Rise of the Ronin review – History in motion

Rise of the Ronin is a cinematic epic with a compelling devotion to history.
rise of the ronin review

The Bakumatsu period of Japanese history is one riddled with cultural and political turmoil. It was a time when Japan began to open its borders, inviting influence from the Western world, and equally, inviting corruption, subterfuge, and interference. Rise of the Ronin charts this period with a deep devotion, inviting players to embody a fictional rōnin, a masterless samurai, in the dying days of the Tokugawa Shogunate.

It’s a rich backdrop that enhances the adventure, and its compelling narrative – which begins in cloistered fashion, before the player character is weaved into a more complex web of shogunate back-stabbing and rival politics. The set up, as described in our early game preview, is simple and efficient.

You are a samurai warrior bonded with a Blade Twin, learning the ropes of combat in an idyllic village, before being tasked with meddling in shogunate affairs. Your first mission sends you to the Black Ships of the West, where real-life historic figure Commodore Matthew C. Perry, an American naval officer, is scheming to influence the shogunate. The trip ends in disaster – your Blade Twin is seemingly vanquished, and you’re nearly killed in battle.

Read: Rise of the Ronin preview – The road is long

rise of the ronin gameplay
Image: Team Ninja

When you awake, you’re alone in the world. Your Blade Twin is missing. And now, there’s a deeper conspiracy to uncover. So you set off into a wide, fairly familiar (and somewhat unsurprising) open world to learn more about the Black Ships, and the growing Western influence that seeks to transform life in Japan.

For a game that largely revolves around hunting goons and swinging a sword, Rise of the Ronin presents a surprisingly layered and compelling story, one based carefully on real-life history. There’s a real sense of drama and cinema brought to the game’s depiction of the late Edo period, with each quest drawing you further into its tale.

That extends to its depiction of real-life historic figures like Sakamoto Ryōma and Katsu Kaishū, who are presented here as multi-faceted, changeable individuals with a sense of charm and humour. Rise of the Ronin does well to flesh out its main cast, and deliver stakes that feel tangible – so that when triumph or disaster strikes, you feel it in your bones.

Ryoma is a particularly intriguing companion in the adventure, for his changing loyalties, which are given time and attention, and space to breathe.

The basic crux of Rise of the Ronin is the push-and-pull between shogunate and anti-shogunate forces, both of which aim to guide the future of Japan, how it evolves beyond the Edo period, and how much influence Western powers may assert over it.

rise of the ronin gameplay review
Image: Team Ninja

Rise of the Ronin goes to great lengths to challenge the biases of both sides, exploring the nature of the Tokugawa Shogunate, and how views around it have been warped by conflict. Characters you meet may switch sides to reveal new allegiances with every plot beat, and it’s in these decisions that Rise of the Ronin reveals itself as a multi-layered epic.

While you have some choice in the matter, with occasional decisions leading to dire consequences, the game does not present a strict binary in its exploration of the Bakumatsu period. Its heroes and villains are presented in multi-facets, allowing you a degree of choice about your loyalty, and who you choose to support along the way. Your allies may also switch sides, forcing you to question your beliefs and your path forward.

Of course, when negotiating and clever choices won’t pave the path, you can always rely on swinging your swords first, and asking questions later.

While Rise of the Ronin is largely concerned with its compelling political plot, it’s in your role as a master swordsman that you have the most impact. Figureheads argue about the future of Japan, and you swing your sword, and get the action done behind the scenes – whether that be dispatching a threat to the shogunate, or launching a full-scale rebellion.

rise of the ronin gameplay combat
Screenshot: GamesHub

Swordplay is just as compelling as the game’s well-plotted main tale, with a combat system that is moreish and sleek in its design. You are a weapon in Rise of the Ronin, and you react as a weapon. Like other Team Ninja games, Rise of the Ronin relies on quick-thinking, timing, and watching enemy attacks, but it’s a system that feels far more approachable in this adventure.

Rather than going forth on a heavy-handed attack, Rise of the Ronin encourages balance and patience. You attack lightly, defend yourself when your enemy strikes, and then jump into this opening, striking hard and fast. Not every enemy is predictable, and that’s where the fun of combat lies – in waiting, learning, and eventually putting your enemy down with fast reactions, and clever thinking.

At the end of the road, it was this system that I found myself thinking about most often. The joy of jumping into a new battle, strategising a best approach, using stealth to pick off outer enemies, and then perfecting the timing of blocking an errant blade. There is a real sense of refinement in the game’s combat approach, and a satisfaction that feels incredibly rare.

Between this combat, and the narrative team’s deft approach to unravelling real life history, Rise of the Ronin is an incredibly compelling adventure. In its writing and approach to character, it allows for a dense exploration of the Edo period in Japan, never shying away from the political complexities and loyalties of the era. While its open world is fairly standard, and there’s a lack of true innovation in its exploration, on the strength of its storytelling, Rise of the Ronin is a triumph.

Four stars: ★★★★

Rise of the Ronin
PlayStation 5
Team Ninja
Sony Interactive Entertainment
Release Date: 
22 March 2024

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

A copy of Rise of the Ronin was provided for the purposes of this review. GamesHub reviews are rated on a five-point scale.

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.