Piranha Bytes quietly released the Xbox 360 port Risen to European audiences in October of last year, and brought it across the Atlantic at the end of February. Risen is arguably overshadowed by Piranha Bytes' other (and popular) dark fantasy fantasy role playing games, and it's a long time coming. Unfortunately, whether or not it was worth the wait will depend on your ability to forgive and forget.
Risen's not that good, crushed under the weight of its own scope. Taken individually, Risen's mechanics range from mildly offensive to brilliant; taken together, they're an amalgam of poorly executed and often conflicting ideas, each of which draw out the worst of the others.
Risen is a Möbius Strip of muddy design.
Risen (Xbox 360)
Por ejemplo, you'll discover soon enough that Faranga, Risen's tropical setting, is lush and seamless. As your nameless, shipwrecked castaway wanders (often aimlessly) about the island, he won't find any invisible walls or loading screens. The environments are sharply detailed, and the fauna roam free -- it's not unheard of to find, say, a pack of wolves attacking a group of gravemoths, or a clan of gnomes cooking meals and tending to their (stolen) homesteads. Usable, pickable plants are everywhere -- a sprig of mint restores some mana, a green apple some health. Backed by a dynamic weather system and surprisingly competent lighting effects, Risen sells Faranga surprisingly well.
Exploring Faranga only gets more interesting as your player-character gains access to magic. Using a levitation scroll to access previously unassailable crooks and crannies has a certain zen-like quality, and looking out over the land and sea from the tops of mountains is simultaneously serene and empowering. Faranga can be truly beautiful, and it's nice to know that your visual rewards are the fruits of your ingenuity (that, and your ability to spam the jump button as needed). There is always something to see and do on Faranga, and exploration is often rewarding: it keeps your coffers well stocked and encourages experimentation and individuality.
The island's towns and cities show similar attention to detail: the docks of Harbour Town feel lived in as you cavort with soldiers and sailors, cutthroats and clergymen, sellswords and whores. And while the NPCs you'll meet are all relatively flat, they're also realistically flat: they don't let you steal from them in broad daylight, they mill about, they solicit you for charity or sex. I remind you that Risen is game about a man with a magic monocle on his eye who fights giants; but, relative to other games in the genre, the suspension of disbelief is fairly easy to come by.
Unfortunately, for all the fun to be had by exploring Faranga, you won't really want to, thanks to Risen's broken combat. I can forgive Risen for having unintuitive combat controls -- actually, most of the user interface is unintuitive, a vestige of its PC origins -- but not for being unresponsive. While Risen's character growth system allows you to add points to your weapon choice, everything but the most basic attack feels sluggish and therefore useless. Even after thirty-odd hours, the most effective attack was the default one. Ranged attacks -- bows, crossbows, magic -- are slightly more engaging, but the end result is still something akin to attrition.
To their credit, the Farangan enemies are clever -- they will attack in groups, they will try to flank you, and they rarely stick to an attack pattern -- but Risen doesn't give you the tools to handle the onslaught. Never mind the fact that every killer badger and gravemoth on the entire island is blessed with the ability to read minds.
Not only does Risen's combat make exploring the island decidedly frustrating -- and breaking the best part of the game -- it also ruins any notion of character progression. Given that a.) the combat is badly executed and b.) adding skill points to combat-oriented doesn't change that fact, I'd wager that most players will spend their points learning crafts -- alchemy, lockpikcing, smithing, prospecting, hunting -- and buying incremental upgrades to dexterity and strength. Since Risen never bothers to explain what, exactly, the strength and dexterity stats govern, those purchases ring hollow.
Turning your character into a varied craftsman, on the other hand, is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, being able to craft potions and weapons, and steal from townsfolk, and harvest skins will quickly line your pockets, breaking the in-game economy. On the other, it's one of the few ways to take full advantage of Faranga's bounty. Setting off into one of Faranga's many caves to mine a gold vein, only to take it back into town to forge yourself a new necklace is satisfying and rewarding. And since you amass your raw materials during the course of normal play, it never feels like a chore.
