Thursday, July 12, 2012

Breakfastman's Gamegeddon: Risen

Oh God, there are so many different puns I could make right now. Does the game rise to the occasion? Does it signal a rising force in the gaming industry? Does Pirahna Bytes rise to the occasion? Or have they gone flaccid? Okay, okay, finished now. Everyone, you can stop giving me those disapproving stares.

Note: This review is of the PC edition of the game. I have not played the 360 version, but I have heard it is much worse than the PC one, with quite horrible graphics, crap controls, horrible UI issues, and huge framerate problems.

Risen is a third-person, open-world action-RPG developed by Piranha Bytes, the studio that created the cult-classic Gothic series. The game is intended to be a spiritual successor to that series and there are rumors that this game was actually supposed to be Gothic 4 before Piranha Bytes was booted from that project, but as far as I know, those rumors are unfounded. Now, I have not had much experience with the Gothic series. I have heard of the games, seen some screenshots, and have read a couple reviews of various games in the series, but my experience ends there. I have, however, played my fair share of WRPGs, so I have a good appreciation of the genre and a decent grasp on what tends to work and what does not. I recently purchased this game during a sale, having enjoyed what little I played of the game in the demo. Honestly, I am not sure what I was expecting when I started. I knew the game was going to be different; the demo had conveyed that much. I did not expect that I would become as sucked into the game as I was. But, I am getting ahead of myself. Lets take a look at Risen.

The game begins with a bang. One stormy night, one of the men on the ship the player has stowed away on, a mage with a strange monocle, engages a massive sea serpent in battle in a magical battle. This does not go well and the ship is sunk by the serpent. The player and a fellow stowaway awake on the beach of a strange island sometime later, with nothing to their name but whatever they can scavenge from the wreckage that lines the beach. The player eventually discovers that the island they have washed up on is home to a small, troubled farming community. During a recent storm, mysterious ruins have risen from the ground all across the island, with dangerous insects and other monsters streaming out and attacking the populace. A group named the Inquisition comes along and forces most of the island's inhabitants into the only town, sealing the gates and forbidding anyone to leave while they set up camp in the local monastery and try to investigate these ruins. The Inquisition also has a nasty habit of enslaving anyone who breaks the rules by forcing them to become new members. The local crime lord decided that he wanted a piece of the action and escaped with a few of his men to create a base in the nearby swamp, from which he schemes to take back the town and loot the ruins. The player is thrust into the middle of this conflict and forced to pick sides. Will they side with the gang in the swamp? Or will they side with the Inquisition? And what is up with those mysterious ruins, anyway?

Look at all that excitement and adventure! Isn't it just too much to take?

The story has a lot of interesting themes, ideas, and questions, many of which come from the nature of the world itself. See, the entire world of Risen exists in a world that is post-deity. Humanity has literally killed all of their Gods so they will not be forced to be a servant to anyone unless it is by their own choosing. Turns out killing Gods is not without consequences however, because the Titans that the Gods had sealed away are awakening and causing apocalyptic destruction across the world. Yet all hope is not lost, as humanity continues to cling to a few remaining religions, the most prominent of which seems to be a monastic order that worships a mysterious flame in a volcano. This setup alone brings up many different fascinating ides, like what happens to a civilization once it has no more use for religion? Or, should one fight for freedom if it will eventually cause the death of millions? Will people still join religions regardless of whether or not Gods are irrevocably proved to be gone/false? Will the past inevitably lash out and try to sabotage the future? Is it better to sacrifice the few for a chance to save the many?

Many interesting ideas can also be seen in the main story, especially in the conflict between the orderly Inquisition and chaotic swamp bandits. During the game, the player is forced to join one or the other. The choice is muddied further by the fact that neither group is the "good" one. Both do terrible, awful things and both have awful people in their ranks, so the player has to actually think about which one is less objectionable. The behaviors of the groups themselves bring up interesting questions as well, like is it eviler to force people to pay protection money and engage in thuggish behaviors or to force those who disobey into servitude for the others? Are they not just two different types of slavery, one economic based, one labor based? These are interesting questions that help to keep the player invested in the story and make it significantly more engaging than if it had been a simple morality tale of good versus evil.

