I loved Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. It’s a brutally difficult yet masterfully crafted samurai game from the team that created my favorite game ever — . I was prepared to dislike Ghost of Tsushima out of spite because I thought it would be a dumbed down version of Sekiro meant to please those less willing to endure the torture of near-impossible boss fights.
Now that I’ve sunk 30 to 40 hours into, I’m prepared to say I love this game too. It’s wonderful in its own way and not the Sekiro clone I was expecting. Yes, both feature fast-paced sword fights, but Ghost is an open world adventure where tense moments of combat are balanced by serene meadows and optional activities like collecting flowers and composing haiku. Sekiro, on the other hand, is a tightly designed linear experience where the focus is almost always on making it from point A to B in one piece.
Nevertheless, both draw heavy inspiration from classic samurai films, both have heart pounding one-on-one duels and epic swordplay, and both are set in reimagined regions of historical Japan. I also have similar feelings of triumph when I win a tough fight in both games. So despite their differences, I’m pitting them head to head.
When Sekiro came out last year, it featured the best melee combat system of any game I’ve ever played. It’s fast and brutal. Usually in games with swords, you chip away at the health bar of any enemy bit by bit. This is an accepted video game convention, but it doesn’t have the same urgency of classic samurai films where a single strike could pierce an opponent through the heart.
Sekiro offered sword fights that made you feel like you were fighting with a dangerous weapon. You’re not chipping away at a health bar, you’re wearing down your opponents or maneuvering to break through their defense. When you do, you can strike them dead in a single killing blow. You can even beat bosses quickly once you learn how to break their defense, but the challenge comes from their ability to do the same to you.
Ghost of Tsushima returns to a traditional health bar approach. You can break an opponent’s defense, but that simply opens them up to a few strikes that whittle down their health. And you don’t have a defensive meter yourself, so they can’t turn the tables in the same way. Fortunately, the combat is still innovative in its own way.
On harder difficulties, opponents attack relentlessly and mix and match their approach with feints and unblockable attacks. You can parry and counter many of these attacks, but you also need to dodge and make use of the Ghost’s many extra tools, like using smoke bombs to keep control of the crowd. The mix of attacks keeps you on edge, and the most unique twist of the system comes in the form of stances.
Other games, such as Nioh, have used combat stances to allow you to change up your attack pattern to fit the situation. Ghost’s system is simpler and works beautifully as a result. Each of your four stances is tailored to one of four enemy types. All of your attacks are much more effective against a certain enemy if you’re in the proper stance.
I actually prefer Ghost of Tsushima’s combat to Sekiro’s when it comes to dealing with crowds. You need to mix strategy and honed reflexes to stay ahead, and it’s a wonderful feeling to dodge a shield swipe, stab the bearer to death, switch stances and counter the incoming spear thrust, then finish by bringing your blade down to slice off the attacker’s arm. It’s exhilarating and takes practice to get right, then feels rewarding when you do master it and can successfully defeat large crowds without being touched.
Sekiro is a little clunkier when dealing with crowds, but is still fine. You can lock onto one enemy to center your focus, but switching the lock to multiple opponents doesn’t feel graceful. In general, with Sekiro I tried to control crowds so I was only facing one attacker at a time.
When you go one-on-one with an opponent, Sekiro’s combat is better, and that’s why the boss fights shine. Each one is a puzzle where you need to figure out the right mix of aggression and defense that will effectively break your opponent’s defenses before they take down yours. Opponents have particularly powerful moves that can do devastating damage, but each has a specific counter option so you can turn the tide in your own favor if you read the attack correctly.
You have extra tools in Sekiro as well, but they’re more of a supplement to a strategy than a means of turning the tide like in Ghost. Ghost, then, is more flexible with combat, but Sekiro finds a lot of tactical wiggle room in a simple system, and bosses constantly keep you guessing until you solve the puzzle and can counter everything they throw at you.
Ghost of Tsushima’s combat evolves with new moves and tools as you progress, but the bad guys don’t change that much. The one-on-one fights are also great and suspenseful, but they similarly start to blend together as the game progresses. Because Sekiro focuses on those one-on-one duels, each boss encounter is strikingly different from the last and defeating a tough opponent after multitudes of attempts grants a huge feeling of exhilaration that Ghost can’t match.
