Author: Sean Ridgeley
Editor: Howard Ha
Publish Date: Saturday, October 24th, 2009
Originally Published on Neoseeker (http://www.neoseeker.com)
Article Link: http://www.neoseeker.com/Articles/Games/Reviews/risen/
Copyright Neo Era Media, Inc. - please do not redistribute or use for commercial purposes.
Way back in March of 2001, a little PC RPG by the name of Gothic debuted in Germany, the homeland of its creators Piranha Bytes (PB). While in North America PC gaming began to quickly die out around this time, it's kept pretty strong in Europe, particularly in Germany where RPGs thrived. Gothic and its 2002 sequel went on to become classics in the country -- we've heard the series described as "almost a religion to Germans." On our side of the pond, the games didn't do terribly well, unfortunately, which is a shame, because having spent some quality time with the first one, it's easy to hail it as a truly special experience.
Gothic 3 -- released in 2006 -- was where the journey went awry. It's said due to conflicts with their publisher JoWood, the game turned out very differently from what its creators wanted, due in part to the rushed release and accompanying bugs. The very dedicated fans have quite recently finished patching the game to its largely "true" state, though, so the third title can now be considered a worthy entry.
This brings us to Risen, another PC title (the Xbox 360 version has been delayed to Q1 2010 due to an initially poor port by a seperate studio). Though not a Gothic title in name (blame legalities on that one), everything about it retains the feel of the previous games, while bringing the experience up to speed with modern technology. For RPG fans, Risen has all the staples you know and love (levels, magic, weapons -- the list goes on), but in the same vein as its predecessors, walks its own path, too.
You start out as a shipwrecked survivor, again playing the role of the "Nameless Hero." The storm which swept you up is part of a larger story; though perhaps not as enthralling as the first two titles (based on the sadly limited time I've had with Gothic and Risen), it's a pretty inventive effort in which the rulers of Faranga Island reject the gods' control of humans, suffering for it.
Gothic has always been about harsh reality, a messed up world populated by residents full of personality and conviction. With different factions divided against each other, each about as despicable as the next, you're forced to choose one, determining your route as an adversary (mage, warrior, thief, archer, or a mix). Risen continues with this premise (although in a twist, the Inquisition faction will just plain force you to go with them, depending on a choice you make early in the game), weaving in a very believable dynamic between characters. First, we have the bandits trying to gain control over a town with resistance from the Inquisition, each of which hates the other; thanks to extremely well-crafted dialogue, you have to really pay attention to properly judge who the "good" guys are. Then there are beggars, the sickly, prostitutes, farmers, treasure hunters and others -- and most everybody is exhibiting some level of distress. In short, it's wonderful.
The game is quite dialogue-heavy, and there are tons of NPCs to talk to, many of which provide optional (or requisite) backstory as your journey goes on. It's this initial minimalism that works to Risen's advantage, piquing your interest as you make your way through quests, finding out more and more.
From the start, the experience is captivating, and grows much moreso as you play through.
The graphics, simply put, are absolutely gorgeous, particularly with maxed settings on a 23'' display. Somehow, PB have managed to create a feel that is simultaneously "warm" as well as "gritty" like many dungeon crawlers of old, pulling it off flawlessly.
It's not just the technical presentation, though, it's what's presented. Running through forests, fields, rivers, exploring ruins populated by undead skeleton warriors, exploring harbour-side towns -- it's a highly immersive experience in that you're thrilled to be apart of this world.
While in many other titles music takes a backseat to the gameplay and graphics, this is far from the case in Risen. Both the music -- which is playing almost constantly, but subtly -- and the superb voice acting are an integral part of the show.
All combined you have a very engrossing atmosphere; this side of the game's appeal was laid down from the beginning with PB's "mood clips" (see below).
Of course, all this atmosphere with weak gameplay would bring the whole experience tumbling down, but Risen delivers in spades. Some game designers have described the quality of addictiveness in an RPG as highly elusive; take it from us, this one has it and plenty to spare. When not engaged directly in the story, you'll be spending your time completing heaps of quests, looting everything (you've never seen an RPG like this with so much junk to steal), taking down enemies (like those thieving gnomes -- they jump up and down before attacking you, it's adorable), cooking, mining, making your own weapons, magical rings, or potions, or just running around in fields admiring the sky (it's that lovely).
