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Rise of the Ronin early impressions: Team Ninja’s PS5-exclusive isn’t without its shonky charm

Stalking aboard an American ship and assassinating a small army’s worth of the foreign navy is a strong way to start any game. You’re a mix of ninja and samurai, trained and honed into a deadly weapon, pointed at an interfering force set on undermining your country’s autonomy. Switching between your custom-made main character and their ‘blood brother’ blade twin, as you hunt down your admiral target, the stakes in Rise of the Ronin are clearly defined from the off.

This is a crucial time for Japan. The country stands on the edge of revolution, and the sun is setting on the age of the samurai. You’re a relic, the last vestige of a culture being forced to adapt or die. And in many ways, that theme mimics Team Ninja’s position as it gets ready to release Rise of the Ronin. Like all compromises, the result carries both pros and cons.

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If nothing else, Rise of the Ronin looks like a great entry-level Team Ninja game for casual fans: here’s five reasons why.Watch on YouTube

I like the Nioh games. In fact, I love them. I think they are determined underdogs that make a good scrap for FromSoft’s action-RPG crown. The flaws of Nioh, Nioh 2, and Wo Long are offset by the tight, adrenaline-fueled combat that comprises so much of the experience. So what if the levels are a bit naff when the swordplay is so excellent? So what if the enemies get reused in uninspired remixes when the boss fights are so extraordinary? The games give more than they take, and I laud them for it.

Rise of the Ronin dilutes so much of the exemplary combat with a watered-down open world that reminds me more of the derivative Far Cry formula than anything more exciting like Ghost of Tsushima or Elden Ring. Yes, that lush, responsive combat is still the star of the show, but for every clink of katana-on-glaive combat you get to experience, there’s an eye-roll inducing set of icons to clear. The pace is off. The rhythm impacted. Even in the first few hours of the game, I audibly moan when I get to a new part of the map and see 0/28 completion markers on the map.

A clash of ideals. | Image credit: Team Ninja, Sony Interactive Entertainment

I heard the term ‘icon janitor’ recently (apparently coined by friend of VG247, Steve Burns). It refers to the act of ‘tidying up’ the map, systematically sweeping away go-here, do-this chaff in order to unlock new doors to more exciting prospects. It sums up the loop in Rise of the Ronin perfectly. The major story beats – often wrangled into focused missions, in closed map environs like Nioh’s levels – are great; little combat puzzles and a boss at the end to test your mettle. Well-paced, compelling, fun.

But the padding between them is tiresome at the start of the game. You’re underpowered, you need to swap up our gear after every encounter to keep pace with the accelerating stats of your peers, and hunting down rogue warriors or roving bands of bandits just feels like busywork. It lacks the punch and power of Nioh or Wo Long’s opening crawl.

There’s still a definite sense of Team Ninja’s playfulness in the mix, at least – sneaking up on cats to pet them and sniffing out buried treasure always elicits a buzz of serotonin – but ticking off all the other open-world gubbins is rote. I’ve done this before in a Ubisoft or Warner Bros. game (where it’s usually realised better, to be honest). I don’t want to do it here, in a game with such interesting combat that I’d always rather be fighting.

Rise of the Ronin's protagonist looks over the vast open world of the game.
Ronin the countryside. | Image credit: Sony, Team Ninja

I’m under the impression that, as the world opens up and the tutorial areas give way to a sprawling urban area and gorgeous coastal region of Japan, that things will get better. Once I’ve done all of the side stuff once and nodded my way through a thousand text pop-ups telling me how to ride my horse to deliver some sundry items to a merchant, I’m sure the core flow will stabilise, and I can focus on the dojos, the fights, the oh-so-good one-on-one samurai duels the marketing for the game sold me on.

It feels less like Rise of the Ronin was taking notes from Elden Ring – a perfect implementation of the open world setup in a hardcore action-RPG – and more like Team Ninja was looking to the West; at Ubisoft, at BioWare, at Avalanche. That’s not a bad thing, per se, it just doesn’t really gel with the Team Ninja way of doing things. Rise of the Ronin shines in its condensed, focused missions, and loses its way in the empty fields and sparsely-populated villages of its open world.

Maybe that’s a comment on the nature of a ronin’s innate loneliness, a metaphor for the solitary journey of a samurai without a master. It just feels, in these opening hours, like a bit of a step down from the punchy, in-your-face doggedness of Team Ninja’s past efforts.

Rise of the Ronin arrives March 22 on PS5. This preview was written based on the first 120 minutes of the game, via PS5 code provided by the publisher.

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