Darkstation @ PAX South: Ronin

Darkstation @ PAX South: Ronin

Ronin bills itself as a turn-based action platformer with stealth elements, and there's no part of that description that I don't like. It's one of those great reminders how just how creative indie developers can be by putting together a bunch of genres that, on paper, make no sense. How do you do a platformer, one of the most skill-and-reflex based genres on the market, and make it so that it's turn based? How does that not completely break the momentum and everything about it? Around the internet you're probably going to see a lot of sites comparing this to Gunpoint, and perhaps it does in terms of visual style, but the freedom of motion and the speed and range of options with which you can dispatch fools reminded me most of Mark of the Ninja. Despite being turn based it was very smooth, and still felt fast-paced and frantic.

The game works by splitting itself into real-time exploration and turn-based battles, never taking away abilities, only changing how they're presented. No matter what mode you're in, you use the right stick to jump (a method that took weird amount of time to get used to), and you can cling to ceilings, climb up walls, and grapple to surfaces so you can swing, usually and especially through windows. When you enter a battle, though, you suddenly don't have the ability to move freely, and have to make all of your motions through jumps and attacks.

If you've played a stealth game recently, one that doesn't have an automatic failure if you're spotted, you know the feeling that as soon as you're seen by someone, it turns into a scramble. To kill them before they can report you or to get back into cover or to just say screw it and take them all down, your movements become fast, reckless, and less planned out.

Ronin seems like it wants to turn that idea on its head. As soon as you're spotted or get into combat it actually forces you to be more contemplative of your motions. Every enemy who sees you will take aim at you, one turn to aim (a helpful red laser showing their exact attack trajectory) and the next to execute. Your task is to then get out of the way, close the distance, and get them before they can get you.

So if your enemy is a guy with a gun, it's pretty simple. See where he aims and you jump. He shoots while you're in the air, which misses you, and you land somewhere. He aims at that new spot, and you close in, until you get close enough to execute him. Killing also takes a turn, so if another gunman is aiming at you, you need to make sure he's not about to kill you instead. Luckily, they reload. Their loss.

The demo only had two enemy types, a gunman and a... cyber samurai? Gunmen died with a single hit, and stayed in a single position, but the samurai things flew around the room, attacking quickly, and if you tried to ambush them to knock them off their feet, they'd just knock you down. You actually have to hit them twice. Once stuns them, the second kills. Doesn't seem too bad, but when there's two of them and 3 gunmen in a room with no exits.. that's when you see the depth and difficulty the game displays, as well as the sheer amount of planning you can do.

Although to be fair, like other games, there is still a fair amount of hilariously running around to get into a good position, but also gives you a chance to do some interesting planning. The attack lines of the samurai shows where they'll be, so you can plan to land right next to them and be there, ready to attack, as soon as they land. You can also make them follow you up into the air, where they'll have to fall to the ground before they can attack again, giving you a free moment to not worry about them.

This game of leading the enemies, predicting their attacks, and closing in on their weak moments is the heart of the combat in Ronin, and it's immensely satisfying when you get a really good run of it. To me it's reminiscent of the mark-and-execute actions in games like Rainbow Six, except you're in full control of it. There's just something about the feeling of it, and while you start out panicked, you wind up positioning the enemies around strategically, then coming back through and slicing your way through them quickly and efficiently.

While you're doing all of that, you're also earning points towards a meter at the bottom that lets you use skills. One lets you immediately jump to the ceiling, and the other on display in the demo allowed you to throw your sword at someone (which can then by fetched later by tapping A and having it fly back). It felt like you were, in a sense, gaining momentum and then using it to fuel these attacks, and gave a nice build to your aggressive motions in the battle, allowing for tactical retreats and dodges.

Despite how effusive this preview has been, there are a couple of things about Ronin that I felt could use a little more work to just communicate with the player better. The first is how smooth transitions between combat and free-roam are, which is that namely, they're too smooth. When you leave a battle you lose all of your meter, so I had a few moments of trying to do something awesome (throwing a sword in midair!) but I'd lost that because I had stopped being in a battle and hadn't realized it. The other issue is that some of the motions you have take more than one turn - some jumps, for example - and it doesn't do a good enough job showing where you'll be at the end of the first, or if it'll even be two turns to get there.

Plus, you can play the prototype here if you're curious - it's an earlier build than the one at PAX (which I believe is its first big unveiling as a real game), but it gives a good estimation of the gameplay.

As soon as I saw Ronin's awesome poster and description I knew I had to play it, and what a game it is. A delightfully fresh take on stealth action games, Ronin already feels great and looks excellent. It's due out later this year, and has gone from off my radar to one of my most anticipated games for 2015 on the strength of the demo.