Developer Tyler Pack’s debut mobile game displays a facile blend of simplicity and complexity that you might expect of a more seasoned creator and a more involved game. Ronin’s Revenge is a genre-bending winner with puzzle game and fight game elements that combines that most primal of all games – Rock-Paper-Scissors – with a disproportionately rich plot worthy of The Seven Samurai. The leap between children’s diversion and samurai drama may seem insurmountable, but Pack bridges the gap with surprising success.
As your mission’s lengthy prologue reports, the eponymous masterless samurai was once part of a fearsome Protecorate guarding the Lotus Empress of the Sapphire Kingdom. When the Dragon King arrived from his Onyx Kingdom with western weapons of war, the other members of the terrified Protectorate defected, assassinating their own matriarch and leaving our stalwart hero for dead. Now the Ronin seeks his revenge on these traitors, the foreign arms dealer, and the Dragon King himself. The gravitas of this premise is given a welcome poke in the ribs from illustrator Doyle Thurman’s innocently cheesy character designs, replete with stray pencil lines and charcoal smudges.
The backstory is even longer than this summary suggests, and unfortunately, the game presents one of its few major problems at this early stage by offering you no Skip button. It is frustrating to have to review this entire tale each time you lose and restart your quest, but it’s hard to be too angry with the developer for lingering over his strong writing, appealing imagery and accomplished soundtrack. Ronin’s Revenge boasts a beautiful score that resembles traditional Japanese orchestral music without resorting to insulting caricature, and it is complimented by diversified sound effects for each villain’s attack, and crisp ambient sounds like the chirping of crickets or the murmur of a nearby river. The charmingly crude characters coexist nicely with digital renderings of light reflecting off water and snow silently drifting down onto the feudal settings in which your battles take place.
The battles themselves involve increasingly complex variations on Rock-Paper-Scissors (hilariously described by the Ronin as “a fighting style I am familiar with”), against a drunken priest, a warrior monk, a craven ninja, the western weapons salesman, a robot-like regal samurai, and finally, the white-haired Dragon King in black lacquered armor. As you face your foe from the right-hand side of the screen, you have at your back a vertical arrangement of thumbnails depicting a rock, a paper scroll, and a pair of scissors. Beside that, your enemy’s “attack” will materialize, and if for instance a “rock” thumbnail appears, you must tap your “paper” thumbnail as quickly as you can. If you hesitate too long, your opponent will knock a few points off your health bar at the bottom of the screen. It is possible for you to match their timing exactly and reach a draw, but you will want to beat them to the punch and reduce their health bar to zero with maximum speed. With each successful assault, you earn a number of points based on how swiftly you strike.
The above setup describes Classic mode, the simplest way to play. You will be offered a different approach to each battle. Advanced mode adds new options to the standard Rock-Paper-Scissors trilogy: a “dragon” icon that can be defeated by scissors and rock, but dominates paper, and a “wizard” that is defeated by the dragon and paper, but it in turn defeats scissors and rock. In Simon Says mode, a rapid sequence of several enemy attack icons appears, and at the “Begin!” prompt, you must tap the counterattack icons in the correct sequence as fast as you can. The moment you make a wrong move, your opponent will knock your health bar down a notch. In Tricky mode you have only the basic three icons at your disposal, but your opponent will utilize all five. Finally in Counterpoint mode, the most complex and exhilarating, you each have all five icons at your command. When your opponent draws the first attack, you must choose the appropriate counterattack; then your enemy counters that selection, and on it goes until one of you is struck.
There are tiered difficulty levels of Story mode – Normal, Hard and Insane – and they offer more than just stiffer competition. Each duel is punctuated by a brief cut scene in which the Ronin confronts his old betrayers, and each difficulty level introduces a little more detail. As you progress through the levels, you get new pieces of the Ronin’s inner monologue about his past. You also get new bits of dialog from the villains, as well as new visual effects such as dissolves from full-color to stark silhouettes or glimpses of modern Japan juxtaposed with the older epoch. The dialog itself is nothing special – often it isn’t much more elaborate than “Are you him?” – but these small changes provide engaging little breaths of fresh air in this fundamentally (though not problematically) repetitive game.
Whether you’ve finished or have been confounded by Story mode, you can also play your favorite battle style in Endless mode, available in the easy Standard mode or the more challenging Advanced mode, which requires faster reaction times and gives you longer sequences of attacks to counter. Endless play not only gives you more to do, but it provides a necessary training ground to hone your wits and nerves for beating all three Story mode difficulty levels. With just six bosses to beat in the narrative campaign, Ronin’s Revenge would be over way too soon if it weren’t so delightfully challenging; it may take much longer than you think to fight your way through the Insane level.
The few major flaws in Ronin’s Revenge have to do with navigating between game options. The aforementioned missing Skip button for the prologue is your first encounter with the game’s small but pervasive inconveniences. Any time you finish a game in any mode, whether you’ve won or lost, you are routed all the way back to the main menu, instead of the submenu from which you came. This can feel pretty laborious if you are working your way through the Hard level of Story mode, and instead of clicking the Try Again button you would find in many games upon losing, you have to start over from scratch and select Story>New Game>Hard before sitting through the prologue again. The game could also use save points between each fight; it is possible to save your most recent game in progress, but if you lose you can’t return to a specific stage you’ve been getting hung up on.
That said, the petty annoyances of having to take the long way around are forgivable in the face of the addictive and multifaceted gameplay, inviting aesthetics and engaging story elements that Ronin’s Revenge offers. This playful period piece strongly suggests that we can expect great things from Tyler Pack in the future.
Is it Hardcore?
It definitely Rocks!
The deceptive simplicity of this digital delight makes its creative and challenging twist on analog classic Rock-Paper-Scissors all the more impressive.