You awake in the night to the steady sound of pouring rain, broken by the occasional crack of distant thunder, washed up on the shore of a tropical island. You’re surrounded by the remains of a wrecked ship and her crew (now only food for the vultures). You’re clothed in rags, shoeless, and the best weapon you can scavenge from the wreck is a stick. You have no direction, no objective, other than to scrounge through the detritus, collecting rum, coins and junk–anything that could possibly be useful to your survival.
From just these opening moments, thrusting you into its world confused and helpless, Risen makes its intentions very clear. For better or worse, this is not a by-the-books new-gen action-roleplaying game. Throughout the experience, Risen will see fit to remind you of this. Often it does so through its punishing difficulty, complex ethical questions, restrictive yet immersive sense of exploration, overlapping quest structure, sardonic dialogue, and generally open design. Just as often, it does so through its almost total lack of direction or guidance, ghastly user interface, reliance on archaic design philosophies, pathetic graphical presentation, poorly executed ideas, flimsy mechanics, and unfortunate technical shortcomings.
It would be easy to judge Risen by its graphics, just as one might judge a book by its cover. To be blunt: they’re terrible. Its textures are blurry and sometimes stretched beyond recognition, its lighting is flat, its characters and environments are hard and polygonal — it looks like a mid-generation original Xbox game. The “rays of sunlight filtering through the trees” effect (and I do believe that’s its technical name) is so overused that I eventually just forced myself to believe that light worked differently in this world; clothes are cartoonishly out of proportion to the mostly realistic character models whom they adorn; its women are made of beach balls attached to pencils; and everyone and everything moves like a rusty tin robot. But (and this is an important “but”; imagine it adorned in cascading fireworks that scream, “look at me!” every time they go ’round) what Risen lacks in outward beauty, it makes up for with substance.
Much more than the sum of its unimpressive individual parts, Risen’s moments of beauty and wonder stem from its carefully-constructed environments and thoroughly developed world. Faranga’s towns and single city are populated largely with actual, named NPCs, all of whom have their own take on things.
The game will frequently hold up a mirror to your own ethics and actions. From the outset, you’re basically given a choice between joining two opposing factions: a group of bandits and rebels or the occupying, theocratic Inquisition. Neither side is necessarily “good” or “bad” and even at their best, both are doing some bad things for what they consider to be “the greater good.” That’s a concept I faced often while playing Risen.
I fell in with the bandits early on, thinking they were idealistic freedom fighters. Gradually, I found myself engaging in ever more reprehensible acts: shaking down merchants for protection money, “silencing” witnesses, performing drug deals, all for the “greater good” of ousting the fascist Inquisition, who have their own (arguably justified) reasons for being the way they are. Risen got me to question my own actions in ways that few games do. More than that, Risen actually got me to sacrifice little bits of my own principals so gradually, that I almost didn’t notice.
While shining a light to the ethics of my actions was certainly Risen’s most remarkable achievement, second to that was its thrilling sense of exploration. Remember how Oblivion’s world lacked so much personality because of its procedurally-generated forests, caves and generic NPCs that all looked and acted alike? Yeah, this isn’t that. The island of Faranga begs you to thoroughly explore its every nook and cranny and its world feels alive.
A ruined keep overlooks a steep coastal cliff-side. You’ve destroyed its skeletal inhabitants, looted whatever treasure it had to offer, and now you’re looking to move on. It seems that the only way to go is back. That is, until you edge ever closer to that cliff and dare to look down, delighted to see a series of outcroppings that come off of the cliff-side and gradually step down, all the way to the shore below. It will be a dangerous hop to the bottom but you know you can’t possibly resist the thrill of it. Best of all, you know that in all likelihood there will be no great reward waiting for you.
No, that’s not a typo; I said “best” of all. Risen doles out its rewards at a very deliberate pace, not making any attempt to cater to the loot-addict crowd. Equipment consists of a weapon, one general armor slot, a helm, and some jewelry. Out of all of these items, armor is the most valuable, but it must be earned. Armor in Risen is like an indicator of status, and acquiring only leather armor after hours of gameplay feels like a real accomplishment. Hell, for that matter, getting any armor that has shoes feels like an accomplishment after hours spent looking like a hobo.
Incidentally, putting in the effort to explore Faranga’s secret places is one of the closest examples I’ve come across in games of exploration for exploration’s sake. Don’t misunderstand, you’ll still find money, potions and ingredients — all of which are valuable in Risen’s grim survivalist setting — but seeing new things and going to new places carries its own unique sense of satisfaction. Maybe it appeals to my masculine instincts — my desire to hunt for secrets and conquer the virginal frontier of Faranga. Whatever the case, it sure is satisfying.
Speaking of conquest leads me to Risen’s more unfortunate but glaring failings: its camera, interface, controls, and overall technical difficulties, and how they all come together with the game’s combat to sabotage its brightest moments, and threaten to fundamentally break the experience. To pick up an item, you need stand directly on top of it and looked straight down; drawing your weapon makes you unable to interact with anything else or even identify items or objects; a hideous and obtrusive font identifies everything and everyone you look at; long animations remove your agency over your character every time you interact with an object; the framerate drops in crowded areas; and the camera is loose, easily obstructed by walls or foliage, and alternatingly too stiff and too sensitive. However, while all of these issues make Risen inelegant, they never outright break the game. That is, until you enter combat, when they come dangerously close to doing so.
Risen’s combat makes a serious effort to stand out from its genre contemporaries. Button-mashing results only in death and advanced techniques can only be earned by investing precious money and learning points (a currency that’s gained upon leveling up in place of pre-determined stat increases). Most enemies are stronger and faster than you are, encouraging you to fight carefully and think tactically. Unfortunately, all of the aforementioned technical issues, in one way or another, prevent this type of play from actually being possible.
Risen “features” (and I use the term loosely) a targeting system like you might find in most action-RPGs. In theory, this works by allowing you to lock onto a target in order to automatically track them in a fight. Risen sees fit to handle this task for you, choosing your target automatically, and it rarely does so with any competence. In one-on-one combat, the first thing you’ll notice is that when your target jumps to your side and you need your lock-on most of all, it will immediately go away, leaving you open to attack.
The issue gets much worse when fighting groups, as the camera will jump between multiple targets with no purpose; you’re lucky if it locks onto the thing that’s actually attacking you at any given moment. The only way to make any attempt to change targets is by moving the camera, which you have to wrestle away from the game, refocus and hope it lands on your desired target.
Compounding the frequent feeling of cheapness caused by this, the frame rate frequently stutters during combat and always at the worst possible moment. Just as you’re about to counterattack or dodge, the whole scene just hiccups, completely throwing you off. Too many times I either died or wasted valuable potions and healing spells because of these moments. The only thing that prevents these issues from completely breaking the experience is that you can compensate for them. But you shouldn’t have to do that; the game should just work.
Risen is the kind of game that really makes me want to see what developer Piranha Bytes could do with more time and money. They’re no rookies, having long-since established themselves with the cult-favorite Gothic series, and they have a lot of big, great ideas. Some of my problems with Risen, such as poor graphics and frame rate hiccups during combat, are the result of a shoddy port, which is a damn shame (I understand the PC version is quite a bit better on the technical side).
If you’re looking for a new experience that you can take your time with and really bite into, or are just hungry for a good RPG, you could do a lot worse than Risen, even on the 360. Even with its technical hangups and poor presentation, it still beats yet another generic JRPG in my book. However, only the patient need apply.