As a whole, I still prefer Sekiro’s combat, but Ghost of Tsushima comes closer than I thought it might.
Stealth and exploration
Outside of combat, the games differ in style, tone and even gameplay. Do you want to ride a horse through sun-swept fields, battle enemy encampments, and learn about a small group of misfit friends over the course of several side missions? Go with Ghost of Tsushima. Do you want to navigate tightly designed levels filled with hidden shortcuts while looking for secrets, searching for the way through and doing everything you can to stay alive? That’s Sekiro.
Both have simple stealth systems so you can get the drop on enemies — sometimes literally. You can climb in both games and assassinate your opponents from above. The open world of Ghost of Tsushima lends itself to more flexibility, but the levels of Sekiro are crafted well enough to allow for plenty of avenues of approach. Both transition well from stealth to open combat if and when you get spotted. Neither stealth system is as robust as what you’d get in a stealth-focused title such as Metal Gear Solid 5, but both are functional and fun.
I’ll call this category a tie. Ghost of Tsushima has more flexibility most of the time but also missions with forced stealth that annoyed me. Structurally, it offers the freedom of an open world, but has more bloat in terms of time filling side quests compared to the tight structure of Sekiro. Both are good examples of two different video game genres.
Accessibility and storytelling
Ghost of Tsushima gets extra points for accessibility. After a recent update, it has options that include making subtitles easier to see, helping with aiming projectiles and reducing the speed of enemy attacks. It also has four difficulty settings, and I like the way it ramps up the challenge with each.
Most games turn enemies into damage sponges on higher settings, so it takes forever to kill them as they absorb blow after blow. Ghost of Tsushima doesn’t change health. You’re just as deadly at higher difficulties, but the enemies are more aggressive, they hit harder and the timing needed to counter enemy moves is stricter.
Sekiro, infamously, doesn’t have explicit difficulty options. You can find a few hidden items in the game to make combat more challenging, but you can’t make it less punishing. I appreciate this, as and part of the experience is patiently learning what the game is trying to teach you. You don’t have to be a great gamer to beat Sekiro, you just need to be willing to learn. That said, accessibility options would have been a nice extra touch.
As for the story, I liked the narrative in Sekiro. Other games by publisher From Software have left most storytelling to background lore, but Sekiro has explicit beats and interesting characters. It veers into some strange territory and still takes some detective work to figure out all of the nuance, but I was generally invested in the fates of the main cast.
The story in Ghost of Tsushima is one of the highlights. It has a compelling villain and interesting, flawed main characters with engrossing story arcs. The story in Sekiro was competent enough to keep me involved. The story in Ghost of Tsushima was potent enough to make me genuinely emotional.
Declaring a winner
I wasn’t expecting this to be a close fight, but I truly think both games are great. Sekiro has better combat, but Ghost of Tsushima comes close, has a better story and is more accessible. And yet Sekiro is more unique. Ghost of Tsushima mixes ideas from other series like Red Dead Redemption and Assassin’s Creed, but the combat stands on its own.
Neither game is perfect. I mentioned Ghost of Tsushima’s bloated side missions, plus the pacing suffers a little in the middle of the game. Sekiro makes you face tedious mini-bosses during the first couple of hours, which isn’t great. Carefully picking off the minions surrounding the boss so you can have a head-to-head faceoff is exciting once, but a giant pain when the mini boss takes several attempts to beat.
Ghost of Tsushima is the better fit for most people looking for a fun samurai game and a way to relax after work. It’s not wholly original, but it’s polished and fun. I still prefer Sekiro for its thrill and unique design. If you want a challenging game that pushes sword fighting to the extreme, Sekiro is better. I also believe that years from now, because of its originality, Sekiro will stick out more in my memory.
To an extent, Ghost of Tsushima is what I feared it would be — a samurai game for the masses that will likely sell better than Sekiro. Surprisingly, I’m OK with it. It’s a good game in its own right and I’m glad I got to play both. I’m still going to call Sekiro the winner, but the Ghost would make for an amazing boss fight.
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