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I just played Rise of the Rōnin on PS5 — and it could be a surprise game of the year contender

 Combat in Rise of the Rōnin.
Combat in Rise of the Rōnin.

The PS5 is kicking off 2024 with a trio of exclusives in consecutive months, and while Final Fantasy VII Rebirth (which launched last month) will likely hog the spotlight, I’ve always quietly had my eye on Rise of the Rōnin. And after playing around three hours of the game, I’m pleased to report my inkling that this could be something special looks to be right on the money.

Developed by Team Ninja, the studio behind the Souls-inspired Nioh series, Rise of the Rōnin blends together the timing-based combat of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice and the vast open world of Ghost of Tsushima. This blend of influences results in an experience that can feel a little derivative, but it’s also challenging, rewarding and engrossing in its early stages.

I’ll need to dive deeper into Rise of the Rōnin before I can judge whether it’s worthy of being labeled one of the best PS5 games but the initial signs are promising that it meets the high-quality bar that gamers have come to expect from a PS5 exclusive.

Rise of the Rōnin: $69 @ Amazon
Set in 19th century Japan during the Boshin War, Rise of the Rōnin comes from developer Team Ninja and blends a sizeable open-world, a choice-driven narrative and engaging combat. Designed to take full advantage of the PS5, it also offers impressive visuals, speedy loading times and full support for the console's DualSense controller. That's pretty much all the ingredients needed for Rise of the Rōnin to be another must-play PlayStation exclusive.View Deal

No time to waste

Rise of Rōnin screenshot
Rise of Rōnin screenshot

Rise of the Rōnin doesn’t waste much time getting you straight into the action. After creating your custom protagonist in the game’s solid character creator — although it’s not on par with the remarkable creations capable in Dragon’s Dogma 2 — you’re almost immediately whisked away to complete your first mission as a member of an elite samurai clan.

This quest involves stealing intel on a cargo ship and also eliminating its captain, and it probably won’t come as much surprise when I say, the job doesn’t exactly go to plan. To make matters worse, you return to your home base to find it under siege. This sets up the general stakes of the story, as your mission quickly becomes one of revenge.

While I appreciate that Rise of the Rōnin swiftly gets you into the fray, and the opening mission does a good job introducing the game’s combat system, its fast pace doesn’t leave you much time to get invested in its characters, or the larger narrative as a whole.

Rise of the Rōnin screenshot
Rise of the Rōnin screenshot

In fact, after a few hours with the game, my single biggest concern is that the story has yet to get its hooks into me, and none of the characters have earned my interest. The lead character being mute doesn’t help much either. Of course, I’ve only experienced a fraction of what appears to be a lengthy game, so there’s plenty of time for me to get properly invested.

Entering a dangerous world

After the linear introduction, which should take most players less than an hour to complete, you're dropped into the game’s open-world depiction of 19th-century Japan during the Boshin War. This is a fascinating period in history with a civil war underway and Western technologies and inventions landing on the Eastern shores blending the old with the new.

While I’ve only seen a small portion of the overall map — and only visited one major settlement, Yokohama — Rise of the Rōnin’s world is clearly packed with points of interest. There are the standard enemy camps and prayer shrines that unlock skill points, but also more dynamic world events that you can stumble upon. Like the time I encountered a hulking giant harassing a villager, and ended up initiating a pretty tough mini-boss battle.

Rise of the Rōnin screenshot
Rise of the Rōnin screenshot

Rise of the Rōnin could end up falling foul of the problematic trend of open-world bloat (that was my main issue with Final Fantasy VII Rebirth), but based on my relatively short experience so far, the world seems ripe with engaging things to do. However, my enjoyment of the side content is likely because of the game’s biggest strength: its epic combat.

Sharpen your steel

While it does offer three difficulty settings, Rise of the Rōnin takes clear inspiration from the works of FromSoftware, as noted, its most clear analogy is Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice.

Combat requires precise timing and careful management of your stamina bar. If you opt to carelessly mash the attack button, your character will run out of energy very quickly and leave themselves vulnerable to a devastating string of blows. Most enemy attacks can be parried, and you’ll need to practice this timing if you want to defeat the tougher bosses.

Rise of the Rōnin screenshot
Rise of the Rōnin screenshot

Combat is spiced up further with the ability to quickly switch between two selected weapon types on the fly, jump between various combat stances (ala Ghost of Tsushima) and make use of ranged items like shuriken or rudimentary firearms.

There are a lot of layers to the combat, which can briefly lead to frustrating moments as you try and string everything together, but I found myself getting into a rhythm after just a few enemy encounters.

On the normal difficulty, Rise of the Rōnin is tough but manageable. It’s definitely easier than something like Elden Ring or Dark Souls. The parry windows is fairly forgivable and there's a highly generous loot system — I feel like I earn a new weapon or piece of armor after practically every skirmish — but the game’s not a pushover, and does demand players give their full attention in order to survive.

Rise of the Rōnin screenshot
Rise of the Rōnin screenshot

Further elements are taken from the Souls series including Veiled Edge Banners that act as checkpoints, but resting at one will respawn defeated enemies, and a system where you lose some of your collected XP upon death and must slay the enemy that killed you to reclaim it.

Rise of the Rōnin could be really special

After three hours, I love Rise of the Rōnin’s combat and its generous upgrade systems that ensure I’m always earning new rewards and increasing my power. Plus, I’ve found its side content compelling enough that I’ve neglected continuing the story quests to instead methodically clear the introductory portion of the map.

Rise of the Rōnin screenshot
Rise of the Rōnin screenshot

The narrative and characters have yet to really draw my interest, and it should be noted the visuals aren’t particularly impressive on PS5. Especially in larger towns, pop-in is an unfortunately frequent occurrence, and its open-world Japan isn’t anywhere near the breathtaking standard set by Ghost of Tsushima, which initially launched on PS4.

However, after just a few hours with Rise of the Rōnin, I’m super eager to continue roaming its world. That’s a very promising sign. I’m even starting to think this could be a dark horse game of the year contender.

Of course, until I’ve experienced the full journey, I can’t give you a final verdict, but so far Rise of the Rōnin has impressed me with its rich open-world and mechanically complex combat. It’s shaping up to be a satisfying samurai simulator.

Be sure to keep it locked to Tom’s Guide for more Rise of the Rōnin coverage, including our full review, as we move closer to its launch on March 22, exclusively on PS5.

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