fact that the character's gaze doesn't follow the in-game camera, it can be tricky to get subjects to appear fully engaged with their activity and surroundings.
Similarly absent are any further options for basic post-processing with no sliders for contrast, saturation or sharpness that could be used to tweak an image before capture. Don't expect to be able to apply a vignette either, or to add imperfections such as chromatic aberration and film grain, something that I think is particularly missed and would be perfect for giving shots something of a historic look to suit the game's theme. Motion blur too would be a welcome inclusion to bring a believable dynamism to stills, but Ghost of Tsushima is not only about still images and deals with movement in a different and highly novel way.
This is a living photo mode remember; one that comes to life with continued animation of the environment even after freezing the game. Everything from foliage, flags, hair, clothes, charms, fire, smoke and even prevailing weather moves with real-time rendered animation that can transform an otherwise static scene into something much more dynamic. While certainly novel, the implementation shows an intent to provide something that is not merely a novelty.
Much of the available movement comes as a result of the island's ever-present wind and the photo mode gives you direct control over it with 360° direction and speed adjustment to generate anything from calm tranquility, a light breeze or gale force conditions. This can be used to great effect by influencing the content on-screen for a gently wafting mist or hard-driving rain while the movement of clouds can be added manually thanks to a huge 10,000 point sliding scale in the UI. Should the existing screen content not be enough for you, a host of floating particle effects bring various types of leaves, birds and insects, each ready to be included subtly or in excess! Reacting very naturally to the wind, let the animation play and you'll see that some of these particles also accumulate on the ground; useful for decorating your surroundings whether animated or not.
Of course, all of the environmental details can be frozen in time by simply toggling the animation option so there is no need to worry about photobombing dragonflies or a last second leaf blocking your shot.
A hands-free moving shot that is ready to be recorded as video
Slightly perversely, one of the final features covered in this review is actually the first thing you will see upon entering the photo mode. Entitled Tracking Shot, the first UI option allows users to define up to 16 camera positions, along with coupled settings like focus distance and DoF. With a few positions saved, the Δ button switches from Hide UI to Play Animation and the photo mode camera will move autonomously through each of your established setups, its speed being determined by the distance between each point. The result is a super-smooth and hands-free moving shot that is ready to be recorded as video, with or without the aforementioned animations. A single 21:9 cinematic frame is available and you can choose to overlay a beautiful scripture stamp, though I would have hoped for more than 1, and accompany the scene with any of the 9 available soundtracks from the game's original score to add a little extra production value.
One piece of advice; if you plan on capturing moving images, play with HDR disabled. Although HDR images look spectacular in-game with an appropriate display, it often causes problems for virtual photographers as subtly nuanced highlights become blown out whites in the captured 8-bit colour PNG / JPG. For video though, the issue is compounded and the entire colour palette will be incorrect in the non-HDR compatible MP4 recording.
A presentation that is pure artistry, thanks to the care and attention poured into every element
Although it may not appeal to everyone, there is no denying that Sucker Punch's decision to give this photo mode a strong emphasis on movement is an interesting one and opens up convenient new capture art avenues. It is not quite full-on machinima, given that character animations remain frozen, but the moving environment and automated panning shots should inspire some fascinating cinematic productions as people get to grips with the possibilities.
It's very much in keeping too as the game itself has a similar focus on motion throughout its environments. The deliberately significant winds not only serve as a neat means to guide players towards the next objective, but also masterfully reflect the use of dramatic weather in classic Chanbara cinema and the legendary typhoon winds that blew during the real Mongol invasion of Japan in the 13th century. Becoming known as kami-no-kaze - "Wind of the Gods" - and deriving the more widely known term kamikaze - "Divine Wind" - these winds were believed to have helped repel the invasion and preserve the Japanese way of life (see, I told you there were interesting lessons to learn here...). With that in mind, it would seem wrong not to honour the omnipresent gusts in one way or another.
