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Does anyone remember the game developer Piranha Bytes? They were known for their Gothic game series for the PC, but complications led to the loss of their franchise rights, and as a result, the company wound up being out of the picture for a few years. Despite their loss, this enabled them to start fresh, to "rise again," and what better way than with a game named Risen? Within the powerhouse Western RPG genre, how does Risen fare amongst giants such as Fallout 3, or anything BioWare creates? It turns out that Risen holds within it a rather pleasant gaming experience, though it's not without its share of problems.
Long ago, a strange cataclysm caused all the gods to be wiped out. Sometime afterward, ancient ruins began to pop up all over the world, causing indigenous creatures to go wild; unusual monsters began to emerge as well. A group called the Inquisitors took interest in these series of events and set sail to investigate the ruins on a volcanic island. Before the ship reaches its destination, a storm destroys the ship. You play a nameless protagonist who survived that shipwreck, and you find yourself caught between three factions: bandits, mages, and the Inquisitors stationed there. Your actions on this island will determine the fate of the island and its inhabitants.
The premise is fairly cool, but the plot itself is not. It starts off slowly, spending a few hours of exposition teaching the player about the island and the people running it. This helps build the backstory of the island, but it can take anywhere from five to ten hours for the plot to actually progress. When it does finally progress, it feels underwhelming. At that point, you begin to learn of a danger, inhabiting the island, that is capable of destroying the world (surprise!). Of course, it is up to you and only you to stop it... because, allegedly, destiny deems it so. Generally, I don't mind this plot structure, but Risen's attempt felt too dry and it's even worse that the characters aren't compelling or memorable. Risen tried to tell an epic tale, but it falls short of being the "sweeping story [that] captivates players from the start!" that the publisher's website proclaims.
To its credit, the backstory setup is well done. They go into a lot of detail on how the factions run the island, and the impact it causes on daily lives, giving you a good sense of how things work. Early on, you get to choose between the three factions and each of them have their own perspective on how things should be on the island. They follow their own beliefs and agendas, and you're bound to follow a faction based on what philosophy you believe in the most. It makes things interesting overall, because none of the factions are necessarily good or evil. Rather, they have varying solutions to "the problems" of the island and the world overall. Based on what faction you join, the plot can branch off to different paths, enabling some additional replay value. Risen may not tell a compelling tale, but they did on a fine job setting the stage.
As an Action RPG, Risen contains some of the clunkiest fighting mechanics I've ever dealt with. Sure, it's quite easy to utilize attacks, but bad input delays ruined it all. Speedier opponents can dodge your slow attacks with ease, and when you try to block, you could get hit before you're in blocking position. It gets easier to handle as you level up, but no one should have to put up with a faulty combat engine in the first place. Ranged attacks fare better. There is less delay on them, and while the accuracy can be imprecise sometimes, at least you're able to kill enemies a lot smoother from a distance than up close.
For the controls portion, there are little issues. The interface is simple, and there are shortcuts to utilize for your items and magic. As mentioned earlier, the combat controls are very easy to use, but suffer from a slow input delay. The only other thing to note is the occasional dumb AI moment. All enemies you encounter like to dash straight at you, and are usually competent enough in their path-finding skills to get to you. Occasionally, if they bump into a tiny object on the ground, they simply stop moving, which allows you to give them a surefire beating. That may make things easier for me when I play, but that doesn't mean I feel good about exploiting this flaw in the game.
Character customization works out a little differently than other Western RPGs. Rather than modeling your character, choosing a class, and sometimes customizing starting stats, you always start off the same way with the same, male look. When you level up, you only gain a bit of HP, but you are also given ten learning points. These learning points are spent by visiting with various trainers. They can teach you to be better at a weapon type, magic or can even raise your stats for a price and some learning points. Raising a stat can cost you up to five points, whereas leveling up a proficiency can cost you ten. Factoring in the difficulty of leveling up, these points are generally scarce, so spend wisely.
In addition to improving your stats or proficiency, you can also find trainers to learn some crafts. You can learn smithing or alchemy to create all kinds of items to aid you on your journey. There are also other skills such as mining to aid you in your smithing craft, or you can learn to lockpick and pickpocket to get some extra gold. All together, these crafts and skills help your hero be more self-sufficient.
