Review by Mike “Scout” Gust
Developer Piranha Bytes
Publisher Deep Silver
Released October 2, 2009
Available for Windows (version reviewed), Xbox
Verdict: 3/5 Middlin’
“I think I feel so let down by Risen’s ending because my first impressions had been so positive, the first half so satisfyingly realistic, especially for a fantasy RPG. Risen had purred along like a nice mid-sized sedan, like a Camry shuttling me around town only to be hijacked out from under me and replaced by a cross between a clown car and a parade float. Sure it has its entertainment value, but you really can’t go anywhere in it.“
Piranha Bytes is back. Sort of.
The German developers famous (also sort of) for creating then losing their RPG franchise of Gothic games have reentered the ring with their newest title, Risen. Little has changed other than the fact that the word “Gothic” is not in the title. You play the same trademark nameless hero as before, a young, cynical male with no backstory and a lot of landscape to subdue pretty much singlehandedly. You begin the game shipwrecked and washed up on a debris-strewn beach surrounded by corpses. A few feet in from the sand looms a lush tropical forest. A path leads into the trees. Tall cliffs loom on both sides. This is obviously the only way forward. You hear the distant roar of a beast. Into the forest you go, desperate to make it to some sort of shelter, wearing nothing but the soaked rags on your back, not even a pair of shoes to cover your feet. Just a few minutes into Risen and you get start to get that old familiar feeling. Anyone who has ever played a game from the Gothic series will know what I mean. Wander off the path and into those woods and wolves, boars, and nasty rats will materialize in front of you, striking with lightening speed. Make a single misstep they’ll soon be nuzzling around in your innards. Piranha Bytes is apparently up to their old tricks again.
A little backstory seems appropriate at this late stage.
Piranha Bytes gained a decent following for the excellent Gothic, a solid, single player action RGP released in 2001, starring a nameless hero dropped kicked into a prison island surrounded by an impassable magical barrier. The combat controls were a little alien for some (read almost keyboard control only) but otherwise this game did well enough to spawn the very excellent Gothic II. The Gothic II plot took off seconds after Gothic ended and ladled up a savory bowl of RPG goodness. Piranha Bytes refined the engine, and brought the controls more into line with mainstream expectations, though a lot of people still whined about them. Personally, it took me about 20 minutest to adapt to them and believe you me, I am a first class whiner.
As you will soon discover…
Gothic II proved so popular that the developers created an expansion for it, Gothic II: Night of the Raven. Instead of just releasing the expansion as a stand alone add on, they retooled the whole game, folding the new content into it. You weren’t able to continue on with your character, but had to start all over again. But there was more of everything and everything was good. This was probably the high point of the Gothic series.
Gothic 3 came out in 2006 to much anticipation and subsequent disappointment. It proved to be a bug ridden, oddly designed mess. Combat was utterly unbalanced. Your battle worn hero could be easily slaughtered by any one of the hundreds of super boars trotting around the countryside. They lunged at you like a blur, knocking you back…and back…and back, and all the while you were stunned and unable to defend yourself. Stealing goods, once a perilous proposition was now child’s play. Patch after patch came out but in the end, Gothic 3 proved to be a serious stumble. So much so that the publisher Jowood parted ways with Piranha Bytes and took the rights to the Gothic series with it. Piranha Bytes was bought up by Pluto 13 GmbH who claim that while they have signed over all past Gothic games as well as the trademark Gothic, they did not sign over rights to future Gothic games. That is confusing but it does help explain the current game under consideration.
Risen consists of four chapters and if I wanted to draw a chart of my gaming experience with the chapters on the horizontal axis and my gaming buzz on the vertical axis on a scale of 0-100, the line would enter the chart on the left at about 20 (great expectations!!!) rise slowly through chapter one, more steeply in chapter two, peak between chapters two and three at about 88 and then head downwards through the rest of chapter three, plunging vertiginously through four, leaving the bottom of the chart instead of exiting out the right hand side. That is because I didn’t quite finish the game. I quit right at the final boss battle, fed up and swearing. This imaginary chart is an accurate reflection of my feelings about this game. If you wanted to, you could stop reading right here and go have lunch. Or call your mother which you know you should do anyway, you selfish ingrate.
