If revenge is a dish that is best served cold, then the protagonist of Ronin is a chef de cuisine serving her enemies a delicious morsel of revenge tartare. Unable to let go of her fury and walk away from the tragedy that will unfold as a result of her decisions, she embarks on a desperate, heedless charge to exact one last act of vengeance, despite knowing that death dogs her heels as surely as she pursue her enemies’.
There are some definite problems with the game. But its ability to capture this narrative, while making the player feel like both a witness and a participant in the tragedy, helps make them tolerable for a lot of the game. Where it fails in technical execution, it at least tries to supplement with style and pace.
Crying in the Rain
Ronin plays like a turn-based strategy version of Tom Francis’s Gunpoint. Each level starts in real time, with you sneaking through levels trying to silently eliminate as many guards as possible. You have a variety of abilities helping you do this – including a grappling hook, the ability to hang from walls and ceilings, being hard to see while in darkness, and being able to leap several times your own height without taking damage.
Where Ronin distinguishes itself is that once you are spotted, or if you make a loud enough noise to attract attention, the guards pull their guns and the game immediately pauses. The game has now entered turn-based mode. While time is paused, you plan what your character’s action will be for the next 3 seconds of motion, at which point time will again pause so that you can make your next move. The character can also end her turn in midair, at which point she will either follow the rest of the jump’s arc and land on the second turn, or you can use the grappling hook to change where she lands.
Any guard that has his weapon out causes a line to be drawn on the screen, which is a representation of the trajectory his next shot will take. If you end your turn intersected by one of these lines, you’re immediately dead and the game resets back to the moment you were spotted to try again. As the missions go on, a few additional enemies also show up, such as machine gunners who fire bursts that last an entire round.
The difficulty is further increased by having characters who are alive, and (usually) out of direct line of sight from your character, radio for backup. This usually takes several turns, to give you an opportunity to subdue them. But when one caller stops, another usually starts immediately, leading to a lot of ping-ponging from priority target to priority target, rather than letting you find the easiest optimal route to clear the room.
The biggest problem is the lack of precision.
You’re not without options, however. If you land close to any enemy, you can take them out with your katana. Jumping in a way that causes you to hit a guard will knock him down for a turn or two, preventing him from hitting you and setting him up to be sliced if you have time next turn. Or, if he’s knocked out a window or off a ledge, the fall may kill him for you. And, as you gain skills on the skill tree, you can also get opportunities to teleport next to an enemy, throw your sword at an enemy (and recall it), create a clone to draw guards’ fire, and throw shuriken to disrupt multiple guards for one turn.
The biggest problem with the strategy mode, and one which is frustrating enough to really hurt the game’s overall enjoyableness, is the lack of precision. The game draws a white arcing line, which gently tapers to a point that represents where the character will land. But the character is much larger than the line, and her hitbox changes slightly depending on whether she’s crouched, hanging, or in midair. So despite knowing where the character’s feet will end up, it’s hard to know whether the rest of her is actually safe. This leads to a lot of trial-and-error, and frequently to dying in situations that feel like you executed a plan correctly, but were let down by the imperfect information.
The flaws and highlights both show up starkly in the final mission, which does several interesting things found nowhere else in the game. (Skip to the next heading if you want to avoid slight spoilers.) The final mission is an extremely long infiltration mission, where, rather than restarting if you get hit, the screen slowly starts to vignette and fade to black. At this point, the character is no longer hurt by bullets, the mission goal changes to just killing the target, and it is simply a race against time to see whether you can get to the center of this massive facility and accomplish the goal before the character dies.
However, if you can make it through the facility, execute the target, and escape all without getting shot, you get the best ending. But doing so becomes an infuriating task. Each time you get nicked when you think you’re clear and find yourself having to restart the entire 30 minute long level, you will seethe. It’s an exciting idea. It really captures the feeling of myopic self-destruction found at the end of a revenge film as the protagonist closes in on her target, knowing that it’s unlikely that she will survive the encounter. But it causes the minor flaws in the mechanics to be amplified, and reverberate to an unignorable level.
