A Critical Strike
Ronin: The Last Samurai is a flawed masterpiece. A game with as much style and promise as this should be a no-brainer. I fully expected to label this game as hardcore. But the longer I spent with the game, the more its issues tainted the experience. I did enjoy my time with Ronin. It’s certainly the best game I’ve reviewed so far. However, it has one glaring issue that sours the overall experience.
Mechanically, Ronin: The Last Samurai is a rogue-like samurai action game. Players complete “runs” where they face off against waves of enemies with a boss every five levels. Each run yields resources used to upgrade equipment. Equipment has different rarity and can be upgraded to increase its base stats. Similar items can also be combined to increase overall rarity and stats.
This game is visually stunning. The art style is reminiscent of a traditional Japanese painting. Its palate is primarily muted black, grey, and white with fantastic streaks of red for certain animations and mechanics. Character models are unique and varied. Enemies are instantly recognizable, allowing players to prioritize certain targets to ensure success. Each boss has their own personality beautifully incorporated into their design. This gives each encounter real weight as you square up with familiar foes in your attempts to clear each stage. The story is sparse so these world-building moments do an excellent job creating the connective tissue that holds desperate runs together.
The Art of War
Combat is heavily reminiscent of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. Players face off against enemies by either blocking or attacking. Blocking mitigates all damage but increases the players posture meter. When posture is maxed, players become staggered and are open to enemy attacks for a few seconds. Perfectly timed blocks instead parry enemy attacks. This mitigates all damage and causes the enemy’s posture bar to increase instead. Enemies also have unblockable heavy attacks, indicated with a red kanji symbol as they wind up. If countered with an attack, players do huge damage and significantly fill enemies’ posture meter. This balance of parrying, attacking, and countering makes for some incredible gameplay.
At its best, players seamlessly dance around the battlefield, cutting down all enemies in their path. Getting thrown out of this flow means even mundane enemy encounters can be fatal. Upon death, players can resurrect once per run by spending a particular in-game resource. This loop is intensely addictive. Perfecting your technique and slicing through a boss without taking a hit is immensely satisfying and genuinely makes you feel like a samurai. This is matched only by the disappointment in falling to lesser enemies before you can even enter the boss lair.
A Betrayal of Trust
This is also Ronin: The Last Samurai’s greatest hurdle. Ronin asks its players to be precise with their execution but cannot oblige the player itself.
Inputs are constantly dropped, turning otherwise fun encounters into slogs. This is particularly egregious during boss battles. The game would regularly recognize that I was trying to block or attack but would not register the input. There were several instances where the block button was showing pressed, but my character was just standing still. The game punishes the player with its own incompetence. You’ll spend several runs memorizing enemy attack patterns only to have the game drop critical inputs and send you to a game over screen. Games demanding such a level of focus and precision from its players need to be technically sound themselves. Ronin’s technical shortcomings break this agreement and squanders much of the potential the rest of the game has to offer.
I still find myself coming back to Ronin: The Last Samurai again and again. The art style is truly beautiful and when the combat works it’s some of the most satisfying I’ve ever played. These glimpses of something fantastic in between the issues keep drawing me in run after run. Hopefully, the developers are able to patch in more responsive controls and allow this game to shine the way it so badly wants to.
Is It Hardcore?
Ronin: The Last Samurai is a visually stunning but flawed masterpiece. When combat works, it is exceptionally visceral and fun. However, its technical limitations break the game in a way that sours the overall experience and squanders its potential. Despite its issues, Ronin is hard to put down and frustratingly fun.