Combat can be harsh, unforgiving, but equally realistic and satisfying. Combined with the hectic music, the designers have managed to build something very tense and exciting, requiring your close attention and strategic thought -- surely one of the game's highlights.
While many of the quest locations are pointed out for you, there are many areas blocked by powerful enemies or a magic barrier you cannot yet break; you'll also encounter chests which may be above your level of lockpicking. Pen and paper RPG fans will feel at home in situations like these, as it could prove useful to break out a writing pad and get to sketching.
Some gamers have noted the control scheme in the Gothic games (particularly the first) is rather cumbersome. While many disagree, Risen is nevertheless very accessible, likening its scheme with the majority of other RPGs today, and that's no bad thing. This is about the only mechanic changed; longtime fans will be happy to know all the quirks and features -- like gutting animals, intuitive lockpicking, sleeping in other people's beds (if they don't catch you), an initially very hard difficulty, and a good blend of serious and very funny dialogue -- remain.
Risen is also about the little touches. For instance, after taking a nap in a hut located in the plains, you'll wake up the next morning to a stunning sunrise. Wandering about, you'll notice a flock of birds far in the distance flying over a mountain range. It's breathtaking. Upon completing quests, characters will set off in the world to do what suits them. After rescuing an ogre from a prison, for example, he can afterwards be seen by the riverside near the prison's exit, taking in the scenery. Speaking to him will provoke a "I hope you're well, friend."
Risen is not perfect, of course. The main gripe, and this is merely tentative as we've not gotten full playtime, is it becomes too easy, at least if you're playing as a mage (keep in mind the game, unlike its predecessors, has selectable difficulties; we picked hard, as we recommend you do). At around level 15, with a level four Magic Bullet spell -- which staves off enemies some while dealing damage -- it was very easy to take down most opponents while running backwards and firing away, frequently without taking a hit. This didn't work with more powerful foes like the Ashbeast (which you can transform into with a rare spell) or the skeletal High Priest, so we can hope the game offers an overall harder difficulty in this vein later on.
A related bug we encountered was with the enemy AI. While normally very well-done, there will be times when if you're standing far enough away from an enemy, or on a level below them, they will not move or attack you -- a rather large exploit for a mage or archer.
There's also the prevalance of bugged quests. On two occasions we were unable to complete quests due to the order in which we'd proceeded (sadly, hacking was necessary), with both of our approaches being very basic -- certainly not the kind of thing you'd expect to get past the programming and QA teams. Many players have reported similar results, too, so we hope Piranha gets on these with a patch in the future. That said, some good advice to follow is for the main quests, do them only one at a time -- don't start one and begin another, finishing the first later, for example. And if you join the Inquisition, complete your basic training before the "killer" quest. Going by this, you shouldn't run into any major trouble, if any at all.
In the grand scheme of things, these are relatively minor complaints, particularly with all the goodies included. Achievements, for example, are integrated into the game (although sadly not with Games for Windows LIVE). There's also the command console; as with previous Gothic games, this one affords all kinds of fun like a first person mode, various cheats, a free camera to explore the world with, and lots, lots more. Further on that, PB has, as always, made Risen openly tweakable, which should please some, including the modding community. Lastly, Risen has a ~2.1GB install (how, we do not know), is pretty easy on resources, and has a fairly comprehensive manual -- a rarity these days. Did we mention it runs like a dream?
The downside here is the game is largely unsuited for the traditional review format, to which end some publications have already adapted their takes. It's long, easily warrants multiple playthroughs with the different factions and routes you can take, and encourages you to take your time and explore everything. To be frank, due to scheduling and time constraints, our playthrough ran about 30 hours -- a pretty good result offering a solid idea of what the game is like, but for a package so grand, it would've been nice to do it total justice and have completed it. Interestingly, even after three-hour or longer sessions, it was still thrilling to jump back in after breaks.
That said, we can state with great confidence you must own Risen if you love RPGs, and perhaps even if you just appreciate highly believable worlds. PC gamers who've been lamenting the lack of well-done classic titles like this with proper treatment should be overjoyed at the revival of sorts with this one. It's both accessible and "hardcore", and would make an excellent choice for a newcomer to the genre (though it's really recommended to start with Gothic), as well as the hardened veteran.
All told, a thoroughly impressive package its creators have only to be all too proud of. We hope after its clashes with JoWood, Piranha Bytes have found a new home with publisher Deep Silver and will work with them on many games like this in the years to come.
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