I admit it. I’m addicted to RPGs. I played Morrowind for over 800 hours. Oblivion fell in only 350 hours, still a feat for most gamers I suppose. And I don’t want to count how many modules I downloaded for Neverwinter Nights. Even games like Bioshock or Majesty 2 that have role-playing elements enthrall me. And I’ve been known to play lukewarm pure RPGs like Legend and Arx Fatalis for a long time despite their flaws.
Lately the emphasis in the industry is on combat RPGs, which isn’t my favorite form of the genre. I like combat as much as the next player, but in an RPG, the story is paramount. Why Morrowind and Oblivion were so good is not because there was combat, but because they combined a deeply engaging story with a totally free-form world. There was not just one rich story (the main one) but hundreds of side quests with their own tales to tell. And you were never under any pressure to pursue a certain goal. You could go down the main quest like a missile (thus cutting off hundreds of hours of gameplay) or follow your bliss and look at every nook and cranny of their worlds.
There have been a few RPGs lately that have attempted to duplicate this gameplay, most of which were doomed to failure. The biggest flop was Dungeon Lords, which was an empty world filled with flaws. But also Gothic 3 comes to mind as a title where the gameplay was horribly unbalanced and the bugs numerous. Given that both Gothic 3 and Risen, the game I am reviewing today, were made by developer Piranha Bytes, I was a little wary of dipping a toe into the water this time.
But I need not have worried. Risen is a very polished RPG with an open world and an interesting, if hidden, main story. There are a few flaws and odd quirks, some of them carryovers from the Gothic series, but these are minor in an otherwise completely addicting game.
Risen is a true open world, and is linear only at the very beginning when you are more or less going through a completely disguised tutorial masquerading as a quest to help a young girl get safely off the beach. You start out as the victim of a shipwreck and wash up on a strange volcanic island that is being fought over by three different factions.
You don’t get to create a character, though it hardly matters given that in addition to being an open world, you also have a classless character system. You basically put points into areas you want. So if you want to play a thief, you buy up sneak and lockpick and pickpocket. If you would prefer being a fighter, then buy up your strength and your axe or sword fighting ability. Your character is whoever you decide to make him. Unfortunately, you can’t be a girl. The hero has a nearly full voice track provided by actor Gus Gallagher (who sounds like Ewan McGregor) so I guess you had to be a guy. Unlike most games where I am stuck with a hero I didn’t make and don’t like, Gallagher really makes your hero come alive with both humor and toughness when needed. He’s totally believable in terms of voice. Matched with a blank slate character, it makes Risen a game you play however you like.
Leveling is a little unique. You get "learning points" whenever you make a level, which is done by earning experience points through quests or killing monsters. But you can’t put those points into your character right away. Instead you have to find a trainer and pay them gold to improve your character. So you need enough learning points, the right trainer and enough gold to pay for the lesson. It’s not easy. Even finding the right trainer can be difficult. A lot of times you need to form a relationship with the trainer, which might mean going on a quest for them first. And only the best trainers can help you level to the top of the different fields. Good luck finding a top lockpick or Smithing trainer.
Once you get your new skills, there is more to do. Knowing alchemy at level three (the highest) is worthless until you find some recipes of potions to mix. And then you need the ingredients, which you will likely collect in the world. Finally, you need the correct crafting station and permission to use it. Its complex, but you can make some amazing game-changing stuff, like permanent buffs to your character.
Combat in Risen is kept very simple. In fact, you only have two buttons to press in melee. One attacks and the other parries. This simple system is actually well done. Different opponents will come at you in different ways. You can block a bandit all day with a sword in parry position, but a charging boar will blow right through. You need to learn the different creatures and their moves to know when to launch your attacks. As you level up in your chosen melee combat art (staff, sword or axe) you are given new moves to add to the basic two button system, but it never gets too out of hand.
Once you learn magic, the game really changes. Magic not only lets you cast combat and defensive spells like most systems, but also lets you summon creatures to help you fight, breaks down magical barriers and can even do clever things like summoning an illusionary dancing girl to distract guards away from their posts. It’s a perfect free-form type of system for this open world.
Graphically, the game looks amazing. Especially down by the ocean, everything seems real. The island itself is chocked full of abandoned settlements and haunted places that happen to offer grand vistas of the sea, the jungle or the swamps all around. Combined with realistic weather effects like intense storms, you have one of the best-looking third person view worlds ever created. And somehow it all runs fine on even a modest system. On a P4 single core game computer, it ran without any problems at 1024 by 768 resolution.
The story for the game is rather deep, but you are not even presented with it at first. Here it trumps even Oblivion in terms of subtleness of plot. What you do learn is that there are three factions living on the island. The first are bandits who are lead by Don Esteban, the former leader of the island. He is voiced perfectly by John Rhys-Davies (Gimi from Lord of the Rings). The bandits specialize in combat and are plotting to get their rightful place on the island back. In the meantime they are hiding out in a huge swamp camp and biding their time.
The Order is the group that threw them out. The Order are religious zealots who fight with staves and can use some magic. When a bunch of ancient temples suddenly rose from the ground on the island (which not only provides the name for the game but lots of cool dungeons to explore), The Order swept in from the mainland and declared Marshall Law. They herded all the residents into the walled Harbor Town, and forbid anyone from walking around the island while they delve into the new temples.
The final group is the mages of the Volcano Camp. They have a fortress inside the volcano. Technically they are neutral to the struggles on the island, but happen to worship the same god as The Order, so they are friendly towards one another. However, more than one mage has helped me duck an Order patrol, or given me advice on how to stay away from them.
You can join any of the three factions, though it’s not that easy. Getting to the mages without being "recruited" by the order is extremely difficult for example. And even after earning a lot of respect with the Don, I was still not a full fledged member of their camp even though I led a raid on an Order encampment and was awarded my own hut to sleep in.
On the flip side, you should not feel rushed into joining anyone at all. The island is quite large and filled with interesting tombs, temples, caves, abandoned towers and even wilderness areas that are quite interesting. In one game I had intended to head right into Harbor Town, but instead ended up running down a set of rings that belonged to undead lords at the request of a very scared young man I met living in one of the island’s many abandoned houses. In another instance, a simple walk from one point to another became quite an adventure when I decided to try to sneak into an Order camp in the middle of the night and steal everything that wasn’t nailed down. (I did.)
Risen is not without a few flaws. The game "shakes" from time to time as if there is an earthquake. This effect coincides with an actual tremor underground, but stays going on for too long, though it only happens every so often. Also, the voice acting is great, but once in a while a conversation will suddenly stop, even though the text will go on, like they stopped paying the voice actors all of a sudden. This happened a lot with Gothic 3, but only happens a little bit in Risen, thankfully. Finally, there are a lot of useless objects to interact with in the game, and it’s hard to tell what they are until you waste time with them. For example, you can find a saw for your inventory and then saw on a sawhorse if you find one. Doing this triggers an animation that will last until you stop it. But it gives you no wood or other material. It’s just for show I guess? There are a lot of little things in the game like that – hookah pipes, bathtubs, meat turning on sticks. I’m not sure why so much useless stuff was added into the game.
The final test for Risen was that I totally lost track of time while playing it. There is always just one more hill that you want to see the other side of, one more abandoned house to explore, one more quest that needs completed, one more weapon to forge, and so on and so on"
Risen could very well be the sleeper hit in the world of RPGs this year. For its 50+ hours of good gameplay, it earns 4 1/2 GiN Gems for its treasure chest.