RISE of the ronin

Rise Of The Ronin Hands-On Preview – Forging A Path Of Its Own

Team Ninja's latest goes open world.

My early hours with Team Ninja’s latest – Rise of the Ronin – have been plagued with comparisons. Since its reveal in 2022, many parallels have been drawn between it and games like Ghost of Tsushima, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, Nioh, and much more. It’s easy to see why this is the case. An open world Souls-like set in feudal Japan during a time of uncertainty, with shadows of western influence looming large over a country emerging from isolation. It echoes ideas, themes, and settings that some of these aforementioned titles predicate themselves upon.

It didn’t take long for me to realise most of these comparisons are skin-deep. If my time with Rise of the Ronin so far has left me with one thing, it’s that it feels like a combination of Team Ninja’s recent works stretching back to Nioh – for better and for worse. Where it separates itself from those titles, though, is in its open world framework and through a refreshingly grounded setting that lends Rise of the Ronin some real identity.

rise of the ronin impressions

While Team Ninja usually imbue their historic settings with supernatural elements, Rise of the Ronin feels very grounded. This might sound insignificant to those who’ve yet to undertake either Nioh titles or the more recent Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty, but it’s genuinely refreshing to see Team Ninja try their hand at something that lacks demons or yokai. It’s a tumultuous time in Japan as the west attempts to pull the country out of seclusion, which sets the stage nicely for a story that’s more rooted in reality.

You play as what’s known as a Blade Twin, half of a lethal warrior unit called the Veiled Edge. After creating both Blade Twins in the character creator and a brief tutorial in the Veiled Edge village, you’re sent to infiltrate one of the western Black Ships lurking in dark waters. You board it with the goal of stealing a secret message and assassinating its captain. The plan quickly goes awry, though, spurring your chosen Blade Twin to leave the village behind in hopes of finding answers to what exactly happened on the Black Ship.

rise of the ronin impressions

Rise of the Ronin’s opening hour goes in a direction I didn’t expect at all, which immediately hooked me in. Much like other Team Ninja titles set in historical periods of our own, it also pulls from figures of great import from the late 19th century setting, you’re slowly but steadily introduced to characters like Ryoma Sakamoto, Igashichi Iizuka, Taka Murayama, and more. The cast is quite engaging to interact with and each is well-realised within the scope of their real world counterparts.

So far, it feels like there’s a deeper focus on these characters and their relationship with the protagonist. You often have different dialogue choices as you converse with them, and a lot of the early game quests are kicked-off through their assistance. It’s through these characters that your set on the path to your Blade Twin’s core goal while also getting mixed up in the events of the time.

rise of the ronin impressions

One aspect I’ve been enjoying more than I’d anticipated is Rise of the Ronin’s open world. Mechanically it isn’t out to break any ground, primarily made up of points of interest, enemy encampments, side quests, and photo opportunities. What’s nice about it, is that each activity is really digestible and almost always provides a worthwhile reward. Whether it be skill points from Shrines or new villages to fast travel between after clearing out some goons, nothing feels superficial. It also helps that traversal is a real blast, from standard horse-back riding to grappling and gliding all over the place.

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Ticking these activities off also increases your Bond Level with that region, netting you rewards and bringing order back to the countryside. It all follows a flow that’s easy to slip into, and feeds nicely into player progression as you improve your character. Some of these will even have enemy outposts that are much higher level than you, encouraging you to revisit regions once you’ve gained enough power to tackle the challenge comfortably.

rise of the ronin impressions

The reason these activities feel so digestible is because of how they fit into main story progression. The golden path has taken me to many different regions of the open world, from the newly established cityscapes of Yokohama, to the surrounding quaint countryside regions. Quests also regularly take you into linear missions in self-contained areas, which feel more in-line with the missions present in Team Ninja’s previous titles. It does a lot to break up the pacing and has kept the early hours feeling quite varied.

One thing I need to shout out is some of the RPG elements included in Rise of the Ronin. These aren’t something you’d expect from Team Ninja, but they go a long way to making the world feel alive despite their simplicity. An early example of this is a decision I had to make in one of the aforementioned linear missions. A gang of bandits and their chief, Gonzo, have seized the estate of a magistrate and have been terrorising the nearby village. Gonzo is made out to be a pretty nasty piece of work – known to kill his own henchman for the slightest of missteps.

