Rise of the Ronin preview: A sharp opening act

Rise of the Ronin preview: A sharp opening act
Images via Team Ninja

Written by 

Ben Williams


11th Mar 2024 22:00

After almost three decades of crafting games including those focused on samurai and Ninja, Rise of the Ronin feels like the culmination of developer Team Ninja’s 20 years of experience working on the Ninja Gaiden and Nioh series. 

Whilst the ambition of their biggest game yet can seem a bit overwhelming at times, the drive to hone in on a blend of narrative, choice, and brutal combat shines through to leave you excited with what’s to come beyond this first chapter. 

What is Rise of the Ronin about?

Set in 1863 Tokyo, the time of the Japanese Civil War, Rise of the Ronin is an action-adventure title where you take your own custom character - a masterless samurai, or Ronin - and journey across a combat-focused open world - one that’s been plunged into chaos by western influence by Japan’s recently reopened borders. 

Rise of the Ronin protagonist in front of Yokohama
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Not only do you get to explore what Team Ninja describes as an “authentic world during the time’s Bakumatsu period, but Rise of the Ronin also promises to be a mix of shaping your own story with a rich multi-choice system, and a deeply complex yet engaging combat system - one that a developer of its history is known for. 

A ronin of your own making

Before we get into this open world and walk around cities like Kyoto, Yokohama, and Edo (Tokyo’s name until 1868), the first couple of hours spent with the game for this preview so far is essentially a prologue to set your characters and the world up, before getting to explore a bit with some missions after the title card.

Yes, ‘characters’ as in plural. You start Rise of the Ronin as a pair of what’s known as Blade Twins - warrior assassin members of a group called the Veiled Edge, raised by their Bladesmith master after saving them from shogunate assassins.

Before starting the game, you’ll create two protagonists instead of one, which you can switch between in combat. This is where Rise of the Ronin can first interestingly take you by surprise: with an in-depth character creation screen with myriad options - from standard subtle aesthetics fitting the game’s serious tone or those to downright cartoony if you see fit given this is your adventure. 

Our Rise of the Ronin protagonists made in the character creator for the preview
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From the depth and width of your chin, head size, hair highlights, iris, and pupil presets, to even how shiny you want your tattoos to be, Rise of the Ronin’s character creator can almost feel overwhelming. Still, the option to simply play with the standard or a randomised pair of protagonists is there too. 

As for me, I spent almost an hour experimenting with how to put my Rise of the Ronin Blade Twins together until I settled on one that blends Bayonetta with Dune's Fremen, and another with Sith Lord eyes, Harry Potter-esque lightning tattoo, and a Geralt of Rivia-inspired scar over the eye; both even have huge back tattoos for a finishing flourish. 

Was all that time necessary? No. Does it make each of the RotR’s cutscenes more fun being centered around my silly but somehow serious-looking creations? 100%.

Soulslike sparks

Rise of the Ronin’s second point of intrigue so far is the combat, being a refreshing Soulslike genre change-up for Team Ninja newcomers, but with some game-specific tweaks that will draw in Nioh fans as well. 

The opening prologue will essentially take you through escalating battles as part of the tutorials to get you used to its various mechanics. In conjunction with standard weapon slashing - of which you can pick two of different kinds to better fit your class, or ‘Blade Sharpening Origin’ as they’re called - the biggest mechanics to master are countersparks, this game’s version of a timed counter. 

Timing a counterspark will aptly counter an enemy’s blow, panic them, and lower their maximum ki. However, you can also combine these with martial skills - spell skills tailored to your Blade Sharpening Origin to deplete what remains of their key, break their stance, and leave them open to a critical hit.

Rise of the Ronin combat in a bamboo forest
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As you progress, you’ll get other weapons to mix in like your grappling hook to throw objects at enemies, rifles, or even shuriken. Although, if you’re not used to games with action RPGs with difficult combat, remembering these fundamentals may be quite a challenge - at least at the start. 

