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‘Rise of the Ronin’ Squanders a Promising Concept With Clunky Combat and an Uninspired Story: Video Game Review

SPOILER ALERT: This review discusses minor plot details and gameplay elements from “Rise of the Ronin.” 

“Rise of the Ronin,” the latest release from “Nioh” developer Team Ninja, is one of the most highly-anticipated game releases of the year, promising a high-octane role-playing story combining eastern and western combat styles.

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From its announcement, “Rise of the Ronin” drew inevitable comparisons to Sucker Punch’s critically-acclaimed 2020 release “Ghost of Tsushima.” It’s understandable: although “Ronin” takes place about 600 years after “Ghost,” both follow samurai warriors in Japan as they swing their swords in an action-adventure open world.

Unfortunately, “Ronin” never rises to the same level of excellence, plagued by clunky combat and an uninspired story.

When the game begins, players assume control of two characters: fated “Blade Twins,” a dual warrior unit for the Veiled Edge, specially trained by the Kurosu clan to oppose their shogunate overlords. They were brought together when their native village was destroyed by shogunate spies, and torn apart again in the tutorial level during an assassination mission gone awry.

"Rise of the Ronin"
"Rise of the Ronin"

After designing both twins in an impressively detailed character creator, users must choose only one of them to play as moving forward, while the other is critically injured and taken away. Although the desire to reunite with a loved one is a classic trope, the bond between these twins isn’t fleshed out enough to make the player really care.

The main character you select is only known as “Protagonist,” and that nameless nature is the perfect metaphor for their bland journey. I first believed my warrior was completely silent, and actually felt blindsided the first time she spoke in a cutscene (I’d soon learn this was a rarity).

A silent protagonist can certainly work, with Link from the “Zelda” franchise serving as a prime example. But when the lead of “Ronin” is surrounded by equally forgettable allies and making nonsensical decisions that will affect the future of Japan, it seems fitting that she only speaks once in a blue moon.

"Rise of the Ronin"
"Rise of the Ronin"

Choices are at the heart of the game, as you must decide whether to align with the Pro-Shogunate or Anti-Shogunate faction. At the heart of the conflict, as presented to the player, is the idea of western foreigners entering Japan. From the start, I decided to back the Anti-Shogunate rebels — but the game had other ideas. While you make hundreds of choices that seemingly affect your journey, you’re also forced into dozens of missions that completely contradict your decisions.

For example, you can follow along with the rebels, and then immediately be thrust into a main story mission that sees you slay rebel forces in the name of the Shogunate. It’s hard to feel like your choices have any impact when your protagonist can’t seem to choose a side.

Let’s move on to the combat. It seems the developers threw everything but the kitchen sink at this overloaded system. Players can choose from ten different primary weapon types and half a dozen sub-weapons. Each weapon has a host of customizable combat styles, which can be adjusted mid-battle to target each enemy’s weakness. In theory, this sounds great! However, in practice, the combat is clumsy and highly repetitive.

"Rise of the Ronin"
"Rise of the Ronin"

The key to staying alive in battle is the “counterspark,” a parry that allows you to repel an enemy’s attack and deplete their Ki meter. Once their Ki is depleted, they can no longer perform actions, giving you the opportunity to deploy a devastating critical hit. Players can also employ the use of shuriken or a handgun to even the odds.

Most battles felt exactly the same as the previous one — by the end of the game, I found myself simply running past enemies instead of engaging in the same sword fights I’d spent hours doing.

Enemy variety is also severely lacking, with most missions consisting of a horde of two to three sword-bearing fighters attacking at once. The only variation in the mix comes from brute-type enemies — but I’ve got a bone to pick with them, too.

"Rise of the Ronin"
"Rise of the Ronin"

Other games have, of course, used brutes, heavies and the like as an extra challenge, but the “Ronin” equivalents must be at least 10 feet tall and as wide as five men. In a game that doesn’t have any kind of supernatural element, I was left wondering where these super-human beings came from.

Forgive me for joining in the “Ghost” comparisons, but each battle had me longing for its streamlined stances and slick movement.

The protagonist can bring a menagerie of allies into battle, each one less interesting than the last. Maintaining relationships with them outside of combat strengthens player stats, but even that falls into another boring formula: give them a gift, wait a couple hours, then give another gift.

I can’t say there was a single conversation that made me feel drawn to any of the characters — and there are a lot. Even in the game’s third act, new allies are being thrown your way. “Ronin” should have considered creating fewer, more compelling characters with much better voice acting, instead of a circus of wooden nobodies.

"Rise of the Ronin"
"Rise of the Ronin"

In the open world, players can discover citizens in need of help. Completing these encounters helps strengthen the bond with a given area, but they get old, fast. The same variation of three or four scenarios tends to happen over and over again. For example, a man on the side of the road screams that there’s a dangerous rogue nearby, only to turn on the protagonist and attempt to rob them when they follow. The first time this happened was fine. The 15th, I wasn’t so surprised anymore.

To be fair, the game’s not all bad. Fun side quests like cat collecting (finding stray cats and cuddling them) and searching for shrines to earn upgrade points are bright spots in this otherwise underwhelming attempt. This AAA game with a $70 price tag should deliver more.

Unfortunately, “Rise of the Ronin” is a much better game in theory than it is in practice, falling short with outdated graphics, hackneyed combat and painfully generic characters.

“Rise of the Ronin” launches March 22 on the PlayStation 5.

Score: 5/10

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