Rise of the Ronin preview – The road is long

Rise of the Ronin impresses in its first two hours, thanks to sleek combat and a vast open world.
rise of the ronin preview

Rise of the Ronin is a game of vast ambition for Team Ninja, the development studio most known for the Nioh and Ninja Gaiden franchises. While many of its biggest releases have incorporated elements of gripping action combat and adventure inspired by Japanese history, Rise of the Ronin reaches further, with an open world tale of a nameless, masterless samurai fighting Western incursion in the 19th Century.

After two hours with the game, a raft of intriguing ideas have been unveiled. So far, I’ve seen a game that blends dramatic, history-minded storytelling with sharp, timing-based combat that feels ultra-satisfying to master.

In Rise of the Ronin, you are a young samurai wielding weapons in the fight against Western dominance, as the Black Ships arrive to disrupt peace in Japan. The political system of the country is in turmoil – thanks to the rule of the Tokugawa Shogunate – and with dark alliances brewing, your job is to infiltrate the upper echelons of the political system and strike at the heart of corruption.

By your side is your Blade Twin – your samurai companion and loyal partner. Together, you board one of the Black Ships of the West, and uncover a document that threatens the peace in Japan. In doing so, you unleash the wrath of historic figure Commodore Matthew Perry, who attacks you viciously and separates you from your Blade Twin.

rise of the ronin story
Image: Team Ninja

What follows is a desperate quest to reunite with your Twin, in a tough, lonely journey through the heart of Japan. As a lone samurai – the titular rōnin – you have a duty of honour. Naturally, that means your quest is filled with plenty of detours, including liberating villages from the rule of scoundrels, and solving every minor issue in your path.

So far, every distraction has proved worthwhile, as each character interaction reveals more about the land of Rise of the Ronin, the political implications of government turmoil, and the nature of your rōnin journey.

Comparisons to recent hit Ghost of Tsushima have dogged Rise of the Ronin since launch, thanks to an assumption that they follow similar paths. Having now played both, I can say that while there are similarities, there’s a clear difference between the games.

Where Ghost of Tsushima was more focused on exploration within a gorgeous world ruled by insular politics, Rise of the Ronin is far more focused on history, and exploring the detrimental influence of Western exploration in the 1800s. I’d actually liken it more to 2003’s The Last Samurai, in its approach to storytelling, and in its subject matter.

This is a game that aims to deeply explore a transformative time period for Japan – the dying days of the samurai, and changes which reshaped the society and culture of the country. While it tells a fictional story of loss within these bounds, its opening moments manage to illuminate much about this period, and the important figures of society in the era – like Ryoma Sakamoto, who serves as an early companion in the game.

Most of the folks you meet play a part in real-life history, so while you’re learning to master your weapons, you’re also learning plenty about the world.

rise of the ronin open world
Image: Team Ninja

Beyond its rumination on history, Rise of the Ronin has also shined in other elements, so far. Namely, in its approach to dynamic swordplay, and in its open world.

Combat in Rise of the Ronin is entirely a matter of choosing the right weapons, perfecting combos, and picking the right opening. You’ve got two main attacks: a direct assault, and a flourish / parry that can directly counter enemy moves when deployed correctly.

Rise of the Ronin does not reward button-mashing in the slightest, instead ensuring its combat is lithe and sleek, with strategy needed to survive. Enemies hit very hard, and if you want to journey on, you’ll need to set aside any tendency to mash, and instead focus on enemy animations. If you can time your parries correctly, you’ll avoid damage, push enemies back, and clear a spot for a killing blow.

It’s a system that requires time to get used to, particularly if you’re more familiar with faster action-oriented gameplay, but once you’ve learned the rhythm of Rise of the Ronin, you’ll find excellent flow in this system.

Realistically, you’ll need to learn it fast, because as you roam in the game’s open world, you’ll come across a barrage of high-powered enemies, all of whom are heavy-hitters. Clearing villages is very enjoyable, but a high combat difficulty means you’ll need constant vigilance as you explore.

rise of the ronin gameplay
Image: Team Ninja

Despite this surprising difficulty, Rise of the Ronin has consistently proved sleek and surprising in its first two hours, with a compelling narrative hauling the action along at a fast pace. The game’s devotion to historical accuracy, and its depiction of Japanese history, is marvellous, so far – and there’s plenty waiting beyond the preview window.

The road is long, and there’s plenty of twists to go before it ends – but for now, the path of Rise of the Ronin looks wonderfully grand. Stay tuned for a full review in the coming weeks.

Rise of the Ronin - PlayStation 5
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05/18/2024 07:16 am GMT

Rise of the Ronin launches for PS5 on 22 March 2024.

Leah J. Williams is a gaming and entertainment journalist who's spent years writing about the games industry, her love for The Sims 2 on Nintendo DS and every piece of weird history she knows. You can find her tweeting @legenette most days.