…Right Near the Top, It has

Risen Screenshot

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.

Risen Screenshot

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 Screenshot

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. Rating: 8.0 out of 10.

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.

Brad Gallaway

Brad Gallaway

Brad Gallaway has been gaming since the days when arcades were everywhere and the Atari 2600 was cutting edge. So, like... A while.

Currently, he's got about 42 minutes a night to play because adulting is a timesuck, but despite that, he's a happily married guy with two kids who both have better K/D ratios than he does.

Brad still loves Transformers, he's on Marvel Puzzle Quest when nobody at the office is looking, and his favorite game of all time is the first Mass Effect -- and he thought the trilogy's ending was Just Fine, Thanks.

Follow Brad on Twitter at @BradGallaway
Brad Gallaway

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19 Comments on "Risen Review"

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Anonymous
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Nice review! I am a german player and played Risen on PC. The developer Piranha Bytes made four previous games before Risen: Gothic I, II and III. With Gothic III they tried to combine the unique deepness of Risen with the size of Oblivion. With a team of 20 People (On Oblivion worked about 100 people). However, they failed to make a real “Gothic” game because they just hadn´t enough time. The german community made a lot of pressure on Piranha Bytes because they weren´t satisfied with the game at all. Also, Piranha Bytes lost the rights on Gothic it… Read more »
deadlung
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How anyone can say that Risen looks anything like Oblivion astounds me. I thoroughly enjoyed both Elder Scrolls 3 and 4 and I guess Risen is alright, but graphically it’s terrible. If I weren’t such an open world RPG fan, I couldn’t enjoy this game. The one hit kills from the gnomes are especially lame. That’s just cheap.

Shane
Guest

Great review. Sounds right down my alley. Being a huge Fallout 3 fan and loving exploration i will definitely pick this game up.

I do remember reading that many of the issues for the xbox were fixed with a patch some time ago so that may be why there are some conflicting comment on people playing the console version before the patch.

Brad Gallaway
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ha, no worries. It’s great to see fans of a game talking so passionately about it. If i ever find the time to go back to Morrowind, I’ll know who to ask for guidance. ^_^ As for PC vs 360, I played and reviewed on 360 so that’s all I can speak to. I found it to be totally acceptable 98% of the time (framerate got really boggy in two specific areas) but i would imagine that tweaking the settings on a PC could probably squeeze better performance out of it. Still, i was very satisfied with the 360 version… Read more »
Matthew Kaplan
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Sorry for derailing the comments regarding Risen, btw. But for what it’s worth, I’ve added the game to my Amazon wish list. Any recommendations on PC vs. 360 version?

Matthew Kaplan
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Well, if you didn’t play the Xbox version, you didn’t miss anything. They were essentially the same game (and the GOTY edition brought over the two expansions, which were both sorta’ lame). The main difference was that the Xbox version CHUGGED and was glitchy beyond belief. Think it’s frustrating to have Oblivion or Fallout 3 hang on you? Try that every five minutes for the Xbox one, especially on units with the older DVD drives. But for someone who didn’t have a good computer when Morrowind first came out, it was still enough to keep me hooked. It says a… Read more »
Richard Naik
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@Matthew Kaplan

I logged soooo many hours on that game. Never played the Xbox version, but the PC version was the first WRPG I really sank my teeth into. Totally agree about depth. I spent probably about 100 hours before I even touched the main quest-the Great House stuff was just…well…great.

Estoc
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Well said, Matthew. So much lore, and such an original one. The monk must be the only class type I haven’t finished the game with 😀 Kudos to you, it’s clearly not the easiest one. I said the game was unforgiving because it clearly is – for the beginner, that is. Enter a haunted tomb without a magic sword/spells, miss a pickpocket roll, and it’s reload time. Can be quite discouraging if you play the Box version. Definately doable, though. (One of these days, I’ll play that abolitionist Imperial Cult/Dunmer Temple Argonian monk I created a few month ago! Gotta… Read more »
Matthew Kaplan
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I’ve probably played Morrowind for more hours than any other game in my life. I owned it on Xbox and then repurchased it on PC. I must have played it for well over 300 hours. I don’t think Morrowind was that difficult. Anything that happens to you isn’t a result of unfairness or encountering overpowered foes but rather a mistake made by the player. And this is coming from someone who made it through the game as a MONK. The hardest class to build (being that to level up to the rate that you can stun any enemy just by… Read more »
Estoc
Guest
Ok well I’ve given it a bit of thought, and here is my (unrequited) advice: 1) Don’t play it on the Xbox. It should run fine on any PC by now (I played the vanilla version, but if you mod it, it’ll look pretty good). This game is unforgiving (especially as a caster/rogue) and you’ll have to reload often; the loading takes FOREVER on the Xbox (still baffles me my girlfriend managed to finish the console version. She played a warrior, though.) 2) You kinda have to accept the fact that you don’t know squat about the quest and the… Read more »
Brad Gallaway
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Estoc> Good question, but I’m not sure I have an answer. I think at the time I was really put off by how poorly Morrowind ran on the Xbox. Beside that, I remember thinking I needed a lot more starting-game info than it provided. My memory’s a bit hazy now, but I do recall having a lot of unanswered questions and being generally confused about certain things. I also remember taking two steps outside the starting area and getting insta-slaughtered by some goblin creature. On the other hand, it’s not like Risen or any of the From games (King’s Field,… Read more »
Estoc
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[quote=Brad Gallaway]Matthew> it’s hard for me to say because I really disliked Morrowind.[/quote]