All of these interesting themes and ideas could have made the story among the best if it was not so damn schizophrenic. The game has around 3-4 main plots. Not plot threads, plots. I am not joking; there really are 3-4 self-contained plots to be found in the game. The game achieves this odd distinction by radically switching its plot to another one multiple times. This usually happens when a new chapter begins (of which there are four) and is so horribly executed one can almost hear a "thunk" whenever the game switches gears. Each plot ends with a whimper in a short, unsatisfying conclusion that answers little and does the bare minimum to actually qualify as an end (yes that includes the ultimate end of the game, too). For instance, remember that plot about the conflict between the Inquisition and the swamp bandits that was mentioned earlier? Yeah, it is abandoned in chapter 2 and is given a five minute conclusion in chapter 3, despite being the driving force of the first ten hours of the game. The faction the player joined in the beginning barely matters in chapter 2 and is completely ignored in chapter 3 and 4. This switching between plots is made even more exasperating by the fact that only one of the plots has any foreshadowing attached to it. It is like if the first Lord of the Rings movie focused on the journey to destroy the ring, while the second focused the inner politics of the Gondor army (with 10 minutes of footage of the fellowship destroying the ring in Mt. Doom) and the third on Rohan cleaning up Mordor. Then, the film producers decided it was too long and crammed this all into one film, one plot after the other. It is distracting and annoying, and means the story never reaches its full potential. It feels like the devs had all these great ideas for all these different stories they wanted to tell, but instead of just narrowing it down to one plot and sticking to it, they decided to throw them all in a pot, mix it together, and see what comes out. Well, I hate to spoil it, but what came out was a total mess. It is an interesting mess, but it is still a mess.

Wow, this next-gen Harvest Moon is looking awesome!

The characters themselves (of which there are many) are a bit of a mixed bag. Most of the NPCs have their own names, but very few are actually interesting. Most simply serve as walking vending machines or quest boards with little distinguishing quirks or personality.  The characters that do stand out are some of the best I have encountered in any game. Most of the major characters, and even some of the minor ones, have surprisingly nuanced and subtle personalities. They have their own unique hopes, ambitions, failings, and motivations, all of which seem real and interesting. It is also nice that the development team actually managed to get a few high-profile voice actors like Andy Serkis and John Rhys Davies. Their great voice work helps to add depth to their characters.

The dialogue is also definitely worth mentioning. There is quite a lot of it and most of it is very good. Major characters respond and interact with the player in a manner that feels real and is consistent to their previously established personalities. Some can even offer a number of interesting insights, not only about the world, but about the themes of the story. The Don (leader of the swamp bandits) and the Inquisitor (leader of the Inquisition), both stand out in this regard, each talking about their own moral codes and explaining problems with the opposition, often giving the player a lot of food for thought when the conversation ends. Even minor characters can provide interesting conversations and perspectives on the local politics. Some can even provide great illustrations of the central themes of the narrative. Considering how much of a mess the story is, it is a welcome surprise to see this much attention paid to the dialogue.

The game provides a lot of choice and freedom in how the player can complete quests. Many quests can be solved through dialogue, thievery, combat, or any combination thereof. For instance, there is one quest in the game where the player is tasked to retrieve an amulet from a house guarded by the local town watch. The player can sneak into the house at night to try and steal it, fight their way through the guards to get it, or trick the guard at the front gate into giving it to them. Similarly, there is another quest that involves finding the treasure a pirate captain left on the island. During the course of this quest, rival pirates kidnap the pirate captain's daughter and threaten to kill her if the player does not give them what they want. In a regular RPG, the player would have to choose between her life and the treasure. In this game, the player can kill the pirates and get away with both the girl and the treasure. It is a fantastic feeling to "screw the system" by finding ways to complete quests that are decidedly outside of the norm. This makes the game much more engaging, since the player has many more options than usual and are encouraged to play around with the mechanics a bit more.

Anyone up for wolf popsicles? That’s a thing, right?

This game has one of the most interesting fantasy worlds I have seen in a game in a long time. It eschews the "high fantasy" settings of most fantasy role playing games in favor of a "low fantasy" one. The world does not feel like it is experiencing a "renaissance", with all sorts of complex magic, advanced technology, and massive cities. It feels like the world is still struggling through the "dark ages". There are only 3 major settlements in the game, one of which is made out of stick huts sitting in the mud, huddled together in the shadow of an ancient temple. In another most of the homes and walls are made out of dried mud. There are no magic lanterns, only candles and torches that barely illuminate anything at night. All of the clothes are rather drab and rough and there is no metal armor to be found on the island (with the exception of some shields), only variants of leather. The most commonly found weapons are hunting knives, rusty swords, sickles, and clubs made from tree branches. It is a type of fantasy world that is not seen very often, yet it is so well-realized that it is hard not to be drawn in by it.

