A young girl, known as the "Rōnin", has lost her father. The only thing she has left is a photo of five former associates of her father, responsible for his death. The Rōnin will take justice into her own hands by taking revenge upon the five, one at a time.
Single player campaign with new game plus and skill tree
6-10 hours, depending on whether you tackle new game plus and try to complete all objectives
June 30, 2015 (PC); November 1, 2015 (PS4, PS Vita)
PC, OSX, Linux, PS4, PS Vita
Developer: Tomasz Wacławek
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Genre: Action, Platformer
Platforms: PC, PS4, PS Vita
Rating: M for Mature
Price: $10 on PSN, $12.99 on Steam, $6.99 for DLC including soundtrack and digital comic
Developer Tomasz Wacławek has said himself that his goal was to create a clone of the innovative pixel-art stealth game Gunpoint. On release of his clone, named Ronin, multiple articles compared it to Klei Games’ Mark Of The Ninja, which I once gave a 9.9 / 10 on a different review site. So when I discovered Ronin deep within my Steam library, I was ready for a game that was very similar to two other games I enjoyed greatly. But it’s safe to say – and the Gunpoint developer actually did say—that Ronin is far more than the clone is was supposed to be.
The ancient Japanese themes and “abilities” of the protagonist suggest some form of magic or spirits, but this is never really focused on or mentioned.
Ronin is fundamentally a game about killing people with a sword, and there are different methods of doing so. Each time, there is a splatter of cartoon blood, but that’s as gory as it gets. You can also hang people from the ceiling, who swing back and forth; the player is shot at and there are mines. The game cannot be beaten without killing.
You could count the number of words spoken or written in Ronin. All of the written words in between levels are about vengeance, but there’s no crude language or humor anywhere. (In fact, there’s no humor anywhere.)
One nightclub-themed level features sexual silhouettes of women, but they’re extremely cartoonish.
The driving force behind the “plot” is vengeance. The protagonist never expresses (through her regular few lines of text in between levels) any feelings other than desire for revenge. The player can kill civilians, but will not earn a skill point for the level if they do so.
Ronin is a fairly simple game. A swordswoman known as the Rōnin kills lots of people to get revenge on the organization responsible for her father’s death. There’s 15 levels – for each of the five members of this organization, there are two levels of “hacking” into computers around the map to discover the member’s location, and one level to fight through to kill them.
The player starts with a sword and a grappling hook, as well as the ability to climb along walls and ceilings, and hang people from the ceilings. Movement is WSAD controlled, except for the mouse controlling jumping, which is the only default movement option during combat. I won’t object to this, though, because the game’s unique turn-based combat system is actually pretty neat.
When the player is detected, enemies’ guns are trained on the player, with laser lights representing their aim. Then the game pauses, allowing the player to jump out of the way, kill an adjacent enemy, fire the grappling hook, or use an ability. When this move has been completed, the enemies fire then aim their guns at the player’s new location. This is how all the combat works throughout Ronin, in a conceptually simple but lengthy strategy game.
The rest of the gameplay is mostly scaling walls and leaping through windows without triggering an alarm. The developer claims through “tips” in the game that it isn’t a stealth game, but, well… it is. It’s just a stealth game that forces you to go loud quite often.
The abilities are unlocked through a fairly simple skill tree, but it’s slow going. To earn a skill point, the player must complete a level having killed every guard, not raised an alarm, and not killed any civilians. They’re generally fairly easy goals once you get used to the gameplay, and the player has the option to return to a recent checkpoint at any time. But not every skill point earns a skill, and each level only gives a skill point once. It means that a completionist won’t unlock everything until the final few levels, and it takes even longer for everyone else. My only problem with this is that players are likely to give up on the game before experiencing the best part of the game—the sword throwing.
The player has to fill the combo meter by killing or knocking over enemies in order to use unlocked abilities. One of these abilities, is the ability to throw the sword at an enemy while in mid-air, but it’s not half as much fun without the ability to summon the sword towards you. See, if your sword is flying through the air and runs into an enemy, it will kill said enemy and fall to the ground. I’ve taken out entire sections of levels by throwing my sword at the furthest enemy and summoning it over multiple turns from the other end of the battlefield. You can also fling your sword at enemies behind you by moving out of the way after summoning it. (Think Goblin’s death scene in the first Spider-Man movie.) You don’t need anything in your combo meter to summon your sword, making it one of the most powerful and hilariously fun abilities in the game.
If it seems like I’ve completely overlooked the plot, that’s because it’s so easy to do. Anything that resembles a story seems to be completely an afterthought from the developer. Every three levels, just before the protagonist enters a level in which they kill one of the organization members, a few lines of text slowly appear on the screen. If the complete lack of attention to story in this game isn’t enough to make you want to skip over this, the slow reveal of the text will. If you’re interested, here is the entire plot of Ronin, so you can see just how uninteresting it is.
The Digital Special Edition of this game includes a digital comic, which apparently delves deeper into the story. But this, too, feels like an afterthought.
Aside from the excellent gameplay and the not-so-excellent plot, the graphics and soundtrack are both simple but enjoyable. One wouldn’t expect the cartoonish graphics to fit the dark vengeance theme of the game, but it somehow works really well. The art style is useful for very clearly showing when the player is in the light or the darkness. It also helps the player stand out from the basic shapes that form the background, and the square civilians and guards. It’s no masterpiece, but the art style fits well, is different, and makes it clear what is happening in every frame.
The soundtrack is where I’m really conflicted. It’s pretty fantastic music for a game developed by one person, and is potentially the best part of the game. But in a game as challenging as this, it becomes extremely repetitive, extremely quickly as you play the exact same sections over and over. And many of them have similar chord progressions or motifs, which doesn’t help. (I actually didn’t realize that two of the pieces were individual tracks until I actually listened to the soundtrack.) And the synth is very cool, but in some stages, it’s uncertain what the tone of the level is supposed to be.
At fifteen levels and almost as many dollars, I wouldn’t recommend Ronin to everyone. Its conflicted tone, near lack of a plot, and rapidly rising difficulty is off-putting to many. But if you enjoy Mark Of The Ninja, Gunpoint, or innovative games with cool stunts, you should definitely pick this one up during the next sale. I believe I found it on the Humble Store ages ago for $2.50, and at 24 hours of gameplay, I’ve played through both the standard game and New Game Plus multiple times. Just remember, it’s not a stealth game, but it’s also not not a stealth game.
+ Cool art style
+ Abilities are all useful
+ Level design provides great variety
+ Sword retrieval is endless fun to experiment with
+ Practice leads to more options for tackling levels
- Plot is lacking
- Stylistically unfocussed
- Gameplay is difficult to master
- Soundtrack is repetitive (near impossible final level makes it worse)