Rise of the Ronin Review

April 2, 2024


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It’s the mid-19th century and the final years of the Edo period. The influence of the Shogunate is waning. Western influence is creeping into Japanese life. National unrest and fear of the unknown give rise to factions determined to alter the status quo and shape Japan in their image. Rise of the Ronin places you in the centre of this historical hotbed, juggling changing politics, relationships, and the impact of a developing world. Team Ninja’s largest project to date, Rise of the Ronin matches the vastness and complexity of its setting with correspondingly extensive gameplay and intricate systems. Frankly, it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed by it all.

I was deep into the game’s initial chapter — the first of three — before I truly started to understand Rise of the Ronin. A third-person, open world, action RPG, Rise of the Ronin builds a lot into its overall package. As such, it has a lot to explain early on and it often struggles to do that in a way that feels concise or at all polished. The game’s opening few hours are poorly paced with a heavy focus on exposition dumps and tutorials: new characters, relationships, locations, weaponry, controls, and a menu full of lists and checkboxes are introduced almost all at once. It can be a mind-boggling amount of information to understand, and is likely to turn many off before they even get going.

The story is as melodramatic as it can be cinematic. The elements of political intrigue and real world history are often handled well, although the tone can quickly shift on a dime. Such fluctuations were difficult to get my head around, as one minute I’d be fighting a drunken samurai and the next I was asked to concentrate on a nuanced, serious cutscene. I grew to love the humour and brotherhood that became intertwined with the heavy historical elements, but they were jarring to begin with. Despite being a work of fiction, the game also utilises a number of real world historical figures often as over-the-top caricatures where more subtlety may be required. These tonal shifts do even out eventually as the game progresses and you learn more about the characters. If anything the so-called side characters take centre stage, their stories developing significantly throughout both the core story and, notably, the abundant side quests. This often leaves our playable hero feeling like a passenger for much of the game’s runtime. There is a throughline plot that carries our, mostly silent, protagonist along. Unfortunately, it’s the least interesting aspect of the game’s storytelling.

“The game of chess is like a sword fight. You must think first, before you move.”

As a member of the Veiled Edge clan your character is twinned with another warrior. A split occurs in the early game — I won’t spoil it here — and you’ll select one of the pair to continue on with. Over the course of the game’s forty-plus hours, you’ll cross paths with your “blade twin” at various points. It’s an unusual enough MacGuffin to drive the character’s core decision making, and has the bonus of giving the player no stated allegiances and thus the freedom to choose between supporting the Shogunate or the rebellious opposition. Throughout the story, the player is asked to make various decisions that vary in importance but will affect the overall timeline. Having initially struggled to follow the plot, I approached such decisions with a devil-may-care attitude. However, hours later, when things did begin to click into place I did find myself obsessing over which path to choose a lot more. Rather neatly, the game does incorporate a feature to replay missions — shown in a handy timeline to track key events — and see how the paths would branch if another decision had been made. 

Anyway, back to the main timeline of this review. After creating my character, in what is a fairly extensive customisation system, I began my ronin’s journey. However, I couldn’t shake the feeling that, whilst I’d been given all of the tools, I was still woefully underprepared. Thankfully, Rise of the Ronin isn’t too punishing and I learned by doing: interacting with the world, taking on missions, and facing off against small groups of enemies just to get the hang of the combat system.

Sword fights are where Rise of the Ronin shines and clashing blades with the enemy takes skill and patience. At their best, fights with the enemy manage to be fun and rewarding without a constant fear of impending death that looms over its Souls-inspired peers. Progressing through the game grants a variety of weapons and combat techniques, the latter of which will need to be switched on the fly depending on the skillsets of your foes. Unfortunately, this results in a lot of awkward button combinations to remember. Switching styles, incorporating items, and nailing combos never manages to feel quite as smooth as it needs to be and the required muscle memory could never quite take hold. Using your Martial skills, special attacks dealing higher damage, or items (especially if you had multiple pages) felt nigh on impossible in the middle of a frantic fight.

