Rise of the Ronin Review – The Gaijin Dilemma

Rise of the Ronin dares to ask a very intriguing question. What if Japan resisted the Western gunboat diplomacy in the mid-XIX century and gave the finger to the Gaijin empires? What if, instead of opening up towards the West, they turtled like Protoss and endured as a hermit kingdom, evolving into something like contemporary Bhutan? Could we live without Manga and Pokémon? Would we ever find out about sushi? Or tentacle sex? Those questions keep me up all night.

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Doing unspeakable things for the sake of your tiny island was the main thing about Ghost of Tsushima, the game that will surely choke under the avalanche of comparison with Rise of the Ronin. Young samurai against the odds, questing and killing in a rich, open-world environment. In Ronin, though, you are part of the group effort to either support the west-embracing Shogunate or raise the rebellion and overthrow the Quisling-sans. The story has multiple branching paths, some related to the life-and-death outcomes of important, historical NPCs. Immersive stuff all around, if you can endure Japan-specific quirks and intricacies. More on that later.

Japanese Janissary

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As a young survivor from the massacred village, cut down by rebel-seeking Shogunate forces, you and your sister trained under the wing of Veiled Edge, a clandestine cabal specialized in killing hi-profile targets, preferably ones disloyal to sovereign Japan. The old sensei lady overestimated the duo though, picking the assassination of Commodore William Perry for their first mission. The fight went reasonably well until the mysterious figure in a blue demon mask swooped in, demolished our heroes, and saved the commodore. One sibling – you pick which one – gets left behind so the other might escape.

At this point you are on your own, generally speaking. Starting the game in the Yokohama area, the main port for foreign ships, you’ll soon make contact with pro and con Shogunate factions. You can work and build a reputation with both as you please, but some key NPCs will be affected by your decisions. Leading courtesan from the pleasure district, for example, the woman I yearned to “pillow” with, was ambushed and killed because of the things I set in motion. In a different timeline, she would survive, and that’s the beauty of Ronin’s branching paths.

You’ll meet tons of other NPCs though, getting a chance to build relations with any of them. Some of them you’ll bring into missions, others you will shower with gifts, moving towards friendship thresholds for the rewards. The bond-building system is a nice touch, but sometimes it can feel a bit grindy.

It’s not a Ren’ai

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Described like this, one would think that Rise of the Ronin is, God forbid, some Japanese social “sim”. Team Ninja, the talented gang behind Nioh and Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty, took their refined and complex combat module and molded a sandbox game over it. They made a clever crossover between Ghost of Tsushima and Assassin’s Creed and added bits of Sekiro and Dark Souls for good measure. They also implemented the difficulty selector, quite an unusual thing for the developer known for the signature challenge of their games. This is a slight nod to the mainstream which won’t affect hard-core audience but could be an immense help for the civilians.

So, what about that combat module? Rise of the Ronin has tons of weapons and even more combat styles. Some of those are locked by the story progression or friendship levels with key NPC, and others you’ll acquire by defeating the powerful foes. Melee combat requires the careful management of “ki”, auto-replenishable energy used to deliver normal and special attacks. The key for every combat is parrying, or, countersparking as the game calls it. Well-timed counterspark lowers the max Ki of your foes, opening their guard for quick punishment. That’s a basic combat staple for each melee weapon class and every combat style.

Apart from those, you’ll use ranged weapons as sub-weapons. Bows, shuriken, rifles, revolvers, and even the flame thrower will augment your arsenal, giving you additional options. Rifles are excellent for taking out distant guards, for example; Revolvers you’ll use to unload into charging opponent and disrupt their flow; Flame thrower is useful when pursued by a conveniently packed group of adversaries, etc.

High-functioning sandbox

Rise of the Ronin review cats

Rise of the Ronin is not a Ubisoft sandbox, but there’s a healthy number of optional content besides working on the main quest. Collecting cats, for example, is cute, and helping civilians in distress is omnipresent. Every zone in the game is dotted with local gangs, and you’ll need to clean up those to build up the local reputation and earn rewards and vendor discounts. Then there are photo opportunities, light gambling, shooting, and gliding challenges. None of those activities is essential for progress, but most offer a nice distraction.

Is there anything substantially wrong with Rise of the Ronin? Well, it depends on where you come from. The method of storytelling, acting, and character motivations are distinctively Japanese, potentially alienating to the percentage of Western audiences trained on Netflix pacing and dramaturgy. To those people, some of the scenes here will seem over-acted and ridiculous. The visuals are also a mixed bag. While the combat is supremely visceral and full of gruesome details, environments, especially outside of settlements, look bland and dull. The game can’t touch Ghost of Tsushima in the visual department. Last but not least, there’s a megaton of disposable loot in the game that requires your attention. In that respect, the game resembles Nioh.

But that hardly matters when katanas start whizzing around. This is an excellent game with rough looks, doing its own thing. Come to think of it, that’s totally in line with the archetype Ronin of old. Akirata-hai!



  • Complex and intricate combat system.
  • Non-linear story with multiple branching paths.
  • The game boldly explores the period of Japan’s history virtually unknown to Western audiences.


  • Visually far less impressive than Ghost of Tsushima.
  • Overabundance of loot that needs managing.
Review platform: PS5
Developed by: Team Ninja
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