It Is Done…

RisenWe finished playing Risen yesterday.

The end came quickly and a little too suddenly for my taste. I had been holding on to the faint hope that the game might have more than four paltry chapters until just before the credits started to roll. No such luck, now we’ll have to wait until forever for the sequel. Gnargh!

But I digress. Let’s start at the top.

We’re both huge fans of the Gothic games. Gothic 1 & 2, that is – as far as I’m concerned there is no Gothic 3, and that one didn’t have an expansion either. What? There is such a thing? No, I don’t think so (sticks fingers in ears and starts humming a tune).

Anyway. The first two Gothic games, both of which I played together with my husband due to severely lacking hand-eye coordination on my part, are the pinnacle of the RPG genre. A genre that is prolific enough, but seldomly brings forth anything to be truly excited about. I liked Oblivion to a certain degree, although it was all in all terribly shallow and levelling enemies are the worst idea since reality TV. And Divinity was okay too, in a way. The same goes for Two Worlds, which of these three games is perhaps the one that I enjoyed most. But all of these games seemed to be lacking something: call it depth, call it refinement, call it quality. They weren’t bad, but they were far from brilliant. And just when we had given up hope that the genre would ever bring forth anything awesome again we bought Risen by German developer Piranha Bytes.

Risen starts out when the player character wakes up after being shipwrecked on the shore of a tropical vaguely mediterranean island. After you have fought your way up the beach, past vultures, wolfs and stingrats, the world, or rather the island, lies at your feet. The game offers you the choice of three principal career options: Bandit, Mage or joining the Inquisition.

I picked the Inquisition, power gamer that I am, and my husband, who was playing the game in parallel with me on his computer, chose the bandits.

From what I picked up I must say that the Inquisition seems to be by far the more cushy path. All you have to do is to get inside the city, which in my case was accomplished by running past most enemies on the way and bribing the gate guard with 100 gold, and once you’re inside  you get to work as a glorified errand boy until you feel strong enough to brave the wolves and stingrats outside the city walls. Oh, yes, and until you figure out how to get out again, I should maybe mention that part.

For a bandit life appears to be a lot tougher, since although you also get to run errands in the swamp the errands here involve killing megalomaniac fireflies and something that looks like it escaped from Frank Herbert’s Dune. Suffice to say that it’s not very easy without proper equipment or skills.

As for the mage path: I could not say, since I haven’t quite figured out how to play a mage. (Which is remarkable since I thought the game had tricked me into becoming one for quite a while until I figured out that in that case I should be able to learn rune sigil magic, which I wasn’t.)

One of the nice things, at least from my point of view, is that the story is far from the same for the different classes after that point. Until very late in the game the different factions will ask you to do things that differ from the other paths. Not in a game-changing manner, but enough so that it significantly raises the re-play value.

A slight blemish on the beauty of the game is to be found in the final chapter, however. Not only is it almost exclusively dungeon crawling, with next to no respawn in the actual game world, but the events leading up to the final boss fight, as well as the fight itself, take away almost any difference that the three classes might have had before that. I won’t say much about the actual fight, since spoilers are evil, but let it suffice to say that there is but one way to do it, regardless of whether you’re playing a magic user or a fighter. And I think that is a bad thing. It is a bad thing to the point where I was close to giving up on the game about five minutes before the end. (To be scrupulously honest: my almost giving up was also related to the fact that the final fight is ridiculously difficult and I’m not a good fighter at the best of times.)

That having been said: Risen is, apart form the final showdown, a joy to play. The world is alive with beautiful creatures, not all of them inimical; it also features tons of vertical space: ledges to climb up on and kill enemies at leisure with ranged attacks, mountains with beautiful vistas… and as a bonus everything is one giant cell (meaning no loading times when entering houses, dungeons, etc.). Another big plus are the NPCs. If you manage to disregard the skimpy clothing that the women wear you will find that most of the NPCs have individual dialogue and personalities and sometimes even more than one quest that needs solving (non-generic NPCs is something I can not prize high enough after drudging through 200+ hours of Oblivion). Also the fighting system is reasonably well balanced and gaining skill points truly makes a difference. And last but not least: you get to summon a skeleton named Fred.

Yes, Fred – or Freddy as we have come to call him. Freddy can handle himself in tough situations, is unexpendable when it comes to taking care of some of the stronger enemies. And to sweeten the deal he’s also low maintenance and, due to a rather helpful bug, will heal if you save and load.

