Ghost Of Tsushima: When Assassin’s Creed Takes A Backseat

A samurai approaches his enemy in Ghost of Tsushima
©Sucker Punch Productions

The birth of Assassin’s Creed  was conceived as a singular spin-off of another Ubisoft giant Prince of Persia, a game franchise that had begun to gradually lose steam. The original IP was hailed by many as being a unique fusion of stealth and history, which paved the way to define the identity of later titles. With the term ‘potential’ being tossed around for the future of the Assassin franchise, it was unsurprising when Ubisoft went on to generate an approximate lifetime sale of $200 million from games, comics, and tie-in content. Gamers across the globe resonated with the thrill of leaping between rooftops, wielding the iconic Assassin hidden blade, and experiencing a narrative blending real history with compelling Assassin lore. It wasn’t until 2017, with the release of Assassin’s Creed Origins, that the franchise began to veer towards the more lucrative side of gaming, into a genre that has evolved into an umbrella term: the open world RPG.

As someone who began their gaming journey with Assassin’s Creed: The Ezio Trilogy, arguably the best in the franchise, it has been painful to witness over time, the death-knell for what once made these games a unique experience. The stealth-action focused game mechanics were replaced in favour of hack and slash combat, fatigued dialogue options, running simulators, and damage-sponge mythical enemies. While this might not have been Ubisoft’s intended creative direction from the start, it is no secret that interest in Assassin’s Creed began to wane after the weak launch of 2015’s Syndicate, pushing Ubisoft to revaluate their target market. In the way that Hitman’s slow, methodical grade-based gameplay did not appeal to me, despite being a stealth-focused game, the core Assassin mechanics were never going to be every gamer’s cup of tea, with slow tailing missions, sneaky assassinations, and self-contained maps. Ubisoft did what anyone in their position would do – left behind vestiges of the franchise’s old self and adapted to popular trends, with a new game engine in the form of Ubisoft Anvil.

Open-world Appeal

So, what makes the open-world RPG so appealing to gamers? Sinking around 100 hours into scampering around an open-world game may not be the highlight of my gaming experience, but it could provide a sense of never-ending escapism that online multiplayer RPGs emulate. The ability to provide a player with autonomy, dialogue options, transmog features, a traversable environment, and a chance to approach a mission in any manner that they choose, appeals universally, even to someone entering a franchise for the first time. And it paid off – Assassin’s Creed Odyssey had a 90% increased player engagement rate, especially from those dipping their toe into the disappearing series with hope that it would entail something familiar. The glittering, sun-drenched islands of Peloponnesian Greece were the perfectly tailored RPG setting, with minimal large cities to traverse, and more blank, rolling hills to ride a horse across. It was crushing to play, as I booted up Odyssey for the first time, and found myself fatigued from racing Kassandra across her home island, nothing more than small stone houses, with a sore lack of NPCs. It made me yearn for the bustling city of Constantinople in Revelations, where a comedic moment could come from simply pickpocketing roving crowds of locals in narrow alleyways, and watch them follow Ezio around, exacting revenge. Odyssey had no correlation to the original Assassin identity, another crucial example of the franchise distancing itself from the niche IP. These qualms about Assassin’s Creed may have been temporarily put to rest following the excellent Mirage in 2023, which was rated a solid four stars by The Guardian, but plans for RPG fuelled future instalments, do cause some worry.

An assassin overlooking Ancient Greece in Assassin's Creed Odyssey
©Ubisoft – “Odyssey had no correlation to the original Assassin identity, another crucial example of the franchise distancing itself from the niche IP”

After encountering disappointing copy-paste open world games such as Days Gone, and the poorly received Far Cry 6 (another Ubisoft behemoth), I set my sights on the exceptionally praised Ghost of Tsushima. As someone who considers Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice to be the greatest game ever made, I made the mistake of approaching Ghost with a similar expectation, where I was not afraid of the ‘git gud’ attitude. I thoroughly enjoyed the first five hours of Ghost, losing myself in the expertly crafted opening cutscenes which immediately introduced Khotun Khan and his Mongols as a force to reckon with. However, this was only after the veneer of the visually stunning landscapes of Tsushima faded away, and the various branches of plotlines lost me in ludo-narrative dissonance: a side effect of roaming open world RPGs. It was becoming increasingly easy to spot nuanced similarities to the new avatar of Assassin’s Creed. These included empty, superficial segments of Tsushima Island, populated by only six repetitive open world activities, and mindless combat to drive the Mongols out. Unlike the open world in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, where the player is rewarded for exploration with unique puzzles and collectibles, Ghost became predictable, and I could not hide my disappointment when a question mark on the map revealed itself to be yet another Fox Den.

Looking to the future

Ghost of Tsushima, however only staggers when it falls back on RPG mechanics to bridge the gaps between Sucker Punch’s authentic and innovative game design. I was in awe of the Japanese values and respect for the culture infused into every strand of the gameplay and story. In true Assassin’s Creed fashion, there were even collectibles across the game, offering pearls of wisdom and insight to the true historical period, akin to the Codex of the former. The combat is extremely satisfying and allows the player to feel the deadly precision of Jin’s Sakai Katana through brutal kill animations, even offering differing playstyles via Stances, to match each enemy type. Jin’s personal growth is a journey that the player navigates closely, as he learns these combat stances by observing Mongol captains, and this slow-burn mechanic ultimately pays off when Jin assumes his mantle of the Ghost, turning into a fearsome warrior – a character arc that feels meaningfully earned. The narrative is where the game really shines, especially through the dynamic between Jin Sakai and his uncle Lord Shimura. As Jin grapples with his own Samurai identity amid the cunning actions of the Mongols, his quest to become the Ghost was the main reason that I kept playing, even past the point of open world fatigue. The final mission of the game had me bawling as it was incredibly moving, and only reminded me how linearly structured the main quest narrative is, distancing itself from an RPG trope. Ghost of Tsushima is at its strongest when it tries to reinvent the wheel with its grounded culture.

Looking to the future, the countless Ubisoft Forward events have only confirmed that the success and popularity of their RPG based Assassin’s Creed titles will take the franchise forward, with it being the game conglomerate’s most profitable series. If we are taking a step back and viewing the wider industry trends, this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, as the open world RPG has come to dominate the games market. The Horizon series is a budding example of this, innovating further towards their first VR Horizon title; Call of the Mountain, which still retains its RPG roots. Aloy might not be the most popular protagonist out there, but Horizon certainly scratches the itch of a unique open world, with familiar elements. Game studios show no signs of backing down from RPG inspired elements, and why should they? Money seems to be flowing in that direction! Even if it comes at the cost of originality (Palworld guilty).

Mirroring an old wives’ tale, Black Flag’s game director once teased in 2013, that the ending of the Assassin’s Creed franchise had already been written. As we hurtle further and further away from that singular year, even before the revolutionary gaming platform Twitch had garnered enough attention, this is seeming less likely. What the future may hold, is uncertain, if anything.

Words by Meghana Krishnamurthy

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