(I was the anonymous poster above)

I would be curious to know why. Morrowind is hard to get into (and it’s indeed worse on Xbox), but from what I gathered reading Gamecritics reviews, you happen to love From Software’s games… What turned me off (and, later, made me love) Morrowind was the lack of character interactions; I was lost on a huge, menacing (no level scaling) island. Exactly how I felt playing King’s Field, for instance.

Well, for each his own.

Joe
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I must have played a different game. I thought Risen looked every bit as good as Oblivion. I played it for about 10 hours. But hours 11 and 12 were spent looking for some quest element that I never found, and I just quit the game out of bordem/frustration. Last year, while everyone else was drooling over Demon Souls, I was playing this. In general, I thought it was pretty good. The leveling was a bit slow in the beginning. But mostly it was the crusty quest QuestLog and map, that killed it for me. This game is for people… Read more »
Arngrim108
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I did not enjoy Risen. It felt like a complete rehash of Gothic and Gothic II. In my opinion, the combat is very weak. The enemies have a predictable little pattern that once blocked, you follow with a one button chain, timing near the end of each animation. Very simplistic but dull because the enemies have high amounts of health. It can feel repetitive. Targeting is horrendous when dealing with multiple foes. The camera is way too sensitive in the 360 version. I absolutely hate how Risen chooses your final armor and weapon for you. It renders your character build… Read more »
Brad Gallaway
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Zelazny> I joined the Bandits and became a sword/shield user with no magic at all. Once I figured out the leveling system it wasn’t hard to start kicking ass, and I was able to craft an absurdly strong Obsidian blade relatively early in the adventure that pretty much carried me to the end. Matthew> it’s hard for me to say because I really disliked Morrowind. (played it on Xbox, sadly.) I tried several times but could *not* get into it. I did play and finish Oblivion which was all right, but it had a lot of issues for me, still.… Read more »
Anonymous
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[quote=Matthew Kaplan]I know you said that aspects of the game compare well with genre standouts like Fallout 3, but more to the point, how do you (or anyone else here) think the game compares with Morrowind and Oblivion in terms of scope, storyline, dungeon quality, factions, etc.? It would be nice to have another super-deep fantasy game to play until the inevitable Elder Scrolls V.[/quote] It’s nowhere near Morrowind, but no game can touch Morrowind lore-wise, really – not even Oblivion. In-game history books and short stories, complex culture and morality, tons of factions, secrets aplenty… Risen has great moments… Read more »
Zelazny7
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Morrowind than Oblivion. There is little-to-no help for quests. Things like quest markers and objectives are completely absent with only your rudimentary quest log to remind you of what needs doing. Unlike Oblivion, the monsters DO NOT level with you. Some people love this system (like me) while others hate it. That 15th level ogre over there you can easily approach early on? Yeah, it will smear you across the rocks until you’re appropriately leveled. The dungeons seem less auto-generated and more individually crafted. Furthermore, they fit in seamlessly with the environment so there’s no loading screen. There are many… Read more »
Matthew Kaplan
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I know you said that aspects of the game compare well with genre standouts like Fallout 3, but more to the point, how do you (or anyone else here) think the game compares with Morrowind and Oblivion in terms of scope, storyline, dungeon quality, factions, etc.? It would be nice to have another super-deep fantasy game to play until the inevitable Elder Scrolls V.

Zelazny7
Guest
I agree with everything you’ve said here about Risen. Especially the points regarding what kind of player will like this game. There are many difficult, head-scratching design decisions that must be reckoned with if one is really going to enjoy Risen. The very twitchy controls, the sketchy target lock, the horribly dated graphics (although I still found many moments of beauty), the inelegant interface, the obtuse map controls… The list of things wrong with Risen’s presentation is not short. It’s a testament to how good the rest of the game is that some of us are able to overlook these… Read more »
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