Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Game Review - Risen 2: Dark Waters (Xbox 360, 2012)

While a generally enjoyable experience, Risen's gameplay was riddled with flaws.  Its sequel, Risen 2: Dark Waters, inherits nearly all of those flaws, but it also loses many of the features that made its predecessor engrossing and satisfying.

Risen 2 picks up a few years after the events of the first game, opening with the nameless protagonist awaking from a drunken stupor.  Between the two games, he became a member of the Inquisition forces, relocated to the capital city, and donned an eyepatch (though the latter is never discussed).

It turns out that there are still some Titans wreaking havoc on the world in various ways.  The protagonist's commanding officer sends him on a mission to find a magical artifact capable of defeating the most pressing of these mystical threats to humanity -  the one whose krakens keep sinking Inquisition ships.

To make things a bit more convoluted, the Inquisition has no information about this mythical weapon except that some pirates may possess it.  Naturally, the pirates won't deal with the Inquisition directly, so the player character is formally discharged from the Inquisition (but not really, wink wink) and left to work with Patty (the daughter of a pirate from the first game) to find and secure the necessary weapons.

Oh, yeah, and somewhere between the two games, "traditional" magic was outlawed and the mages exiled, leaving Voodoo as the only viable source of magic in the game.  And the protagonist naturally forgot all the non-magic skills he acquired over the course of the first game.

I've described the basic plot in some detail (though all that I mentioned is revealed in the first half hour of play) because I think it's a little ridiculous for the sequel to Risen.  Between the games, the narrative transitions from fantasy to sea shanty, and it feels really weird coming off the heels of the first game.

Your character starts with nothing and must earn NPCs' respect in order to progress the plot.  While a nice idea, it doesn't feel very organic because the whole thing is tinted with the "but I'm really just using you to get what I want vibe."  In Risen, you got to choose your alliances before getting the game's most important tasks, and then those tasks were colored by your choices; here, the task is set in front of you from the start, and your only opportunities to make choices seem insignificant by comparison.

My point is just that this storyline is neither interesting nor engrossing.  And the script and voice acting are pretty bad at times, which doesn't do the game any favors.

It's worth noting, however, that the story probably isn't too bad if taken in isolation.  Seeing that I played Risen 2 shortly after completing the first game, however, the whole thing is laughably inappropriate.  It's clear that the storyline is a slave to certain gameplay mechanics (more on that in a moment) and a desperate attempt to recreate the feeling of exploration and discovery that made the first game so much fun.

It wasn't worth it.

The basic gameplay is the same as in Risen.  You'll control the anonymous hero from a third-person perspective, you'll interact with NPCs and try to solve their problems, and you'll fight off monsters (primarily large birds, monkeys, and humans - this is a pirate's tale, after all).

The questing aspect is fine, though most of the quests don't require any real exploration or insight.  Instead, you just need to talk to the relevant NPCs and follow quest markers on your map.  Standard RPG fare these days.  A handful of quests are a bit more interesting, giving only cryptic descriptions of relevant information, but they make up a small fraction of the available content.

Combat, on the other hand, is hideous.  My biggest complaints from Risen persist here: enemies almost always have the upper hand because your attacks won't cause them to falter, but a single blow against you will interrupt whatever you're doing.  They're also generally blocking masters or more agile than you, making most encounters frustrating and tedious.  Surprisingly, your blocks aren't nearly as effective as they were in the first game; it seemed that creatures are always able to attack through your blocks, so those fights always devolved into button mashing affairs in the hopes of overwhelming my opponents.

Furthermore, Voodoo is your only form of magic (there's that plot sneaking in), but it doesn't have any direct damage spells like fireballs or lightning bolts, as far as I could tell.  As a result, your combat options are limited to melee attacks and guns (guns!), though the latter tends to be dangerous due to relatively low damage output and long reload times.

The result is very little diversity in ways to approach combat successfully.

On the bright side, the developers managed to resolve one potential frustration from the previous game.  You can invest experience points you earn directly into your 5 primary attributes (swords, guns, toughness, cunning, and voodoo), and there's no limit to how much you can earn.  Trainers will teach additional skills, but those skills don't require and XP - you just have to meet the requisite level of the related attribute and pay the fee.  This system makes it easier to change skill paths if you decide you've done something wrong, so it's hard to get stuck fighting powerful monsters with nothing but high charisma.

That said, most of the secondary skills aren't very interesting, as they just boost statistic values in some way as opposed to unlocking new abilities.

Risen 2's big new addition is really just a gimmick based on the pirate theme: The game spans several small islands and coastal regions instead of one contiguous area.  Once you get your very own ship, you can sail back and forth between these areas at will.  While thematically appropriate, it limits exploration (particularly early, before you have a ship) and makes the whole thing feel like there's not a lot going on.

Part of the reason this setup feels restricting is that the individual areas don't have a whole lot to offer.  In Risen, you could wander through (almost) the entire map right at the start.  Sure, you could end up in a temple with demons that could easily defeat you, but that possibility was part of the fun.

In Risen 2, each island has 3 or 4 major areas and a lot of dead space.  They are much bigger than they need to be, with tons of forest paths or beaches that do nothing beyond adding area to the map.  It gets to a point where the exploration is as tedious as the combat, so the game doesn't offer much worth experiencing.

To top it all off, a few glitches may further compound the frustration.  Some are holdovers from the first game, like lag after every kill and lag when loading a save, but some are also new, as my game crashed occasionally at apparently random times.

The presentation is a bit of a mixed bag.  The voice acting and character models (particularly faces) get pretty awkward, but the soundtrack does a fantastic job creating the right kind of pirate-y atmosphere.  The various environments look pretty good, especially distant landscapes, in part due to lots of details like foliage.

When you put it all together, Risen 2 is clearly more technically advanced than its predecessor (most obviously evidenced by the graphical quality), but it doesn't apply those advancements where they are needed the most.  The gameplay is tedious at best, and the story is solidly mediocre.  It's not really worth playing unless you're desperate to continue the Risen saga, and even then, it might be better to pretend this one doesn't exist.

My Rating: 3/10 - bad.