Game review: Ronin for Steam

Steam is having yet another sale, and Ronin was down to 7 euros, which hubby said was okay for our budget. Ronin has been on my wishlist for a while based on game play trailers, but having completed it with the “happy ending” in a little under fifteen hours, I have to say, I really, really hate this game. I ought to be used to half baked indie games with shit controls, buggy interfaces, and bad level design, but seeing a combination of all of them plus gleeful trolling by the maker knowing nothing in their game works consistently? Oh, that’s enough to raise a super seiyan level hate boner.

You might think I’m exaggerating, but in the “hints” is the comment that the jump arc lies. The arc is a fundamental part of the interface, because when you go into combat the controls go turn-based and you CANNOT move any other way than using the jump with the right stick. Now I want to be fair and say that this control scheme has potential. The problem is that where the end of the arc indicates your landing point is not accurate for 80% of your jumps. Why should it matter? Because it’s the difference between landing on a ledge and landing on a laser or a land mine.

Worse still, the arcing path you think you’ll take is also often inaccurate, which will send your eponymous ronin (who I will name…Ronin) leaping directly into gunfire. Between turns, the enemy line of fire is represented by red lines, so optimally you want to ease your jump arc under those lines. But quite often what seems like the right height will end up a lie, and Ronin takes a face and chest full of bullets. As you die with one shot, this is…aggravating, to say the least. It’s even more annoying because the game isn’t long, nor is it particularly difficult. Had the arc line and landing points been more accurate, I probably could have finished in around 4 to 5 hours, tops. As it is, I didn’t win because I got better at the game. I won through sheer willpower and blind fucking luck.

I want to find something nice to say, so after some deep thought, I could say that the music was pretty good. I could also say that with some more work in diversifying the mission types, enemies, and levels, this could have been a rock solid game. Alas, it is another indie game that got a “good enough” stamp of approval when what it really needed was more work in the level design and controls. I’d be far more forgiving if this was a free beta. But it’s a finished product, and it’s pretty damned disappointing.

In each level there are three objectives that must be completed in order to earn a point for upgrades. The game calls these “bonus” objectives, but as you can’t buy any upgrade without accomplishing all of them, I’d hardly call them bonuses so much as mandatory goals. For the most part, I did as they asked. I killed all the enemies, spared the civilians, and avoided triggering the alarm. Around chapter 3, I gave up on this because the level of accuracy needed to avoid triggering alarms became ridiculous precisely because I had so much trouble getting Ronin to jump where I wanted her. (I avoided killing civilians in all but one level, where I got so frustrated trying to deal with their patrol routes that I snapped and hung four of them in rapid succession. I regret nothing!)

I did get enough upgrade points to teleport to enemies or to hang them from the rafters, and to throw my sword and shuriken. (throwing the sword kills one enemy, but must be retrieved until an upgrade is picked up, and shuriken will hit every enemy on screen and stun them for three turns.) When these abilities work, they can help make the game slightly less irksome.

However, the shuriken presented another major problem because they only work in very specific situations. One, Ronin must be in combat, and two, she must be in the air when the turn ends. Even when these conditions were met, I often couldn’t throw them or my sword. But that’s not even my biggest frustration with them. No, that would be saved for the times when the icon for shuriken did appear, but there was no button assigned to it. This isn’t a game that has consistent button assignments, so on an Xbox controller sometimes it might be the left trigger, or X, or Y. Taking a guess which button it’s supposed to be will 99% of the time result in throwing the sword off screen instead, and then I had to restart the checkpoint because trying to retrieve it with no way to defend myself was pretty much a death sentence anyway.

I thought perhaps the problem might be that this was intended to be played with a mouse and keyboard, but just playing for a few minutes with the mouse was enough to get my eyes twitchy. As an example, when you jump using the controller, you can push the right stick a second time to activate a grappling hook, and then hit A to reel Ronin in. To do the same trick using a mouse requires hovering the arrow close to Ronin to start the first jump, then racing it to the location to anchor the grappling hook, and then trying to click on one of two green arrow icons that appear at either end of the grappling line. I’m sure it can be done, but after just a few attempts I decided to stick with the controller. It had issues, sure, but they weren’t nearly as finicky.

Even the teleport ability had some wonky problems at times. In one particular level, it would highlight one enemy on screen, and another off screen. But the one off screen might be the gunman just a bit farther up the hall (the one I needed to teleport to in order to save myself some drama) or it might be a dude in another room entirely. (one surrounded by other gunners in a confined space and no easy means of escape once combat starts. See the problem?)

