PC Game Review: Risen

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A recent trend in games has been altering the naming structure to try to either dissociate with older games or mask how many games have preceded the release. Recent examples include the indeterminate ‘Wolfenstein’, the third Red Faction game being called Guerrilla, and the removal of he ‘Call of Duty’ from much of the ‘Modern Warfare 2’ advertising. Now we have Risen. Risen is the fourth entry by developer Pyranha Bytes in the classic Gothic game franchise that … what? Huh? Really … are you sure? Hmmm … well apparently Risen is NOT part of the Gothic series. I just wish someone had told me this before I wrote my entire review on the basis of Risen being the fourth Gothic game. Fortunately the issues around naming haven’t done anything to diminish the developers from once again creating an amazing living game world.

The Hype:
A sweeping story captivates players from the start! An epic story in an authentic world hand-crafted with an eye for detail and populated by “real”, plausible characters. A Mysterious Volcanic Island The heavy tremors on the island bode ill for its inhabitants. Ancient temples have risen from the ground recently, bizarre creatures are terrorising the area. Fear and terror is spreading among the population. The End of All Hope? A group of powerful men who call themselves “The Inquisitors” have taken it upon them-selves to put an end to these events. They send an exhibition to this remote island, but a storm takes hold of the ship and destroys it at sea. A Hero Will Come As if by a miracle, the player survives the shipwreck and is stranded on the volcanic island alone. He finds himself amidst a chaos of rebellion, tyranny and mystic rituals. He must now decide to which side the pendulum of fate will swing.

* Game is divided into 4 chapters and lets you decide which side you will join
* Spells can be cast either through a scroll or a rune (30 different spells)
* Full world streaming support – No loading of screens
* With each level, the character learns and improves his skills

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The Reality:
Some have staked a claim to ‘RPG of the Year’ for Demon’s Soul, and for the first 20 or so hours while I played Risen I thought “this is MY RPG of the year”. Sadly I began to see some flaws at as I passed the half way point, so while I still consider Risen an excellent RPG it isn’t a ‘game of the year’ candidate – it falls below the classic Gothic and Gothic II, but ahead of the overly ambitious Gothic 3.

The game begins with you stowing away on a vessel that comes under assault by a tremendous sea monster, and is defended by a powerful sorcerer with an interesting eye-piece. The battle results in the ship being destroyed and you being one of only a handful of survivors. You awake on shore, and after a bit of exploration find another survivor – a girl named Sara. She serves to help you advance the plot in the beginning and to figure out where to go and what to do. She is not, however, a warrior, so you’ll have to quickly learn to fight or end up dead on the beach.

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You are, as in the rest of the Gothic games, the nameless hero. There is no choice of gender, nor are there preset classes you choose to pursue. As you gain experience by completing quests and battling monsters you eventually gain levels, which earns you skill points you can spend to advance your abilities in a given specialization. Similar to how it was handled in the Gothic games, you don’t get to simply assign new skills, you need to find a trainer, and pay them with skill points and gold to impart their knowledge. Key to that phrase is ‘finding them’. You will quickly discover that specific trainers will only take you to a certain level, and you’ll need to find another trainer to learn higher skills. It can be frustrating at times, as how easily you’ll find certain trainers depends largely on the path you choose early in the game.

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That is correct – choices and consequences come early and often. As mentioned, early in the game you will need to make a choice how to proceed. This choice doesn’t completely determine your destiny, but it will shape the course of your quests for many hours to come. Folks used to traditional action-RPGs are likely to quickly choose their path and stick with it – or perhaps even get themselves caught up and their path short-cut into a forced decision. It is something that fans of the Gothic games will recognize and appreciate – you are free to try just about anything, but if someone tells you something is a really bad idea, it probably is a really bad idea!

Risen has essentially three character paths: fighter, mage, and ‘warrior of the order’, which is a sort of mixed fighter/mage Paladin build. There are two main factions – the Don’s camp of rebels and the Order, which is the group maintaining control over the island. These are not ‘good versus evil’ choices, as you will learn that there are plenty of motivations driving each side that go beyond such a simplistic appraisal. However, that doesn’t mean there are six classes – you can only be a fighter by siding with the Don, and only become a mage by siding with the Order. You choose sides not with a single action but rather through a string of choices – though the game makes it pretty clear which side each decision benefits. What you do leading up to your final choice is up to you. Veterans of the Gothic games will know to do as many quests for as many factions as possible before finally committing, and that is absolutely true here as well.

The gameplay features a third person action-based combat system, with both mouse buttons put to work for attack and defense. The system seems fairly simple at first – click, click, click to attack and right-click to block. However, as you progress you’ll realize that your attacks can chain into combos of various lengths as you gain prowess with your weapon, and also your ability to block incoming attacks with a shield will improve. However, some enemies attacks can’t be blocked, and if you are using a two-handed weapon you will need to learn more skills to gain weapon-blocking.