So on to the game review proper.
Great nasty titans, long since defeated and banished, have suddenly been unleashed and are wreaking havoc on the world in the form of brutally punishing storms. An inquisition, formed of powerful mages and order warriors have set out to discover a way to defeat the titans and send them back to whence they have risen. For some reason the volcanic island, Faranga, where you have been shipwrecked is buffered from the storms. But Faranga is in a crisis of its own. Strange temples have sprouted from the earth and pepper the landscape like little Oblivion gates. Beneath these temples lay a labyrinth of passages and tunnels swarming with vicious lizardmen. The Inquisition on Faranga, having banished the local ruling faction of bandits to the swamps, have locked down the only population center, Harbour Town. No one comes in or out without the Inquisition’s permission and they aren’t giving it. A powerful mage, an Inquisitor named Mendozo, has arrived in Faranga to try and find out why it alone of all the islands is protected from the storm. This is where things stand as you begin the game.
The factions are a bit confusing at first. My early impressions were that the bandits had had the island to themselves before the Inquisition arrived. But once I got to the monastery high up on the volcano it was obvious that it was a very old building inhabited by an ancient order of mages dedicated to protecting what they call the Holy Flame, basically the molten core of the volcano. As far as I could tell they were there long before the Inquisition arrived though now they are allied with the Inquisition which is headquartered at the monastery. You are warned early in your explorations to watch out for the Inquisition’s Order warriors as they are patrolling the island, looking for anyone ignoring the lock-down decree. If they catch you it’s off to the monastery with you and involuntary conscription into the Inquisition. The exiled Bandits are holed up in the swamp and though you can go there first and complete quite a few quests you can’t join them. Barring capture, the only way to voluntarily join a faction is to make your way into Harbour Town. Joining a faction requires you to complete a set of four quests there. Whichever four quests you finish first, that is the faction you enter. For instance, I chose to join the Inquisition as an Order Warrior but I still completed three of the four bandit quests. And though I had officially entered the Inquisition, after training up at the monastery I was still able to return to the bandit camp for more training and quests.
Risen is a pretty straight forward RPG though it has some quirks. Like in most RPGs you gain experience points through quests and combat and level up every few thousand points. And like in most RPGs, every time you level up you can advance in a chosen field of expertise, in this case being mage, Order warrior (a sort of hybrid warrior/mage or paladin), or fighter. Whereas in most RPGs, once you level up you can immediately access a series of menu screens and divvy out your newly earned points, Risen’s leveling scheme is different, more realistic if you will. Leveling up in Risen earns you learning points. Those points, along with enough gold will buy you a skill by way of a trainer. Just because you have leveled doesn’t guarantee instant access to extra beefiness. First you have to make it to a trainer, and not just any trainer but a trainer specializing in whatever skill you want. Then you must pay them in gold. Even your good buddies in your chosen faction want to be paid. This is more realistic than the usual leveling and realism is the coin of the realm in Risen. While we’re on the subject of raising skills note that you can also use potions, either looted or brewed to the same purpose. Potions are made from plants you’ll find scattered through out the island. Some potions give you temporary boosts and others are permanent. Even some normal foods like eggs and apples will give you permanent attribute boosts. Don’t hesitate to pick everything you see as your inventory is infinite. Take everything you find because, as in all the Gothic games (and I obviously consider Risen a Gothic game) there is no limit to your inventory so you don’t have to manage it or find storage. Just keep cramming it all into that bottomless chasm beneath the “I” button.
Ranged combat is pretty standard stuff. Warriors and Fighters have access to bows, crossbows. Warriors and Mages get fireball, frost and magic bullets and some area of damage stuff. Mages can use mana fueled spells and Warriors can use one time only scroll that duplicate spells. I love me some fireball and went with it as my sole ranged weapon from the get go though I did use a crossbow later in the game in a few places where magic wouldn’t work.
