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Rise of the Ronin Sends Players Into a Chaotic Japan

After decades of designing linear video game adventures such as the Ninja Gaiden and Nioh series, Team Ninja has dropped the guardrails and loosed players into an open world.

Its latest offering, Rise of the Ronin, is set during the mid-19th century when Japan opened its doors to Western influence and the last of the shogunates was nearing its end. Players step into the armor of one of a pair of warriors, referred to as “Twin Blades,” and take on missions from either those aligned with tradition, or those pushing for a more modern Japan.

After stealing a letter containing secret information early in the game, the player’s ronin, or masterless samurai, must decide which faction most deserves it. By making these types of decisions throughout Rise of the Ronin, some of the narrative can be altered.

“It was a time of chaos,” Yosuke Hayashi, the game’s producer, said in an email. “Japan’s long period of isolationism was at an end and such significant upheaval resulted in various sets of values coming into conflict.”

Fans of the combat in Team Ninja’s previous work will not be disappointed. Battles in Rise of the Ronin are lightning fast, full of parries, counterstrikes and flying sparks as steel meets steel. As the camera revolves around the action, it can feel like players are in a Formula 1 racecar driven by Akira Kurosawa.

But the studio’s first experience building an open world, where players are given a large area that they can explore as they see fit, shows how challenging it is to construct one.

Most of the buildings in Rise of the Ronin, which was released last week for the PlayStation 5, feel flat, with doors that do not open except in very specific cases. Repeated character models wander the street in rote patterns. The optional quests largely feel the same: Go somewhere and kill a bunch of enemies. In many ways, the game’s open world feels like one created for the twilight of an older generation of consoles like the PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360.

Player expectations for contemporary open-world games are high. They seek compelling activities that drive forward the game’s overarching narrative, as well as completely unrelated side quests that can tell smaller but evocative stories. They want a sense of exploration and discovery, a feeling that there is always something on the other side of that mountain in the distance.

Those are different sensations than Team Ninja capably delivered with its previous titles, such as the Nioh series and last year’s Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty, which generally marched players along a linear path.

In all of those games — Nioh and its sequel take their inspiration from Japanese myths and monsters, while Wo Long looks at a demon-infested version of China’s Han dynasty — action takes center stage. To succeed, a stamina meter and an intricate system of strikes, parries and stances must be managed. Players face many smaller foes before encountering a more powerful warrior or monster. Exploration is not the point.

Serkan Toto, a video game industry consultant in Tokyo, said Team Ninja had a well-earned reputation as one of Japan’s best action-game developers, but theorized that the studio might have worked too quickly to put its own spin on Japanese history after the success of Ghost of Tsushima, a 2020 game for the PlayStation based on the Mongols’ first invasion of Japan.

Ghost of Tsushima, which was created by Sucker Punch Productions, was praised critically, won several awards and sold about 10 million copies. In comparison, Toto said, Rise of the Ronin “looks uninspired, underproduced and a bit unambitious.”

Team Ninja did work to mitigate some of the downsides of open-world games, which can devolve into oceans of random tasks that drown players and their attention spans.

In Ubisoft series like Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry, the world map is covered in icons telling players exactly what to expect when they arrive at a location. In FromSoftware’s Elden Ring, however, the map is blank and players must wander out blindly to learn.

“We have worked to ensure the player does not feel overwhelmed by the need to digest a large volume of information,” Hayashi said. “We were always conscious of giving the game a density that would offer players a feeling of immersion.”

In that, the game does succeed. Players are unlikely to be overwhelmed by their options as they roam freely. But how immersed they feel will probably have more to do with how much they crave epic duels to the death, rather than a living, breathing world to explore.

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