After honing its craft across the Ninja Gaiden series, two Nioh games, and the recent Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty, you can hardly call Rise of the Ronin a coming-out party for Team Ninja. This is a vastly experienced developer that knows what it's doing, and has done so to good success for almost 30 years. The studio is a household name amongst enthusiasts, but what if it did make a grab for the mainstream audience? Bankrolled by Sony, its new title Rise of the Ronin feels like exactly that. The hardcore don't need to worry, though: Rise of the Ronin is still a Team Ninja game through and through.

It's just quite a bit more accessible and approachable than past efforts. With three difficulty options to pick from, a lot of checkpointing, and clear tutorialisation, we died just once during the first four hours this preview allows us to discuss. It feels like a Team Ninja experience in essentially every facet — just with the difficulty scaled down.

With a vast, colourful, and historical open world alongside it, Rise of the Ronin is also far bigger than anything the studio out of Tokyo has done in the past. A linear tutorial sets up your two custom characters and introduces the streamlined combat system, then you're able to explore a gigantic land mass packed full of the typical activities you'd expect of an open world game. Off the back of its many mission-based titles, though, this is a notable step forward for Team Ninja.

And, based on what we have played so far, these tweaks to the outfit's formula have paid off for a mostly more enjoyable experience. Those returning from past titles like Nioh and Wo Long: Fallen Dynasty will find a familiar combat system to master while newcomers will be charmed by the big open world and its clash of east and western cultures. It's been an experience that's grown on us the more we played; every session has been better than the last... for the most part.

What's been most intriguing is seeing how Team Ninja has adapted its combat system for a less masochistic audience while still incorporating some light Dark Souls features. On the standard difficulty, combat is — on the whole — quite a bit easier compared to the studio's past games. Your protagonist has more health and stamina while normal enemies have less. You have access to additional tools like a grappling hook and expanded traversal options while common foes keep their feet firmly planted on the ground. You have a clear advantage this time around, which moves the experience more towards a usual action-adventure title rather than an Elden Ring.

Still, you'll continue to feel that FromSoftware inspiration at select points. Veiled Edge Banners are effectively Bonfires, restoring your health and items while respawning select enemy types. However, since standard checkpoints are a thing in Rise of the Ronin, you won't always pick the action back up from one of them if you die. They're just an option this time around. Then, enemy encounters generally feel like Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice — again, though, with the difficulty turned down.

Combat is just as much about clearing an enemy's HP bar as it is taking away all their stamina, which is known as Ki in-game. Through well-timed parries and deflections, you can leave an enemy open for a killer blow as their stamina gauge drops to nought. The good thing, though, is this tactic is just one option: you could also time your dodges correctly and land critical hits or simply brute force an encounter through blocks and retaliations. It's not a complete walk in the park; you still need to keep your wits about you to a good degree. However, after two generations of brutal FromSoftware and Team Ninja titles — and all of the copycats in between — Rise of the Ronin feels quite comfortably the most accessible of the lot.

The open world appears mostly straightforward also, though there is some amount of depth to it. In the early hours, you have to work to increase a Bond Level for each individual area, which reveals new icons and activities in that region after ranking up. With rewards to accrue, you're incentivised to invest in every area so you can reveal and then tick off all of its quests and optional pursuits. There are cats to find, photographs to take, shrines to pray at, and fugitives to kill in the first handful of districts. They're the sort of side tasks typical of an open world game, but have proved enjoyable distractions to the boilerplate main missions so far.

Interestingly, that concept of a Bond Level in each area of the game carries over into some of the characters you meet and converse with. It appears you'll be able to develop relationships with the people you meet and nurture them into companions or love interests, with rewards to be had when your bond levels up. Having unlocked a home base in Yokohama, you're able to converse with them and give them gifts in order to boost the connection you share. Since we are only a handful of hours into the game at the time of writing, we haven't seen any proper relationships blossom yet, but we're eager to experiment more with the feature and see its possibilities flourish.

What was clear from the off, though, is how Sony's involvement has lent the experience a presentational shine not seen in past Team Ninja titles. From the flashy, big-budget opening movie to the story cutscenes complete with letterboxed black borders, Rise of the Ronin is a step above anything the developer has done before from a visual perspective. The trade-off is it makes the moments the game isn't at its graphical best all the more glaring: texture pop-in out in the open world is a constant and the larger locations like Yokohama appear almost desolate, with few NPCs roaming the streets.

We wish there were more because the few you run past in the built-up cities hint at the clash between Eastern and Western cultures Rise of the Ronin is all about. Ambient dialogue speaks of the tension in the air while buildings can go from distinctly Japanese to of blatant American origin. It makes exploring these places so much more fascinating, as you go from one street your custom protagonist could call home to another where they feel almost alien. Given there are quite a few more cities for us to visit throughout the game, we're excited to see the experience explore this culture clash more.

Compared to Team Ninja's past titles, Rise of the Ronin feels bigger, grander, deeper. But is it actually better? At the moment, it's difficult to say. The experience has proved consistently decent to good in its opening couple of hours, but it's yet to really knock our socks off with an impressive mission or exhilarating sequence that showcases why Sony decided to take the game under its wing. While some elements certainly show promise, the four hours of play this preview affords us to discuss publicly aren't hitting on the same level as other PS5 exclusives. Right now, Rise of the Ronin is good. But it isn't great.

Rise of the Ronin launches for PS5 on 22nd March 2024, so check back with us before then for a full review. Have our impressions heightened your excitement for the game or not? Share your thoughts in the comments below.