Thursday, February 26, 2015

Game Review: Risen (Xbox 360, 2010)

I really want to give Risen a glowing recommendation.  It's one of the only a few games that have made me feel like I was truly playing a role instead of mindlessly following waypoints.  As I explored the world and searched for clues, I was invested in the story.

It's a shame that the mechanics are terrible.

But we'll get to that.  First, the good:

Risen's nameless protagonist begins the game shipwrecked on an unknown island.  Along with the only other survivor, he sets out to find signs of civilization and ends up neck deep in a plot with apocalyptic potential.

While the transition from lowly stowaway to key player in epic events is cliche these days, I think Risen does it in the best possible way.  Your character is looking for help, but everyone wants something in return.  As a result, it never feels like the weight of the world is dropped on you; instead, you slowly work your way towards the game's conclusion by earning favor with increasingly influential NPCs.  The whole thing feels very natural and subtle.

And the island gives a lot to explore.  You can ally yourself with one of two opposing factions, the Don's gang and the Inquisition, but neither is explicitly good or evil; they both fall in a moral grey area, which makes their conflict more compelling.  You can also investigate a number of ruins and caverns, and there are tons of quests to complete and goodies to discover.

The quests are easily the best part of the game.  Unlike most modern games where you're beaten over the head with quest markers, Risen forces you to find everything yourself.  You may have to locate particular NPCs as they go about their day, or you might need to navigate a dungeon to find a particular bit of treasure.  Either way, the most guidance you'll get (outside of the quest description) is a vague dot on an imprecise map.

It makes for a very satisfying experience.  In some cases, I found myself searching for an available path for a long while or trying to figure out how to use my spells and abilities to cross apparently impassable obstacles.  You're left to your own devices at nearly all the key moments, so I usually felt like I was actually contributing to the game rather than just following the developers' intended route.

I'm honestly not sure if I've ever had that kind of engrossing gaming experience before.  It was awesome!

And if the game were limited to exploration and interacting with friendly NPCs, it would be a blast through and through.  Sadly, everything else is terrible.

The combat is by far the worst offender.  You encounter a nice variety of monsters over the course of the game, but no matter the enemy, fights are tedious and frustrating at best.  For one thing, your opponents are always more nimble than you.  In damn near every fight, I'd start to swing my sword, and my enemy would immediately jump back beyond my reach or block all of my blows.  This process repeated until I could pin them against a wall or they initiated a counter attack (which always interrupted my offense, though my attacks never interrupted theirs).

And that's it.  That's every fight in the game (except for the last boss, who plays by completely different rules).  Some enemies block more often, others focus more on the dodging thing; some will attempt to stun lock you with long attack chains, others will seem to block forever.

It just isn't fun.

There are also a few other weird flaws.  The game always lagged a bit after dispatching a monster.  The context never mattered; the game freezes for a second after every single kill.

The lag has other effects, too.  Any time you load a save, the game will begin playing a second or two before the load screen disappears, so if you saved in a perilous situation, you may find yourself dying whenever you try to load.  Sometimes the game won't register your inputs, but at other times, it'll queue them up, executing several commands in succession with no way to interrupt it; which one happens seemed random to me.

Thankfully, it's not all bad.  While the underlying RPG elements aren't anything more than decent, they do a great job of enhancing immersion into the game.  As you kill monsters and complete quests, you'll earn "learning points" that can increase your primary attributes or unlock new skills or abilities.  Whatever your choice, you'll have to find an appropriate skill trainer.  It's a cool system because it fits nicely with the "shipwrecked dude just trying to survive" vibe, as your character needs experts to help him along the way.

On the superficial side, Risen doesn't do anything to stand out, good or bad.  The graphics haven't aged particularly well, but it's really only noticeable during the big cutscenes and closeups on faces; during gameplay, character models and textures look pretty good.  The title theme is great (it evokes memories of Fallout), but most of the soundtrack fades into the background.  While there are a few awkward spots, the voice acting is generally pretty good.  It's overall pretty mediocre with nothing in the extremes.

Risen is flawed in bizarre ways.  It hits the "role-playing" part of an RPG almost perfectly, but all the pieces in between are tedious and frustrating.  RPG enthusiasts may find it hard to put down, but it may be too much of a grind for everybody else.

My Rating: 6/10 - decent.

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