Just How Lethal Is Ghost Of Tsushima’s ‘Lethal’ Difficulty?

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Screenshot: Sucker Punch / Kotaku
Screenshot: Sucker Punch / Kotaku

Sucker Punch recently added a new difficulty level to Ghost of Tsushima. In addition to Easy, Normal, and Hard, you can now take on the Mongol armies in a “Lethal” difficulty level. The devs bill it as more difficult than Hard, but in practice it’s more a gameplay tweak. Yes, enemies are stronger — but you are, too.

This new difficulty setting sparked some discussion among Kotaku’s staff. Does Lethal mode fundamentally change the game? Is it just another barely noticeable difficulty hike? Is Ghost of Tsushima even all that tough in the first place? Below, staff editor Alexandra Hall and staff writer Ari Notis discuss.

Alexandra: Ari, you and I had somewhat different experiences, I think. My understanding is you played through Ghost of Tsushima on Normal difficulty, found that plenty challenging, and 100 per cented everything left after finishing the story. Meanwhile, I started on Hard, found it overly easy, and tried to methodically conquer each map before proceeding. I’ve played fewer hours so am only a third into Toyotama, the second of three zones. That all sound accurate?

Ari: Close! Yes, I played through the game, start to finish, on Normal. But I 100 per cented — ok, fine, more like 95 per cented — each area before moving on to the next. And I made sure to check off absolutely every question mark before finishing the very last mission, because you never know with these games. Will they drop you back into the world? Or gate you off, leaving you with the irritating knowledge — and unscratchable itch — of knowing there was so much more stuff to do? Not worth the risk, y’know?

Alexandra: Yeah, great point. I’m the sort that hates missing out on content, which is one reason I scour each area like a maniac. But yeah, I played Hard and had no issue beyond feeling a little weak for the first few hours, before powering up. How was your experience on Normal?

Ari: More or less the same — well, to a point. I don’t know if you also feel this way, now that you’ve seen some of what Toyotama has to offer, but I found that every area started out as a freakin’ gauntlet, and then slowly became more manageable. So I finished Izuhara feeling like John Wick, then started Toyotama feeling like anyone in John Wick who isn’t John Wick. Then I finished Toyotama feeling, again, like… OK, you get the point. Have you also experienced a similar difficulty whiplash?

Alexandra: I did notice a slight uptick in enemy difficulty upon starting Toyatama — there are new “ronin”-looking swordsmen, and cannon-toting big dudes — but after a few fights I caught on and it’s been easy since. I also heard the standoffs get harder to win, and again, I can tell the timing’s a bit harder, but… I still usually strike first. I have to be honest, my attention flagged halfway through scouring the first region, in part because the game became easy to the point that tactics barely mattered. That’s why I was hyped to hear about the addition of Lethal difficulty.

Ari: Winning fights no problem? Pumped about Lethal difficulty? Alexandra, have you considered that you’re just… maybe really extremely good at this game?

Alexandra: Ha. I’m nothing special; the game is just balanced easy. Jin becomes extremely powerful and the enemy AI remains basic and forgiving. From the outset I noticed enemies wouldn’t attack if I started comboing their pal during the right “window,” how archers would politely fire over my head when they should’ve had me dead to rights. And this was on Hard mode, so I can’t imagine Normal.

Lethal is cool because while Jin is still OP and his enemies dumb, they are more aggressive, letting up on you less often, and increased damage means less margin of error. About 2, 2.5 hits — that is, a combo — and I’m dead. I have to strategize and pay attention again, which is fun. Gets the virtual blood flowin’.

On Lethal, one errant stab can end you. (Screenshot: Sucker Punch / Kotaku)

Ari: That’s fascinating to hear, because even on Normal, I had a totally opposite experience. Brutes would always do that annoying spinny move — where they wind up and spin like a top — and hit me mid-combo. And the amount of times archers would interrupt my plans with that stupid three-arrow rapid-fire hit…

Honestly, my only saving grace was the Charm of Amaterasu, which heals you every time you kill someone. So I’d just spam the Heavenly Strike or the Dance of Wrath to take out enemies and get a health boost at the same time. Two birds. One very, very sharp sword. In the same way you can’t imagine how much of a cakewalk Normal is, I can’t imagine how much of a gauntlet Hard is.

Lethal, on the other hand — and kind of counter-intuitively — seems to be a middle ground. See, even you actually die on it!

Alexandra: Oh trust me, I main Charm of Amaterasu too… that’s one reason I can play as sloppy as I do and still be fine.

But you’re right, Lethal is, counterintuitively, a little easier in some ways. Do I die more? Yes, thanks to sudden burst damage. And camera/geometry snags now prove extra deadly. But the silver lining is enemies go down fast. One or two strikes kill most normal-sized foes, whereas on Hard they last longer, so crowds can mob you. Play things right in Lethal and you can often kill rushing hordes as quickly as they reach you. It’s very satisfying. One way or the other, even duels finish pretty quickly.

Ari: OK, I’m gonna square with you. You assigned me the homework of thoroughly testing out Lethal mode, and I think I played enough to reasonably bullshit my way to an A-minus (or, ok, a B-plus). But I didn’t try any duels. What are they like on Lethal? Easier? Harder? The same? Can I still have an A-minus?

Alexandra: Same as the regular enemies: less room for error, but you don’t need to last as long if you can get good hits in. To me that’s easier, as I don’t have to successfully time as many parries or notice and evade as many incoming unblockables. Here’s a vid of two duels on Lethal; in the first you can see I fooled around with jump-kicks but still finished it nice and quickly. Also notice how abruptly I went down on the first two attempts.

Ari: See? I called it: “Really extremely good at this game,” indeed. Validation!

Alexandra: Honestly, I just coast by on upgraded Jin’s overwhelming power. A Redditor might’ve figured out the game’s “true” hard mode: Lethal difficulty with few or no upgrades. They posted a duel video in which they had to slash their opponent a couple dozen times — having never upgraded their katana — while their foe could’ve ended them with just one hit. Maybe that’s the “True Dark Souls” of Ghost of Tsushima. I’m a little curious, though I don’t expect it’d go so well given how often I eat random hits…

Ari: Well, to me, that doesn’t sound so much like a hard mode as it does a bullet-sponge (katana-sponge?) mode. The joy of kicking things up to Lethal — the entire appeal of it, really — is that it turns Ghost of Tsushima into a game of mutually assured destruction, where these in-game weapons feel really, truly deadly. I suppose kneecapping yourself would technically make things more difficult, but it seems to be difficulty through attrition, rather than skill. Who has the patience?

Alexandra: That person does! And it does take skill to execute at length without errors. But yeah, not ideal. Still, when a game isn’t balanced to be particularly challenging, and Tsushima isn’t, players sometimes need to improvise to find their fun. That said! Totally agree that Lethal mode’s deadlier weapons are fun, even if it’s still hard to call the game “difficult.” I feel super-cool dispatching foe after foe in seconds, a feeling enhanced by Jin’s super-dramatic attack animations. This game is like a generator for badass fight footage.

Ari: I still disagree with you about the game’s difficulty (it’s a hard game!), but I digress… That’s a conversation for another day. Probably a post-covid one, where we can shuffle into a dive near Kotaku Tower and hash things out over $US6 ($8) margs.

Alexandra: OK, but if I ever get to visit y’all my six bucks are definitely goin’ toward six of those famous NYC dollar slices. Never stop min-maxing, especially when it comes to carbs.

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