The world is also extremely immersive. The island itself is quite well-designed, with a lot to explore and see. Yet, unlike some games, none of the content feels copy-pasted or boring. All of it feels fresh, real, and is very well-designed, with every enemy encounter perfectly placed, every cavern or ruin there for a reason. The game world is brimming with subtle detail everywhere, from an orchard outside of an abandoned farmstead, to an outhouse behind a shack in the middle of the woods, or the ancient gravestones that are frequently placed outside ruins. In a nice extra touch, the game allows players to hunt animals and gather meat from the corpse, which can be used to cook food with recipes found when exploring. The player can also take trophies from kills and sell them to vendors for cash. Wandering through the forests, the player can hear the sounds of birds and roaring waterfalls off in the distance. Villagers have fairly complex daily routines and can eat, drink, smoke, read books, farm, sweep, move crates, or even enter into conversations with each other. The music helps to set the mood perfectly with a number of great pieces. When the player is killed or knocked unconscious, monsters will wander up to their corpse and start munching, while human enemies will take the opportunity to loot whatever belongings the player might have. The stance the player takes in combat changes as they level up and become more experience. All this helps to make the world feel real and therefore helps the player to suspend their disbelief in magic and monsters for a while to become more engaged with the world.

The perfectly placed secrets also help to keep the player interested. They can be easy to find, such as a bow and some arrows in the top of a tower that one finds early in the game, to fairly hidden, like a secret hunting camp only accessible by levitation, or even fairly complex, like finding the broken pieces of an ancient sword that can be forged together to make the original blade whole again. It makes the player want to explore every corner of the world to find out what surprises might be waiting for them there.

Sadly, this game contains a distinct lack of Lord of the Flies references. And that's no good.

The visual aesthetics of this game compliment it perfectly. This is an insanely beautiful game and it has some truly gorgeous sights. During the day, everything is drenched in a yellowy light that makes everything seem bright and cheery, yet during the night the game gets very dark, to the point where a lone campfire is a welcoming sight when one is out wandering the wilderness. There are beautiful sweeping vistas, precarious cliffs, dense forests, foggy swamps, and even a precarious rope bridge or two. There were multiple times where I just had to stop and take in the beauty of a nearby vista or watch a sunset, the game was so beautiful. It has some the most beautiful graphics I have seen in a long time and makes some of the best use of lighting I have ever seen in a role playing game.

The game is structured pretty much how one would expect an open-world, action-RPG to be structured. The player can go to any place they see, kill most anyone (baring plot-critical NPCs, of course) with a variety of weapons and magic, complete numerous sidequests that are scattered across the map, and steal whatever is not nailed down. The game does eschew the "auto-level" system found in recent Elder Scrolls and Fallout games, instead opting to use the more old-school system of "sealing" areas of the map by placing powerful monsters in that zone, effectively stopping the player from exploring that area until they are of a high enough level. Nothing especially new, but it all works.

The melee system is fairly different from the norm, resembling the system found in games like Demon's Souls rather than TESIV: Oblivion, and it works fairly well. There are variety of different weapons to choose from, all defined in the game as either a sword, axe, and pole-arm (though each type covers more weapons than just what the title describes, with swords containing clubs and axes containing war-hammers). For swords and axes, the player can wield them in one hand or with a shield. The player can block attacks in front of them by pressing the right mouse button and can dodge out of the way of attacks by pressing spacebar plus A or D. Attack are made by pressing the left mouse button and the player combine moves to create simple combos. The game uses a fairly subtle lock-on system that can easily be used to switch between enemies with the slight movement of the mouse left or right. The comparison to Demon's Souls come mostly from the focus of the combat; it is heavily based on learning the proper time to block, attack, or dodge, since each enemy has specific tells, moves, and attack patterns. Additionally, like in Demon's Souls, combat is typically tough as nails, with most enemies able to take out half of the player's health if they do not pay attention. The controls can be fairly complex and take some getting used to, but work well when the player has become acclimated with them. Finally, just like in Demon's Souls, the player has to learn when to engage enemies and how to handle groups (which can easily kill the player if they are not careful). Once the player does get used to all of this, difficulty decreases significantly and combat becomes much more manageable and fun.

If only all archaeology was this easy...