Melee combat is where Risen really shines. Here, axe, sword and staff fighting are all a matter of timing, not just mashing the left mouse button until everything is dead. (Well you can mash if you must but you miss much of what sets Risen apart from say, Oblivion. ) And as you advance these skills you get to add combination strikes that make your sword work deadly indeed. You need to find your rhythm, learn different timing for different foes. For instance, if you fight with sword and shield like I did, some small animals like the rat are able to duck under your shield and inflict damage. But your shield is quite effective against larger animals and human weapons. In Risen each enemy has its own unique fighting style and you must learn each one and adapt to it as the gameplay requires. This makes melee especially rewarding or frustrating, depending on your gaming orientation. Consider being attacked by a squat little rat and one of those giant sea birds simultaneously. Your shield, which is worthless against the rat, will work great against the sea bird. But they will come at you together and they won’t necessarily line up jut to be mowed down. They will advance and retreat. They will try to flank you and take you down from different angles with different attacks and all this simultaneously. This sort of combat apparently induces much wailing and gnashing of teeth among a lot of gamers. Personally I loved the huge amount of control this gives as opposed to combat where you just point your character in the general direction of the enemy and then go check your Facebook page. (Really, call your mother instead…) This sort of combat was a signature element of the Gothics and returns here in stellar form in Risen. Thanks to this combat, along with the true-to-life leveling, Risen bristles with a rewarding sort of realism rarely found in fantasy RPGs.
Realism is further reinforced by the wonderful open world exploration. First off, at least in the PC version I played, the setting is handsome and striking. Several times I stopped dead in my tracks to just stand and stare at a beautiful landscape. Faranga is packed with with coast line, beaches, waterfalls, and lush foliage. Moving inland the sides of the volcano rises steeply toward the cone. Meandering paths take you through deep forests and open meadows, turning you back when the slopes get too steep to climb. And you are only limited in your exploration by real world physics. No invisible barriers at the edges of cliffs, ponds or two foot high hillocks here. You can go as far as you are able in this game. Notice I didn’t say as far as you want. You can run over cliffs, plunge to your death. You can squirrel your way up grades that at first look utterly unscalable. Of course there is some levitation, in the form of a spell, mostly to allow you to move horizontally or downward. Try to rise very far and you will burn the spell up quickly. If you are at any great height, it’s bye bye. Since all is accessible, it’s easy to run right past entire areas in this game and it pays to probe and poke at everything so as to not miss out. Just be wary as you can also run smack into packs of wolves tucked away in the underbrush or the occasional ogre idly picking its nose at the edge of a clearing. The caves and dungeons are authentically scary, at least at first when your are struggling to survive. You creep cautiously along with a torch flickering in your hand, ready to turn and run at the first glimpse of one of the better beasts. You can easily find yourself in over your head with the local fauna and the best thing to do, as any Gothic veteran will tell you, is to run away and return when you are beefier. It’s all very realistic and thrilling and along with the combat and the leveling, one of the game’s major strengths.
The graphics are a bit dated compared to the big AAA games but what there is here is rendered effectively enough. There is a certain element of visual awkwardness in places though. Distant horizon draw is limited even with all settings maxed out. It’s disconcerting to watch the mountains across a narrow valley fade away and rematerialize with each step you take. The engine is a bit clunky and easily cpu bound. I originally played the game on an AMD 939 cpu set up, about 4 years old and had to turn the detail and resolution down pretty far and still I got a lot of lagging. Entering a new area would effectively freeze the game for 4 or 5 seconds. (Later I reloaded on my newer rig with an Intel i5 750 cpu and noticed that the gameplay was smoother. I also hopped around via saves to check out the graphics maxxed out…in case you are wondering) I had a lot of crashes as well as long load times when I would first launch the game for a session. Several times the game minimized to the task bar but kept running. More than once, by the time I go the game screen back up, I was lying dead on the ground. This could have easily been something running in the background though. Overall it was a bit of a buggy game for me. One thing drove me absolutely crazy though. Every once in a while the screen would shake and judder, especially when I was underground and at first I thought it was some problem with my video card. Only later did I realize that it was a plot point. The volcano was active! It was shaking the island! Maybe I missed this somewhere but I don’t remember it ever being mentioned. Here was a case of realism being carried to a bit of a silly extreme, especially considering the clunky way they executed this effect.
