Risen is a hard game for me to review in the traditional sense, at least while giving it any justice (especially the 360 port). Risen, like its spiritual predecessors of the Gothic series, is often criticized harshly for its technical shortcomings, including bugs, graphics, controls, and interface. In spite of such criticism, the Gothic series, and Risen in turn, maintain a strong cult following. The question I will attempt to answer by writing a multiple-article journal review is, why?
There’s no doubt that the criticisms of the game’s technical flaws are justified. The Xbox 360 port is especially crippled with drastically lower quality graphics than its PC counterpart, so much so that it could easily be mistaken for a mid-generation original Xbox game. By playing Risen at a more casual pace than I would for a typical review, taking the time to make myself see what the fans see, my hope is that I can more adequately convey the experience of a game whose value lies more in the feeling of playing it, rather than the formal qualities of the product itself. Personally, I believe that this is the case for all games.
Most of my reviews I write to convey the feeling of playing a game, rather than to explain the game itself, and make an attempt to reconcile both approaches to determine value. In the case of Risen, however, it’s my belief that even in my usual approach the game would be unfairly marred by its formal qualities and technical shortcomings.
Now that we have the background information out of the way, we can get on with the business at hand: my Risen journal.
(First, I should point out that I played the Xbox 360 version of the game. Many of these screens are from the PC version; what little I could find scouring the internet and NeoGAF. As a rule of thumb: Pretty shots = PC, ugly shots = 360.)
I wake up awash on a tropical beach during a storm. All around me are the detritus and drowned crew of the ship — belonging to some folks who call themselves “The Inquisiton” — on which I was a stowaway.
Being a classically trained pack rat from my days with Elder Scrolls and Might and Magic games, I immediately set to looking for stuff. Coins, food, bottles of rum — I have no idea if any of this will actually be useful, but in a survival situation, you take what you can get, right?
The inventory and general looking at things and picking things up interface leaves a lot to be desired. There is no first person view and there is no reticle. The camera itself isn’t very agreeable, dragging slowly closer to the center of the analog stick before jerking wildly once it moves past a certain threshold. I can only interact with an item on the ground once I’m standing directly on top of it and the camera is pointed in its general direction. I suppose the word I’m looking for is “precision” and, more specifically, its absence. Fiddling with the UI and the camera is annoying but far from broken. Further into the game I’ll realize that many of Risen’s formal elements are just annoying without being broken.
Once I’m standing on top of an item and facing it, giving it my undivided attention, its name pops up obtrusively on the screen. Again, annoying, but I guess it gets the job done. At the very least, in this regard, the game doesn’t fail at being clear. I find out later, to my frustration, that this doesn’t apply when I’m holding a weapon. Not only can I not pick up items while already carrying something but I can’t identify items, either.
I’ll admit that the former makes some kind of sense. To be blunt, as far as I’m concerned, this is a game and I don’t see how such a restriction is necessary. But, maybe the developers want to push a certain amount of realism. If that’s their vision, then I can buy it. Or, probably more likely, maybe they just don’t want me accidentally picking up an item in the middle of combat and getting killed as a consequence. I certainly can’t fault them for making their game work, even if the functionality is implemented a bit inelegantly.
But to blind me to the items that litter the ground — and there are many throughout this game — seems ridiculous; a minor but unnecessary time-waster that forces me to constantly switch between an armed and unarmed state. This would be such a minor complaint if it wasn’t simply one symptom of the persistent time-wasting you’ll experience in Risen.
Ahead, munching on the body of one of the ship’s crew, is a rather menacing looking vulture. He doesn’t like it one bit when I get close, spreading his wings and warning me away with a bone-rattling shriek. Not feeling confident about fighting a vulture that’s as tall as I am with my bare fists, I heed its recommendation and return to rummaging through the pockets of unclaimed bodies.
