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Rise of the Ronin Review: Team Ninja’s Samurai Story Strains Under Its Own Weight

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When it comes to video games, it’s Samurai season. Medieval Japan is no stranger to the medium; From Okami and Onimusha to Tenchu and Total War, the setting has been explored in poetic and punchy ways before. But a few popular recent games have brought renewed interest in sword saints and shinobis. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice established the ethos of a modern action game set in Japan’s tumultuous past, and Ghost of Tsushima refined the open-world, action-adventure genre for a Samurai story.

Rise of the Ronin, Team Ninja’s latest action-RPG which was released March 22, falls somewhere between those two titles. Set during the final years of the Edo period, the game leans on deep role-playing systems and challenging parry-based action combat reminiscent of Sekiro, while presenting a sprawling open world map peppered with checklist activities and distractions, much like Ghost of Tsushima — which itself tread the familiar open world path laid down by Assassin’s Creed games. But in its best of both worlds approach, Rise of the Ronin loses the sanctity of Team Ninja’s robust and relentless combat language established in the studio’s previous games and fails to bring new and distinct ideas to the open world formula.

That doesn’t mean that Rise of the Ronin doesn’t add any new flavour to the genre at all. The game’s combat is a balanced mix of accessibility and challenge, offering a plethora of distinct melee and ranged weapons and stances. Its ally system encourages you to indulge in the side content and level up your bond with your friends. And its period-accurate setting presents a more grounded picture of the times when compared to other games set in medieval Japan. But despite its successful, if somewhat wobbly balancing act that tries to keep hard-edged combat and serious systems of old-school games on an even keel with ambitious and expansive scope of contemporary open-world titles, Rise of the Ronin often tilts over into tedium.

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The story is set during the waning years of the Tokugawa Shogunate in the mid-19th century, a time of great turmoil in Japan when political and cultural revolution set the country on a new path. Rise of the Ronin begins with the Blade Twins, the game’s Siamese protagonists who’ve grown up and trained together as part of the Veiled Edge resistance against the Shogunate. You get to customise the appearance of the twins to your liking and choose their gender at the beginning of the game, but you play the game as one of them, with the other serving as your ally. An early assassination mission goes wrong, and you end up losing your partner.

You’re then set upon a decades-long bloody path of vengeance that takes you through Yokohama, Edo and Kyoto as you navigate the shifting politics of the time. In your quest, you meet real-life historical figures who helped decide the fate of Japan. You befriend Ryoma Sakamoto, an influential samurai from the Bakumatsu period, in Yokohama, the first city you get to explore in Rise of the Ronin. You take on quests against the Shogunate with Sakamoto and his friends, but you also get the choice of doing missions that favour the Shogunate.

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Rise of the Ronin’s opening section throws you on the path of revenge
Photo Credit: Team Ninja/ Screenshot – Manas Mitul

That element of choice remains a crucial part of the gameplay in Rise of the Ronin. Depending on the way you approach your quests, your allegiances tilt and shift, and so do your interactions with the people on both sides of the divide. Early in the game, I faced the choice of either executing a minor antagonist or sparing his life towards the end of the mission. I chose the latter, and he eventually became a strong ally, aiding me in main missions going forward. Rise of the Ronin presents several such impactful choices throughout the course of its story, making the fabric of its narrative always seem like a work of your own sewing.

As you progress in the game, the story branches out and so do your objectives. What initially starts as a personal tale of revenge, in time becomes a sprawling story of political intrigue and national interest playing out across a Japan at the cusp of revolution. Your initial adventures in Yokohama and its surrounding areas take you to Edo (the former name for Tokyo) and Kyoto as you assimilate allies and turn the pages of Japan’s history. The setting is fascinating, but the meaty story, which spans years and involves dozens of major and minor players, struggles a bit under its own weight. Like most RPGs, Rise of the Ronin approaches its storytelling with a lighter touch, lacking the emotional thrust and narrative structure of a more character-driven action-adventure title like Ghost of Tsushima.

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Yokohama is the first city you explore in Rise of the Ronin
Photo Credit: Team Ninja/ Screenshot – Manas Mitul

The main campaign isn’t a breezy ride, either. It can easily take up upwards of 20 hours to complete, with side quests, activities and exploration adding another 20 at the minimum. Even if you stick to the main quests (which you won’t), it’s not too difficult to lose track of what’s going on. There are multiple factions, side characters, allies and foes, all competing for you allegiance and attention. But with time, they all blend into a singular mass of exposition-spouting NPCs, with only a few standouts that remain memorable. And it doesn’t help that side quests remain feeble throughout the course of the game. The game map, in true Ubisoft style, quickly gets littered with icons promising things to do, but these missions and activities don’t bring anything fresh to the formula.

