Each week Marsh Davies slices open Early Access like the soft belly of a hapless Yakuza goon and roots around inside for any stories he can find. This week he’s playing Ronin – a game about infiltrating 2D-cutaway buildings and dicing their occupants up via a sharp-as-hell turnbased combat system.
“Tip: this is not Gunpoint,” says a little message on the screen. It’s not wrong. While playing Gunpoint, for example, I never punched my monitor so hard that it flickered to a blank white for several seconds, during which I fearfully grovelled in apology to the gods. Ronin is heavily inspired by Gunpoint, however – a fact which, to forestall the needlessly defensive cries of “Clone!”, seems to delight Gunpoint’s creator, my good chum Tom Francis. And regardless of its origins, Ronin now plays really quite differently (not least because of the tantrum-inducing lack of a manual save system). You can still leap across moonlit rooftops in elegant parabolas, scuttle up the sides of skyscrapers and sling yourself through their plate glass windows, but, once inside, the player’s purpose is less about open-ended stealth puzzling than it is strategic slaughter.
It’s in this that Ronin so brilliantly distinguishes itself. When spotted by an armed enemy, the game pauses, allowing you to queue up a move. If you’re close enough, you can cut him down with a sweep of your katana. Most of the time, though, you’ll have to close some considerable distance before you can plunge your blade into him – which means setting the exact arc of your jump to glide above his bullets and kicking him off his feet before he can get a bead. Once prone, the guard will take several more turns to stagger to his feet. If you’re lucky, you can strike him down before that happens, but, as the levels progress, you’ll often find yourself standing over a stunned guard with several guns pointed directly at your back. And so fights become a sort of juggling act, flipping between walls and floors to avoid the sweeping aim of enemies, trying to knock enough of them to the floor to begin the task of safely eliminating them.
This is made easier by a combo meter that builds as you tonk goons, eventually gifting you a free turn, and, if you’ve unlocked the relevant parts of the skill tree, extra moves are at your disposal. You can unleash a rain of shurikens to stun all nearby opponents, lob your sword, or even, at the very high end of the skill tree, deploy a clone of yourself to which you can teleport. But it’s certainly no doddle, even so – guards develop quicker aiming and begin to wield machine guns which spray a wider area. A single bullet is all it takes to put you down. Robotic samurais leap great distances to cleave you in two, and will slice you out of the air if you try to kick them. There is a great joy to be had in luring these arseholes to fall out a window.
Indeed, Ronin has struck upon a novel form of combat that feels so pat and pleasing that it’s kind of amazing it hasn’t been done before. It becomes, at points, almost a puzzle game, with a particular pattern of flying kicks offering the optimum means to counter certain combinations of foe. I liked this initially, but the later, larger fights rely on a lot of rote memorisation across many multiple attempts, and there don’t seem to be any alternative options for you: you are nearly always forced out of stealth, and the level design rarely offers up a secondary approach.
Unlocking skills increases the number of tactical solutions to any given encounter, but the game doles them out at a miserly rate. You only unlock them if you complete a level while meeting all three conditions: kill all enemies, don’t kill civilians and don’t raise any alarms. Surely, if you were having trouble doing this – and on some levels it seems nigh impossible not to raise alarms – you are exactly the player that needs the extra help that the unlockable skills would give you.
I have some frustrations with the combat, too, which I dearly hope will be addressed during the game’s stay in early access, if only to preserve the life-expectancy of my more punchable items of computing equipment. As one of the game’s tips points out, the jump arc shown on-screen is “a lie”. Sometimes the arc will indicate that you are going land on a platform, and instead you’ll sail through it – presumably because some imperceptible fraction of your bounding box never quite made contact with its top surface. What the tooltip doesn’t say is why this would ever be a welcome thing. There is no satisfaction to be had, and nothing to be learnt, when a plan fails because the game doesn’t do what it says it’s going to do.
Though it’s probably more to trivial fix, a worse problem is that game’s checkpointing is currently horrible. It’s horrible because it is punitive. It’s horrible because combat encounters – until you gain lots of skills – often have an optimum solution, and so repetitions are boring. And it’s horrible because death often comes as a result of the game’s peculiar capriciousness.
Let’s take a specific example: you are required to make a grand entrance by throwing yourself out one window, falling, pausing, grappling the building out of which you’re falling, and swinging back in through the window on the floor below to land beside a robot samurai. For whatever reason, grappling is a little finicky in this build of the game, and sometimes doesn’t register for a few seconds. Click before it takes, and the game will unpause and let you fall to your death. But say you manage all this, smash through the window and swing close enough to attack the robot – but not so close that it initiates his automatic instant kill. There’s just enough dynamism in the guard AI to make it hard to know whether the game will automatically pause in that split second before you careen into the robot and die to his blade. I have attempted this maneuver and manually hit pause, only to have accidentally unpaused the game and died. And then, on the next attempt died with the vain hope that the game would pause on its own like it did before.
I don’t really regret this variance – to some extent it is a symptom of the game’s richness – but I do regret that the circumstances in which this variance occurs require me to do the same thing again and again. And I regret that the next checkpoint is on the other side of two hard battles and a deadly ravine. My poor monitor regrets this most of all.
These gripes, multiplied by my shameful lack of impulse control, are currently stopping me from loving Ronin as I expect I would – though they are exactly the kind of irritating burrs that Early Access can help buff smooth. There is much else to admire: the way Ronin balances its enemies’ idiosyncratic abilities and weaknesses against your own is acutely judged, and from this interplay emerges combat which manages to be both balletic and intensely strategic – a rare combination. Who knows, by the time it leaves Early Access, I may have calmed down enough to play it again.
Ronin is available from Steam for £10. I played a version with the build ID 637569 on 28/05/2015.