The skies are swirling with fury and there are beasts on the shore. As they approach, you’re doubtful the slab of driftwood in your hand will be capable of swatting them aside. Shaking off the shock of waking up near-dead on the beach after the shipwreck, at the back of your mind gnaws the curiosity as to what kind of mysteries are set inside this densely forested island. Before giving in to that line of thinking wholeheartedly, more essential needs shoulder to the front of your thoughts. What do I eat? Who can I turn to for help? How do I get stronger? And more importantly, how do I kill this repulsive giant vulture creature without getting my skull caved in?
Such are the opening moments of Piranha Bytes’ Risen, an open-world role-playing game from the makers of the Gothic series. Anyone who knows the studio’s previous work will find a lot familiar here, from the general ambiance of the world to the presentation, feel of gameplay, and style of exploration. You’ll also find it’s quite user-friendly, at least in a relative sense, compared to the studio’s more hardcore Gothic games. To any newcomer unaware of the history of Gothic and Piranha Bytes, this is not a game that holds your hand; it’s more about rewarding player initiative. While a little more direction in spots would have been appreciated, the game’s exemplary consistency of tone and its methods of advancement make its world and character progression feel all the more powerful, and despite some hiccups with combat and visuals, make it a solid role-playing experience.
Compared to Piranha Bytes’ previous efforts, Risen’s scope is limited to a more digestible, manageable space – the volcano island of Faranga. While it may not look like much at first, rest assured that the rocky cliffs, wooded areas, and farmlands are honeycombed with enough caves and eldritch warrens to make any loot hunter giddy. Just so you know what you’re in for, though, the loot in this game isn’t showered over you along with an avalanche of statistical bonuses. You’ve got one slot for armor, one for a helmet, can carry a bow and a melee weapon, and a few pieces of jewelry. The rate at which major bits of gear, like armor, are swapped out in Risen isn’t what could be described as rapid. In many cases the armor sets not only make you more resilient, but indicate status and accomplishments, giving your protective garb a narrative value in addition to bestowing additional defensive bonuses.
The pieces of armor also reflect the decisions made about following factions in the game world. Upon starting out, do you seek shelter with a local group of bandits holed up in a ruin and focus on sword, axe or bow use? Do you let yourself get arrested by a zealous order and learn the ways of magic, or take the even more roundabout path and volunteer to step within the Monastery’s gate? Should you choose to follow the path of the mage, learning how to utilize crystals and launch fireballs, eventually a Master’s Robe could be yours, but not until you’ve dumped in hours and hours of time and completed heaps of quests.
Exploring Harbor Town
You have to earn the trust and respect of the mages to get the payoff. After something like that is acquired, the residents of the world will react, making securing powerful items feel like more of an event than an arbitrary eventuality. NPCs will be impressed by your accomplishments, while others will show open disgust at your decision to join a particular faction. If you’re the type of player that needs to swap in and out new equipment regularly to stay interested, then this might not be the game for you. However, if you’re someone who appreciates a title that makes a serious effort to tie its items to its fiction, teasing and offering new paths of progress with a measured, practiced pace, then you’ll find it here.
Beyond making decisions about which faction to choose, the first chapters of Risen are packed with side-quests that gradually introduce you to its combat systems and various skill sets, from alchemy to lockpicking to prospecting and metal working. It’s in these parts that’s Risen begins to build an affecting tone with its authentic NPC dialogue and strong voice acting. The populace of Harbor Town is tired. The people complain of reduced business prospects with the recent trouble surrounding the island, and to cope they resort to thievery, drug running, and extortion. They’re a beat-down lot, content to drown their worries in beer and everyday routine, and as a result they feel more like real people. The quests you’re given frequently overlap and often have logical goals, making the NPCs seem like more than faceless task dispensers.
It’s not an issue so serious it’ll turn you away from the game though, assuming you’ve played this style of product before. I know some types of role-playing gamers embrace these kinds of ambiguities on the principle that a lack of direction enhances the power of a game’s immersion. If you’re coming into the game as a role-playing newbie, however, be prepared for a bit of a system shock. Regardless of where you stand on how much direction a game needs to give, there’s one element of Risen that’s more difficult to like, and that’s the combat. In short, I’ll just say have patience. Fighting takes place entirely in real-time from a third-person perspective, and oh boy is it awkward at first. Given a little practice and skill training, the side-steps, parries, and combo swipes begin to feel less alien. It’s still a bit of a mess when fighting groups of opponents, but you’ll get better at it as you bump up your skill with a preferred weapon type and unlock new moves, making the experience even easier, though it never quite feels as natural as it should.
The combat awkwardness is further accentuated on the Xbox 360 version, as a touchy turning speed and camera control coupled with the inconsistent framerate can be a nuisance when trying to tackle more than one opponent at once. Thankfully, you can open your item menu which shuts off the AI governing attackers, effectively pausing the game. From here you can slam potions and patch yourself back up, making up for what might have otherwise been a fatal misstep. Oh, and this is an old RPG adage, but holds especially true here: save early, save often.
Ranged combat with bows and magic spells is also an option for conquering foes, and you’ll find the magic system is also built into dungeon exploration. You’ll use telekinesis to turn faraway winches and buttons, levitation to cross deadly fiery pits, and the nautilus transformation spell to fit through tiny holes in dungeon walls and access new areas. While the puzzles aren’t particularly sophisticated, they do provide a nice change of pace from the combat and looting. Just be sure to head into dungeons prepared, which shouldn’t be a problem later in the game after you’ve accumulated more money and scrolls.
The combat takes a while to get used to, but does get more interesting as you power up your fighting skills.Once you do reach the point where you’re no longer poor and have powered up a few skills, you’ll find the pacing of the game undergoes a shift. In the beginning you’re directed into towns and fed more structured gameplay, while afterwards things open up as the game instills in the player a sense of wide-eyed wonder as the culture and atmosphere of Faranga is absorbed. It makes the experience feel a little uneven, but such a setup should surely be appreciated by newer players hesitant to roam the world at large right from the very beginning. More veteran players, however, may be antsy to immediately scour the countryside, and frustrated to find it isn’t really possible without first working through introductory bits.
Please note, this is a review of the Xbox 360 version released in North America.
Whether or not you’ll enjoy Piranha Bytes’ Risen really depends on what kind of gamer you are. Though this is a more humble and user-friendly product than Piranha Bytes’ past games, it’s still very much a hardcore role-playing game. If you’re not willing to figure some things out for yourself and the idea of freedom of choice doesn’t sit well with you, chances are Risen isn’t going to mesh well with your gaming sensibilities. If you’re familiar with the genre and are looking to take the next step into a mature, well-realized fantasy world, then this is it. Its combat system isn’t the greatest and its pacing is inconsistent, but for those who put in the time to see all Risen has to offer, it’s an experience that won’t be forgotten.