While Rise of the Ronin hasn’t quite got the narrative chops, it is mechanically burgeoning at the seams. From weapon variety, combat stances and rich skill trees to a deep bonding system, gear bonuses and soulslike inspirations, the game packs in a lot, often more than it can chew. A lot of how the game plays and feels is similar to Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, without the crushing difficulty and complexity of combat. Team Ninja games are known for their punishing combat that makes no compromises. Its Nioh games and the more recent Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty were firmly rooted in the Soulsborne ethos, with gruelling combat and intricate level design. Rise of the Ronin throws open the door by making its combat much more accessible by implementing single-button combos, a forgiving parry window, and a wide variety weapons and skills for every situation. And the open world design brings it closer to modern action-adventure titles, where if you hit a challenging obstacle, you can always turn around and explore in a different direction.

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Rise of the Ronin’s open world gives you the freedom to explore beyond the main story
Photo Credit: Team Ninja

Let’s dive into the combat. Even though it sheds the masochistic difficulty of previous Team Ninja games, it remains fairly challenging. There are three sets of multiple stances for each weapon type, all of them effective against particular enemies. While combat move sets are simple and you can dive into combos with a single attack button, the sheer number of weapon types at your disposal mixes things up. Even if the controls are the same, an uchigatana’s versatility feels very different from the specificity of a spear. The deliberate, lumbering swing of an odachi is a far cry from the nimble swipes of paired swords. And the stiff directness of a polearm contrasts with the flexible flair of an oxtail blade.

Each weapon type brings its own unique animations and its own set of martial skills, which work like weapon arts from Elden Ring, unleashing a special attack at the press of the right bumper and corresponding face buttons on the PS5 DualSense controller. I kept switching my armaments to get the feel of different styles and break the monotony of the shallow combat mechanics. Then, there’s a healthy choice of ranged weapons, too. Revolvers are quick and can stun your foes at close range for a second when you pull the trigger at the right moment. Rifes, on the other hand, are more precise and better for picking off enemies from far. Bows are the stealthier option and bring elemental attacks to the table, as well, adding fire and acid arrows to your quiver.

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The combat in Rise of the Ronin is accessible, but challenging
Photo Credit: Team Ninja

The melee action combat itself is predicated on parrying, blocking or dodging incoming attacks and hitting back in quick combos to dispatch your foes. Like in previous Team Ninja titles, all offensive and defensive actions are governed by your Ki, or stamina. Your health bar is accompanied by a Ki meter, which depletes while dodging, blocking and attacking. While Ki regenerates if you’re not performing these actions, you can run out of Ki quickly if you’re overexuberant, leaving yourself vulnerable to massive damage from incoming attacks. The same applies to your enemies. Normal attacks, martial arts and well-timed parries — or countersparks, as they are called in the game — chip away at their Ki, eventually opening them up for a critical hit that could potentially kill weaker enemies in a single blow.

Despite ticking most of the boxes for a modern action-RPG, the combat in Rise of the Ronin never quite feels as tight and robust as it does in Sekiro. Counterspark deflections, triggered by the triangle button, feel out of step from the rest of your actions and it’s tricky to nail down the timing. It’s not that the parry window is narrow, but the action itself is accompanied by an exaggerated animation, which feels jarring for a manoeuvre that needs to be snappy. Inventory management in the heat of combat can be tedious, as well. Switching out your two equipped melee weapons, your third ranged weapon, and your quick items for healing and status effects is never quite as smooth as it should be, and it often feels like you’re drowning in menu and UI every time you want to tinker with your loadout. Custom loadout slots help, but a more intuitive weapon swapping system would have improved the experience.

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Stealth goes a long way in helping you clear out enemy camps
Photo Credit: Team Ninja/ Screenshot – Manas Mitul

Combat in Rise of the Ronin might not be quite as responsive as you’d want it to be, but it’s always fun. Experimenting with different weapons keeps things fresh and taking on multiple enemies at the same time is also challenging, especially as you keep switching between stances to take on different types of foes. Clearing out an enemy camp — and you’ll be doing a lot of that in the game — always requires a considered approach. I found them reminiscent of camps and bases from Far Cry games, where you’re handed the freedom to go about clearing them the way you want. You can charge right in and take enemies head on, or carefully scurry your way through and take down unaware guards silently, one by one. Combat looks smooth, even if it doesn’t always feel fluid, and martial skills for each weapon often come with elaborate animations that add flair to your fights. The skill trees, spread across Strength, Dexterity, Intellect and Charm traits, also add meaningful abilities to your bag of tricks, bringing a little more depth to an otherwise relatively shallow combat experience.

On main missions, you’re also accompanied by a pair of allies. These can be chosen from a selection of characters you’ve met and bonded with over time. The level of your bond with the ally dictates their effectiveness on the battlefield. Allies especially come handy during challenging boss fights, where they can attract the enemy’s aggression, leaving you with the opportunity to go on the offense. At any time during main missions, you can take control of your ally characters, too. Most allies are treated with care and attention and come with fully rounded personalities and clearly defined traits. As you do personal favours for them, your bond deepens, and they reveal more of themselves to you. All allies are also deeply tied to the overarching narrative and your choices could end up deciding their fate. As a result, with time you come to care for them and their causes.

