Risen 2: Dark Waters

Hands-on Preview
"Expect naughty language and tactless jests by the kegful in this land of pirates."

The original Risen never quite made it near the top of my "To Play" list, but the second, subtitled Dark Waters, caught my eye some months ago. I've never subscribed to the pirate phenomenon, but a Western RPG with a new flavor still holds great appeal. Instead of the typical medieval high fantasy of many other WRPGs, Risen 2 brings the pirate's life to players in a tropical, low fantasy setting.

Having never played the original Risen, I was a bit lost in the beginning, as Risen 2 tosses players into a narrative without much background. The hero from the first game returns as a drunken lout and member of the Inquisition. The classically-inspired Titans feature heavily in the game as well. There are pirate wars, a supernatural enemy from the oceanic abyss, and some old friends. The plot involves the hero going undercover with pirates, which makes room for a compelling reversal of allegiance somewhere down the line. Or better yet, a choice of one.

Risen 2 begins with many restrictions, but quickly unfolds to reveal a semi-open world of sweltering islands and ruin-studded jungles. Players are assigned a protagonist; there is no character creation, no gear selection, and no choice of class. The first area is strikingly small, and there are no immediate choices. Players might initially feel claustrophobic, but Risen 2 blossoms into something broader within the first hour. I get the feeling that this trend continues as one gets deeper into the game, opening more options both character-wise and geographically.

Following the example of other recent WRPGs, Risen 2 provides players with multiple paths for most quests, including simple objectives such as convincing a pair of wastrels to do their duties. At one major juncture, I could decide how to continue the main quest. I could either find a pirate's ship or head inland to see if the "savages" knew something. When I decided to look for the ship, I was offered another two options in the form of a jungle trail or a cave. When I foolishly chose the latter and my companions eventually abandoned me after repeated warnings to turn back. I was then hopelessly lost and alone, left to be devoured by rampaging boars. Although the ultimate consequences of these actions are difficult to determine at this point, I'm excited to discover other ways to screw up my future.

A quest often comes down to persuasion or combat, and, when given the choice, I took the pacifist's route because Risen 2's combat needs some work. Despite a lack of polish in other areas, the combat system has me most concerned. Piranha Bytes attempts a slow, meditative system that requires technique, precision, and reflexes, which is all theoretically sound. Implementation suffers from poor control and fussy timing. Some enemies are easily dispatched, but human foes are much more intelligent and merciless. Swordfighting is thrust upon players early on, which can lead to frustration even on the easy setting. Later, additional combat options help alleviate some of the tedium. A surprise bullet in the face can put a nice conclusion on an otherwise harrowing duel.

Character progression requires both experience (called "Glory") and gold. Glory allows basic skill increases, making standard abilities more effective. Leveling up swordfighting improves damage, for example, while increasing persuasion makes intimidation possible. Acquiring special abilities, however, costs gold. Learning to kick enemies and use a power attack can cost quite the pile of gold, and players must also locate the appropriate trainer to do so. Finding the right NPC for a particular skill might prove tedious, but found trainers can be highlighted on the map. That is, if you have one.

Risen 2 does little handholding, which I admire, particularly today. This is a difficult game in more ways than one. Killing an alligator may be challenging, but quest objectives can be elusive and obscure as well. This encourages players to really listen to NPC conversations. Fortunately, an amusing script makes this a rather entertaining task, even despite the patchy translation. There are some goofy moments, but the game never takes itself very seriously. Expect naughty language and tactless jests by the kegful in this land of pirates.

Getting lost while trying to find sacks of sugar stolen by termites to complete a major quest might sound irritating, but solid level design makes wandering fun. The world is handcrafted and frequently beautiful. The islands feel unique and brim with secrets, something games with procedural and randomly generated content can't accomplish. Jungle exploration might yield some extra monsters to slay for Glory, while beachcombing can provide new opportunities for adventure. I once came upon a message in a bottle that, once opened and read, began a sort of side quest.

