Nov 13, 2010

Risen Review

This weekend there was a sale on the Steam for the RPG “Risen.” I didn't know much about the game, but it was cheap and I was intrigued. After scoping out the demo, mostly to make sure it ran on my modest specs, I decided to get the game. I've been playing it almost non-stop, clocking up more than ten hours played in just a couple of days. That alone should probably tell you something.

Risen is most of what an RPG should be. It's open, it's immersive and engaging, it has a strong focus on story-telling and decision making (that actually alters the narrative), it has a solid sense of progression, and it's hard as nails. I'm not going to claim it's flawless, but my experience so far has been excellent. I'm going to lay down my recommendation right now – if you have $15 to spend and are a fan of RPGs, don't pass this one up. If you miss the sale, I definitely think it's worth the full price of admission. Getting it so cheap only serves to sweeten the deal.

 My first experience of the game was confusing in all the right ways. The game shows you a short cinematic which only barely establishes the setting and your character. You know about one recent event in the setting, and you know what your character was doing just prior to starting play. That's it. I appreciate the near non-existent introduction because I've always enjoyed discovering settings for myself in RPGs – that is, learning about the world predominantly through play and experiencing it first hand, rather than through being told.

The sensation of being a stranger in a strange land is particularly apt as you begin the game in a thunderstorm on an unfamiliar beach, victim of a shipwreck. Knowing nearly nothing about the world around you echoes what must be the experience of your character, washed up on an unknown island. One of the first things you learn (or at least, one of the first things I learned playing on the hardest difficulty) is that the island you're on is dangerous. Even the local wildlife wants a piece of you, and boy is it vicious. For the opening hours of the game, there's pretty much nothing you want to fight on your own – and so it should be. The islands animals are large and apparently carnivorous and as far as I can tell your character wasn't a fighter in their old life. Even ten hours in, tangling with a pack of wolves is an extremely dangerous proposition. You don't get the luxury of feeling safe outside of settlements, and even within sometime a challenger appears. Just surviving, at least in the early stages, is no simple matter, and I found myself running from combat quite a lot. As far as I'm concerned, this is how the early stages of an RPG should play. It gives you a very significant sense of progression when you get to the point where you are a force to be reckoned with.

The game pretty quickly gives you a choice of where to lay your loyalties. What I liked about this is that there is no good or evil as far as I can tell – the best you can do is try and choose the lesser of two evils, and which faction that applies to is extremely unclear. I mulled over this decision quite a bit from the standpoint of trying to be as little of an arsehole as possible, but I'm still not sure I made the right choice. This is the kind of decision making I like to see in games, and is also the kind that makes me want to play through the game more than once.

I'd be reticent to describe the game as an action-RPG because in truth you spend quite a lot of time solving puzzles and talking to people, rather than fighting, but the combat mechanics definitely belong in the action-oriented camp. There is no auto-attack, no semblance of a turn based system played out in real time. If you played Fable the combat might feel a little familiar. Attacks, blocks and dodges are carried out in real-time. The system is a little bit less simplistic than in Fable and enemies are a lot better at fighting, making the game much tougher. There's actually a fair bit to learn with the fighting, and different types of enemies employ noticeably different tactics. What this means is that, as well as a sense of your character progressing through game-mechanics, there's also a sense of progressing as a player through learning the combat and becoming better at the game. I will say that the combat mechanics are not the most amazing thing I've ever seen. They're functional though, and that's what counts. I wish they had actually animated the dodges a little bit instead of your character basically teleporting around, though. A minor complaint. The combat isn't incredible, but it definitely works.

Although I believe the game was not originally in English, you wouldn't be able to tell. The script and voice acting are (mostly) spot on. Some of the minor characters aren't very well voiced, but for the most part the game is well above par in this regard. There's a lot of dialogue in the game, and it's all fully voiced, so a few slips are understandable.

I mentioned that the game isn't perfect, and I'd like to briefly touch on the flaws. The biggest one is that sometimes quests will bug out, impeding progress. I haven't encountered a game-stopper yet, but based on my reading this can happen. I have a little bit of patience for this kind of thing in Risen's case, because there really are a lot of options, but it's still a lot less than ideal. There's also a bit of an issue with the game controls. In combat, the game locks on to a certain target, and controlling who exactly you're attacking is sometimes a little problematic. Running around the environments is marred by some weird design choices in terms of control and movement speed/options, and wonky animations prevail.

There are also some slightly odd design choices with issues that are difficult to explain without getting into the nitty-gritty of game mechanics, which is something I'm going to avoid for now. Possibly I'll come back to this game and explain some of the game-play mechanics in more depth, and that would be an appropriate time to explore these issues.

These issues, although not insignificant, have bothered me hardly at all. The game is so immersive that you find yourself easily able to ignore most of these issues, and you stop noticing them entirely – or at least I did. The broken quests are something you have to deal with, but most of the time it's not very intrusive and there were occasions where I was unsure if something was a bug or just a consequence of my other actions.

I'm inclined to describe the game as a cross between Fable and Dragon Age. It has the action-focused combat mechanics of Fable and the focus on story-driven game-play of Dragon Age. It's a game that definitely caters to the hard-core crowd more than anything with a high difficulty and a higher skill threshold, and that's something that I really appreciate in a market dominated by titles that are really very easy. The sense of facing challenges and adversity in Risen is very strong, and is quite refreshing from the trend of leveling up every half an hour and always being one step ahead of the scaling-difficulty AI opponents. One wrong step can easily get you killed, especially in the early game, and it really makes you think about your actions and play carefully.

Despite it's issues, I absolutely recommend this title for fans of the genre. Risen is everything a hard-core RPG should be, despite niggling issues.

You can read a follow-up to this review here

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