Geek Preview: Team Ninja’s ‘Rise of the Ronin’ Marks Promising First Foray Into An Open-World Samurai Epic

Historical fiction isn’t new to video game developer Team Ninja, whose recent games like Nioh 2 and Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty, are strongly rooted in the past. With Rise of the Ronin, it’s only natural to anticipate a return of the tried-and-tested formula, but the Japanese studio is quick to subvert expectations for its upcoming samurai epic. 

Geek Preview: Rise of the Ronin

On the surface, the action role-playing game (ARPG) seems to inherit the same flair as its counterparts. It turns the clock back to 19th-century Japan during the Bakumatsu period, reinforcing the historical slant. Certain gameplay elements, such as different weapon proficiencies, ki management, and multiplayer features will prove a familiar sight for returning fans. Strip away the veneer, however, and a refreshing, thrilling blend of the old and new lies in wait, or so a two-hour preview of its story teases. 

As a specialist of linear, level-based titles, Rise of the Ronin represents the team’s first step into the open-world genre. Set in the final years of the Edo period, it depicts the Japanese Revolution from 1868 to 1869 that took place between the Tokugawa Shogunate and various anti-shogunate factions displeased with Western influence. Unlike its other two titles, Team Ninja’s soon-to-be-latest eschews supernatural and mythical elements for a more grounded take on historical events, combining traditional samurai warfare with a Western-infused touch that fits nicely into the world. It’s a bold endeavour that could very well pay off, if executed well. 

The ambition is immediately prominent right off the bat. Where samurai or ninja titles typically follow one playable character, the game’s concept of Blade Twins – hailing from a secret organisation that places value on carrying out missions as a duo – opens the door to having two customisable warriors. The character creation system, as such, is extremely deep, offering obscure options including elbow / knee angle, jaw depth, chin middle depth, and even nose wing height. Customisation enthusiasts can expect to carve out some time into creating their dream samurai pair, which are tied to a Blade Sharpening Origin.

Geek Preview: Rise of the Ronin (2)

This essentially serves as the game’s version of classes, taking the form of Killer, Breaker, Seducer, Sapper, Beginner, and Unsharpened. Each specialises in two weapon types, different special skills, and starting stats, with a skill tree system allowing players to unlock or develop other abilities along the way. Going into the story, the perks are distinct enough – the stealth-focused Breaker, for instance, gives instant access to chain assassinations, while the silver-tongued Seducer automatically grants persuasion and lying capabilities. 

In the opening chapters, players will be able to cycle between their Twin Blades mid-combat. It doesn’t feel all that different from the genre’s party-switching mechanics, but proves to be fluid and satisfying. Up until a certain point, they are forced to pick one half of the pair to continue the narrative with, and the seamlessness extends to controlling allies past the fateful plot point as well. 

Geek Preview: Rise of the Ronin (3)

Combat, like its character creation system, is highly versatile and encourages player freedom. Bearing the trappings of Nioh and its sequel, Rise of the Ronin lets individuals equip their desired gear and equipment, even if it puts them at a disadvantage. Enemies may be weak or strong against certain stances, accompanying various weapon types that range from traditional samurai tools like the katana or odachi to Western innovations like handguns. 

The touch of flexibility brings depth into a system entrenched in blocking, dodging, and perfect parry (called Counterspark). There’s a catch, however – over-reliance on blocking isn’t recommended, because not every strike can be blocked. Doing so against red-highlighted attacks will deal heavy damage to players regardless, usually with major status debuffs like stun or panic, which increases the damage dealt by enemies. 

The reaction-focused gameplay is nothing new to ARPG veterans, although those with less experience may take a while to get used to combat essentials such as timing and weapon reach. It doesn’t help that Rise of the Ronin pits players against unblockable attacks almost immediately after animated cutscenes at times, leaving little room to react.

Geek Preview: Rise of the Ronin (4)

Grasping the fundamentals is especially important here, as it acts as a core pillar for victory. When defeated in battle, the game inflicts something called Vendetta, and players will have to defeat their conqueror to regain Karma, a progression resource, or risk losing it forever. The thrill of battle can be exhilarating and wildly addictive at its best, even with the occasional clumsy lock-on camera angle. As a whole, combat presents its fair share of challenges but is largely manageable, especially with stealth.

Throughout the preview session, silent kills proved to be the magic formula. Patience and planning pays off in Team Ninja’s upcoming adventure, so it’s recommended to scope out the lay of the land before committing to the deed. That doesn’t mean sneaking around guarantees instant death, however – Rise of the Ronin requires players to put in the work for tougher enemies, and makes sure to punish over-aggression, poor ki (or stamina) management, and moments of carelessness. If stealth doesn’t cut it, there are always other means to get the job done, such as poison-tipping arrows, setting hostiles ablaze, hurling objects at them with a grapple hook, and more. 

In specific cases, defeating elite targets unlocks a new fighting stance that’s tied to a weapon type. These undertakings are indicated with a recommended level, but as with most games, it’s not a hard and fast rule. More powerful opponents can be dispatched by under-levelled individuals with enough skill; similarly, it’d be remiss to underestimate weaker enemies. As the saying goes, there’s strength in numbers, and the samurai epic offers it in spades. 

The pivot to an open-world setting sets aside room for exploration, which makes for a delightful affair. From towns brimming with life and personality to the vast wilderness, feudal Japan is a gorgeous sight to behold. Each region bears its own flair – Yokohama, for instance, features Western architecture in line with its growing influence within the game – and comes with area completion prerequisites. 

Completing tasks like restoring public order by defeating enemies, interacting with Veiled Edge Banners, used for fast travel and restoring health, restoration items, and ammunition, discovering areas of interest, and a personal favourite, collecting and petting cats around town increases a city’s Bond level. The higher it is, the more perks players get to enjoy, such as merchant discounts, but do take note that some activities are solely locked to day or nighttime. 

Speaking of Bonds, Rise of the Ronin brings its own twist to the character affinity system. As players progress through the story, they will cross paths with real-world historical figures. Renowned samurai Ryoma Sakamoto and American naval officer Matthew Perry mark two of the earlier appearances, and more are set to make their debut in the game.

Gifting friendly companions deepens one’s bond with them, otherwise achieved through choosing the right dialogue options and talking to them in the Longhouse, where players can take a break from the action or wait for time to pass. Playing into the element of player freedom is the choice to help and befriend people in need, spare potential allies, or kill them, which will likely affect the outcome of character-specific questlines. In dungeons, which also support multiplayer co-op a la Wo Long and Nioh, these individuals are well-equipped to lend their aid to players. 

With so many characters to meet and much land to cover, Team Ninja has made exploration a breeze. While horses are par for the course in open-world games, Rise of the Ronin adds a grappling hook and glider into the mix (yes, there’s an explanation for this), and this brand of versatile verticality makes it a genuine joy to roam around the fantasy world. There are also side mini-games to indulge in for a break in pace, such as firearm shootouts and a horseback archery challenge. 

A short jaunt it may be, the preview offered a tanalising peek at the promising potential of an open-world, action-driven samurai epic. The robust combat system is easily one of its sharpest edges, but there’s plenty of charm to be found elsewhere, too. Team Ninja has long dabbled in the way of the ninja and samurai, and hopefully, all of that experience will eventually culminate into an unforgettable high for fans. 

Rise of the Ronin releases 22 March on the PS5.