The learning point system is a good way of making you work on a particular build instead of mastering everything, but it is a strange, roundabout way of getting new things that feels restrictive at times. I understand the idea of training to advance in weaponries, magic and such, but stats too? This system makes it difficult to come up with a good build, particularly for melee users. You need high stats to equip good weapons–but if you use all your points to get high stats, your weapon skills will be weak. It's a catch 22.
One thing I will compliment is the nifty magic Risen provides. Mages get their standard fire and ice spells for attacking, but there are a lot of support spells you can use too. You can telekinetically grab objects from afar, summon the dead to do your bidding, levitate great distances, and even use a jest spell to make people like you. Their mileage may vary, but they're fun spells to mess with, and can help you out through many sticky situations. Even non-mage characters can make use of them by using scrolls. Because any character build you make can have access to these magics, Risen's dungeons are based heavily upon them.
Dungeons are generally simple, but they tend to be full of traps and feature some light puzzle-solving. They're based on a mixture of observing your surroundings to find objects and utilizing the various spells to overcome obstacles. Occasionally, there are also hidden walls and switches to find in order to progress. The only irritable part about dungeons is that enemies tend to be in cramped places, making it harder to fend them off. Also, you sometimes are forced to go through traps, only to be attacked by enemies immediately after coming through the trap.
Of course, what would an open-world RPG be without tons of side quests to eat away your hours? They're easy to find if you take the time to explore, and the rewards for embarking on the optional stuff are substantial. The quests are run-of-the-mill "reach a destination, kill this enemy, and/or fetch that item" experiences, with little in the way that would suggest an "immersive" experience. At least it will keep you busy for a while, and you'll be getting lots of experience, gold, and items along the way. Like with the main plot arc, the three factions contain their own series of quests; this expands the replayability.
Visually, Risen contains some beautiful environments. It's done in such detail, and the organic feel of the textures does make it seem like the island feels alive. It also contains many little touches such as the trees rustling and the way the cloud movements change the sky scenery. They're little additions, but pieced together, these things can make a big difference in one's experience. Best of all, there are no load times at all when you make transitions from place to place, adding to an otherwise-lacking sense of "immersion."
While the environments may look great, the character models are awful. The developers put a lot of effort into putting together dozens of NPCs who do their own, unique actions throughout the day and night. It makes things feel more lifelike instead of standing around or just going back and forth between points A and B. Despite their best efforts to put life into the NPCs, they blew it by only having 3 to 5 generic character models per gender. You are bound to see lots of lookalikes with occasional clothing changes or facial color palette swaps. This issue becomes too aggravating when you see exact clones standing next to each other, and makes me question why they did not put the same effort on characters that they did with the environments. Another problem is that their animations tend to be more robotic than fluid.
I tend not to be overly fond of ambient themes that only fit the game, but Kai Rosenkranz did a real good job for Risen's score. It contains many soft, relaxing melodies that fit well with the tropical setting. I liked the guitar strumming that plays in town, and he made good use of flutes and other woodwind instruments to create a nature ambiance. In dungeons, piano organs, timpani, and such are utilized to give off a haunting tone. It does not stand out as well like the tropical music, but all the pieces written for this game are well-done.
Full voice acting is present in the game, and it features some big names such as Andy Serkis (LotR Gollum), John Rhys-Davis (LotR Gimli) and Lena Headey (Sarah Connor in the Sarah Connor Chronicles TV series). These actors rank amongst the best vocal performances in the game, fitting their respective characters naturally. The rest of the voice acting is overall good, though nothing to write home about. Some characters, such as the nameless hero, sound a bit too dry for me and comes off feeling like he is reading it off a script.
Risen may not have an engaging combat system and it gave me my share of frustrations, but I still had fun. It takes a while for things to start up, but once it gets going, it becomes quite addicting. Towards the end, the game does fizzle out, but for me, the experience was fun while it lasted. If you look past the bad character models, it's also one of the most visually impressive games I've played, and it is complemented by solid audio. It might not be the best Western RPG out there, but it's certainly worth a try.