The Bonds Forged in Changing Times: A ‘Rise of the Ronin’ Review

As has become a regular tradition in my usual gaming cadence, after spending hundreds of hours protecting the Sol System from a variety of enemies, there tends to be a cosmological lull in the incentive to actively storm dungeons and clash in the crucible. And while I attempted to sait my habits with a combination of Spirtifall and Balatro (both fantastic games in their own right), what ended up catching my attention was none other than Team Ninja’s Rise of the Ronin.

Part of this can definitely be attributed to FX’s Shogun being some of the most enthralling prestige television we’ve had in modern memory, certainly priming me for the chance to wander around Japan during a different time of political intrigue and change. And part of it is that the dev diaries painted this captivating picture of combat. A game where you can blend rifles and odachis, handguns and katanas, spears and a flamethrower. Now, I never got around to playing Ghost of Tsushima which is the obvious contemporary, so if you’re looking for comparisons there, I’m not going to be much help. And on paper, this game has Souls-esque difficulty of tactical combat and expansive open world, the former I have about a dead even track record of enjoying and the later I have historically balked at. And yet, I find myself intently drawn to sinking more and more hours into games to a reasonable level of completion to see the story to its inevitable bittersweet end as I complete every side mission, mini-game, and collectible, which… I couldn’t actually tell you the last time I got so invested into a game.

Rise of the Ronin starts with a surprisingly comprehensive character creator as you crafted your Blade Twins. You are two orphans who are implied to have grown up together and experienced a great tragedy that made you prime candidates for recruitment into an organization of the Veiled Edge. And as it were, your first mission marks the end of your training and it’s time to infiltrate an infamous Black Ship and do some assassination. Of course, the mission doesn’t quite go according to plan and your Blade Twin is presumably dead (I’ll give three guesses if that’s actually the case, and your first two don’t count) and now you’re on a mission for vengeance.

Rise of the Ronin

The game works in a functionally three act structure, with the majority of each act taking place on a different island. After becoming a proper ronin, you are left to wander Yokohama with a couple vague mission markers and the obligatory enemy that is a couple levels above you meant to humble the hell out of the overconfident. And from there, you slowly get introduced to more and more elements of the game.

Combat starts off simple enough with a basic attack, block, and parry system; although, the game has decided that instead of a conventional parry it is a “countersoul,” a sort of pseudo attack that is capable of turning the tables if timed correctly. Your ki bar functions as a combination of stamina and mana as you use it to expend a variety of actions, and your health is…well your health bar. As you get further into the game, combat gets several more layers to with stances that feature a Rock/Paper/Scissors-esque relationship with other stances, martial skills that are special attacks with unique animations and effects, as well as the ability to seamlessly switch between traditional bladed weapons and firearms as you progress.

Rise of the Ronin lets you naturally progress at your own pace, given plenty of easily identifiable main mission markers as well as labeling every possible point of interest on the map. And while I know that can result in what feels like a super cluttered map, for me, it ended up being a saving grace of the feature as it is significantly harder to get lost when I could add custom waymarkers whether it was traversing through unknown regions of the map or trying to triangulate the position of a cat.

Rise of the Ronin

The overworld movement of the game is definitely one of its selling points, as you manage to get access to both a glider and a horse pretty early on and are rewarded for getting used to both traversal methods, as well as combining them. One of the most satisfying pieces of tech is jumping from a tall cliff with your glider and then confidently call your horse knowing that you’ll be able to hop on with barely a hit of momentum. And if you just want to enjoy the scenery, the game features a very welcome auto-run leisure that will mostly get where you need to go if the pathfinding algorithm doesn’t stumble on a small rock in the middle of the road. 

Rise of the Ronin

Each island features a plethora of fast travel points in each region, some which you merely need to walk up to, and others you have to restore the public order by taking out some thugs and fugitives in the area before you stake a claim. There is also a longhouse in each island that acts as a sort of home base where you can customize your character, chat with others, and also do things like send cats on missions, dogs on pilgrimages, and even garden. There are treasure chests to be found, cats to be collected, and various minigames that let you test your skills in exchange for rewards. And while all of this is repetitive, it’s ultimately super satisfying between the fluidity of combat and proportionally awarded rewards for your time.

