Rise of the Ronin review: Crossed swords & cultural revolution

Team Ninja mixes its tough but stylish combat with a vast and beautiful open world to explore, but is this tour of the Bakumatsu period worth the trip?

Image via Sony

Few can argue against the fact that the developers at Team Ninja are skilled veterans when it comes to designing challenging yet fun melee combat. However, the developers have previously confined their games to mission and level-based scenarios. Rise of the Ronin is something far more ambitious for Team Ninja, taking that polished combat and making it the foundation of a vast open-world action-RPG. You will develop your style, learn your weapons and techniques, and travel the beautiful yet tumultuous lands of Bakumatsu era Japan, playing a key part in the pro-shogunate and anti-shogunate politics and conflicts of the time.

Deadly birds of a feather

Rise of the Ronin takes players back to the period of Japan's history when the nation opened its doors to Western influences and started to do away with the feudal era shogunate. We take on the role of a pair of player-created twins caught in conflict during their childhood. Taken in by a secretive anti-shogunate clan, these twins are taught to be formidable combatants and assassins known as Veiled Edge that work perfectly in tandem on missions. However, on a particular mission that goes horribly awry, a mysterious and powerful samurai appears and quickly defeats the two. One twin stays behind to distract while the other barely escapes to complete the mission. You play the remaining twin. The other is thought to be dead, but the remaining twin feels that’s not the whole truth and resolves to track them down.

That leads to a journey into the Japanese countryside and coast near the city of Yokohama. You are free to travel the land as you see fit, meeting and forming bonds with notable characters, taking on missions, engaging foes in mixes of melee and firearm combat, and discovering any clues you can to the whereabouts of your twin. Rise of the Ronin is gorgeous. It might be one of the most beautiful and content-rich open worlds I’ve explored in a while. There are the trees, fields, and mountainous features of the countryside, a mix of Japanese villages, forts, and castles that are sometimes inhabited and sometimes derelict, and a varied mix of natural features and Eastern and Western architecture abound. Wherever you go, this map is interesting and enjoyable to travel.

Looking over Yokohama in Rise of the Ronin

Rise of the Ronin does that thing most open worlds do where as you unravel a region, you end up with all sorts of checkpoints, side quests, and collectibles to discover, but I rarely felt like these were the chores I find them to be in some open-world games. This game has a few features and mechanics that make its open world nice and digestible. For one, the side tasks were varied, easy to find, and mostly enjoyable, including taking pictures of unique landmarks, clearing out settlements of thugs to bring peaceful residents back, and discovering lost kitty cats to help an acquaintance.

It’s also easy to traverse the world as you advance the story and gain access to a horse, grappling hook, and a glider that lets you soar through the air if you jump from a high place. More appreciated, however, is that each region shows you more of what remains to discover as you get in good with its people. It takes the guesswork out of having to track down a hard-to-find cat or secret treasure chest by rewarding you with their locations when you gain enough goodwill in a region. You even get bonus items for entirely completing a region’s tasks.

Finishing a bandit with a gut stab in Rise of the Ronin

The characters and story are interesting, too. As you progress through the game, you’ll meet all sorts of unique characters, many of which fall on either “pro-shogunate” or “anti-shogunate” sides of the Bakumatsu. They’re well worth engaging, and there are even opportunities where you could turn a one-time bitter enemy into a trusted friend. Not only does that often end up with you having to make dialogue decisions that can affect your standing with them, but you’ll be given access to special missions and gear based on which side you work with and buddy up to as you continue your own story. It adds some level of replayabillity to the whole affair as there are a lot of ways you can change the narrative of Rise of the Ronin depending on the decisions you make and the alliances you forge.

As cool as Rise of the Ronin’s world can be, it’s not without its flaws. There were more than a few times where I ran into invisible walls in the open world that didn’t make much sense to me. It would block me off from certain areas instead of letting me travel through or past them, making for a jarring disruption to my otherwise freeform travels. I also want to note that while the game has English and Japanese voices, you can’t use both. This game has quite a few characters of US, UK, and other nationalities, so I hoped I could make the Western characters speak English and have the Japanese characters speak Japanese, but that’s not possible. It’s one or the other for the entire game and you have to go back to the main menu to change it.