Inconsistent controls by themselves are bad enough, but it’s not even possible to sort out how long turns are. Sometimes I might only move a few inches before freezing, and this could be a problem if I had yet to land on the wall I was aiming for. It quite often meant that on the next turn I would die because moving another half centimeter was enough to stick me to the wall and give the gunmen a nice easy target. Other times, I might launch the grappling hook and NEED that quick freeze to plan my next move, only to end up swinging back and forth just long enough to let every single last enemy put a bullet in me. There is literally nothing about this game that’s consistent enough to be reliable, and that sucks quite a lot of the fun out of it.

Add to the growing list of complaints that this game has absolutely atrocious level designs. Buildings don’t look like anything remotely functional, or indeed even like buildings in some cases. It’s all just loosely connected platforms, stairwells and elevators designed in such a way that enemies you can’t see off screen can most assuredly see and shoot you without you being able to do anything about it. So they’re ugly, AND cheap. Lots of games of this type might let you duck back into the stairs or elevators if you’re in trouble, but not this game. In fact, you can’t access anything until after you come out of combat. Is it a pain in the ass? OH HELL YES.

There’s light arrangements that are ridiculously overly complex and imply that this is some kind of stealth game where the point is to avoid the light. So long as you don’t enter combat, that is somewhat true. Once one enemy spots you, however, distance and darkness both become meaningless. An enemy all the way on the other side of the level can see you, and if they have a clear shot, they will take it. This can be a major league headache as you finally pin down a ninja, only to have to back off from making the killing blow because some douche 500 yards away has a bead on you.

Don’t expect any variety in the game play, either. For two levels you will traverse the platforms and “hack terminals” (in other words, stand in front of them and press one button) and for the third you will face a “boss.” You don’t even fight a couple of them, and aside from the second to last boss, most go down with one hit. (Incidentally, the second to last boss wouldn’t be hard by himself. He’s difficult because he’s surrounded by eight gunmen that you pretty much have to kill two thirds of before you’ll stand a chance at reaching him. Good luck even lining up a killing blow on the gunmen. I’d estimate that this one level took up the bulk of my game time, with each session being ten to fifteen minutes of hopping around to dodge bullets without ever lining up a shot.)

Not including the “bosses,” there’s really only four regular enemies and the same man and woman stand in for civilian positions. This is the barest minimum effort for the design, and that’s also reflected in the “cut scenes” which all use the same badly drawn image and a few sentences about each of Ronin’s targets. This is where shit gets real lazy, because Ronin is supposedly hunting people she’s known her whole life after they killed her father. So she knows their names, right? Probably, but the game refers to them as Old Man, Wisegal, Doctor, Officer, and The Boss.

And don’t expect anything for your efforts in beating the game because they didn’t even bother adding an extra bit of text to the crap drawing. No “A Winner is You!” No “Congratulations!” Just go straight to the credits, and would you like to play again? No, not really. I’d rather move on to something less craptacular.

The game’s final level introduces a new hit point mechanic of sorts, in that if you get hit, you will die in 9 turns. Killing an enemy replenishes the turn counter, and getting shot again will remove extra turns. The idea here is that you are dying to access the sad ending. With this much effort put into this gimmick, you might think the sad ending must be something different, possibly even the “true ending.” But no, you just go to credits, and now the crappy image is torn so that Ronin is missing from it.

I also have a major nitpick with the control scheme using start to skip turns, while the back button accesses the menu. I would have liked to change these, but of course there’s no option to remap buttons. There’s no option to turn off hints, which is “helpfully mentioned” in the hints. They also mention “these hints are really useful.” I can assure you, they are not. I’m wandering, but the point is, there’s not many options in the options menu.

At the end of the credits, there’s a list of special thanks that ends with “and the haters! =D” I think that’s what bugs me most of all. This is a lazy effort all the way around, and this guy knows he’s put out something half ass. But he’s got the balls to troll in his hints that can’t be shut off, and as a final dig in the credits.

Well, you can count me as one of the haters. I’d like to dedicate a song to this game, “I Hate Everything About You.” I give Ronin 2 stars, and I wouldn’t even recommend it to people I don’t like. Stay away from this hunk of garbage. I don’t ask for refunds on anything I review, but this time I am sorely tempted to break my policy and get my money back. The only reason it’s not getting 1 star is that I reserve the lowest score for unplayable garbage. This instead is playable garbage. You can find better ways to waste your time and money on Steam.