All this made the first two chapters a pleasure to play. Approaching chapter three I was pretty pleased with Risen and enjoying myself.
Then the bottom dropped out.
The game builds so wonderfully through the first two chapters and then, at the beginning of chapter three it takes you underground and pretty much leaves you there for the duration. Sure, you can return to the surface to run some quests later on. There is a fun one at the monastery and later in the game you have to at least travel via surface routes to accomplish the main quest line. But otherwise you are exiled to the tunnels beneath Faranga. This is an ugly place, dim and featureless. After experiencing the wonderful surface world with all its color and variety your payoff is blocky passages and lizardmen ad nauseum. Where combat had once been a constant shifting tapestry it is now an unending grind. All that satisfying game play, all those luscious settings, fun characters and nifty story, all gone. Instead Risen morphs into an ever more grim and gray dungeon crawl. You experience the same combat over and over and over, solve the same basic puzzle over and over. Little packs of lizardmen, from some ancient race that apparently had been living underground all along, are sprinkled down the dank tunnels like bread crumbs to lead you along and apparently simulate gameplay. It all devolves into: find the lever – open the door – kill the lizard – find the lever – open the door – kill the lizard, abbreviated in the Scout household to FOK. The final quest line requires you to assemble a sum of parts which, having been assembled, turns out to be irrelevant. By the time you get to the insanely terrible last (only) boss battle, everything you have learned is useless. All your skills you so painstakingly developed throughout the game? Eh. All the weapons and armor? Shrug. After that last door opened and I finally scooped my chin up off the desktop, I quit the game without having seen the ending cut scene. How or why would you cap off 99.99 % of a perfectly good if not great RPG with a culminating scene consisting of clumsy, idiotic hybrid platformer/puzzling that for all intents and purposes comes out of nowhere? I have no answer. I am trying not to think about it actually. See? I told you I was a whiner.
Some of you right now are thinking that I’m overreacting and maybe I am. Certainly I had to use everything in my arsenal to assemble those parts, to make the sum which unlocks the final showdown. Risen isn’t the first game to pull this crap, not by a long shot. I’ve been let down before by better games than this and still managed to respect them. I remember the silly ending of Gabriel Knight 3: Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned, an otherwise near masterpiece of an adventure game. More recently Bioshock sucker punched me at the ending with such a display of disregard that I actually, truly, laughed out loud. Video games typically serve up lame endings and most gamers have long ago learned to roll with it. So why the venom? Why the snark?
I think I feel so let down by Risen’s ending because my first impressions had been so positive, the first half so satisfyingly realistic, especially for a fantasy RPG. Risen had purred along like a nice mid-sized sedan, like a Camry shuttling me around town only to be hijacked out from under me and replaced by a cross between a clown car and a parade float. Sure it has its entertainment value, but you really can’t go anywhere in it. That the game shifts so radically from the realistic to the absurd shouldn’t really surprise me. After all, it’s just an entertainment, right? But the game had done such a great job of it for so long, only to peter out and end up face down dead in the middle of a stupid volcano, its creator apparently out of ideas. So this one gets the double-faced, limp Middlin’ grade. Hopefully Piranha Bytes will return and will finish whatever next game they decide to start. And if they do, then I might too.
Minimum System Requirements (PC): Windows XP, 2 Ghz, 1 GB ram, 256 MB Direct X 9 video card
Reviewer’s System: Windows XP, Athlon 64×2 4400, 2.2GHZ, 2GB, 512MB, ATI 3870