Villagers go about their routines and playful wildlife will lead you to symbolic shrines
Whether animated or not, Ghost of Tsushima is something of a dream for virtual photographers with a presentation that is pure artistry, thanks to the care and attention poured into every element, and can hardly fail to inspire. Everything from the well crafted cinematics to the gorgeous inventory screen, that manages to draw you into benign and inanimate objects with visually engaging images, contribute to the sense of style and help to promote a creative mood. Tsushima's calming serenity only adds to that, as villagers go about their routines and playful wildlife lead you to symbolic shrines. It is at such places where Jin is afforded the odd moment to reflect and even compose Haiku poems in a way that slow the pace and may even help clear your own mind.
There is certainly plenty to focus on though with interesting period features and a wide range of costumes with which to customise Jin, including separate clothes, hats and masks, as well as a range of colour dyes unlocked by collecting brightly hued flowers from around the world. The range of local clans, civilians and enemies also provide interesting and aesthetically varied subjects, benefiting from very high quality character models that rival the best we have seen across this console generation.
Beautiful landscapes, vibrant forests and inviting water everywhere you look
It is easy to look right past the details though as the island setting is perhaps the most photogenic environment that I've had the pleasure to experience with arrestingly beautiful landscapes, vibrant forests and inviting water everywhere you look. Indeed, the game does a smart job of presenting you with these scenes as the undulating terrain often hides something stunning just over the next hill to make simply riding around an artistically inspiring journey. Should you prefer to save time or return to a favourite beauty spot, Sucker Punch's work to minimise loading times and provide an abundance of fast travel locations make it easy to get around this stunning open-world.
Of course, this is a Samurai game at heart though, and it is never long before you encounter another chance to draw your blade and enjoy some cinema-inspired combat. Whether set piece-like face-offs or outnumbered battles, the opportunities to capture the elegance of a katana or the shock of Mongolian black powder are plentiful; you'll even get a little help from drama-heightening slow motion as killing blows land.
As a game that does so much so well, it can be hard to decide what its best feature is. One thing for sure though, if you share the developer's enthusiasm for Feudal Japan, Samurai cinema and outstanding natural beauty, you're going to have a great time playing and photographing Ghost of Tsushima.
The studio that brought us an early PS4 photo mode in inFAMOUS Second Son has done a fine job of bookending the generation with one of the most visually and thematically appealing games to appear on Sony's console. The artistic approach to every detail shines through into a completely new photo mode which blends well executed essentials with innovative new features that truly set it apart from the competition. Whether a seasoned virtual photographer or someone new to the concept, Ghost of Tsushima is a game and capture art tool that is likely to inspire you to try something new.
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Full Feature Set:
Photo Mode Access: D-pad Right
Camera Movement: Orbit (non-fixed tether)
Orbit Horizontal: 360°
Orbit Vertical: 180°
Tracking Shot: New Camera Position (Max 16)
Focal Length: 12 - 300 mm (± 1)
Roll: -180 to +180 (± 1)
Depth of Field: f/1.4 - f/750 & Off
Focus Distance: 0.1 - 200 m (± 0.1 at <10; ± 1 at 10-200)
Colour Grading Filter: None + 10 Presets
Colour Grading Intensity: 0 - 100% (± 1 approx.) Exposure Bias: -5.0 to +5.0 (± 0.1)
Particles: None + 13 Presets
Particle Intensity: 0 - 100% (± 3 approx.)
Wind Speed: 0 - 44 (± 1)
Wind Direction: 0 - 359° (± 1)
Clouds: -5,000 to +5,000 (± 1)
Time of Day: HH:MM:SS (± approx.)
Weather: Current + 8 Presets
Animated Environment: On / Off
Jin Emotion: Current + 14 Presets
Helmet / Mask: Show / Hide
Cinemas Bars: On / Off
Stamp: On / Off
Music: None + 9 Presets
Game Menu Settings
Kurosawa Mode: On / Off
Contrast: Normal / Dramatic