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But none of that matters if you want to play a mage, right? Wrong! Just like in the Gothic games, everyone needs some amount of melee aptitude to get through, so even the mage is really a battlemage. That doesn’t mean that you won’t be dealing massive magical damage, because also similar to the Gothic games the spells are massively powered. However, unlike many action-based RPG’s, you can’t really be a mage at all early on, and even when you first learn magic skills you’ll still need to use other combat skills to stay alive. Finally, mana doesn’t replenish automatically, meaning it is yet another thing to conserve and replenish with potions.

Technically the game won’t win any awards, but I found it extremely satisfying in terms of the decisions made by the developers. The performance is excellent on a reasonably powerful computer with graphics that are clear and nicely detailed. What you lose in up-close detail you get back in long distance beauty – this is a game about the big picture of the island over individual small details. The controls are nicely handled – you have a fairly standard set of controls that most gamers will adapt to instantly, with enough items carried over from the earlier Gothic games to make veterans of those games comfortable as well.

For a game that was originally done in German, I was thrilled with both the scope and execution of the voice acting. Throughout the game you have voiced conversations that make sense and sound reasonably conversational – don’t get me wrong, there are still plenty of the ‘Gothic-isms’ I found so charming in the earlier games, but I didn’t find anything in the acting or dialogue poorly done.

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The final technical element is the music. I have been a big fan of Kai Rozenkranz (KaiRo) since first playing the Gothic games, so I knew the music would be good. And it is very well done, with plenty of atmosphere and solid themes and well developed structures. That said, while it is some of my favorite game music this year, it is perhaps my least favorite soundtrack. Gothic 2 had my favorite combination of themes and atmosphere, and Gothic 3 was stunning in scope and power. Risen is a solid effort, but is not something that will live long on my iPod.

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So far I have done nothing but tell you why Risen was my favorite game of the year for the first ~25 hours or so I played, so it makes sense to get into some of the negatives to provide some more context. My biggest overall complaint is that after the first half of the game, the rest of the game has the world, the quests, and the scope of the experience constantly shrinking. To an extent it makes sense for the latter parts of a game to start directing you towards the finale, and for the end-game to be exclusively about getting to the conclusion, but that isn’t how this felt. It really felt as those the world was closing in on you, especially as you started the final chapter.

My other main complaint is that I miss Milten and Diego and the rest of the gang. Don’t get me wrong – there are some nice characters in Risen, and for the first time a genuine potential love interest. But the feeling of being part of the larger group is gone, these are all secondary characters, none drawn as interestingly as some of the classic Gothic 2 NPC’s.

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And finally there is the final battle. Through the years I have complained about about numerous things in games from the ‘Simon’ elements in Indigo Prophecy to the massive difficulty spike at the end of Knights of the Old Republic, but this one really takes the prize. The gameplay is entirely different than anything else you have done, and none of your character’s training or skills come into play. It feels like a nifty idea someone had that somehow snuck into the game because no one came up with a reasonable alternative or maybe they forgot or something. Whatever the reason, Risen has one of the worst and most unsatisfying end-battles in recent years.

One of the problems of following heaping praise with the main criticisms is that it tends to end on a down note. That is not at all what I want to have happen with my review of Risen – or of my playthroughs. Therefore, after completing the game as a Mage and a Warrior of the Order, I went back and started again, got to enjoy the early interactions and combat, the unique personalities and detailed world – and then stumbled right into the territory of the monastery and got myself captured just to see how that would play out. It was terrible for my progression as I was very low level and knew I’d thrown away loads of potential experience and loot, but it was great because I had been warned about wandering too close repeatedly. Of course, the game forces you somewhat back on track to help out with the overall progression, but it was still such a wonderfully different experience that I was left feeling great about the game.

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And that was the impression I needed to leave with – and the one I want to end with. Risen is an excellent game with a few end-game flaws. Not enough to mar the experience too deeply, but enough that it is frustrating – but particularly because the rest of the game is so well done! Is it the ‘RPG of the Year’? Not likely. In fact, since I was in the midst of my second run through Risen, Bioware’s Dragon Age came out, and the release of Divinity 2 was announced for early next year. Dragon Age is a towering epic that dwarfs all others this year, but Risen is a game that I can easily and overwhelmingly recommend to fans of the Gothic games as a ‘full price buy’. If you enjoyed Oblivion, but were looking for something with more depth, challenge and choices, Risen offers a great experience. Risen is a great game that will occupy you for dozens of hours and keep you coming back for more!

Where to Buy: Amazon.com

Price: $49.99

What I Like:
– Incredible scope
– Loads of challenging quests
– Fun new enemies and allies
– Choices that matter are scattered throughout
– Beautiful living world

What Needs Improvement:
– Very challenging combat can be too much for some
– Last half of the game becomes too linear and mostly limited to main quests
– Final battle is one of the most disappointing in years

Source: Review copy provided by publisher

Originally reviewed for VGBlogger

Risen 2009-10-18 00-00-52-06

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