by Matt Porter
reviewed on PC
In feudal Japan, a ronin was a samurai with no master. In films, they’re played by a hairy Keanu Reeves. In video games, ronin drive motorcycles and infiltrate well guarded buildings to hack computers and assassinate targets. At least that’s what you do in Ronin, this part real time, part turn based action game from single developer Tomasz Wacławek. It’s a mixture of styles, a mixture of quality, and occasional bouts of frustration that are relieved by some pretty great game design.
The story is pretty vague and - for the most part - takes a backseat to the action. To gain your freedom, possibly, there are five members of a family for you to assassinate. The loading screen is a family photograph that shows red-pen circles around or crossed through faces of those you need to kill or have already killed. Every few levels you’ll get some lines of text revealing a tiny bit of story, but it’s mostly forgettable.
Progress is fairly formulaic. You’ll play through a few levels of hacking computers to gain intel on your target, followed by another level where you’ll actually be killing them. In terms of how the game plays, at face value, you could probably describe it as a mixture between Mark of the Ninja and Gunpoint - excellent games both. However after a few minutes of playing you’ll discover that it’s actually a lot more tactical than Mark of the Ninja. If you get noticed by a guard, the game goes from being real time to being turn based, which changes the action completely.
The way of the samurai
Combat revolves around you jumping around the room, avoiding enemy fire, slowly picking enemies off one at a time. You have as much time as you want to plan out your next move before the action resumes again. Time will progress a second or two, and everything you planned out will take place. Your aim is to avoid enemy fire, which is signified by their laser pointers. If you end your turn inside one of the red lines you’ll be shot and will have to restart from a checkpoint. It’s not just about jumping around however, as you have many tools at your disposal.
A grappling line allows you to swing from ceilings, or through windows for that extra badassery. This is all you’ll have from the start, but unlocks grant access to ever increasingly useful items. A clone instantly sends you up into the air, leaving a holographic projection behind which will fool enemies for a moment. Shurikens can be thrown at everyone in sight should you end your turn while flying through the air. Shadow Strike teleports you to an enemy, stunning him for a couple of rounds. You can also choose the ability to throw your sword at enemies, or hang unsuspecting enemies from the ceiling.
You’ll get one ability unlock for completing all the objectives of a level, which are almost always: Kill all enemies, Spare all civilians, and Don’t trigger the alarm. It would’ve been nice to have some variety in these missions, but at least you always know what you’ve got to do. Enemies or civilians will start to trigger the alarm if they see something out of the ordinary. A smashed window, a dead person, or you. This takes 10 seconds, or rounds if you’re in combat, but if enemies can see you, they’d usually rather try and shoot you than trigger the alarm.
Tension and frustration
It’s a good feeling of tension when you see that timer counting down and it adds another dimension to the turn based combat. I could kill this enemy next to me, but that could waste a second that I need to get over to the guy raising the alarm. However, you have to keep an eye on your limit break meter, which builds up when you stun or kill enemies, and drains if you end a turn without doing either of those things. If it reaches five you get to take another free action, so you might have that extra second after all. This meter also determines which of your other abilities you can use. You’ll need two to be able to throw your sword, for instance.
When everything works out, and you’re swinging into bad guys, kicking them through windows or throwing your sword from the darkness at an unsuspecting enemy, it’s a whole lot of fun. But random difficulty spikes and annoying ways in which the enemies act often hamper the experience. I found the hardest level to be around four fifths of the way through the game, and found the final mission much easier in comparison. Sometimes, through no fault of your own, you’re left stuck with nowhere to jump to in your turn without getting shot. This usually happens when there’s a guard with a machine gun. He has a continuous stream of fire which lasts for more than one turn, so you can often be stuck underneath it. Thankfully, checkpoints are usually very well placed.
The AI isn’t great, but I feel it would make the game too hard if it were any better. After bashing my head against what I found to be the hardest part of the game for a good half hour or so, I found that a good way of progressing through any situation is jumping up and down in darkness while throwing your sword at enemies. You can then click a button to recall your sword, regaining some of your meter. Even if the whole room sees them die, only one person will start to raise the alarm, so they’ll be the next target for your sword throw. Someone will start shining their laser around to see if anyone’s there, but the light is usually avoidable.
A few kinks
Ronin has quite a minimalist style, which is fine, but again, some variety between levels would have been nice. Each of the five people you have to kill are in the same type of boring office building, as is all of the intel you need to gather. The music is pretty good, with a lot of techno mixed with some Japanese flourishes.
There’s a lot to like about Ronin, and I’d like to see more of it with some of the kinks ironed out. Sometimes you’re never quite sure where you’re going to end up at the end of your turn, so a more precise representation of where your character is going to be would be helpful. But as I said, when everything comes off without a hitch, you really do feel like a samurai. A bit more variety in level design and enemies, and a sequel could be something very cool indeed.
Lots of cool abilities, mostly controls well.
Frustrating in places, not much variety.