Rise of the Ronin might be the “middle ground” game I’ve been waiting for | Hands-on preview

by on March 11, 2024

I’ll never unironically use the term “masocore” to describe a video game. And not just because it’s an awful buzzword, but because, in my opinion at least, it’s also a misnomer. I don’t play Soulslikes because I enjoy being punished – I play because I enjoy overcoming the challenge they present. Although, yes, sometimes it hurts, it’s the sense of accomplishment that becomes addictive – even nailing a boss in the first few tries is thrilling. I’ve also never advocated for a difficulty slider in Soulslikes, because not having one has never affected my experience. But when there are options to adjust the accessibility, it’s not something I get upset about, either. Yet, the chance to play something that occupies a middle ground between, say, Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty and Ghost of Tsushima is incredibly enticing. Enter Rise of the Ronin to, perhaps foolishly, attempt to appease both sides at once.

Coming hot off the heels of the aforementioned Wo Long comes Team Ninja’s first fully open world action RPG. Set in a less fantastical – but still pretty far out – version of 19th Century Japan, it gives the struggling empire the Assassin’s Creed treatment, mixing historical accuracy with far-fetched technology and just a hint of the mystical. Having played around three hours of the early game, I can also say that Rise of the Ronin is Team Ninja attempting to cater to a wider audience.

Rise of the Ronin

Nioh was a tough game, Nioh 2 arguably moreso yet absolutely stuffed to the gills with build diversity, and Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty was just enough of an excursion into the lands of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice that it freshened up the formula – even if it did swap Japan for China. While Rise of the Ronin does borrow certain elements from its forebears, it has a much more forgiving difficulty gradient and a huge open world to explore if you find yourself struggling with one area in particular.

As a warrior of the Veiled Edge, you begin the game fighting alongside your “Blade Twin”, a character you create alongside your protagonist. When circumstances separate you, you must seek out other Blade Twins to fight alongside you as summonable NPCs for story missions. How many there are or what kind of elements they’ll bring to the game remain to be seen but they, like the locations you’ll visit, are tied to you by a “Bond”.

Bonding with NPCs allows them to visit you in your base of operations where you can give them gifts and improve your relationship, and increases the combat efficiency of those who can fight alongside you. Improving your Bond with a given province or district changes how the NPCs there react to you, the enemy presence, and what kind of resources you might find.

Rise of the Ronin

If you were being really generous, you could say that this is the Elden Ring to Nioh 2’s Dark Souls – but you’d have to be in a really good mood to go quite that far. Ronin’s world so far is intriguing and hints at just how much there will be to find and do, but it immediately lacks the sense of pure danger and scale that we got from Elden Ring.

Partly, this is down to the setting. Japan is known to us, and the enemies in Rise of the Ronin are mostly human (there are some hunting dogs I’ve fought so far, but no shambling undead or giant bugs). There are hints of magic in some of the weapon skills and enemy attacks, but there’s no Onmyo here to unlock and learn. What’s most impressive is that it doesn’t feel like a lesser game for it.

Team Ninja’s latest still features intricate combat that relies heavily on parrying and positioning. Traversing the open world is easier going than when in-mission, which encourages exploration and experimentation with weapons, skills, stances, and gear. At this stage I haven’t seen many open world activities besides Areas of Public Disorder, which are small areas patrolled by criminals and bandits that you’ll need to clear in order to welcome villagers back and activate the Veiled Edge Banner, which acts as a surrogate Bonfire. Resting and fast trevelling doesn’t respawn enemies outside of missions – although you will drop your Karma if you die, neccessitating corpse runs.

Rise of the Ronin

Rise of the Ronin’s open world chops extend to crafting and upgrading gear, requiring you to seek out reagents and materials while travelling the land. A loot system almost identical to Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty in terms of the UI and gear stats / skills allows you to mix and match your equipment to mould your playstyle, though Ronin relies more heavily on gear sets, and equipping more pieces of equipment with the same randomised special effects to unlock extra bonuses. Also, while much of it feels grounded in reality, a physics-defying grappling hook make getting around the open world fun and exciting.

The struggle going forward will be balance: how do you keep the missions challenging and the open world fresh at the same time, when players will be grinding the world to make the missions easier? With only a few hours played of something that looks like it could be gargantuan, it’s hard to say. At least at this early stage, Rise of the Ronin looks to combine elements of multiple games, from Ghost of Tsushima and Nioh 2, to Assassin’s Creed Valhalla and Elden Ring. How successful it will be at marrying these elements together remains to be seen – but it’s off to a solid start.