Rise of the Ronin Review (PS5)


By trying to do so much, Rise of the Ronin feels like an inferior version of everything it’s inspired by. With an open world populated by map markers and side activities, it’s a worse Assassin’s Creed. With a historical Japanese setting, it’s a worse Ghost of Tsushima. With a combat system that prioritises parrying, it’s a worse Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. At no point is it a bad experience, but the game’s so run of the mill, so formulaic that attempting something new and ultimately failing would have been a more tantalising sell. You’ve already played better versions of Rise of the Ronin — what it’s attempting is just fine, which is probably the most boring outcome possible.

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The PS5 exclusive — which has been funded in part by Sony under the PlayStation Studios banner — pitches itself as Nioh for the mainstream, with difficulty options and extra accessibility settings to attract more than just the masochistic Dark Souls audience. From the pause menu, the difficulty can be adjusted on the fly to accommodate the sort of experience you’re looking for. Three difficulty options are ever-present, and then you can get into the nitty-gritty by tweaking health retention and stamina mechanics.

In that, Rise of the Ronin absolutely succeeds. The default setting feels like a step down from past Team Ninja titles and if you do come across a particularly tough boss fight or sequence, there are ways to make things easier. The same can be said if things are proving too simple: a harder Twilight difficulty option is there for purists who love the challenge. Though it’s a funny thing praising difficulty settings, the developer has done well to modify what it’s used to in order to accommodate a wider audience. If you want to play the game like it’s a traditional action-adventure title, you can. If you’re there for brutal Team Ninja action, it can be played that way too.

Where it doesn’t fare nearly as well is in its vast play space. With the likes of Elden Ring and The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom in its back pocket, there’s proof the open world genre can still create a strong sense of discovery, wonder, and mystery. Rise of the Ronin has none of that. Its map icons are revealed through Bond Levels rather than tower climbs, but the conclusion is the same; it’s an approach so mundane that it subscribes more to the design of Assassin’s Creed games before the series’ RPG reboot. You’ll find cats and pet them. You’ll walk up to shrines and pray at them. You’ll approach named enemies and beat them in combat. You’ll go to a location and take a picture of a specific piece of scenery.

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Never will a side quest be found naturally or a new weapon’s location be hinted at through environmental cues; everything is clearly communicated well ahead of time. There’s no surprise, no sense of adventure. Across multiple maps all divided up into multiple regions, the same sort of repetitive open world comfort food will litter the HUD. You’ve already done all of this many times over in the past, just with slightly different window dressing. Drained of any proper discovery or suspicion, Rise of the Ronin feels so incredibly outdated as a 2024 title.

More often than not, enemies will block your path from one map marker to the next, and it’s these many combat encounters that essentially save the title. Building upon the Nioh series and Team Ninja’s more recent Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty, battles in the studio’s latest PS5 effort are indeed more accessible, but there’s still just as much depth to them. You’ll create two characters at the start of the game (the first becomes the protagonist and the second plays an important role in the story), then select your starting class and weapons.

A lot like a FromSoftware title, though, these choices are designed more as jumping-off points rather than what defines your build for the next 50 hours. From dual swords and katanas to bayonets and even guns, there’s a vast amount of weapon and stance customisation to get lost in, along with the trademark Team Ninja loot system that drops armour pieces like they’re common currency.

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No matter what type of blade your loadout has equipped, engagements generally feel more reminiscent of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice than anything else. While blocking and dodging are more than viable tactics, the game encourages parrying in order to deplete an enemy’s stamina bar and leave them open for a killer blow. As well as ensuring they don’t do the same to you, you’ll often need to manage multiple combatants at once, work out any specific weaknesses, and retreat to safety if the odds are stacked against you.

Fights then get deeper with the stance system. Working a lot like rock-paper-scissors, up to three stances can be equipped at any one time, with most enemies strong against a select few and weak to others. Switching between them can prove a little fiddly in the midst of combat, but they’re a great way to turn the tide of battle in your favour. New abilities and moves can then be sourced from multiple different skill trees, allowing you to hone in on a specific style of play.

There’s a lot to work with, but never does it feel particularly overwhelming. Clear tutorialisation and the commitment to accessibility no matter your skill level work together to somewhat clean up the messy UIs of past Team Ninja games. It’s a detriment to the open world, but this overly straightforward nature makes playing and understanding Rise of the Ronin far easier than any of the studio’s previous titles.

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It doesn’t stop there: Veiled Edge Banners are the replacements for bonfires, except you’ll use them a lot more as fast travel points rather than somewhere to respawn. Main missions have checkpoints to fall back on and you can recruit allies to help you; having fallen in battle, you’ll take control of these companions to continue the quest and even revive your main character with the right item.

Working alongside these associates is how you’ll increase their Bond Level, a system that helps develop new connections and rewards. As you progress through the main story, decisions must be made that affect relationships, either siding with figureheads or betraying them. It’s a relatively simple implementation, but it works well enough to add a light sprinkling of player choice to the experience. The Bonds system is just about the only thing the narrative has to keep you hooked, though, because its cutscenes and plot points are so uninteresting that you’ll struggle to track who’s who in the first place. While historical figures like Ryoma Sakamoto and Matthew Perry are prominent faces throughout the plot, their appearances do little to raise the tale above anything other than serviceable.

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It’s a shame the story proves so dull because the clash of Eastern and Western cultures out in the open world is one of the very few things the game’s gigantic land mass actually gets right. Particularly in its main cities like Yokohama, you can go from one street lined with traditional Japanese buildings to another made up of the comparatively insipid structures of the USA in seconds. It makes exploration a tad more interesting as you’re never quite sure what sort of scenery will make up a new location, with the appealing design of Eastern architecture contrasting against the dreary Western constructions.

However, their origins matter little when the game’s overall graphical quality is nowhere near up to par. Team Ninja has always prioritised gameplay over visuals, but Rise of the Ronin is releasing as a PS5 exclusive with backing from Sony, so expectations are raised. It lacks any sort of splendour with an extremely dull colour palette and constant texture pop-in across the open world. It looks disappointingly poor, more like an early PS4 game than the latest PS5 hardware seller.

It doesn’t run at a particularly consistent frame rate either. You can choose from three different modes, and none guarantee smooth performance. While the Quality Mode slightly improves the visual quality, it runs at 30 frames-per-second. Given the speed the game is played at — particularly during combat — this option is essentially a non-starter because the action will quickly become a blur. The optimal choice is the Performance Mode, which targets 60fps. It’s the most consistent of the three, but frame rate drops remain fairly common, particularly when the on-screen action bubbles in intensity. Since the game doesn’t have anything close to top-of-the-line visuals to render, it’s disappointing to see it chug.

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Emblematic of the experience as a whole, Rise of the Ronin has its strengths but they’re wrapped up in such dated open world design and an uninteresting story that it’s impossible to properly appreciate them. The game has no charisma, no swagger, no charm. It’s frustratingly straightforward open world comfort food that fails to establish itself as an exciting alternative to its own inspirations.

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