[label style=”blue”]Platforms: PC | Developer: Tomasz Wacławek | Publisher: Devolver Digital | ESRB: M | Controls: Keyboard/Mouse, Controller [/label]
As I sit here thinking about how to review Ronin, a 2D half stealth game, half over-the-top mass-murder simulator by Tomasz Wacławek, I am inclined to be unfair to it. So let me start with this: the game is fun. All the following paragraphs of criticism should be prefaced by a tentative recommendation. The stylized visuals and much-touted turn-based combat are viscerally entertaining (when they work…) and the game’s minimalist, unfolding narrative is both intriguing and serves to string together the otherwise repetitive gameplay well… even if it an otherwise interesting twist is spoiled by the game’s description on Steam (or maybe I’m more clever than I think. Either way, I suggest you not think too hard about it. Or at least try and act surprised).
So please, take the rest of my ranting with that in mind; I did have moments in which I genuinely enjoyed Ronin.
First off, I think it helps to think of Ronin as a puzzle game. With swords. And guns. And blood. At first glance, Ronin seems a stylized side-scrolling stealth game in the same vein as Klei’s excellent Mark of the Ninja, but as one of the frequent (and sometimes frustratingly unhelpful) hints points out: “This is not a stealth game.” And it isn’t. It has none of the variety nor freedom that most of the best stealth games possess. This is a game that pits you, a Kill Bill-esque lady in a biker helmet, against a series of foes with the barest minimum of context and only your sword and a hoard of hostile enemy guards, soldiers and samurai to keep you company.
Unfortunately, despite the claim that it isn’t a stealth game, Ronin also seems to beg a lot of foresight and planning from you, which is unfortunate considering your only real ways of dealing with enemies are once you have fully entered combat (which, if you’ve played any decent stealth game, you’ll know is generally after things have gone pear-shaped and is often the weakest point of the game). This is doubly unfortunate because Ronin truly shines when you’re forced to improvise – to bob and weave almost Matrix-like through crossing lines of fire, biting your nails as you try desperately to plan to merely stay alive for the next two turns. The entire last level is like this and, without wishing to spoil it, it is the point in the game when I did almost an entire 180-degree flip on my opinion of the game. It’s just too bad it came so late in the experience.
As I said before, Ronin often feels more like a puzzle game in which you utilize the game’s unique and sometimes well-used turn-based combat system to position yourself over, under, or between the red lines indicating lines of fire. The combat blends nicely with the 2D side-scrolling design and the stylized visuals to create an intense and visceral experience. The turn-based mechanics allow for some ability to plan your tactics and make for some pretty thrilling moments, like when I leapt into the air and hung between two parallel lines of fire, suspended for a moment like a marionette on its strings, as I sliced a foe that I had dramatically defenestrated in two. In that moment, the game had succeeded in making me feel like a badass.
Unfortunately, those moments are marred by some niggling problems that kept me more frustrated than excited during my time playing the game. The lack of more subtle movement in combat (simply walking or climbing, for instance) may have been a necessity for the turn-based mechanics to work properly, but they are sorely missed when you are inches away from your foe but too far to slay, necessitating an entirely unnecessary dramatic leap to get into position. Even worse is when you land on the wall just beneath your opponent and must leap away from them and then back in, rather than the game allowing you some way to take the enemy out at the feet or simply climb up onto the ledge mere inches from your hands.
In combat, your only modes of transportation are the aforementioned jumps and your grappling hook, which either locks you into a lazy pendulum swing that you can only fall out of (seriously, would it be too hard to jump from your swing, Ronin lady?) or, more often, leaves you hanging like a side of meat waiting to be bled out.
I think you can guess based on that final metaphor how my attempts to use the grappling hook in combat often ended.
The combat also feels suspiciously scripted at times, especially during the game’s larger fights when dozens of enemies are waiting to aerate you with their guns. Most fights seem to ask you not to try and find a clever and unique way to win each battle – like solving a puzzle – but to guess at the exact order of moves the game designer had in mind when putting the encounter together. This creates many moments in the game where, after dying countless times trying to do something your way, you ask the damning question: “How do you want me to solve this?” rather than “How can I solve this?” Sometimes this comes through more obviously than others and early in the game it’s easy to overlook.
As the rooms get more complex, however, the problem becomes more pronounced. Most of the time it’s a relatively small nuisance, however, and a lot of the game allows for more moment-to-moment improvisation when your careful plans go pear-shaped. I do have a feeling that this lack of freedom will cut drastically into the game’s replayability as you realize that you’re basically going to just go through each battle the exact same way you did the first time.
But overall, besides the lack of mobility and the niggling suspicion that you must complete every battle in a predetermined manner, the combat works well and is generally enjoyable. Which is good because you’ll be doing a lot of it. There is very little variety in the game. You’re introduced to pretty much every variety of enemy at the beginning of the game and you’ll be well and truly sick of them by the end. And since “This isn’t a stealth game,” as Ronin so proudly declares, your options for dealing with a situation are limited.
Which makes even the thrilling combat system start to feel monotonous eventually as you get into a boring rhythm of “jump over line of fire, drop under line of fire, jump over line of fire, drop under line of fire” until you finally get the killing blow you’ve been searching for. The game does have a (simplistic) leveling up system with a few tricks but there simply aren’t enough to make the combat really feel fresh after the first couple levels and, even more problematic, only one of the skills allows you to remove enemies from play before combat starts (because “This isn’t a stealth game”).
The story itself is a triumph of simplicity. This may sound like a criticism but it isn’t, the story actually works extremely well to tie the game together and if I hadn’t been frustrated by replaying sections of the game for upwards of an hour at a time, I probably would have enjoyed the story a lot more. All that you’re given in the way of context is a picture during loading screens with ten individuals, most of which you are led to assume you will acquaint with your sword at some point during your bloody adventure.
One oddity is that I greatly preferred the “sad” ending (so-called in the Steam achievement). I won’t spoil it here but suffice to say that the excellent final level of the game introduces a small alteration to one of the game’s mechanics that adds immensely to the thrilling conclusion of the story. The “good” ending, I found, took far too much effort for far too little reward. Though maybe I just prefer stories with sad endings.
All that being said, Ronin is not a bad game and there were moments when I genuinely enjoyed it. But there were also too many moments when I tore out my hair and cried to the heavens “What do you want me to do?!” which is a shame, because this is a game that truly could have benefited from allowing the player to go off the rail and be creative.
At the end of the day, Ronin is a game with too little freedom to be creative that feigns difficulty when really it is asking you to be psychic. It is a game that does too little too often. But at the same time, it has enough thrills and joy in the blend of combat and unique visuals to justify the more-than-fair price tag and the story is a simplistic but delicious cherry on top of that flawed but ultimately enjoyable cake.
Ronin was reviewed on PC. A review code was provided by the publisher.