A bloody thinker
Tomasz Waclawek's stylish turn-based action platformer, RONIN, is one of the more unique gaming experiences I've come across in a while. As a life long fan of turn-based combat from playing RPG's, I was immediately intrigued to see how this game adapted those mechanics with platforming and action game conventions. The result is a very difficult but satisfying game that makes you think, and re-think your every move.
The game consists of 18 levels, broken up into 5 chapters, all consisting of the same progression in objectives. The first two levels in each chapter are pretty much the same, hack a certain number of computer terminals to determine the location of the next boss while the the third level is the actual boss encounter. The hacking levels tend not to vary too much, instead serving as staging grounds to introduce new environmental traps or enemy types.
The fact that these objectives remain constant throughout the game is not necessarily a criticism. The game's difficulty is constantly escalating to the point that the consistency remains as the only thing that the player is supposed to feel like they are really in control of. After all, it's one hit and game over.
The combat itself can take a little getting used to, as it is a combination unlike anything that has come before it. Some might compare RONIN to Mark of the Ninja, but outside of the fact that both games feature fragile sword-wielding protagonists with light and dark mechanics all while being played on a two-dimensional plane, they are actually quite different. Mark of the Ninja rewarded players for being stealthy and striking quickly from the shadows. While RONIN has similar features, it goes out of its way to inform the player that it is not a stealth game, sometimes by giving in game hints that literally read "this is not a stealth game". RONIN is very much an action oriented affair, as it wouldn't make much sense for a game that emphasizes turn-based mechanics to stake its fun factor on staying hidden. Thus the game is designed in such a way that the player has to engage in combat.
Enemy placement is the tipping point that sets off the chain reaction to begin large combat segments. Enemies are usually stationed within line of sight of one another, so killing one will alert the other, then eventually, three, four or even five more will all converge on the player's position, making for epic and bloody encounters.
There are three main enemy types, all with different characteristics that are balanced in such a way that makes them perfect complements of each other. The most basic enemy type, the suits, feature a single shot pistol, but will constantly adjust their aim towards the player after every turn. This is important because it can force the player to jump out of harms way instead of landing an easy killing blow that would otherwise kill them. The soldiers are the next tier that scales up the difficulty, packing a machine gun that constantly fires in the same spot for two turns before reloading, cutting off a potential path for the player to jump to. The third, and scariest enemy type is the armored samurai. The armored samurai is the one enemy that cannot be killed in one hit, and during the most chaotic of encounters, this can be a real problem. When combined, all three of these enemies can make dodging a real nightmare, which is why the player can unlock special abilities to counter these threats.
You wouldn't be a true Ronin if you didn't have some tricks up your sleeve. As you progress through the game, you can gain skill points by completing all bonus objectives in any given level which can be spent towards unlocking new abilities that can completely alter how the player approaches combat. These abilities also come in tiers and it is up to the player how they want to develop their character. The first tier of abilities consists of a Sword Throw, Decoys, Stealth Kills, and Limit Breaks. Players can eventually unlock more powerful abilities like Teleportation later on, which make the protagonist even more of a threat. You don't necessarily need these abilities to beat the game, but there's no question that they enhance the action.
As far as narrative is concerned, there isn't much here. The game hints at taking revenge against the boss characters, but doesn't give more than a few vague details about the main character's past experiences with them. What it pretty much boils down to is, they killed your father, and you want to kill them. The details hint at a larger back story, but it never really comes to the forefront. But seeing as how the main focus here is the difficulty of the combat, you will have a hard time criticizing the game for that.
Visually, the game's aesthetic is simple and clean. Well, clean until you've sprayed the blood of your foes all over the place. Professionally animated sprites mesh with backgrounds made up of flat vector images to effectively communicate what kind of place you are infiltrating, and most of them are laid out distinctly enough to be memorable. Blood spatter upon killing your enemies makes for a messy and organic contrast to the orderly and stone cold visage of the facilities that the player will infiltrate.
All in all, RONIN will not be for everybody. It can be very difficult, even seemingly unforgivable at times, but it rewards patience and trial and error in ways very few games do. No, it doesn't re-write the book on interactive storytelling, but that's not it's purpose either. RONIN is a thinker. A bloody thinker at that, and as I write these final words, I can't help but replay the ill-fated jumps, narrow escapes, and well-timed executions during my time with RONIN in my head. If difficulty is your thing, or if you're just looking for something new to try, go and play RONIN right now.