The Seas are Choppy, but There's Gold to be Found
HIGH The dialogue is frequently brilliant.
LOW Starting a new game because there's no re-spec option.
WTF "Women love a bit of monkey petting."
Writing this review has been one of the most difficult pieces I've done this year.
On one hand, I think Risen 2: Dark Waters is different, refreshing, and has a great sense of humor. As a European third-person open-world-ish role-playing game (RPG) that asks a little more from players, the payoff is worth the effort of understanding what it's about and how it relates to its audience. On the other hand, the production values are rough and the fundamental design suffers from some fairly serious issues. I love what the devs were shooting for, but it sometimes felt like they were trying to drive me away…
To set the stage, Dark Waters picks up where the first game ended: giant titans have been unleashed, and they're bent on destroying the world. All that's left of humanity are a few small island communities, and they're counting the days until one of the powerful beasts sinks them. As the only person who's ever managed to defeat a titan, the hero from Risen sets out to do it again.
While the new pirate theme and story keep the adventure going, the biggest draw is that Risen 2 offers a dense type of detailed role-playing that I don't see duplicated anywhere except in other European games like it. It's the sort of project that goes its own way regardless of what's being done in the US or Japan, and it shows how much handholding other RPGs do by comparison.
When talking to townsfolk, it's fairly common to have an non-player characters (NPC) give the hero a quest with a bare minimum of instruction and then send him on his way. It's not that the game leaves the player high and dry—there are ample clues and information around—it's that the developers expect the player to ask questions, investigate, and formulate a plan of attack. I would imagine those not used to this sort of thing would feel at a loss, but it's nice to see a game that demands a little intelligence.
Along those same lines, the dialogue and characters in Risen 2 are consistently excellent, and simply engaging in conversation is rewarding. The voice acting is (mostly) top-notch, and there are plenty of witty lines and sarcastic remarks on all sides. It's not often that I take the time to listen to every single conversation, but I did here, and did it gladly.
I also appreciated that the developers clearly take pride in their world. I am a big, big fan of the environments, the persistent topography, and the architecture. Each settlement and island has its own identity, and it's simple to learn their layouts by sight alone. With every piece of the world fitting properly with the piece next to it, I found it a great place full of small touches and secrets to discover. It's not the revelation that the first Risen's world was, but it's still great.
However, in spite of the things that Risen 2 gets right, I felt that it fell short when implementing certain ideas and mechanics. For example, as a pirate game it's reasonable to expect a fair amount of swordplay, but the real-time combat is awful. It's little more than button-mashing at the start, and it's too easy to get overpowered by enemies that would be pushovers anywhere else. Of course, it doesn't help that the main character begins with absolutely no skills. Certain moves can be bought in order to increase chances of survival, but when a game can be ended by a two-monkey gangbang or by one charge from a wild boar, there's a problem.
In fact, the skills are the root of Risen 2's problems. The developers put forth a "build what you like" setup that lets people play how they wish, theoretically. Want to be a swashbuckler? Put points into swords. Want to learn the dark arts? Put points into voodoo. However, the truth is that certain skills are unquestionably more useful than others, and the quests aren't balanced so that all player builds have a roughly equal chance at success.
Without Lockpicking and Pickpocketing, most quests are longer and more expensive to complete. It doesn't seem like a huge issue at first, but as the game continued, I noticed instance after instance when the quests were heavily weighted towards these talents. Factor in Risen 2's harsh shortage of money and experience points, and there isn't much room for experimentation when building a character. This situation was so severe that I felt compelled to abandon my first playthrough after fifteen hours so that I could restart from scratch with a completely different set of skills.
I can't blame everything on the skills, though. Apart from that, there were many things that puzzled me. For example, with so many quests having multiple solutions, why have one that dumbly requires open combat with friendlies in the middle of town? When arriving at a new settlement, why are the first conversation trees about asking for supplies that I didn't even know I needed? Risen 2 can flow oddly over the course of the adventure, and it's a sign that the developers haven't ironed out all the kinks that can break the player's immersion or cause unnecessary frustration.
When the game gets things right, it's pure joy. The pirate theme was to my liking (trained monkeys!) the witty dialogue amused, and playing an RPG that actually engaged my brain was welcome. On the other hand, although I'm a critic who's greatly inclined towards appreciating unpolished titles with little to offer besides solid ideas and some heart, even I had difficulty tolerating Risen 2's rough patches.
While the developer is on the right track, Risen 2: Dark Waters feels choppier than the last game, and will test those with little patience. I look forward to whatever comes next from this studio, but my fingers are crossed that the next voyage will be a smoother one.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the Xbox 360. Approximately 22 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, strong language, use of alcohol, violence. This one is clearly meant for older players. Everything about it is aimed at a mature audience, from the constant swearing to the ubiquitous alcohol, and the frequent double entendres and sexual references. It's not something that pushes the boundaries, but there's no question that the content was intended for big people. Give the young'uns a pass on this one.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: As far as I could tell from the 22 hours I played, my feeling is that those with hearing impairments should be fine. All dialogue is subtitled, and even though the action takes place in real time, I never noticed any audio cues playing a significant role. I'd say this one was accessible.