video games

‘Rise of the Ronin’ preview: An open-world Souls-lite set in Bakumatsu-era 1800s Japan

Gelo Gonzales

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‘Rise of the Ronin’ preview: An open-world Souls-lite set in Bakumatsu-era 1800s Japan


Image from Sony

The 'Countersparks' parry system is rewarding but the game appears to be more forgiving and more accessible than Souls-like games

There’s no shortage of samurai games. Ghost of Tsushima, Sekiro, and Like a Dragon: Ishin! got into all that blade-swinging action as well. And there was Nioh too, which was coincidentally made by the same people behind the game we’re talking about today, Rise of the Ronin.

In development since 2015 by Team Ninja, in collaboration with Sony’s London-based XDev Studio, the PS5-exclusive finally comes out on March 22. 

Here’s what you need to know about it. Just something to note: this is a first impressions article based on just a few hours of playtime, and our views may change as we continue to play, and understand the game’s systems better.

  1. Parrying, called “Countersparks,” is a big part of the gameplay. It’s my favorite part of the combat mechanic so far, as successful parries, especially when you’re able to parry multiple hits or an enemy’s special attack is, as you might expect, very satisfying.

    So far, the difficulty level feels like it’s an open-world “Souls-lite” and not a Souls-like game. You’ll find some success just by evading and mashing the attack button, as the game’s enemies, at least in the first 3 or 4 hours, have been forgiving in terms of giving you windows of opportunities, and are not very aggressive in parrying your attacks. 

    It’s fun to observe and learn how to parry an opponent so you can build up your opponent’s panic level to the point where you can unleash flashy, violent special attacks for major damage, but so far, I’ve had success just being aggressive with my attacks – which is to say, parrying hasn’t been extremely necessary.  

    Evading has also been more effecting for me as blocking depletes your stamina gauge known as “Ki” pretty quickly. 

    Team Ninja has been known though for difficult games like Ninja Gaiden and Nioh (although of course From Software has become the king of masochistic games) so I wonder if these early stages are just a teaser for what’s to come.

    The game also appears to have a great emphasis on narrative and story so I wonder also if they did hold back on the difficulty for this game, so that more players can experience the story. In their press materials, it is noted that accessibility is part of the game.

    There is some Souls similarity though as you earn a type of experience points called “Karma” that you lose after dying, but are able to recover in vendetta mode where you go after your last killer. Die though, and you lose those points. You also have a stamina bar, and a similar item-use user interface, and save spots where you can “deposit” earned karma.

2. It’s set in Japan’s “Bakumatsu” period, a real historical time period set between 1853 and 1868 wherein the country’s isolationist policies came to an end after the Perry Expedition led by US Commodore Matthew Perry.

By comparison, Ghost of Tsushima was set hundreds of years back in 1274.

  1. There’s a strong emphasis on “Bonds.” Your bond with a region or a specific character can grow as you complete side quests for people in that region or complete missions with another character.

    The game’s characters may be its strongest suit so far. We’re just a few hours in, and we’re already invested in the characters we have met such as a fellow wandering ronin Ryoma Sakamoto, the bandit chief Gonzo, inventor Igashichi Iizuka, and famed geisha Taka Murayama. 

    They offer engaging dialogue, are visually interesting, and you just get this motivation to do missions with or for them, so you get to know them more. And there are also in-game rewards for doing so, as you raise your bond level. Your character is the silent protagonist type, by the way. 

    The same goes for the game’s many areas. Do the missions in the area, and your bond with that area goes up, which brings with it several rewards. I’m looking forward to see whether the people in the area will interact with you differently as you raise your bond level with the area. 

    I’m usually not the biggest fan of sidequests, and I often just focus on the main storyline, but raising that bond level with characters and areas has been an effective carrot-on-a-stick for me. 

    One of the mission types as well is you go around certain areas to “restore public order,” which is basically safespeak for “kill every bad guy in the area to free it.” It’s a familiar open-world game mechanic that Ghost of Tsushima also had.

    But one thing that the game may have over Tsushima is some measure of choice over events. Game Informer noted in its December preview, including an interview with lead designers: “Don’t expect a large number of these branches to present themselves during the main story, but completing certain side missions related to the main narrative or centering on an important character will help steer the overall adventure toward one of several endings.” 

    I’ve had one of those moments already where I had to decide whether to kill or let a target live, and it felt indeed like a weighty decision on how my character will proceed in the game. 
  1. You’ll see a mishmash of both Japanese and Western equipment. The game wants to depict a transition period for Japan as Western influence comes along, and we see that in the items you can equip. You can equip a kimono with a Western-style hat while wearing boots. Or Japanese sandals paired with vests and Western pants. It’s a funny sight but one that I’m enjoying, and is a design element that helps set this game apart. I’m really intrigued by this initial East-meets-West setting. 

    The game’s loot system is also quite generous with weapon and armor drops, and these have various effects like higher night time damage or quicker Ki regeneration. There are some more unique items too that offer more unique effects on the character. 

    In spite of this being sort of like a revenge quest, the atmosphere isn’t that heavy, and seems to be in a less serious mood than Ghost of Tsushima. Or if we’re going to compare it to the Souls games, the tone is definitely less intimidating and oppressing than Elden Ring or the Souls games. I, for one, like it’s a little bit more relaxed. 
  1. So far, there really seems to be a lot of interesting things to do here, and the combat mechanic seems fun to master. The stealth kills and the grappling hook also remind me of that old PlayStation ninja game series Tenchu. The assassinations from falling from the glider are amazing.

    Grappling to a high spot, and seamlessly transitioning to gliding is very cool too.

    But aside from that, Ronin has some rough spots. The roughest is the AI enemy scripting, specifically how far an enemy is supposed to go away from their area. When you’re at what appears to be the set border for their character, they repeatedly go back to their area, and then chase you again when you go a little bit nearer. 

    This includes at least one boss I’ve fought so far. He kept shuffling between attempting to go back to his original area, and to where I was – which really wasn’t that far from his area. The combat can be engaging, but these moments break the illusion.

    I’ve been able to exploit this as well, letting me pick off one enemy at a time. 

    And don’t expect Ghost of Tsushima-type eye candy. While the facial texture, hair, some locations, and characters do look great, and the art direction looks great, with unique East-meets-West settings, the graphical rendering of environments can sometimes have spots with rough or dull textures. Something to note in case you were wondering if it’s as visually stunning as Tsushima.

    I’m guessing that part of it is also due to Tsushima’s visual art direction going for a glossier, dreamier look, while Ronin feels more raw, and more grounded. 

    There’s also one part in the beginning where I just suddenly seemed to have a horse. I restored public order to an area, and suddenly I had a horse – no in-game scene where it was shown that I was rewarded with it. 
  1. If you love cats, you’ll love Rise of the Ronin. My favorite minigame or side quest so far is tracking down cats. Cat areas are marked on the map, and you can sneak up on them, catch them, and pet them. So cute!


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Gelo Gonzales

Gelo Gonzales is Rappler’s technology editor. He covers consumer electronics, social media, emerging tech, and video games.