If it felt deliberate – for instance, had the game given you the tools to make precise plans in the previous levels, only to rip it away at the end to show that the character had thrown aside all thought of preservation in her headlong dash towards self-immolation – it would have felt like a masterpiece of using gameplay to tell a story. Instead, it feels like watching the game’s weak leg finally crumpling under the weight of its dreams.
A Black Rose
Artistically, Ronin has a lot in common with Klei’s Mark of the Ninja. The art style feels like a sparser, more smoothed version of Mark of the Ninja’s, but with character art reminiscent of that from Penny Arcade. However, while the art style seems referential, the world’s aesthetic manages to distinguish itself: offices and industrial complexes built with post-modern architecture, power lines and computers everywhere. The whole world seems like an alternate near-future where the world kept moving towards the noirish aesthetics of Blade Runner, instead of changing to smooth lines and chrome.
Each type of enemy is good about having a distinct look.
The ‘user interface’ is quite minimal, only a single bar in the lower left corner. Most of the information is conveyed by interactive bubbles over characters, as well as small visual cues in the game, which is nice. Characters calling for backup will hold their hand up to their face, and a red number will appear over their head to tell you how many turns are left before backup arrives. Actions that can be performed will show up in small bubbles over the heads of the enemy they will effect. A dotted line with a circle will show where you can reach with a grappling hook, and a bright red line shows you where enemies are aiming. It is functional and straightforward.
The bubbles are a slight issue, since they pop up over the heads of enemies when the character is close enough do something. However, sometimes, when you only have a few seconds to attack an enemy – perhaps because you’re swinging by him on a grappling hook, or you’re trying to take him out before he actually sees you – the chance of not actually clicking the bubble is fairly good. A visual cue with an alternate keyboard hotkey for certain actions would have been a good compromise.
Each type of enemy is good about having a distinct look. Even in the high speed of the real time sections it is easy to ascertain at a glance the position of each type of enemy. That doesn’t mean you will have time to make a perfect plan using that info, but the ease of identification is a plus.
A visual cue with an alternate keyboard hotkey for certain actions would have been a good compromise.
The sound effects are fitting. The sound of the sword slash adds to the quick cinematic in a satisfying way, to feel like a moment from a chanbara film, and the other effects likewise pair well with their actions. The music, though, is nothing special. The menu song feels appropriately like Blade Runner cyberpunk – in fact, if someone told me it was taken directly from a Vangelis b-side, I’d be unsurprised. But for the music in the game, there are times I find it difficult to remember if there even was any without going back.
And the Flapping of Doves
I don’t want to be too unfair to this game. It was originally designed for a ‘game jam’ which is an event about making games around a theme in a limited amount of time. And it does have some really interesting ideas. That being said – it’s still being sold for money. So the excuse that it was created in a limited amount of time only goes so far. If you’re asking people to pay you for your game, they deserve the best version of that game. And frankly, this just isn’t it.
All things considered, the game has interesting ideas. It makes you feel cool, and it executes on its tone. It even manages to sit comfortably on both sides of the planning fence, allowing for both real-time improvisational strategizing, and turn-based tactical strategizing.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite execute on its mechanics and really needed a bit more polish. Some people may feel it’s too short, at 15 missions, but I actually think that the length of the game is just about right. I would have loved for there to be more, but only because I enjoyed the time I spent with what was there, not because it felt like more should have been there to feel complete. Ultimately, I’d say it’s worth your time, and definitely fun. The parts where the game gets it right are so much better than the best parts of many games. But it’s hard to recommend it without reservations. Depending on how price sensitive you are it may be worth the cost of admission, but even if you balk at the full price, this should definitely be one you keep in mind for a sale.
From the start of the game to its finish, Ronin feels like playing the final minutes of Cowboy Bebop or Kill Bill.
Mechanics: Like a blade’s keen edge tarnished by blood.
Aesthetics: As garishly functional as a rain-streaked neon night.
Verdict: Take a stab at it… If prices are slashed.