There are two different types of ranged weapons (crossbows and longbows) and type works fairly differently. Longbows are more accurate and allow the player to charge each shot so that it flies longer and does more damage, but the rate of fire is fairly poor and the player has to stand still in order to fire (which is killer in a game where most enemies are fairly fast and proper movement is key). Crossbows have a better rate of fire, do more damage with each regular shot, and do not require the player stand still to fire, but are inaccurate and do not allow for charge shots. Each is more useful in different situations: longbows for softening up targets from a distance and crossbows for taking them out up close. All told, longbows are usually much more useful, since whenever enemies would get close enough for the crossbow it is more useful to use melee weapons instead.

Unfortunately, the ranged weapons are not nearly as useful as the melee weapons, since the player cannot block when they are using one and the time when switching between weapons is fairly long, making switching between a bow and sword unwieldy and possibly dangerous. When one gets right down to it, the ranged weapons are entirely optional. The player will absolutely need to invest in melee skills to fight all of the enemies no matter what, but they need not invest in ranged ones, since A: there is only one type of enemy that uses ranged attacks; B: there is only one type of monster that cannot be defeated by melee attacks (and it is fairly rare); and C: most fights eventually degenerate into melee brawls regardless of whether or not the player begun the fight with ranged attacks. Sure, they can be helpful, but the player is not losing much if they choose to avoid them, especially since can fairly rare (especially for longbows). All this is fairly disappointing, since it basically means that the player does not have as much freedom to play as they want, since a ranged-only character will be fairly underpowered when compared to other builds.

There are three types of magic in the game: scroll, rune, and crystal. Crystal magic is powered by crystals (obviously) that the player can find scattered throughout the world, of which there are three different types, and allow the player to cast the spell contained in the crystal when used. The different types of spells one can cast from crystals are fireball, freeze, and magic missile. When the player finds or purchases a magic rune, they can cast the spell contained on the rune, if they have the appropriate skill level to handle it. The rune spells only contains one offensive spell; the rest of the runes are mostly just various flavors of buffs, with one or two exceptions for things like Levitation or Create Illusion. Scrolls work mostly the same here as in most other WRPGs: they are one use consumables that allow the player to cast the spell on the scroll once before the scroll is lost, but once the player casts a scroll spell it depletes some of their mana.

Of course, the best thing about this game is that the player character can carry everything in the whole damn world.

Most of the magic spells are fairly useful, especially later in the game when it is basically required that the player uses them to solve the puzzles in the end-game dungeons. Many of the more interesting secrets in the game require that the player use spells like Levitation or Telekinesis to reach them. The buff and offensive spells are quite useful too, giving the player a significant edge in combat, especially in the harder battles which pepper the end of the game. In fact, the spells appear to be too powerful. Upgrading wisdom (the attribute that determines the damage of spells) is much easier that upgrading strength or dexterity (the attributes that determines the damage of melee attacks and ranged attacks, respectively). There are dozens of books and tablets that upgrade wisdom when used, many more than the items that upgrade dexterity or strength. If the player takes the time to explore the island and read all the books they find, they should be able to max out wisdom quite easily, even if they do not use magic. To compare, if the player were to try and upgrade strength to max, they would have no choice but leave dexterity woefully low. Because of this, offensive spells become incredibly powerful very fast, allowing the player to kill most everything with one or two shots, even in the endgame. To compare, most enemies in the endgame still take 5-6 sword swings or 3-4 fully charged longbow shots to kill, even with the most powerful weapons in the game. It makes the game feel like it is punishing the player if they choose not to use magic, since they end up being significantly less powerful in the end-game than magic users.

Additionally, the spell selection in the game is rather... lacking. There are only four offensive spells in the entire game, all of which are fairly uninteresting and stock. There is only one summon spell and the enemies become so powerful that they render it mostly useless in the later chapters. There are some interesting spells, like the polymorph spells that turn the player's character into an animal or monster from the game; Levitation, which allows the player to float; or Tell Joke, which lets the player calm down hostile NPCs.  Beyond these spells, the list is decidedly lacking in imagination, providing spells that are essentially prerequisites for any fantasy RPG, like magic shield and berserker rage. This all means that while the mages are overpowered, they are not as fun as they could be, since they don’t really get a lot of "toys" to play around with. If the game had had a spell selection as big as Neverwinter Nights 2 or even Dragon Age: Origins, magic would have been much more fun to use. As it stands now, it is still kind of fun, but nowhere near as fun as it should be.