Naturally, in accordance with all good RPG logic, one of these bodies is not like the others. While all of the other bodies are men dresed in generic medeivaly garb — tunics and leather and whatnot — this one is a woman, dressed like a stripper. Of course she is; while a male stowaway such as myself is fully clothed in rags, it only stands to reason that a female (in the land of videogames, remember) would be dressed in a (fur?) bra and skirt. Anyway, that’s (mostly) beside the point. It turns out, she’s alive, and was also a stowaway. She also gives me some good advice: maybe I should find a weapon.
Before she even got the chance to open her mouth I was gritting myself for the inevitible terrible voice acting. To be fair, she’s not bad. Her English accent, real or not (I have no idea), is convincing, though she doesn’t seem very rattled by her current situation (maybe she’s been stranded on a few islands in her lifetime).
Then my nameless, generic hero opens his mouth. Yep, this is what I was preparing myself for. Dry, strained, completely lacking in personality…well I guess it suits his visual design: another generic, chiseled white guy with a shaved head, falling somewhere between some mythical “everyman” archetype and a space marine.
So, on to combat. I find a stick laying nearby but a little more scavenging rewards me with a hunting knife, which is a welcome step up (I’m assuming; I never actually gave the stick a fair shot in combat). I immediately set off to kill that vulture from before so I can rifle through its dinner’s pockets.
Combat at this early stage is simple enough: hit the beastie with the pointy end. That’s not to say that the vulture and other early monsters are pushovers (later on a boar humbles me right to death) but their strategy is rudimentary: attack, retreat, repeat. The bird especially is an agile little bugger who dodges my swipes and slashes until I back it up against a cliffside. By killing it I’m rewarded with its meat. I can’t deny a certain satisfaction with that. Monsters don’t drop weapons or money, but their actual parts, which enhances the whole hunting/survivalist thing the game has going on, particularly at its start.
What’s truly unfortunate is that, as entertaining as combat in Risen is in theory, its severely hampered by a nagging framerate issue. I eventually lose fights because the game stalls at exactly the wrong moment, completely throwing off my game. I also learn, much to my further disappointment, that installing the game to the Xbox hard drive does nothing to address this issue. In fact, installing the game to the hard drive doesn’t seem to have any affect at all. I find that rather peculiar.
The stowaway pole dancer suggests we head further inland and try to find a town. Sounds like a good idea to me. She’s also starving (clearly, since her waist is approximately the size of my wrist). My companion — her name is Sara, by the way — and I make our way through the jungle. Occasionally I stop fight a procupine-ish rat or a wolf.
Like the vulture, fights with both are pretty straightforward. The rats are pushovers. Mash on the trigger and they die. Whatever. But the wolves introduce a threat, diving away from my attacks and leaping to my side to counter-attack. I actually rather enjoy Risen’s combat so far. Enemies have patterns. Study those patterns, remain cautious, and strike when you have the opportunity. Hacking away wildly will get you killed fast.
Finally we discover an old, abandoned house. There’s a convenient fire raging in a pit outside and a barrel of collected rain water. I assume drinking some water might heal me and it turns out I’m correct. Unfortunately, the healing is accompanied by a four or five second long animation wherein I lean forward, scoop water into my hand, drink, and step back. What’s worse, drinking from these barrels only restores a small fraction of my health. So here I have free, infinite health that I can only take advantage of if I feel like wasting up to a minute watching this pointless animation.
I soon discover that this is something Risen does often. Finding a chest in the house, I open it only for the treasure within to once again be rewarded to me after a needless animation. I didn’t think games were made this way anymore. This sort of archaic time-waster should have been discarded a long time ago. It serves no purpose. These minor, seemingly insignificant time-wasters start to add up after a while. After a few hours of play the game, I begin to seriously wonder how much of that time has been spent on these trivial matters.
Opening the chest in the house rewards me with a frying pan. Combined with the fire outside and all that raw meat I’m getting off the monsters I kill, I can probably make food! Cooking is something I enjoy about RPGs like Risen. The notion that I can acquire all this meat, cook it into something edible, and make it into something useful to me is a small feature that goes a long way in ehancing the atmosphere of the game. Again, it’s that hunter/gatherer/survivalist “feeling” that I’m a sucker for and gets me every time.