Similarly, I could never quite get comfortable with the game’s parrying system. A well-timed parry (alongside the standard block) is one of the most important tools in Rise of the Ronin. Mapped to triangle in the default control scheme, parrying (referred to as Counterspark — we’ll get to the overuse of proper nouns later) is in itself an attack as opposed to a defensive move. This means even a poorly timed button press can still result in the enemy taking damage, but it also opens you up to danger. As such, combat takes on a sort of rhythmic, dance-like, balance with the game pushing you to keep on the offensive even when you’re terrified of taking a hit.

*insert sound of clashing swords*

Strikes, parries, blocks, and the special Martial attacks, all drain your Ki meter and actually winning a fight, especially later in the game, means that this needs to be managed. Effective parrying (and Ki management) is vital to defeating some of Rise of the Ronin’s hardest enemies, and I’d say I had about a 50% hit rate when it came to deflecting an enemy’s attack before launching my own. Done correctly, a well-timed chain of parries can feel glorious and result in a satisfying execution. More often than not though, I’d nail one or two before inevitably missing the timing and letting the enemy in for a devastating attack. 

Fights against bosses in the late game could quickly become wars of attrition, with many of them taking multiple attempts. I’m not ashamed to say that I did drop the difficulty on more than a few occasions. However, I quickly discovered that, outside of these clashes, the ‘Dawn’ (easy) difficulty lacked the required challenge to keep me engaged in the core gameplay loop. Even on the standard difficulty the enemy AI isn’t very smart, and the lower difficulty level made a mockery of that even further. Taking the stealthy approach, whilst satisfying, is often immersion breaking when I can assassinate an enemy within eyesight of another only for my transgression to be ignored and the would-be witness to meet the same fate shortly after.

Outside of the main missions, exploring Rise of the Ronin’s open world offers plenty of room for experimentation. Like everything from Team Ninja, the game boasts an impressive armoury of weapons from standard katanas through to huge greatswords and unique weapons like the oxtail blade. The influx of Western influence that is key to the game’s story also introduces firearms into the equation too; a further opportunity for Rise of the Ronin to separate itself from other, similar, games. Whether using a revolver as a devastating final blow, or a rifle to pick off enemies from afar, it’s certainly a unique addition. Still, I couldn’t help but feel that the guns were an afterthought. Largely unintegrated into core combat, it feels like they had just been tacked on to what is otherwise an intricate and complex combat system.

Perhaps this is my own cynicism showing through, but there are lots of elements of Rise of the Ronin that feel like they’ve been done ‘just because’. Whilst not an afterthought by any means, even the open world itself feels driven by a need to have it rather than it appropriately serving the game and its story. There is plenty to achieve outside of the core missions and side quests are in abundance, but there are also enemy outposts to wipe-out, shrines to find, cats to pet, and plenty more activities that litter Rise of the Ronin’s open world. I say litter because, after the first few, none of them seem to matter. It’s open world, box-checking, busy work. The early introduction of a glider does make for an excellent way to traverse the world, and there’s something hugely satisfying about seamlessly transferring out of the sky onto your horse with the push of a button. I just wish there were more interesting things to actually do. Especially when not having fast-travel points unlocked can feel like a punishment for not properly exploring. The variety of content should probably be considered a net positive, of course. It will be music to the ears of some, I know. I just couldn’t help but feel fatigued at addictively ticking another thing off the map; a feeling that’s exacerbated when you begin repeating activities in the same areas later in the game.

"Hey, I can see my house from here!"

Despite my criticisms, I can’t deny that I got caught in the vast web of content even if all I wanted to really do was progress the story. The reward for doing all of this is an increasing number of skill points, of which there are two kinds, to pump into various skill trees. Outside of introducing new mechanics, the effects of these skill trees rarely felt too impactful. Loot is also distributed, both through completing missions and in the open world, at a ridiculous rate. At the end of the game, I can count on one hand the times I purchased items from a vendor. My best gear was given to me and, in the early game especially, improved at a rate that I couldn’t keep up with.