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Your allies will more than just pose on the battlefield
Photo Credit: Team Ninja/ Screenshot – Manas Mitul

While you have company when you undertake main missions, both in form of ally NPCs and real players online in co-op mode, you’re on your own when you’re exploring the open world. You get a horse, a grappling hook and glider to move around the world quicker. Your equine companion is best suited for the rolling countryside, while the hook and the glider come in handy when you’re traversing through dense cities. With the two tools at your disposal, you’d imagine your character to be more agile and easily parkour around on rooftops like in Assassin’s Creed titles, but your Blade Twin is surprisingly stiff. Even though you can climb up rooftops with the help of ladders, carefully placed boxes and dangling ropes, and you can sort of jump from roof to roof across reasonable distances, on-foot traversal never feels fluid.

All the open-world stuff in Rise of the Ronin is largely what we’ve come to expect from the genre: an interminable and ever-growing checklist of things to do and errands to run. Once you take out an enemy camp in a region, the map in that area gets populated with icons representing side activities. You can find and pet a stray cat, do favours for your allies, quests for NPCs, take photographs, find landmarks, shoot targets and find “random” encounters. These quickly get stale, and the limited quest variety offers little motivation to indulge in the side content. Scaling up to an open world design doesn’t really bring anything meaningful to the table in Rise of the Ronin, aside from perhaps the freedom of wasting your time before you decide to get back on track and finish the main story. Previous Team Ninja games benefited from their urgent, linear level designs, but here, their newest game loses its tension by switching to the open world formula. And unlike Elden Ring, it fails to justify that switch by digging up the corpse of every open world trick in the book.

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The bonds you form in Rise of the Ronin can shape the story
Photo Credit: Team Ninja/ Screenshot – Manas Mitul

Rise of the Ronin doesn’t distinguish itself in the visual department either. I wouldn’t mind this as much if the game stuck to a Nioh-style linear design, but open worlds demand stunning vistas and breathtaking landscapes. It demands lush environments and a striking visual style. Rise of the Ronin looks dull, flat and grey compared to modern open world games. The game’s environments aren’t diverse and lively, and textures lack detail. Even character models pale in comparison to its peers. The game can look good at certain moments, and you can mostly look past the lack of graphical finesse, but the bar has been set high by the likes of Ghost of Tsushima and Horizon Forbidden West. And while it’s unfair to expect a Team Ninja game to come close to that standard, Rise of the Ronin could have opted for a bolder visual style to make up for its shortcomings in visual fidelity.

Performance on the PS5, on the other hand, is mostly without complaints. The game offers a 60fps performance mode, a 30fps graphics mode and another 30fps ray-tracing mode that enables ray-traced lighting. I stuck to the performance mode as the graphical boost on other modes wasn’t enough to be worth the framerate hit. Framerate mostly stays stable throughout, with expected dips in busy sections and densely populated cities. As a PS5 exclusive, Rise of the Ronin, however, does excel at making the most of the DualSense controller features, with responsive rumble and adaptive trigger feedback for in-game actions.

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Rise of the Ronin can look good, but lacks the polish of modern open-world games
Photo Credit: Team Ninja/ Screenshot – Manas Mitul

Rise of the Ronin is clearly Team Ninja’s most ambitious outing yet. Known for its intense, linear and challenging Soulslike experiences, the studio is casting a wider net this time around, hoping to attract a larger audience more receptive to open-world games. It makes sense for a studio whose previous games have found acclaim within a niche player base to opt for its next project to be more accessible. And Team Ninja’s latest title largely succeeds in marrying the specific essence of its games with the generalised familiarity of the open-world formula.

The problem, however, is that the formula itself has gotten stale in the last few years. And games that fail to bring their own distinct spin to the genre tend to get lost in the stockpile of similar titles. With Elden Ring, FromSoftware pushed the scale of their games, too. But instead of adapting from the existing open-world blueprint, the studio opted to challenge the established tropes at every step of the way. Rise of the Ronin does not do that. Its open world is largely devoid of invention and imagination, but its core mechanics and an intriguing narrative help it stand out from the crowd.

The companion system adds meaningful decisions and choices and attempts to add depth to every character in the game. The diverse set of weapons and tools at your disposal always keep combat fresh and engaging. And the game’s evocative setting and its colourful cast of characters always push you forward into the story. Rise of the Ronin is clearly lifting above and beyond its weight-class, and you can see it wobbling at the knees. But to its credit, it never crumbles under that load.

Pros

  • Challenging combat
  • Engaging story and setting
  • Likeable cast of characters
  • Diverse weapons and tools
  • Companion system

Cons

  • Uninspired open world design
  • Lack of visual finesse
  • Repetitive side activities
  • Tedious inventory management

Rating (out of 10): 7

Rise of the Ronin released March 22 exclusively on PS5.

Pricing starts at Rs. 4,999 for the Standard Edition on PlayStation Store for PS5.


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