Now that I’ve escorted My Lady of Impossible Proportions to safety, hunted for her, cooked her food, and found her shelter, she decides she’d be better off staying at the wrecked house to rest, and I should go on to find help on my own. Well that’s just great. It doesn’t seem like a good idea, considering all the mean, hungry wolves, vultures and rats we fought off on our way here, but she doesn’t give me a chance to argue. I head off alone.
Further up the hill I find a tomb and some grave moths. The sound they make is horrifying but they aren’t much of a threat (at least alone. I have yet to fight anything in numbers greater than two. I’ll soon learn that all of these pathetic critters are extremely threatening in packs).
Still further up I find another abandoned home and an armed, bearded man who dwells within. He’s very suspicious of me, as I am of him, and he demands to know where I came from. I tell him that I, and “Princess” Sara, were stowaways on an Inquisition ship and he seems strangely impressed. I don’t know who these Inquisition guys are yet, but I’m getting the impression that they’re kind of a big deal.
He offers to help my (former) companion through the jungle. It seems like a bad idea; send this big, bearded outlaw to pick up the stripper waif who was too tired and hungry to even walk up a small hill, but once I accept his offer the game informs I have completed my quest to “save” her, so I guess it’s all good in the hood?
He tells me a little bit about the island. There’s a town nearby, but its been taken over by the Inquisition (again with those guys). Meanwhile, the “Don” and his men (the group of outlaws to which the bearded man belongs) have fled to the swamp and oppose the Inquisition. He’s very eager to get me to join his outlaws instead of going to town.
I’m suspicious. A band of outlaws led by a guy who calls himself the “Don”? It isn’t hard to put that together. But I’m not big on organized religious zealotry so I take him up on his offer to lead me to the swamp. Along the way he points out some of the Inquisition’s men. I decide to introduce myself and see if maybe they’re not so bad. They immediately attack me. I guess I made the less wrong choice between the swamp full of gangsters or the city of fascist holy men.
It’s at this point that I decide my character’s past is a shady one, and that he is no stranger to the world of organized crime. It’s an RPG and I don’t know who this hero I’m controlling was before being washed up on this beach, so it all works for me as a convenient way to justify whatever actions I might be lead to take on this path. Yes, it’s decided. I know the score; I can join up the Don’s gang and become a made man. Just like in the movies. Sounds groovy.
In the Don’s camp, however, I discover that all is not well. The Don has sealed himself up in a temple, leaving the running of the camp to his beleagured wife, who’s powerless against Brogar, the Don’s self-appointed right-hand man, and the strongest man in the camp. It seems Brogar has everyone working for him, performing his own petty tasks instead of those assigned them by the Don. The fighters are engaging in gambling and arena fights; the chief hunter is performing manual labor; the workers aren’t working because the fighters refuse to protect them from the swamp’s giant insect population; and a couple members of the camp have even run off.
It becomes pretty clear that if I can de-throne Brogar, I can be the new Big Boss. I ally with Rachel and we agree that I’ll work for Brogar and get myself in his good graces until I can stab him the back. But there’s no shortage of other things to do in the camp, either, and it soon becomes clear that I’ll be spending a lot of time in the swamp, performing fetch quests and the like.
Amazingly, I don’t really mind. I have to get the workers working again, get the hunters hunting again, find food and beer, clear monsters from the worksites, prove myself in the arena…every step of the way, however, I feel like I’m making real progress in the game-world. Every menial task is a means to a very tangible end. I complete a quest for a worker, and there he is hauling boxes back and forth. It’s a simple visual change but it goes a long toward making the consequences of my actions have some weight. In fact, my only complaint running through the swamp is that I’m still dressed in rags and shoeless. Gross.
That was hyperbole. I actually do have other complaints. Quest objectives can be frustratingly vague. To get the workers working again, all I was told was the position of the worksites: “two in the center of the swamp and one east of the temple.” This is true. However, only one actual worker is at one of these worksites. The other two are hidden out in the wilderness and it’s just up to me to search aimlessly for them and figure out how to get them working again.