Risen 2 seems to be full of such details. Oysters are usable items that occasionally hold pearls to be pawned for much-needed gold. Books laying about offer insight to the location of legendary items. And characters can go on and on about story and setting details that, while not necessary, are fun for those who care. Even the combat harbors complexity, despite its lack of polish. Coconuts can be picked up from the ground and thrown at enemies, and firearms require careful consideration of range. With a little more polish, Risen 2 could be a deep, nuanced RPG with a unique setting to get lost in.

A game's delay often heralds the groans of self-righteous fans and the rumor mongering of Internet trolls, but sometimes it's for the best. Risen 2 is one game I wouldn't mind seeing delayed from an April release until late summer. Perhaps the next couple of months will be industrious ones at Piranha Bytes' studios, and Risen 2 will come out a polished delight. Regardless, the game needs some extra attention, particularly in the combat department. There is great potential here for a choice-driven action RPG filled with pirate-themed secrets, swearing, and swashbuckling. Even if, like me, you aren't among the legion of pirate lovers, you can look forward to Risen 2.

Editor's Note: This preview is based on the PC build.

Preview: E3 2011
"Risen 2 might just be the game to get hardcore PC gamers to tear their eyes away from The Witcher 2..."

You are the nameless hero who previously brought down both the Inquisitor and the titan that he attempted to steal powers from. What do you do after you save the world? Become a mighty pirate! Ten years after all the first Risen, you end up in the vanguard city of Caldera - the only surviving town on a small island. Ship supply is incredibly important to this city, and monsters have begun to interfere with the supply lanes. It's up to you to save the city and be all sort of swashbuckler-y.

This pirate theme stays throughout all of the environments that we saw - they're more crisp and more colorful than the brown-toned world of the original Risen. Also, the screenshots we were shown of the console versions of Risen looked quite good; the original title was fairly stripped down graphically for console release. Deep Silver and Piranha Bites have learned their lesson, and both the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions of the titles are being developed concurrently with the PC version. While the game doesn't look like Skyrim by any stretch of the imagination, the world has its fair share of vistas and landscapes that are impressive. The architecture is more refined too, and doesn't look generic like the first game's rooms did.

Combat has changed significantly: since you're a pirate, you don't have the patience to use a shield. What do you have instead? Guns, bombs, powder kegs, and all sorts of other off-hand weapons. This gives Piranha Bites the ability to develop action-oriented combat sequences, but it doesn't mean defense is out the window. You'll still be able to parry, throw sand, and use other dirty tricks to keep from getting hit. Combat looked smooth, though the demo (which was pre-alpha) hadn't yet been balanced, so Deep Silver's demo character was destroying just about everything in his path.

Piranha Bites is also out to create more attachment to NPCs in the game. Unlike the first game, where an NPC would appear for a few quests and then disappear, your pirate ship will be your base of operations and home to NPCs, not unlike Mass Effect's Normandy or Knights of the Old Republic's Ebon Hawk. Risen 2 will also allow you to take one of your companions with you out into the world, and these companions will have a wide variety of abilities to aid you. If you want support, defense, or attack, you'll be able to have a crewmember help you out with that. Your player character doesn't have a class, but what you do will provide you with your skills. Your decisions are important in shaping your character, as there is no character generation screen.

The title also has a slew of technical improvements. Each island visited in the game will have only a single load time, and there will be no load times going indoors or outdoors. The islands don't have portals - pirates don't really like magic - but instead they have rowboats that will give the same ability to go from place to place. The game is fully voice acted with thousands of lines of dialogue, though the demo version was in German, so we can't say how the English VA will be. Significant interface improvements have been made, including equipment comparison, which was sorely lacking from the first game. Risen 2 gives the player quite a bit of freedom, too, as the game has no boundaries for player movement - the only place that you can't go is the deep blue sea. Gamepad support will be available from the get go on the PC version, as well.

Risen 2 is certainly looking much better than its predecessor, especially based on what we've seen of the console versions. The game is slated for release in the first half of 2012. Europeans who visit GamesCom will also have the ability to get hands-on with the title. Risen 2 might just be the game to get hardcore PC gamers to tear their eyes away from The Witcher 2, and fans of Piranha Bites shouldn't be disappointed.

© 2011-2012 Deep Silver, Piranha Bytes. All rights reserved.

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