Rise Of The Ronin Review: Too Much, And All Of It Familiar

Rise Of The Ronin Review: Too Much, And All Of It Familiar

Rise of the Ronin is founded on the basic principle of “What if Team Ninja made an Assassin’s Creed game?” It’s a sound idea. They are, unequivocally, one of the best to ever do it; Ninja Gaiden is a foundational text in the action genre, Nioh stood toe to toe with FromSoftware’s burgeoning Souls empire and Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origins whipped way more arse than it should have. They are, if inconsistently, masters of the craft.

Rise of the Ronin, Ninja’s first true open-world title, feels like an attempt to bring that craft to as many people as possible. In chasing this more approachable version of itself, Team Ninja turns to genre staples and streamlining. This has the desired effect of producing a combat system that is more easily digested but perhaps inadvertently plants it in a world that feels a decade old in both concept and practice.

Smoke on the water

Change has come to Japan; in the twilight of the mid-19th century Edo period, American black ships have cut into its waters, invasively bringing trade and social and political upheaval. The game’s use of the Bakumatsu era is a heightened, cinematic rendition of Japan’s tumultuous pivot from Shogunate rule, making the shifting power plays and factions a core component of both its narrative and mechanics. You play as a Blade Twin, one of two fully customisable characters who are forged in the fires of an anti-Shogunate order known as the Veiled Edge. When an attempted assassination goes awry, you are separated from your twin and thrust into the first of Rise of the Ronin’s open-worlds and embroiled in a sprawling quasi-historical epic.

That Rise of the Ronin maintains tonal consistency across the proceeding 25 odd hours of the main campaign is impressive, given the chaotic breadth of characters and ideas it deploys. The Assassin’s Creed philosophy of bending fact to fit fiction is used liberally and to mixed effect; major historical figures getting Shonen introductions and mechanical arms hiding trick shots are delightfully silly, but the collision of Twin Blade lore with an overwhelming cast of real-world people and factions gets exhausting and a little flaccid in terms of plot impact. In the game’s opening hours, you’re encouraged to make choices that will impact the flow of the war and, at the time, they do result in branching quests and the like.

There’s an attempt at infusing the wider events with emotional weight but it feels like a secondary concern. Instead, Team Ninja gives most of the game’s screentime to a revolving door of bit players with competing ideological visions for Japan’s future. Which is cool and good, actually, but outside of a few notable exceptions, Rise of the Ronin almost serves better as a teaser for real history than a functional story in its own right.

But as Rise of the Ronin barrels towards its concluding hours, the melange of power struggles and betrayals feels distinctly separated from both player and character. It’s hardly a new issue given that choice-based narratives tend to bottleneck in the third act as scope considerations for the developers come home to roost, but Rise of the Ronin does little to pretend it isn’t wresting that control back from you. At times this means watching your Blade Twin make decisions that feel incongruent with the way you’ve been roleplaying them. At others, it’s having the game oscillate wildly away from its open-world structure into rigid linearity.

Old World Blues

These aren’t dealbreakers in isolation, but Rise of the Ronin is particularly bad at contextualising its shifting currents and priorities. Team Ninja’s transition from largely linear experiences into open-world sensibilities is a markedly tame one, replete with regional faction camps, repeatable activities, crafting, and collectibles. It’s all comfortably recognisable and functional, even peppering in some solid quality-of-life additions, but holistically never rises above a light simmer. You might not be unlocking towers, but the absence of checklists doesn’t negate the broader design decisions that keep Rise of the Ronin firmly in lockstep with Ubisoft’s infamous ubiquity of open-world design philosophy.

In an admirable attempt to mitigate the game’s humdrum world, Rise of the Ronin introduces a small array of traversal mechanics. Very early on, you’re given access to a glider that you can deploy at almost any height with the tap of a button. This extravagant wingsuit design feels exceptionally video-gamey in the best way possible. Likewise, you’ve got a physics-agnostic grappling hook for both combat and exploration, the world littered with pre-determined points you can whip yourself up to in an instant, giving the game an ostensible verticality. The kicker, though, is that none of this feels all that good; the glider devours stamina and lacks the kind of flow you’d expect from catching the air, and the grappling hook’s inherently limited nature collides with a jump/vaulting system that lacks any sense of consistency in what can and can’t be climbed.

It’s just all so bloody finicky. You can clearly see the vision behind these systems and in small pockets, when your character decides they can reach a short ledge and your glider only needs to cover a specific distance, there are bursts of fun to be had. But over the course of the dozens of hours you’ll be in this world, its means of interaction grate almost constantly. Which in some cases would leave you with the charm of the land itself to carry the experience but Rise of the Ronin’s open-worlds (there are a couple of maps) are about as functional as the tasks it fills them with.

