HIGH Realizing just how massive and detailed the game is.
LOW The choppy framerate battles inside the volcano.
WTF Gnomes packing one-hit-kill explosives.
We've all heard the adage about not judging books by their covers. It's a tired old chestnut, but the saying has endured through the years because it's genuinely true. Unfortunately, keeping this phrase in mind becomes harder and harder with video games. With technology constantly increasing and visuals the first thing anyone notices, it's too easy to ignore ugly ducklings with substance beneath drab plumage. Risen is one such case.
After seeing a wealth of early chatter dismiss it for one thing or another, it would've been completely reasonable to skip it in favor of something with more pizzazz. However, some indefinable quality about the game stuck with me. I just couldn't convince myself to cross it off my list despite the utter lack of enthusiasm from early reviews. In this case, I'm glad I decided to (again) ignore the consensus. After giving it a chance, Risen turned out to be a surprisingly rich, rewarding title.
Before going further, I want to put everything on the table in the interest of full disclosure. It's quite true that the graphics here are crude by current standards, the framerate chugs in complicated areas, and the real-time combat rarely rises above being skittish and imprecise at best. Players who can't get past this sort of roughness need not apply, and if that describes you, then feel free to stop reading now. However, Risen gets so much right that it would be a crime to let middling technical issues keep RPG fans away from the quality adventuring to be had.
Still here? Good.
This third-person RPG begins with a storm-tossed ship's last moments before it expires to the deep. The boat's only two survivors wash ashore on a nearby island, cough seawater out of their lungs, and begin to explore completely foreign surroundings. After a few moments beachcombing for nothing more than a handful of gold coins and a sturdy tree branch to serve as a club, the adventure is underway.
This castaway beginning is a great metaphor framing the entire Risen experience because it perfectly encapsulates the kind of do-it-yourself motivation necessary to succeed. Although there are tutorials instructing the player on basic functions, much of the game requires critical thinking and experimentation. Poking and prodding, asking questions, checking dark corners, and trying unusual strategies to overcome challenges are all paths to success.
Getting into this frame of mind early is important because the flipside is that there's precious little hand-holding or guidance. Players used to having RPGs spoon-feed them every step of the way will be defeated and discouraged in short order, but those who welcome challenge and a deeper, more free-form type of role-playing will discover Risen to be as good as the best, and better than most.
For example, the developers have taken great pains to craft a world that's totally cohesive and believable. The architecture and design of the towns, the dungeons, and the best wilderness I've ever seen all display a solid level of logic and craftsmanship. Each area meshes perfectly with the next, and a complete lack of loading time during play means that a player's immersion going from one locale to the next is never disrupted.
A great deal of work has gone into fleshing out the island's finer details, as well. Spending an hour near the harbor, it's easy to believe that the townsfolk actually live and work there, each with their own personality and habits. Outside civilization, it was a treat to come across things like random packs of wolves gnawing on the bones of unfortunate travelers. Not so good for the travelers perhaps, but those scenes (and many like them) are there to give the sense that life happens in Risen whether players are present or not. That the developer put so much effort towards these nonessential elements is greatly appreciated, and significantly contributes to the richness of its world.
Risen is just as detailed and intricate when it comes to its quest-heavy gameplay, and I was constantly impressed by the variety of tasks that needed doing. Of course there were some basic jobs of the fetch or kill variety, but they were vastly outnumbered by more interesting and complex things. Depending on which faction the player aligns themselves with, a number of different options become available. Would I prefer shaking down the local merchants on behalf of the free-living Bandits, or would I distribute stew and medicine as a servant of the oppressive, controlling Order? Stand-alone quests were just as good. Would I help a pirate's daughter recover hidden treasure, or sell her out to a rival captain? Should I lend assistance to a prostitute with an aggressive admirer? Pickpocket the man who taught me the very skill? Provide recreational "smokes" to someone cloistered in a monastery? I haven't even mentioned the incidental quests stumbled upon in abandoned ruins or dark caves. I think it's safe to say that anyone who appreciates interesting situations and the ability to play a character as they see fit will find that while not quite as epic, Risen compares favorably to genre heavies like Fallout 3 or Dragon Age.
Though Risen's quests are certainly a selling point, other aspects are equally well-done. Both the voice work and the dialogue are above-average, and player-chosen skills have a marked effect on the adventure. It's easy to develop a muscle-bound brawler, but many of Risen's best perks will be out of reach unless the player invests in things like prospecting, scroll-writing, herbalism, lock-picking, animal skinning, sneaking, and so on. Item drops are noteworthy as well—rather than finding usable human-sized armor from every third goblin killed, each piece of kit is tied to events in the storyline and carries a significance that affects how NPCs react to the player. Likewise, strong shields and weapons are taken from powerful adversaries after defeat, or simply crafted by the player themselves. Loot-whores may feel like they're starving with the lean number of quality finds, but I felt like this approach was fresh, logical and in harmony with the game's overall design.
I could go on, but over the course of this review I've already described a litany of qualities that should win over players who appreciate mature RPG experiences with quality commensurate to the amount of time spent in them. However, there's no getting around the fact that first impressions will likely turn a lot of potential adventurers off. Clearly, another few months polishing rough edges would have been a worthy investment. That said, I'm not the kind of player who's blinded by low polygon counts and low-res textures. It didn't take long for me to appreciate the true value of Risen, and I have a feeling that those (like me) more concerned with options, abilities, and events instead of how shiny something looks will likely agree.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the Xbox 360. Approximately 28 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was not completed at the time of review. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains blood, sexual themes, strong language, use of drugs, and violence. Parents should be aware that this game is absolutely aimed at mature players. As evidenced by the callouts, this game covers basically everything subject to that most moms and dads would see as taboo for young ones. Although the violence is not extremely graphic, it's certainly bloody. Players can also visit a brothel, smoke a benevolent weed, drink alcohol, and there are countless examples of salty language. As a grown player, I thought the game handled itself marvelously, but this is absolutely not one for the kids.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: You should be aware that it's sometimes easier to be aware of nearby enemies thanks to the sounds they make, and these noises are not represented in any visual way. Players with hearing impairments will need to spend a little extra time making sure that their surroundings are free of enemies before letting their guard down. It's not a game-breaking issue, just something to keep in mind. Thankfully, all dialogue in the game is subtitled, so aside from not hearing growling monsters, everything else is accessible.