Even on the lowest difficulty setting, getting the timing of countersparks right can be tricky at times because attacks from a variety of enemies have patterns with completely different timings, initially making it frustrating when you’re taking on multiple foes since you’ll lose precious health during the process of trial and error. 

Using a gun in Rise of the Ronin
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On the other hand, success makes learning counterparts a thrill to master: getting the distance just right for a particular foe, remembering how many strikes you’ll need to counter, and making sure your own attacks aren’t too short since they’ll leave you open, and that satisfying clashing sound when you pull the counter off makes that frustration turn into delight.

With the eternal Soulsike moment-to-moment mantra of "get good or go get out", Rise of the Ronin shines.

A strong introduction

It’s easy to tell that Rise of the Ronin’s combat will get even better as more skills become unlockable and I try out different Blade Sharpening Origins to boost my proficiency with different weapons to take on bigger and badder enemies across Japan. 

But what the early parts of the game will surely make players want to see more of is the story and how its choice-based narrative affects the open-world adventure, along with the characters you’ll meet in the journey. 

Commodore Matthew Perry in Rise of the Ronin
Click to enlarge

The pre-title card prologue does a great job of hitting the ground running. For example, before you set off in the world, the Bladesmith will send you and your Bladetwin on one of the western black ships. 

After you pick up some extra mechanics like assassination and taking on a first boss fight, you’ll get treated to the first big decision you need to make in the choice-dictated story - followed by a surprisingly impactful finale. 

Backed by the beautiful cinematics and gorgeous environments, it felt like the first episode of a large-scale samurai adventure series, with your launch into the rest of the narrative across Rise of the Ronin’s vast map. 

A charming cast

Whilst preview guidelines couldn’t take us too far in the open world beyond an extra hour into the story, even what I saw in these early chapters is more than enough to have me excited for what comes next.

Between seeing a couple of the villages and the bustling and stunning Yokohama, the first big city you’ll explore, the final surprise that will charm players is the characters you’ll ally with - some of which will be simple quest-givers or those you can actually take into battle and control. 

The ones seen so far each with their own distinct personality and story in helping flesh out Rise of the Ronin’s world, having these eclectic figures alongside your mostly silent protagonist is a relief. 

Ryoma Sakamoto in Rise of the Ronin
Click to enlarge

Ryoma Sakamoto for instance, the fellow Ronin who you’ll meet early, is a goofy yet skillful guide who’ll get you acquainted with the other parts of the town whilst disarming you with his charm. 

Then there’s Igashichi Lizuka, an eccentric inventor whose inventions, like the glider, will seem to enhance your Rise of the Ronin experience the more as you go. 

Bonding with allies, one of the game's many systems, influences the way you play already by each relationship providing incentives, unlocking new combat stances. Even so, just having these extra interesting characters seems to inject the extra life the game needs to keep you engaged with the story beyond its opening hours. 

Final Thoughts

Even in its first chapters, Rise of the Ronin throws a lot at you to get ready for the massive journey ahead. However, it seems like that heavy cocktail is about to pay off. 

Combining intense-yet-exciting combat, a plethora of RPG systems, and a gorgeous cinematic choice-driven story with interesting characters to draw you in - all in a graphically beautiful world set during one of Japan’s most interesting periods - Rise of the Ronin will have you hooked and eager to keep playing. 

It's too early to tell if the rest of the game is as good as I hope, but I can't wait to pick my blades back up and find out.

Preview code provided by the publisher.

Ben is a Senior Guides Writer at GGRecon. Alongside his BA (Hons) in Business Management is a wealth of gaming and entertainment writing experience, having previously occupied roles as a Copywriter in e-commerce at Overclockers and Guides & SEO Writer at GameByte and FragHero. When not whipping up guides and reviews, Ben’ll be off playing the latest Pokemon games, Overwatch 2, Spider-Man, The Witcher, and Final Fantasy - all before reading manga and listening to Ice Nine Kills.