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rise of the ronin impressions

I was surprised that upon besting Gonzo in a boss fight, I had the option to spare him in exchange for some extra rewards. I let him live in curiosity of seeing what the outcome would be. After some disapproval from Ryoma, who accompanied me during the mission, I moved on with my new gear and a slight sense of guilt. An hour or so later, I stumbled on Gonzo in the open world with his own side quest chain involving some other no-good individuals. I was genuinely surprised to see the choice I made had an impact on the world, and immediately started thinking about how the other choices I made might be molding my playthrough.

There are also other small things, like being able to pickpocket locals for a bit of cash, or engaging in scuffles with other ronin in towns for equipment and weapon proficiency. The trade-off, is that doing these things raises your Wanted Level, so sowing absolute chaos doesn’t go unnoticed by local authorities. I’m really invested in seeing how these systems are taken further, especially given you can invest skill points in the ability to lie to people in conversation, or even intimidate them.

rise of the ronin impressions

Unsurprisingly, combat is probably my favourite part of the experience thus far, which lines up if you’re a Team Ninja fan. Rise of the Ronin’s combat feels like an amalgamation of everything that’s come before. You have a system similar to Nioh’s Ki Pulse, weapon styles which are akin to Nioh’s stances, a parry system, sub-weapons, and much more. While all the pieces feel pulled from previous works, Rise of the Ronin separates itself in the flow of its combat.

Everything revolves around Ki, which essentially functions as stamina. Every action in combat drains Ki, and running out means leaving yourself open to attack. This means that combat is always an intricate dance of managing your own Ki while trying to deplete your enemy’s. The main difference is that you can’t just wail on your adversaries. Even the standard foes won’t be staggered by your regular combo attacks, and will attempt to strike you while they weather your assaults. This means you need to make use of the Counterspark system to gain the adavantage.

rise of the ronin impressions

Counterspark is Rise of the Ronin’s parry system. Hitting the Counterspark button just as an enemy attacks will deflect it and leave them open for a counterattack. If you Counterspark a whole combo string, you get an even longer opportunity to strike in the hopes of depleting their Ki for a lethal Critical Hit. Counterspark being such a big part of combat forces you to take a slower and more methodical approach to combat. It usually isn’t a great idea to try and deflect mid-combo as you try to overwhelm your enemy. It feels more calculated and rhythm-like overall, and always feels rewarding.

There’s also enemy Martial Skills, which are unblockable and can only be dodged or deflected with a perfectly-timed Counterspark. This is all without getting into weapon types, sub-weapons, items, your own Martial Skills, the grapple hook, and more. My only concern so far is with enemy variety. The supernatural nature of yokai and demons in previous games means that there are so many different aspects you can pull from to create unique enemies and boss encounters. Rise of the Ronin lacks this flexibility, so I’m waiting to see how things are shaken up when it comes to boss fights and regular enemies as I make more progress.

rise of the ronin impressions

Speaking of combat, let’s touch on difficulty a bit. It’s always a point of contention in any Souls-like, but Rise of the Ronin is notable in its inclusion of difficulty settings. There’s three out of the gate, Dawn, Dusk, and Twilight, which are easy, normal, and hard respectively. I’ve spent most of my time so far on Dusk which feels like the standard Team Ninja challenge. There’s a significant drop in the damage that enemies deal on Dawn, but the demand for precise Counterspark timing and a considered approach to combat is still somewhat there.

Combat is made easier by other aspects, though. Smart use of stealth can grant you a massive advantage over your enemies, healing is plentiful, and health is regenerated outside of combat. So far, I think it strikes a good balance of being accessible to newcomers while retaining the power fantasy of being a ronin, but it’s yet to be seen if this holds up through the rest of the game.

rise of the ronin impressions

If my early hours with Rise of the Ronin have confirmed one thing – it’s that this is definitely a Team Ninja game. It’s absolutely different in its structure, grounded nature, and approach to difficulty, but the identity that makes Nioh, Wo Long, and Strangers of Paradise tick is palpable here. This is far from a bad thing, but I am curious to see how Team Ninja’s typical design trappings fare after more time with this open world setting.

Rise of the Ronin launches on March 22nd exclusively for the PS5. You can pre-order it here, and you’ll be able to read our full review on Tuesday, March 12 at 9:00 AM AEDT