Similarly, I also soon discover the lack of intricacies in dialogue. Coming off of Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age, I’m still conditioned to be selective with what I say; develop a personality and use my silver tongue wisely. But in Risen, the only way to get any info out of someone, the only way to complete certain quests, the only way to get anywhere with anyone, is to exhaust all dialogue options until they have nothing more to say to you. This approach, at least at this stage in the game, really seems to contradict any need for dialogue trees. What’s the point if you have to take every route on the tree and all arrive at the same place? I don’t get it.
It’s also around this point that I realize I don’t know how to level up. I’ve been seeing the “level up” message pop up, but I’ve never been told what to do, and the menus don’t seem to have any skill points to assign. Leveling up works a bit differently in Risen. At each new level, you gain ten “learning points.” These points (along with gold, of course) can be spent at trainers to improve stats and skills and learn new abilities.
I also realize at this point tat I’m not really sure what I want to be. Not thinking about it much, I later find that I’m becoming a jack of all trades. I meet a trainer, he has a skill I like, and if I have the gold and the points, I get it. I’m now an amateur in the bow, the crossbow, the sword, alchemy, smithing, sneaking, lockpicking, and the brewing of beer. I still don’t have a grasp on how magic works. Oh well. I try not to think about it too much, and just enjoy the ride.
I perform various chores around the swamp, I get in good with Brogar, then I undermine him and challenge him to a fight in the arena. By now I’ve fought a few humans and its quite a bit different from fighting animals. There’s blocking, parrying, counter-attacking…it’s a much more complicated affair, and not nearly so predictable or routine. I have to be cautious and deliberate with my movements. Swordfights are involving and exciting, but they can also be frustrating, thanks to the figure-skater-like movements your enemies can make as they side-step and circle-strafe around you.
One neat feature to the game is that combat with another human doesn’t necessarily end in death. Your opponent’s health depletes and they fall to the ground, unconscious, at which point you can deliver a final, killing blow. Fighting in the camp I never felt compelled to murder my adversaries. My first taste of guerilla warfare later would find me adopting a different attitude.
I assumed that I could just replace Brogar and I was wrong. He’s not too impressed with me, though he is quick to set me to work (as if I haven’t proven myself by getting his whole camp running, the ungrateful bast–). I am to lead the camp’s fighters in an attack on an Inquisition camp. For this task, I request armor. He denies it. Still shoeless.
Marching through the jungle with my crew of fantasy-world gangsters, we arrive at the Inquisition camp, which is set up around a temple not unlike the Don’s. It’s mostly filled with novices, sparring with bo-staffs in the yard. There’s a couple full-fledged guards and an armored fella who’s clearly their leader. He’s armed with a pointy staff and looks very mean. I’m glad I have backup.
Fighting with allies in Risen is tricky. On one hand, it’s cool, just in terms of atmosphere. I’ve worked hard to take Brogar’s place in the camp and now here I am, leading his (former) men in an all-out assault against our enemies; my guerilla warband up against the orderly, uniformed Inquisition fighters. It looks and feels pretty cool. Even though I’m just fighting guys while my AI-controlled guys fight other AI-controlled guys, I feel like I’m a leader, in spite of the fact that I’m not doing much leading. There are no commands to issue or anything like that.
On the other hand is the “friendly fire.” If the arc of an attack is too wide, if a stupid ally steps into the wrong spot at precisely the wrong moment, if they’re all just too crowded together…well, it wasn’t difficult for me to wind up striking one of my own men. And he was not happy. I became his enemy and there was no reasoning with him as he now tried to kill me.
I had to reload a game and restart a fight because I accidentally turned a friend into an enemy. Perhaps he wouldn’t have killed me. Like my enemies, I can only be truly killed by a killing blow after I fall prone. However, I wasn’t willing to drag out a fight just to find out. It was easier to reload.
We successfully take the camp and slaughter our enemies from the Inquisition. A poor fellow named Phil doesn’t make it but for the most part the battle is a big success. I report our victory and send the workers to collect artefacts from the temple. I receive a new mission to infiltrate the town.
Sadly, I am not rewarded with shoes.