Review: Rise of the Ronin

Posted on March 28, 2024 by Henry

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If you’re looking for a genre-defining samurai game, you won’t find it here with Rise of the Ronin. Despite its run of the mill open world formula and last generation graphics, Rise of the Ronin’s commendable accessibility options, fascinating historical backdrop, and addictively refined combat allow it to reach an audience far more than Team Ninja’s titles did before, for better or for worse. 

Developer – Team Ninja

Publisher – Sony Interactive Entertainment

Platforms – PlayStation 5 (reviewed)

Review copy given by publisher

I applaud video game developers who try to break out of their usual formula and create something new. But it doesn’t always work well due to the precedent and expectations that their previous games may have set for their fans. Koei Tecmo’s Team Ninja is known for their excellent work with the Ninja Gaiden and Nioh series, both lauded for their unique gameplay mechanics. I would even go as far as to say that Nioh is the best Souls-like franchise out there. The latest project from Team Ninja is none other than their PlayStation 5-exclusive Rise of the Ronin, their first take on an open world action RPG set in the mid 1800s during the Bakumatsu period of Japan. 

What sucks about an open world action heavy role playing game set in feudal Japan is the unavoidable comparison to other big name titles. Yup, I’m referring to Sucker Punch’s Ghost of Tsushima, which came out almost half a decade ago, and FromSoftware’s Sekiro, which was released exactly five years ago. When compared directly to each of these titles, Rise of the Ronin is easily overshadowed: Ghost of Tsushima looks light years better and Sekiro’s combat is way more refined and polished. And when you compare this game to Team Ninja’s Nioh or Wo Long titles, it’s just a watered down, more accessible version. But this isn’t to say Rise of the Ronin is bad, because it’s actually quite an exceptional game, if you look at it from the right mindset.

Rise of the Ronin is set in the backdrop of the later years of Japan’s Edo period, where increased political turmoil and upheaval plague the lands. You explore themes of conflict, power, and betrayal as the country hesitantly opens itself to international and foreign trade following centuries of isolation. You follow the story of the Blade Twins, whose genders and looks are fully customizable, and their involvement in the Veiled Edge resistance group after their family was murdered by ninjas working for the Shogunate. Don’t expect any mystical yokai or creatures here, as the world here is very grounded in real life history.

If you played Wo Long or Nioh before, then you’ll likely become immediately familiar with the combat in Rise of the Ronin. You can equip up to two main weapons – saber, dual blades, spear, you name it – along with two subweapons such as a rifle and shuriken. Each weapon also garners different stances you can equip and master, and thus begins your experimentation to find a stance and weapon style that suits you best. There is still a stamina system in place here, known as Ki (same as Nioh), and the Ki pulse makes a welcome return too, which allows you to replenish it faster with a correctly timed button press. You’ve got weapon arts/martial arts too, but the most important mechanic is probably counter spark, or the parry mechanic of this game. Pressing Triangle at the right time will cause your enemy to panic, allowing you to get a few hits in. Your goal is to deplete the enemy’s Ki so you can land a critical killing blow in. Though you have a dodge and block, the game encourages you to parry, so better start practicing.

You’re not alone on your adventure, as you encounter individuals along the way whom you can form bonds with and recruit as an ally. While in combat, you can actually switch on the fly between both party members, allowing for a different approach when things get hectic. The game also provides you with the semi-illusion of choice as frequent dialogue options often affect how events turn out. There’s also a multiplayer online co-op for this game, although only in specific missions and not in the open world as a whole, which is a huge missed opportunity.

For a lack of a better word, the open-world in Rise of the Ronin is… generic. You have your entire map cluttered with checkpoints and icons that remind you of an Ubisoft title. You’ll ride your horse to get places faster, deploy your glider to fly to locations, and use your grapple hook to get to a higher ground. Take on optional side quests to get better upgrade materials or to further your bonds. Rest at checkpoints and visit shops. Oh, you can pet cats too. Cute I guess. It’s not that any of this is bad, it’s just been done countless times before and given that this is a Sony PS5 exclusive, the expectations were a bit higher. Beating the campaign takes around 20 hours, depending on your skill level, and a pseudo New Game Plus Mode unlocks after, where a more punishing difficulty mode is offered for you to try.

The game builds upon Team Ninja’s in-house engine, previously seen in titles like Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty and Stranger of Paradise. To be honest, I’m not sure why this was marketed as a PS5-exclusive title, as I can see this running on the PS4 as well. Load times can be quite lengthy, taking 10-11 seconds to load in from the main menu. Thankfully there is DualSense rumble support baked into the game, with adaptive triggers and haptic feedback when firing guns and rifles. Special effects, such as snow physics and volumetric smoke, add depth to the game’s environments, enhancing the player’s immersion in mid-19th century Japan. Don’t forget to take pictures using the in-game photo mode too!

It’s an absolute treat to explore various landscapes of Japan, from bustling towns to serene countryside, each brimming with life and detail. That being said, Team Ninja’s games are not known to have exceptional graphical fidelity, and Rise of the Ronin can’t compare to the likes of Horizon Forbidden West. The overall visuals, unfortunately, are not up to par being a next-gen exclusive title, when previous generation titles like Ghost of Tsushima looked way better. Despite the color palette feeling muted and one dimensional, the art direction deserves praise, as the use of lighting and shadows creates a mood that fits the dramatic nature of the narrative.

There are three technical modes offered: graphics, performance, and ray tracing. The performance mode, targeting 60 frames per second, is the no brainer optimal choice for those seeking fluid gameplay. However, it’s worth noting that this mode does not consistently maintain a locked 60 frames per second. Frame rates tend to drop into the 50s, and in more populated areas, they can dip to the low 40s. The quality mode slightly improves visual fidelity but runs at 30 frames per second. Given the game’s fast-paced combat, this mode can make the action feel less responsive and blurrier. Lastly, the ray tracing mode, while visually impressive, also suffers from performance dips, which can detract from the overall experience.

In terms of accessibility, this game has an exceptional suite of options. For starters, you have the ability to pause the game, which is a notorious feature known to be missing from Souls-like games. Unlike Team Ninja’s previous games with one set difficulty level, which aligns with the Souls-like genre, Rise of the Ronin comes with three, Dawn, Dusk, and Twilight, that you can change in the settings menu at any time. For those who want a less stressful time, you can even increase health recovery from medicine and reduce stamina loss from attacks. There’s also an entire User Accessibility tab in the menu that offers control assist such as auto-collect items and auto-crouch and holding to sprint in addition to the basics such as subtitle sizes and remapping controls.

If you’re looking for a genre-defining samurai game, you won’t find it here with Rise of the Ronin. Despite its run of the mill open world formula and last generation graphics, Rise of the Ronin’s commendable accessibility options, fascinating historical backdrop, and addictively refined combat allow it to reach an audience far more than Team Ninja’s titles did before, for better or for worse. 

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