Once the player gets a certain amount of experience points, they level up. Once they have leveled up, they are awarded more health, more mana, and some "learning points". Once the player visits certain people, they will offer to upgrade either the player’s existing skillset or the player's attributes for a fee of gold and learning points. Some can even teach entirely new skills. Each weapon type has its own skillset. The same goes for each type of crystal magic. There are also multiple crafting skills, a rune magic skillset, and a handful of miscellaneous extra skills, like acrobatics (which reduces fall damage) and gut animals (which allows the player to get extra bits of vendor trash and ingredients from dead animals if they have certain tools). Upgrades are placed on a linear path (one needs to upgrade one node if they wish to upgrade the next) and each upgrade can do a variety of things, from decreasing the reload time when the player uses their crossbow, to allowing them to craft higher level items, letting them perform charge attacks with their melee weapon, to even allowing them to wield two-handed weapons with one hand. Whatever the case, each upgrade actually seems valuable and can have a fairly large effect on how the player chooses to fight.

And, of course, skeletons. Because every fantasy game needs skeletons, right? It’s practically a law by now.

The game features a fairly extensive crafting system, allowing the player to create their own magic scrolls, swords, jewelry, food, and potions. Most of the craftable items in the game simply require that the player have tools and ingredients (of which the player can carry an unlimited number). When the player decides they want to craft an item, they need to take the ingredients to the proper "crafting table" in order to create it. Crafting does not work exactly the same for every type of craftable item however, with small variations between types being quite common (cooking and alchemy require a recipe for instance, while smithing swords requires a number of different "crafting tables"). In order to make the better items, the player needs a higher level the appropriate crafting skill. For instance, potions that permanently increase the player's attributes, health, or mana, in addition to high level restoratives, require that the player have the highest level in alchemy.

Unlike many other RPGs, the crafting system is incredibly useful in the game and putting a lot of time and effort into finding ingredients and acquiring all the skills is basically required. Many of the higher level craftable swords are quite powerful and the magic scrolls are basically required for the end-game puzzle dungeons. Potions are basically the only way to upgrade strength or dexterity in any worthwhile manner, which makes investing in alchemy all but required if the player wants to plays as a melee or ranged focused character. Food is more useful than it really has any right to be, since some recipes can restore as much health as a large health potion while others actually increase the players attributes, mana, or health by a small amount. While most of the best amulets in the game can be found or purchased, a not insignificant number can only be acquired by crafting. Additionally, all of the best rings are the crafted ones. Basically, the game essentially forces to actually pay attention to and invest in all of the options provided. But that does not seem to be a bad thing. It makes the player consider all their options and explore all of the game's mechanics. This is something that is rarely seen in modern games and is honestly quite refreshing. 

The class system is fairly different from the norm. When the player starts the game, they are essentially "classless". It is only once they join up with either the Inquisition or the swamp bandits that they are given a class. Players who join the swamp bandits become Fighters, while players who join the Inquisition get the choice of becoming one of two different types of magi (Warriors of the Order or plain ol’ Mages). Fighters can achieve the highest level possible in the sword, axe, pickpocket, and lockpicking skills. Warriors of the Order can achieve the highest possible level in the pole-arm skill, use crystal magic much sooner than Fighters, and actually upgrade the skill (Fighters can only use crystal magic if they equip a certain amulet). Mages receive all of the benefits of the Warriors of the Order and are also the only ones who can use Rune magic. Beyond that, how the player chooses to build their character is up to them. Mages can still pour a lot of time and energy into melee weapons while neglecting their magic skills, for instance. I have always enjoyed these types of systems, and it works okay here, but seems very unbalanced, since Mages can invest in very single skill set in the game, while Fighters cannot. If the game had made the distribution of skills more even, it would have worked better. As it stands, it is functional, but not ideal.

Welcome to the jungle, we got fun. Not many games, though.

Risen is one of the single most engrossing games I have played in a long time. It is also one of the most flawed. The story is interesting, but sloppily put together with little resembling a structure outside the separate arcs. The weapons and classes are woefully unbalanced, the magic selection is poor, and the game is as tough as a lead brick. Yet, the combat consistently remains engaging, there are a number of great characters, the crafting system is enjoyable, the game features a diverse array of deep themes, and the world is highly detailed, interesting, and immersive. There is a lot to like here if one can get past all of the flaws. Unfortunately, I doubt many will be able too. Those looking for something different from the norm or a game that can easily suck them in should give the game a look. All others should probably steer clear. 

Final Rating: 

Breakfastman is an amateur reviewer, student, and all around cool guy. Questions, comments, constructive criticisms, rants, rages, or just want to tell me my taste in music sucks? All forms of feedback are encouraged, so feel free. All images blatantly stolen from Google.

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