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Rise of the Ronin Wastes Interesting Setting with Clunky Gameplay

2020’s “The Ghost of Tsushima” was a surprising highlight during the pandemic summer, a game so inspired by cinematic language that it had a mode named after Akira Kurosawa. Four years later, “The Rise of the Ronin” will be compared to that hit game and come up consistently short. To be fair, “Ronin” takes place centuries after the action of “Tsushima,” but the samurai warrior protagonist—as well as the open-world gameplay and fighting mechanics grounded in various stances—made the games comparable from the minute “Ronin” was announced. Of course, four years is a lifetime in the video game world, so there can be two great samurai games in the Sony exclusive vault. The sad news is that there’s not.

From the team who made the excellent “Nioh” over at Team Ninja, “Rise of the Ronin” opens with immense promise. You start as a pair of “Blade Twins,” samurais of the Veiled Edge who are off on an assassination mission that, of course, serves as a tutorial on the gameplay, which allows for dual melee weapons like swords & spears, alongside dual ranged weapons like guns & bows. You can also switch between warriors, which adds an interesting strategical component in that one warrior may be better-suited to take down an enemy than the other.

At the end of the prologue, one of the warriors is injured, leaving you to choose which one you want to play, but the dynamic of allies will return and be a foundational part of the game. The development team of “Rise of the Ronin” built their gameplay on an ambitious concept wherein the gamer makes allies through missions and encounters that they can take on future missions, even giving them gifts to increase their loyalty and dialogue choices to improve the relationship. However, it increasingly feels like a majority of these choices are perfunctory and that the game and your connection to your allies will play out the same no matter what you do. It’s nice for a game narrative to provide authorship, but it has to feel resonant. I decided to shift up my choices to test my theory that they didn’t really matter, going from a nice samurai to cruel one, and I couldn’t really tell the difference. The game funnels you into the same story beats no matter what.

And those story beats are pretty bland, and in service of repetitive clunky combat. First, the combat system is incredibly overcrowded. Not only can you switch between the four aforementioned weapons, but you can alternate stances with your melee weapons based on the enemy. If that doesn’t sound chaotic enough, items can also be equipped and quick-used on the left side of the overcrowded HUD. It leads to a deep lack of fluidity as the combat becomes a series of clumsy choices instead of engaging encounters. The physics are also wildly inconsistent from swings that don’t seem to really be connecting with the enemy to an energy system called Ki that adds another thing to pay attention to. Gameplay that allows for this much variety and customization is good in theory, but “Rise of the Ronin” is a good example of too much of a good thing. It’s a case study in how something goes from dense to unrefined.

Here's where the allies should make things fun, right? Not really. They’re just kinda variable NPCs who fight alongside you. And then the missions start to blur together as you defeat the same enemy types over and over again. When I realized that “Rise of the Ronin” had no real setting or enemy variety left to show me around its massive map, it was truly disheartening. The game becomes little more than a loot hunter as each mission gives you new weapons and armor to compare to what’s already in your interview. Even the inventory feels clunky with items that can be customized and upgraded in towns, but never in a way that’s exciting to uncover.

Even with all of these, there are times when the game that “Rise of the Ronin” could have been peeks out from behind the curtains. I liked when the game avoided the same dull side missions and tried something new with the occasional inspired mission like eavesdropping in a spa or navigating a house full of enemies. But then it dumps you back into the same repetitive enemies across a map that needs to be cleared to build loyalty and push the game forward. It got to the point where I was just looking for variation in the gameplay, like the fact that you can fly like a bird, often to reach secret items, or find cats to pet. They’re cute. But it’s not called “Rise of the Feline.”

The publisher provided a review copy of this title. It is now available on PS5.

Brian Tallerico

Brian Tallerico is the Managing Editor of RogerEbert.com, and also covers television, film, Blu-ray, and video games. He is also a writer for Vulture, The Playlist, The New York Times, and GQ, and the President of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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