We 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!