Given that you need a lot of skill points in order to complete the tree, Rise of the Ronin invites you to engage with everything at your own pace and rewards your time investment with a proportional increase in prowess. And with the above features, it makes it relatively easy to do so. I’m usually not one to try and collect every single trinket, but how could I say no to find my friend’s lost 100 cats when it meant I could learn how to lie or collect every single foreign text so I could eventually lob fireballs on unexpecting opponents or just casually chain headshots.

And the game’s systems only bolster the narrative aspects. Even though you are a ronin, you are ronin in a time with the world is opening up widely and the local government has not been handling anything particularly well. While there is a main plot, the majority of the story lies within the connections you make with a variety of characters. The Bond system acts as a sort of streamlined Mass Effect companion/Persona social link system where talking and gift giving lets you forge stronger bonds. This results in more character backstory and a variety of results. Each character has their own allegiance, their own motivations, and the interactions you have with these characters are ultimately some of my favorite moments of the game: working alongside the eccentric inventor, doing errands for a geisha, saving a local merchant and managing a discount on local goods in the area. It’s these types of interactions that endeared me to the game and led to me to this thorough completion.

Rise of the Ronin

From a general narrative perspective, the expansive cast manages to paint a fairly balanced portrait of both anti-Shogunate and pro-Shogunate sentiment. Neither side is completely in the right between aggressive insistence on isolationism and a corrupt government that has not done anywhere near enough to forward the interest of the citizens it’s supposed to be protecting and serving. For the first two acts, you end up working both sides of the conflict as you try to find out the whereabouts of your Blade Twin, but eventually everything comes to a head, decisions are made, and consequences are to be had. To quote my friend who started playing around the same time as me, you really do feel like a ronin during a time of great historical importance. And the best part is the game also has one of the smoothest implementations of a replayability tool in the form of a Testament of Souls, which acts as a means to replay key story missions to make different decisions so you can see how things would change in a ripple forward.

Rise of the Ronin

And it’s a surprisingly accurate representation of the events that actually happened. While I knew it was based on a specific time period, I didn’t quite realize that almost all the characters were based on actual people who lived during that time and who had a role to play in all of the back and forth. The game keeps an extensive timeline and encyclopedia which makes it a fairly comprehensive learning reference and as a result, one of the best pieces of historical fiction I’ve engaged with.

Without going into too much detail, I was constantly surprised by how I got so invested into the game. I wept for allies when they experienced tragedies. I seethed in anger at enemies. I found myself conflicted at various crossroads. And I found myself a tad bit over leveled because I ended up doing almost everything the game had to offer.

I have gotten addicted to using my long rifle to quickly dispatch enemies from a distance before switching over to my odachi and handgun. I reveled at the chance to go unarmed so I could avoid killing to meet a bonus objective. Applying a variety of elemental effects to help make quick work of bosses. Pondering about what I value during a time of great change. Taking photos and tinkering with fashion. 

Rise of the Ronin

I don’t think it’s a perfect game by any means. The graphic fidelity is mostly fine in performance mode, although even with the PS5’s hardware, there are the occasional hitch. The controls have a bit of learning curve given how many different actions that you may need to end up performing. The co-op is painfully strict on when and how you can engage with other players. But at the end of the day, it remains one of the most satisfying single play experiences I’ve undertaken, and I’m still working on 100% available to me in the third island before I feel like I can see where the story ends up. 

It’s a game that allows you to find your own expression. You want to be a master of shock and awe, you can invest in that. You want to be a silent assassin, that’s also very easy to spec into. There are so many different options and ways to progress, it’s constantly impressive how much it rewards you for playing into the loop. It took a while to find my combat, but once I did, everything clicked and I think if you’re in the market for an action RPG, you should seriously seriously consider adding Rise of the Ronin to your PS5’s library.

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  • Mikkel Snyder is a technical writer by day and pop culture curator and critic all other times.

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