A tempest of steel

Using fire on swords to cut down an enemy in Rise of the Ronin

The period Rise of the Ronin is set in allows for a varied combination of weapons and combat styles to discover throughout Rise of the Ronin, and there are tons of ways for you to specialize with the tools the game offers you. After designing your twins in another incredible Team Ninja character creator, you can decide what kind of Veiled Edge you are with a few archetypes. These feature specializations in strength and open combat, stealth and assassinations, offensive and defensive healing and consumables, and social bartering expertise.

Then, you get to decide what kind of weapons you’ll start to learn. There are around ten weapon classes to discover and while they favor certain character archetypes, you can experiment and figure out whichever you feel suits you best. There are also a ton of gadgets to discover, several skill trees to explore, and plenty of further ways to specialize your character’s approach to social engagements and combat.

Using stealth in Rise of the Ronin

For all this choice, it’s worth noting this is still a Team Ninja game. These folks made Ninja Gaiden and Nioh, and while Rise of the Ronin isn’t as hard as those games, it’s not exactly easy either. Combat leans heavily on Ki, which acts as stamina in the game. Drain your opponent’s Ki and you can unleash a devastating finisher on them. You also have a strong counter mechanic in Countersparks. Timed right, this will deflect an enemy’s attack, panic them, and help you to stagger them quicker. However, enemies can also do all of that to you, and nothing hit me harder in this way than a few boss battles that thoroughly kicked me around for numerous attempts.

Battles throughout the open world are actually pretty manageable, but there are just some fights on specific missions where the game throws everything it’s got at you and expects you to reciprocate. It’s worth noting, though, that at least on missions, you can engage in co-op with other players or bring one of the characters you’ve bonded with as an NPC AI-controlled combatant (you can also switch to them and play them).

Character Creator options in Rise of the Ronin

One thing I give Rise of the Ronin absolute props for is the way you can constantly customize your appearance to your liking throughout the game. You can let your current equipment form your appearance (which usually ends up with you looking like a mismatched weirdo). However, once you unlock a base of operations in Yokohama, you can change your permanent appearance by mixing and matching the looks of any of the armor and weapon pieces you’ve found so far. I constantly changed my look based on the stuff I’d found, which made my character look cool where I would have otherwise looked silly wearing all of my gear specifically for its stats. You can even easily save appearance sets and load them with ease when you’re satisfied. I’ve seen some good character customization in games, but this is some of Team Ninja’s best.

Change with the times

The main character crossing blades with Ryoma in Rise of the Ronin.

Rise of the Ronin is an incredible open-world action-RPG. Its version of Bakumatsu era Japan is beautiful and delightful to explore, with plenty of activities that don’t fall deep into the open-world genre’s trap of being tedious. Its combat and customization are also incredibly well-refined, allowing you to become the martial artist you want to be, whether it’s an assassin, brigand, gunslinger, or more. The characters were fun to get to know and help a lot in reducing what would otherwise be some ridiculously difficult fights in the game. Don’t get me wrong though, this game has moments where it’s Team Ninja hard. Nonetheless, it’s still an incredible journey of cultural revolution and familial salvation. Between its solid combat, varied open world, and enjoyable characters, Rise of the Ronin sets a new tier of excellence in Team Ninja’s game design.

This review is based on a PlayStation 5 digital copy supplied by the publisher. Rise of the Ronin launches exclusively on PS5 on March 22, 2024.

Senior News Editor

TJ Denzer is a player and writer with a passion for games that has dominated a lifetime. He found his way to the Shacknews roster in late 2019 and has worked his way to Senior News Editor since. Between news coverage, he also aides notably in livestream projects like the indie game-focused Indie-licious, the Shacknews Stimulus Games, and the Shacknews Dump. You can reach him at tj.denzer@shacknews.com and also find him on Twitter @JohnnyChugs.

Review for
Rise of the Ronin
  • Team Ninja's best character customization yet
  • Widely varied weapons, gadgets, and combat styles
  • Combat feels challenging, yet satisfying
  • Beautiful open world to explore
  • Lots of choices that influence characters and narrative
  • Side quests and collectibles are plentiful without being tedious
  • NPC and player co-op help alleviate difficulty
  • Oddly placed invisible walls in open world
  • No option to mix languages between Western and Eastern characters
  • Huge difficulty spikes in boss battles
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