My last gripe with the Risen's dogged determination to undermine itself through its shoddy combat is the way it handles emergent play. I mentioned earlier that most of Risen's NPCs act realistically -- if you're slick, you can lead enemy creatures into groups of villagers or soldiers, prompting them to jump to your (much needed) aid. This will seem like a viable strategy until you realize that your player-character doesn't receive any experience points for its effort.
Not only does Risen punish the natural instinct to explore its beautiful world by interrupting you with shitty combat against stupidly unbalanced enemies, but it also withholds the spoils of war when you try to be smart about it.
Risen fares better in populated areas, if only because there's not as much fighting. Farangan towns are filled, as I mentioned, by relatively realistic people, most of them with a name, a backstory, and a quest for you to complete. These range from bog-variety fetch quest to sprawling sagas in their own right, stretching over dozens of hours.
These quests are tucked away in a journal, ostensibly paired with a map marking exactly where you should go next. Unfortunately, this doesn't often work -- your instructions are often vague and, even when your map decides to include markers (this isn't always the case), it's often unhelpful, especially for longer quests. There's a fine line between exploration and wandering, and Risen stumbles over it often, falling into the pitfalls I've already mentioned. Risen's hands-off mission architecture isn't something I would normally take umbrage with -- a little lateral thinking and independence never hurt anyone, and I don't expect my videogames to play themselves -- but it becomes a problem when coupled with Risen's other shortcomings.
But if no one wants you to leave town, Risen is pure joy.
Three factions vie for control of Faranga's magical artifacts -- Don Esteban's bandits, the Warriors of the Order, and the Mages, the latter two united under the same religious leader -- and Risen's lengthy prologue lets you play these groups against each other for fun and profit. Even after you've committed yourself to a group, there are plenty people in each camp with conflicting interests, and squeezing as much information and resources from any given group without compromising your position with the other gives you a sense of purpose and agency that the narrative and combat lack.
And while Faranga's often unpredictable weather can be a hindrance -- it's hard to explore if you can't see -- townspeople respond to it logically. They'll go back inside, making it harder to steal from them, for example; at night, the whores and guards come out and the pubs become crowded.
Unfortunately, though Risen really shines in its cityscapes, they're also where the game also starts to show its seams. The dialogue is competently written, and voice acting (hell, the sound design in general) is surprisingly strong, though the dialogue trees aren't particularly sophisticated. More distracting, however, is that the same half- dozen glitchy character models populate the entire island; and the animations are muddy at best and horrific at worst -- more than once, bodies have turned themselves around, only to leave still-talking heads turned around backwards.
I'm not one to judge a game by its budget, but it's a shame that Risen again turns what should've been its strong suit -- NPC interaction -- into a cause for criticism.
I think I skipped the plot summary portion of this review -- that goes at the beginning, right? -- but here goes: don't worry about it. It absolutely plods along and very little, in the grand scheme of the game, happens in the first twenty hours. Not only are NPC subplots and backstories more interesting than Risen's boilerplate fantasy, but the game, as usual, shoots itself in the foot with its delivery.
Risen would be slow even under the best circumstances -- which doesn't necessarily bother me -- but it's impossible to know which quests are important and which are peripheral, so you'll spend a lot of time lost and dying, accomplishing nothing, feeling frustrated by the combat. Without any narrative momentum to push you roughshod through the game's busted mechanics, Risen feels that much more alienating.
On the flipside, most everything gets better as time moves on -- the fundamentally busted combat notwithstanding -- but I'd be hardpressed to recommend Risen after the 30 hours I've spent with it so far.
Writing recently about videogames and cocaine addiction, essayist Tom Bissell states that "video games, you see, have no edge. You have to appreciate them. They do not come to you." Insofar as Risen is concerned, there's some truth to this. Somewhere, hidden in foreboding mountain peaks, deep under a gloomy cave, or in the back of a forgotten whorehouse, there is fun to be had in Risen. To be honest, I'll probably keep looking for it -- but I'll do so armed with a walkthrough and the knowledge that playing Risen might be a game of diminishing returns.
Score: 4 -- Below Average (4s have some high points, but they soon give way to glaring faults. Not the worst games, but are difficult to recommend.)