Risen was released for the Xbox 360 on February 23, 2010 after been previously released for the PC in October of 2009. The German production team, Piranha Bytes developed the PC version while supervising an unknown 3rd party developer in charge of the 360 version. Much ado has been made of the inferior quality of the console port of Risen when compared to the PC version. Let’s take a long look at this game to see if this is the case.
In this game, you play as a nameless (but far from silent) protagonist who has snuck about a ship with a gypsy named Sara. As you make your way to the bridge, you notice an Inquisitor call forth a Titan from the ocean depths. Naturally the colossal being appears and the Inquisitor teleports away, realizing he doesn’t stand a chance. The Titan then attacks the ship and you and many others are flung into the sea from the fury of the attack. Waking up on an island called Faranga, you find yourself accompanied by Sara and lots of dead bodies...
The opening shots of Faranga Island are deliberately designed to show off the visual brilliance of the game. Right as you awake near the beach, you see all manner of carnage from the shipwreck; broken masts, scattered and spilled crates and suchlike. The waves look great and I like the rocky look of the terrain, as the developers surely spent time studying landscapes to translate such environments accurately.
Unfortunately, these large environs and sweeping landscapes come with a price: an inconsistent framerate and constant pop-in with a short draw distance. Characters pause in mid-motion and there are often short inexplicable pauses as you transverse through the terrain. This happened most frequently at the Monastery, so it seems that a lot of people onscreen at once buckles the game’s engine.
Conventional reviewing wisdom states that I should automatically give the game a low score due to these problems. However while this visual glitches are distracting and often troublesome in combat, I was still able to persevere and enjoy the game, for the most part. To me, it seems that the visual presentation is only one part of a whole, and the reviewers that are faulting the game as a whole for this are being overly critical. Remember how the same problems abounded in all the Grand Theft Auto games for PS2 and yet the graphics were highly praised?
Your player and the characters you encounter look more generic and suffer from awkward animations, especially in combat. While the main character has the glint of cunning and sardonicism in his eye, other characters are mostly blank slates, with similar facial expressions that do little to differentiate themselves from others. If it weren’t for the obvious body shape differences, one might have trouble recognizing a man from a woman.
Music is sadly absent for most of the game, i.e exploring the overworld. Diablo and other games had the same problem with excessive ambience in their music. Sometimes I think that people just accept that as part of the style of these types of games. That is nonsense, as a dramatic and subtle score would do a lot to make your journey more involving. I picture rousing melodies for combat, windpipes for wandering, and chorus used throughout as almost the prerequisite in this genre of gaming. Sadly, we get little of that. The overworld music is nothing particularly memorable and tends to fade in and out.
Gameplay is the style of other Western RPG’s like Dragon’s Age Origins and Elder Scrolls Oblivion. The biggest apparent difference between these games and JRPG’s are the definition of "role" when it comes to roleplaying. In Western circles, it means the ability to play the game in any way you want, with little direction from the computer on what must be done. In Risen, you can complete quests or just wander the landscapes looking for enemies to kill and treasure to find. Basically, you have no one path that you must follow. I find this interesting but potentially limiting, depending on what kind of gamer you are.
The rest of Risen is similar to standard genre entries, with experience to level up, weapons and armor to equip for battle, items to find, and quests to complete. There is a huge variety of things that you can do in this game, and it is hardly necessary to detail them all in this review for the interested to get a sense of the style of gameplay in Risen. The non-linear gameplay is self-evident and I like the ability to join different island factions whose goals and motives aren’t as apparent as they first seem. The biggest holdover concern for PC to console ports is how well will the multi-button interface of the keyboard and mouse translate to comparatively small number of buttons on the controller? In Risen, this is handled rather well with the ability to have items and spells hotlinked to the D-pad and face buttons via the Left Trigger Button. Just hold it down, assign what you need, and you’ll have easy access. This is a well thought out system and very helpful when you need some on-the-fly healing in the midst of battle.
Unlike traditional leveling up, you only seem to gain more life and mana upon reaching the next level. Strength, dexterity, and other stats are increased by potions and training with different masters. This is also the case with improving skills, just as higher weapon levels and innate abilities. As you level up, you earn learning points. In addition to some gold, you use these points to pay for stat/skill increases. This system is interesting, but finding the NPC’s who increase strength when you need it to say, get to minimum stats to equip a new and more powerful weapon, can be trying. I would have preferred a Diabloesque point allocation system, allowing you to make whatever kind of character you wanted, rather than the warrior, magician, or a combination of both.
When it comes to combat, first let’s discuss magic. Magic comes in the form of spells and scrolls. The Magician has access to all spells whereas the warrior can only learn 3 spells without using scrolls that you can make or purchase. Each scroll is like one casting of the spell. Magic must be manually aimed, so in the heat of battle can be tricky to use. I still appreciate this unique element, as magic shouldn’t necessarily be overpowered and auto-aimed magic wouldn’t fit in with this game’s combat system.
The fighting system consists of blocking, striking, and parrying with various types of weapons, both blunt and bladed. Combat often feels like a chess match, with the enemy doing their best to catch you off guard and maneuver their way around your defenses to land a damaging blow. Faster enemies are especially good at this, and you’ll often find it necessary to adjust your reflexes if you hope to emerge relatively unscathed.
The trigger buttons control blocking and attacking, with up to 3 hits possible in a row at initial levels. The better your timing between each blow, the faster you will swing. Proper timing is key to disrupting enemy action and keeping them from damaging you. This makes battles a lot of fun and tense in many situations, often feeling like a ballet just as much as a struggle between life and death.
Risen is quite challenging early on with death happening quite frequently as you learn the gameplay systems. The ability to save at any time is very helpful in tough spots. Just be prepared to view the 25-second loading time often should you find yourself in a tricky spot. Like most RPG’s, grinding is always an option but learning the nuances of the combat will make the game much easier. It sure did for me. There are also glitches in the enemy A.I that you can exploit to give you an easier time, such as running a distance away and finding many foes getting stuck in a random A.I pattern or on a piece of terrain. This makes them an easy target for magic and bow attacks.
Risen’s replay value is naturally great, as can be expected from a non-linear RPG. On subsequent playthroughs, I want to focus on magic for combat and better skill development early on, if only to see if it neutralizes some of the tougher enemies. It was quite an odd thing to see a giant cricket take like 30+ hits from an axe before it died. I wonder if magic is more effective.
Risen is the first Western RPG that I’ve played in quite a while, and it tells me I should keep an eye out for future games in this genre. While the presentation and music might not compare to JRPG’s, I still enjoy their ability to create a vibrant world. In fact, Risen makes me want to check out other acclaimed western RPG’s to see what I’ve been missing. When I have the time that is.