I said I’d talk about Rise of the Ronin’s abundance of proper nouns earlier and here we are: Everything from items, to weapons, to consumables and, even the game’s systems have a name attached that just makes everything harder to comprehend. The ‘Bond’ system, for example, is a reputation system tied to each character and faction. Simple, right? However, there’s something about the way Rise of the Ronin introduced and subsequently smashed me over the head with so many of these terms that I found everything that bit harder to parse, especially in the early going. Of course, there’s the huge cast of characters to remember as well. Much like other aspects of the game, I eventually became accustomed to them and was able to better understand what the game and its systems were trying to achieve. However, by throwing all these at the player at a ridiculous rate it overshadows the more interesting and nuanced aspects of the story and world, and unfortunately stopped me caring about what was actually going on for large chunks of the playtime.

Had Rise of the Ronin respected my time and not felt the need to burden me with so much of what seemed like useless information, I may have appreciated its more unique qualities earlier. Main missions, whilst they do become repetitive, present some fantastic combat scenarios and, of course, drive the narrative forward. And whilst you’ll face the open world alone, up to two companions that you’ve met throughout the game — each with their own specific skills — can join you on main missions. Whilst slashing or stealthing through swathes of regular enemies with these allies is all well and good, your AI partners really come into their own when facing off with each level’s boss. Not only can you gang up on these trickier enemies to take them down, but they can also serve as a distraction whilst you collect yourself and plan your next attack. You can also take control of them directly to attack enemies and provide aid when required too, something that can stop even the hardest battles from becoming too frustrating.

“Do you feel lucky, punk?”

Undoubtedly the best part of Rise of the Ronin are the ‘Bond’ missions, which see you working to help them and build your relationships with these AI companions. Completing these missions alongside the other samurai in the world naturally helps when it comes to other aspects of the game. Regardless of that, these smaller missions are worth experiencing for their narrative hooks. Each of these characters and plot points helped to form my own decisions within the game and build into Rise of the Ronin’s overall narrative. It’s just unfortunate that this aspect isn’t telegraphed that little bit more as without these supporting stories, Rise of the Ronin’s story could feel a touch thin. Still interesting, but without the depth and nuance to meet its attempt at cinematic storytelling. 

I say “attempt” — and it is a solid one — because, whilst some of the presentation is stellar it’s proportionately lacking in other areas. The English voice acting fluctuates between great and abysmal, adding an air of unpredictability to just how key story beats will land. Thankfully, it hits more than it misses especially in the more profound moments. Equally, the game’s visuals often feel dated, especially when exploring the open world. Larger open areas often pop colour from flowers and trees, but villages and cities struggle to impress. Going from a pre-rendered cutscene into gameplay was occasionally quite jarring. Playing in performance mode, I also encountered issues with texture-pop in, which I’d find hard to forgive if the game was graphically taxing, never mind when something can often look a generation behind. Graphics, of course, aren’t everything. And whilst a comparison to Ghost of Tsushima may be unfair, it’s one that I can’t help given the two games’ settings and that they’re both PlayStation exclusives.

Rise of the Ronin is going to be a truly divisive game: a cult classic almost in opposition to PlayStation Studios’ more bonafide critical and commercial hits. Those who love it will dive deep into its systems and its world, experiencing all that the game has to offer and waxing lyrical about how the rest of us don’t get it. However the majority, and I include myself in this segment, won’t ever be able to get over the game’s more frustrating aspects. Its finicky control scheme, its often onerous approach to world building and storytelling, and its overwhelming amount of content. 

Much like the story of the Twin Blades, Rise of the Ronin is a game built on duality. At its best it’s an intricate, fulfilling, and often ridiculous video game. Unfortunately it also asks too much of the player and doesn’t always live up to its side of the bargain. The combat is fun, but the missions repeat themselves far too often. The open world is vast, but there’s very little of interest in it. Its story can be interesting, but only if you do the legwork.  There’s no doubt that its qualities do balance out its deficiencies and I am about going back in to play more, Maybe one day I will. However, for now, I’ll leave the fate of Japan to others.

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If you have the time and the inclination Rise of the Ronin is a deep game with a rich, character-driven, story. However, you’ll have to do battle with the controls, the multitude of systems, and endless reserves of useless loot, as well as your enemies, to get there.‍