Much has been made about its graphical fidelity, and while there’s a distinct PS4-ness to it, the art direction’s lack of vibrancy is what ultimately leaves the game with little visual identity. The raw building blocks of a compelling world are present at least; environmental diversity is impressive, with densely populated cities and cavernous valleys all waiting to be plundered for hidden loot. Truthfully, there are flashes of colour and life that elevate the experience, some especially nice work done with atmospheric lighting, urban hideaways, and a select few character designs (including your own, which can be tweaked nicely). But it doesn’t really sing, just another series of ideas and implementations that make Rise of the Ronin a serviceable open-world game and little more.

We are the spark that’ll light the fire that’ll burn the Shogunate down

All of which is a tremendous shame because at the heart of Rise of the Ronin is its most interesting effort— a fully approachable adaptation of Team Ninja’s signature combat systems. For as much as I love the work done by this developer, I can’t deny that it has its repellent, if entirely intentional, edges. Nioh is fucking brutal, and there has been a consistently off-putting overreliance on gear drops and interlocking systems that make Team Ninja’s excellent combat a bit much for newcomers. In Rise of the Ronin, there has been a concerted effort to smooth those edges, streamlining a litany of systems into a digestible version of what makes this team so exciting.

And in moderation, it works. Starting from a baseline class selection that focuses initial skills on Strength, Dexterity, Intellect, and Charm, you’ll be given two primary weapon slots to fill with your choice of a variety of weapons, as well as supplementary tools like guns, throwables, consumables and more. These four core skill sets align with corresponding skill trees, each allowing you to spec deeper into certain offensive and defensive capabilities, along with some basic conversation skills like intimidate and charm. Progression requires multiple upgrade currencies, each earned by completing associated tasks in the world — an oddly clumsy means of engagement that obfuscates what is otherwise a pretty decent selection of skills and upgrades.

Combat itself is adaptable and serves as a palatable entry to the kind of difficulty and precision required in these Souls adjacent titles, though veterans may find its quirks off-putting. Rise of the Ronin is primarily about Ki balancing; these stamina-ish bars dictate the flow of almost every encounter, the game giving you a few tools to better protect your own while whittling away at others. There is a heavy reliance on the Counterspark, a flashy parry that works in a similar way to Sekiro though nowhere near as rewarding or tightly implemented. Pulling off a Counterspark deals heavy damage to Ki, which, once lowered, will panic a foe and give you a short opening for a heavy damage attack. You can bolster your chances of pulling off these parries by using the right Martial Arts (fighting styles assigned to weapon types and quickly selected with the right thumb stick), which your opponent can be either weak, neutral, or strong against.

There are times when the Martial Arts become a little overwhelming during battle, but it’s a broadly comfortable system that pairs nicely with Rise of the Ronin’s pared-back loot drops and mission design. Despite its open-world structure, almost every major mission in the game is siloed by discrete instances kicked off with a splash screen where you can organise loadouts and pick your allies. Along with three tiers of explicit difficulty, you’re also encouraged to bring members of your chosen faction with you on missions, all of whom you can take control of at any moment. Narratively, it’s one of the stronger choices in Rise of the Ronin, but mechanically, it ensures both a diversity of options and a player-driven difficulty slider. 

There are a plethora of other combat and mission additions, too; the list is extensive and varying in degrees of success. Your ally can be another player or two pulled in across the void, though this represents the only instance of co-op in the game, and you’ll be unceremoniously booted once the mission is complete. Elsewhere, the invading forces from America and Britain have caused an influx of firearms to hit Japan, giving you access to powerful but extremely awkward guns. You can even stealth your way through many instances in the game, enemies sporting the comical lack of awareness you usually find in an old dog who’s fallen deeply asleep.

The Verdict

There’s just so much in Rise of the Ronin. A lengthy runtime makes its fairly one-note combat and limited enemy variety more garish than perhaps they would have seemed in a sub-20-hour experience. Nothing in the game is outright off-putting, but there’s a permeating sense of incompleteness to it all. It’s as though this is the first draft of an open-world action game for Team Ninja, and I suppose, in many ways, it is. For the right player, this will hit as intended, providing a solid combat foundation on which a comfy checklist of quests and loot will nestle neatly. It will be the game they can play for the next six months and likely never finish, a fine achievement for anyone and as good a nod as any to the eventual potential of Team Ninja with this franchise.

But for the other player, Rise of the Ronin will feel as it did for me: an almost nostalgic reminder of the systems and ideas we started to leave behind a generation ago. 

Image: PlayStation, Kotaku Australia

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