Speaking of bugs: the game has none. At least no significant ones. There seem to be some issues with certain older series of Nvidia graphics cards, but that had already been fixed in the first patch. Jonas had some difficulties with his character being unable to tell the difference between what you mean with going into a building or jumping up on the roof (weird bug, I know), but that was an inconvenience at best. And then there is the friendly NPC health regeneration issue, with is highly beneficial to the player, and if it’s cheating to exploit a bug then I don’t care. Besides that, I had one crash in almost 50 hours of playing, which I think is acceptable. So thumbs up for the Piranhas: good work!

All in all my playing experience has been very positive. Risen, like its cousins from the Gothic universe, is not easy to play, especially at an early level. Also, and here it is different from Gothic, it never becomes easy. Even at level 25 you can still walk into a room and get shish-kebabed before you can say Jack Robinson (if you’re not careful). If that doesn’t frighten you, you will get rewarded with a nicely-told and well-written story, stellar voice acting (not as good as Gothic but miles better than anything else out there; at least in the original German), a beautiful gameworld and interesting, diverse quests that go beyond collect-the-seventeen-polkadot-lollipops territory.

I for one am greatly looking forward to the second part of Risen, so hurry up Piranhas.

P.S.: my husband, who is the game designer in the family, is bound to write his own review soon, which is bound to be slightly more analytical than mine, so keep your eyes peeled for that!

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5 thoughts on “It Is Done…

  1. Very interesting, but I’m still of two minds about this game. I’ll read something that sounds encouraging – like being able to used ranged attacks from a ledge (is it possible to play as a sneaky archer-type, then?) – but then something that sounds like I should give it a wide berth – like GameSpot’s mention of “over-dark” dungeons where it’s hard to see anything. (I really hate that. Realistic or not, it’s just not fun, not for me.)

    I haven’t played the earlier Gothic games, either, mostly because I’m so inept at “real-time” combat. I’ll give them a try sometime (the first two, at any rate), and Risen, too. But first, I’m looking forward to the Age of Decadence, and even Dragon Age: Origins. And there are a lot of old games I still plan to play (or re-play).

    Incidentally, you regularly mention Oblivion, but did you ever play Morrowind? I think that’s the best Elder Scrolls game. It has leveling enemies, too, but from my point of view, that’s probably a benefit. If I manage my character so he doesn’t level up very quickly (or very far), I can go everywhere in the game. For an inept player like me, that’s an advantage. I’m really terrible at “real-time” combat.

    And I guess I’m surprised that you praise Two Worlds so much. I played it awhile, and it was fun enough, but I got bored quickly. I still mean to get back to it sometime (like so many other games), but I wasn’t overly impressed. It really did seem to be lacking depth. What was it that you liked about it?

    BTW, have you played The Witcher? You have to get past the hopelessly juvenile sexual escapades, but otherwise, there’s a lot to like. It’s certainly different from most RPGs. How about Mount&Blade? That’s mostly a medieval combat simulator, but don’t let that stop you. I’m hopeless at the combat, but it just doesn’t matter, it’s still great fun. That’s another game that’s really different. I highly recommend at least trying the demo. (This is how Two Worlds should have implemented horseback riding!)

    Finally, are you familiar with Dwarf Fortress? You have to put up with ASCII graphics and one of the worst interfaces in the world,… but this is a game all mainstream developers could learn from. Heck, your little dwarf characters actually GRIEVE! How wonderful is that? It’s funny to hear the stories players tell, of the heroism and the tragedy of some dwarf’s pet dog, for example, when it’s just an ASCII character on the screen (but seems so real in a player’s mind).

    Oops! Sorry, do I tend to ramble, don’t I? 🙂

  2. Very interesting, but I’m still of two minds about this game. I’ll read something that sounds encouraging – like being able to used ranged attacks from a ledge (is it possible to play as a sneaky archer-type, then?)

    No, generally not. But the game does have an “easy” setting, which should help, and the combat relies on arrow keys + mouse, not complicated combinations or anything. On “normal” it’s tricky but manageable, on “easy” it should be fairly OK.

    but then something that sounds like I should give it a wide berth – like GameSpot’s mention of “over-dark” dungeons where it’s hard to see anything. (I really hate that. Realistic or not, it’s just not fun, not for me.)

    Nah, that’s total nonsense. First of all, mostly you can do just fine in the dungeons, and secondly, if it’s too dark, that’s what torches are for! I guess the people at GameSpot didn’t think that far.

