Late autumn is my favorite time of year - the sun rides low, the air gets crisp and cold, and I start looking for a really lengthy role playing game that I can settle in with in my game room, and by the time the snow is up against my windows, I'm too engrossed in the game to care. It's not late autumn, so I'm willing to concede that a small part of my disappointment with Piranha Bytes' Risen is just that it landed on the wrong side of the year. Truthfully, the biggest disappointment about Risen is that there are so many things about it that are good, but you simply don't get to enjoy them.
Risen is an open-play, sandbox-style role playing game in which you, the hero, are the victim of a shipwreck on an island. ("The weather started getting rough - the tiny ship was tossed! If not for the courage of the fearless crew ... *cough*... sorry.) Upon waking, you pick yourself up, salvage some equipment and money from the wreckage on the beach, look for other survivors, and then set about adventuring on the island. On the island , you'll almost immediately discover that two social factions are the main societies on the island - a band of rebels and bandits under the supervision of The Don, and the Order of the Inquisition, with all of the cheery tolerance that goes along with the title. Despite the seeming Robin-Hood worthiness of the rebels, or the draconian nature of the Order, you'll find that the black-and-white, good-and-bad of the two factions is actually painted in varying strokes of grey, and that there are elements of good and evil in both.
While you are pursuing quests on the behalf of whichever island faction you choose to align yourself with, you will do classic DUNGEON CRAWLING! The game's title refers to ancient ruins that have abruptly thrust themselves out of the ground like caskets in a horror movie, and in their dark and moody depths are treasures and loot, and beasties.
Risen is also fraught with other dangers, and I started encountering them from the first two or three minutes of play - dangers that could not be overcome. From the moment the game launched, I found the camera sensitivity on the right controller stick absurdly high - and then discovered that there was no option for adjusting it in the game options. Consequently, anything more than the gentlest nudge on the controller to look around, and your character is going to spin madly like an ecstasy-tripping ravergirl. This also makes combat somewhat problematic, but we'll get back to that. I'm still complaining about shortcomings in the basic play mechanics.
The accompanying press release that came with the review states that the North American Xbox release of the game features "enhanced visuals and environments, refined difficulty and modified controls". If that is the case, it's worrisome to wonder what kind of a build of the game was released in the United Kingdom and what poor, hardworking people had to play it. The basic play mechanics of the game are simply so frustrating that it's hard to appreciate any of the rest of the game. Combat is relatively simple, with a two-button system of parry and attack - but even set to easier difficulties, the threat level of beasties you encounter is very unpredictable, and it's hard to tell which fights you can safely walk away from.
The combat feels clunky and unpredictable, button-mashing where you hope that the math behind the screen turns out in your favor. The 'refined controls' apparently features a movable camera, which I fail to see the point of since every time you interact with an object or speak with an in-game NPC simply repositions itself back to its default distance. There are a few more basic gameplay gripes that I'll mention - you cannot pick up items when your weapon is drawn (no problem!) but consequently you also cannot see items with your weapon drawn, so I found that, for example, when I entered a building to find a key item, and had defeated the monsters defending it, I spent fifteen minutes wandering the ruin looking for the item before realizing that retrievable items don't highlight unless your weapon is stowed.
In terms of general gameplay, Risen's a cross between Fable and Oblivion, two other classic RPG's - it tries to take Oblivion's large, open freedom and marry it to Fable's morality system and sense of accountability and consequence for decisions you, the player, make. Unfortunately, the game is simply so frustrating to navigate that most players won't get to see any of that depth to the underlying story and game. There is an in-game journal that should keep track of your current story threads and quests, but I found that after I'd spoken with as many as a half-dozen in-game NPC's and initiated a job I was supposed to do, there were no notes in the in-game journal, and I was left doing the classic eighties computer-game tactic of scrawling notes in a journal next to me as I played. There is an in-game map (at least, if you FIND the maps within the game) but outside of a compass in the upper right of the screen, there is never anything within the in-game interface to tell you where you are supposed to go, or what you're supposed to to when you get there. I spent many hours just wandering around revisiting characters to remind myself what I was supposed to be doing or what the next link in the story chain was.
If there were any one segment of the gameplay that was really strong - say, the combat, or the character development, or the dialog interface and the story - it'd be enough for the game to float, but there just isn't one single aspect of the game that doesn't frustrate in some way. So, you might ask, why have I been playing it at all?
Risen, despite its maddening gameplay tics, is still a pretty game. The music is excellent, and the voice acting is also good - better, I though, than Oblivion, including voiceover for all of your (the main character's) dialog. In fact, the game is definitely tailored to the high- definition, 1080i crowd - upon launching the game, I found the typical 'load' - 'save' - 'continue' buttons were missing down off-screen because the opening screen was proportioned for widescreen and not a typical television. Since my TV doesn't have a vertical hold adjust, I've had to save and load my games by remembering how many presses I've made on the D-pad. also, in-game text during dialogue, inventory screens, item descriptions, equipment, character statistics etc. is extremely small and practically unreadable. That being said, the game's environments are actually very pretty - within the first two hours of the game, you'll have explored a range of different locations from swamps to cliffs to abandoned farms to dungeon tombs, and there is no denying the game is visually sound. Character art and creature art is great, but the animation tends to be poorly keyframed.
Overall, there just isn't enough here to justify your time or your dime. Risen's got some depth and some detail, but you won't be able to get around the frustrating controls, irritating character development and levelling system, difficult combat, and sheer unfriendliness long enough to enjoy the story or the visuals. The game seems to deliberately go out of its way to NOT help you explore and enjoy it, and that's quite simply too bad, because it could have been a really good title to go on the bookshelf along with Fallout, Fable, and Oblivion, had it tried a little harder. The game's got two pluses - pretty, and lots to do. But you likely won't be able to tolerate the shortcomings long enough to appreciate the 'lots to do', and 'pretty' isn't enough to keep you coming back to the game. Risen's like the planet Jupiter - a star that just didn't make it.