Some of the games I've enjoyed lately come from the publisher Devolver Digital because they give their developers a lot of free will in creating experiences. Ronin was created by Tomasz Waclawek and a small team, but to give credit where it is due, the takes some inspiration from Gunpoint. Ronin stands alone as something unique and clever within the action platforming genre, but struggles to fully embrace what it intends to do.
I will try my best to explain the gameplay mechanics. You begin each level with the task of shutting down several computers. Guards cannot see you unless your character is in the light. Once the computers are down, the game really gets going. The action freezes and changes to a turn-based game. Being the clever Ronin that you are, you have a leg up on everyone in sight. This ability allows you to see the line of fire and dodge out of the way on your turn, while setting yourself up to take action on the next turn. You can knock guards over to stun them or brutally finish them off with your katana, but you have to make sure to be out of harm's way at the end of the turn. There are regular bodyguards, some carry radios others have machine guns. There are also other ninjas that add a nice mix to the action because they have to be hit twice within three turns.
It is a hard game concept to explain but trust me when I say it works… partly. Each encounter unfolds like a mini-puzzle within a given area. Most of the time you can jump in a room and take out all the bad guys before they really stand a chance, but when there are a lot of targets the task becomes tricky. You have to analyze the best way to avoid all hazards while picking off enemies one by one. You will die several times but eventually you'll learn where to jump and how to misdirect gunfire to avoid getting hit. The coolest parts of the game are when you take out a room full of guards and the area is covered with blood and bodies hang from the ceiling. It's a scene right out of Kill Bill.
There are some minor - but considerable - things that prevent Ronin from being completely awesome. The most notable is the developer's choice to put abilities behind a three-tier wall. You start off in the game with only the abilities to slash, hit and grapple. To use shurikens to knock guards out, throw your sword to kill someone or use a decoy to distract; you have to unlock a skill point. To get a skill point all you have to do is kill all the guards in a level. Easy enough, but you cannot kill any of the civilians. The idea sounds easy enough, after all, why would you kill a civilian? Well, they are the ones responsible for calling guards who then trigger a lock down, and unfortunately, a "lockdown signal" is a fail condition for skill points. In the end you need some of these special abilities to make later rounds far less difficult, but they are behind a completionist-barrier. I have no problem playing through a few rounds in order to master it and get the skill point, but there is a great majority of people that will not do this and will be frustrated when they can not do things ninjas should normally do.
The other component that hurts the game is how you interact with the world. I played the game using my mouse and keyboard but for what I needed to do it seemed out of place. For the turn based combat parts of the game, judging distance with the mouse was perfectly fine. It is when I got to an elevator or attack someone that using a mouse seemed imperfect. Walk up to an elevator and an interactive prompt shows up waiting to be clicked. Getting ready to throw your knife, slash someone or any other ability and again a prompt appears. These bubbles are fine, but when all you are doing in combat is jumping, I think the developer missed a chance to make the action more interactive.
The gameplay is hit or miss in some areas, but the art style and atmosphere of the game is spot on. The game has a noir-like vibe to it and the story of the game is very straight forward. The art-style is reminiscent of comics and its tone has roots in Pulp Fiction. You play as a masked assassin trying to right an ultimate wrong. Your tactics are brutal and things get bloody, but you are justified in every way. This game is serious, but take a ride up in the elevator and a little comic relief soothes your ears. I think more so than the gameplay, the world was created perfectly for this game. It is not that I think Waclawek tried harder on the world than the gameplay, but that the story and the artistic style was perfect for what the game was trying to be. I think the gameplay falls short because it does take itself too seriously.
Rather than make you feel like an all-powerful ronin warrior, Ronin forces you to criticize every move then rewards you with abilities. When you finally have a full ninja arsenal at your disposal, the game picks up and starts to get fun. At it’s high points Ronin masters the art of platforming and turn-based strategy, but at it’s lows it drags to a crawl because you have to constantly think about ‘completing’ a level rather than finishing it. The game is rather short, so maybe going back and getting all the abilities would be fun but really there is no need too. There is even a new game plus, but it changes only the guards in each level. This game deserved to be full throttle from the very beginning, because of how awesome the tone and art direction is. It is not until you master your skills that Ronin actually becomes rewarding, but when it does you feel like a ninja master.