    Incidentally, you regularly mention Oblivion, but did you ever play Morrowind? I think that’s the best Elder Scrolls game. It has leveling enemies, too, but from my point of view, that’s probably a benefit. If I manage my character so he doesn’t level up very quickly (or very far), I can go everywhere in the game. For an inept player like me, that’s an advantage. I’m really terrible at “real-time” combat.

    I think it’s a lot easier if you know that certain areas contain certain types of enemies, and can avoid those areas until you’re strong enough for them, rather than after a while having overpowered enemies everywhere. In Risen & Gothic enemies also *stay* dead, so there is an actual sense of achievement when you’ve defeated a bunch of baddies. Respawn only happens via the plot.

    And I guess I’m surprised that you praise Two Worlds so much. I played it awhile, and it was fun enough, but I got bored quickly. I still mean to get back to it sometime (like so many other games), but I wasn’t overly impressed. It really did seem to be lacking depth. What was it that you liked about it?

    From my perspective – and I think Verena would agree – there are several elements:
    1) A diverse and pretty world with much to discover.
    2) A fun character development system.
    3) A solid, chunky combat system, much more enjoyable than in most games.
    4) A surprisingly effective inventory/equipment system. It seems silly at first, but as a gameplay mechanic it’s a great deal of fun.
    5) In the German edition the voice acting and writing are also a lot better. Unusual but true. (This is also the case with the Gothic games and Risen, but those were made by Germans.)

    BTW, have you played The Witcher? You have to get past the hopelessly juvenile sexual escapades, but otherwise, there’s a lot to like. It’s certainly different from most RPGs.

    We couldn’t get past the juvenile nonsense. It was too embarrassing to play.

    • First of all, mostly you can do just fine in the dungeons, and secondly, if it’s too dark, that’s what torches are for!

      Is there a gamma adjustment in the game options? I had a problem with Eschalon: Book 1 where I couldn’t see anything in the dungeons, even with a torch AND a light spell. Well, apparently it’s my monitor (and probably its location near a window). I have to adjust a lot of the games I play.

      4) A surprisingly effective inventory/equipment system. It seems silly at first, but as a gameplay mechanic it’s a great deal of fun.

      I thought so at first, but it seemed to get sillier as I went along. Well, I ended up with a bunch of horses staked out side by side as living warehouses, storing all the weird equipment I wasn’t currently using (but never knowing whether I might find enough of something so the stacked version would become useful again).

      I don’t know. I had fun with Two Worlds. I just wasn’t crazy about it.

      We couldn’t get past the juvenile nonsense. It was too embarrassing to play.

      Yeah, isn’t that the truth! It seemed like it was designed for – or perhaps by – 13-year-old boys. But it’s a shame, because there was a good game there, too.

  3. I ended up with a bunch of horses staked out side by side as living warehouses, storing all the weird equipment I wasn’t currently using (but never knowing whether I might find enough of something so the stacked version would become useful again).

    Hey, we did that too! It was hilarious and wonderful. Maybe not what the designers had in mind, but who cares? It was our own little herd/warehouse!

  4. For me the main thing about Two Worlds was that, although I invested almost as much time into that game than in Oblivion, it didn’t become boring at any point. In both games I took great care to go to every dungeon and every castle (and yes, I know, Two Worlds also has a lot fewer dungeons than Oblivion) but I never reached the point where I just wanted to weep when I saw another high level enemy. Maybe the experience isn’t the same for you in regards to the Elder Scrolls games, since you say that you always take care not to advance to far in terms of level. For me Oblivion’s levelling enemies are one of the worst game design decisions ever. But that is not to say that Oblivion wasn’t fun at all.

    Also, I have to admit that I haven’t played Morrowind, but that’s up next after I finished Eschalon: Book 1. I’m greatly looking forward to that, despite my “bad” experiences with Oblivion.

    I haven’t played Dwarf Fortress, as I said I’m still a bit of a rookie when it comes to RPGs. I heard a lot of stuff about it though. Maybe one day…

    Finally, since I’m playing Eschalon right now and you mentioned it in regard to dark dungeons: trust me, the dungeons in Risen are bright, well lit halls in comparison to Eschalon. Eschalon is bloody dark. I understand the game design choice behind it, but shall suggest that it maybe isn’t just your screen that’s playing tricks on you. I can’t see a thing either without a torch and even then it’s still wobbly.

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