Great setting, but still a big step back from Risen
If you are a fan of Pirhanna Bytes’s games, then, chances are, you are already used to playing old school, immersive RPGs with some rough edges. In the past, the benefits have outweighed the flaws, and that was especially true of Risen. Risen wasn’t just Pirhanna Bytes’s best game. It was also the best RPG of this generation. Risen 2, however, is a really hard game to love. It is as rough around the edges and unpolished as any game that this developer has ever made, but unlike Gothic, Gothic 2, and Risen, this game doesn’t have great upside. It feels less grand and less ambitious, thanks to what appears to be some serious sacrifices made to fit outdated console technology. It has a very cool, unique setting, and it occasionally provides you with some of that satisfying Pirhanna Bytes glory. For the most part though, Risen 2 is a big step backwards from Risen.
One way in which Risen 2 perfectly matches Pirhanna Bytes’s other games is in how weak and worthless you are when you start off the game. Even though you play as the same protagonist from the first game, you are pretty much broke and helpless. You can’t sneak, pick locks, or swing a sword with anything other than the most basic strokes. A little girl can kill you in a swordfight. How is it that my character who singlehandedly beat a Titan at the end of Risen has forgotten every single skill that he learned? Eh – I guess it doesn’t matter. The point is,
it is brutal at the start. You don’t even get a map to start the game, other than the mostly useless world map. You never have any extra gold around because paying people to train you costs huge amounts of money. A typical quest reward might be 200 gold, and upgrading your skills can cost 1,000 gold or more. If you were afraid that the game would be dumbed down or made more like Elder Scrolls so that the console crowd could be eased in, then forget about it. Most
newcomers to this series probably won’t play it for more than five minutes.
The reward to this tough beginning is a satisfying middle and end game. Once you get some money and some training, the game becomes a lot more fun. Ordinary enemies aren’t invincible and you are not collecting plants to sell so that you can buy a cheap dagger. This is a great aspect to all of Pirhanna Bytes’s games (except for Gothic 3). The feeling of growing power and character progression that is so sorely missing from role playing games nowadays is present in spades here, as it was in the first Risen.
The gameplay basics are mostly the same. You have a traditional RPG inventory, which you can map to hotkeys or equip your character with. You accumulate experience and gold, and you use the gold to pay trainers to improve your abilities. You gather plants in the world and with the alchemy skill, you can distill them into useful potions. You can buy schematics for items, and you can make those items if you have skills that are high enough. Combat in this game is a mixed bag. The combat in the first Risen was a highly underappreciated, tactical and challenging affair. The combat in Risen 2 leans significantly more towards button mashing. This problem is particularly bad against animals and beasts. The default boars that populate the wilderness can be easily dispatched by clicking the mouse until they are dead. You don’t even have to stop clicking the mouse to heal yourself. Combat with humans is a bit better. You had better forget about it though until you acquire a few skills, since you have to learn how to parry and counterattack. It is still a bit of a disappointment though, because timing still isn’t that important. Unlike in the first Risen, you don’t have to time your mouse clicks to pull off a slick combo.
Risen 2 has some very cool and somewhat unique additions to the gameplay. The best part about it is the setting, and how it integrates into the game mechanics. Unlike Risen, Risen 2 doesn’t just use a traditional RPG fantasy setting. It is a mixture of fantasy and “Pirates of the Caribbean”. It has a 16 century Spanish colonial empire vibe to it. The game world is a series of tropical islands, which you can fast travel between. The weapons don’t just include swords and daggers. They also include firearms, like pistols and bayoneted muskets. In addition to being a traditional swordsman or wizard, you can also be a pirate-like character. The game allows dual wielding with a sword and a pistol. There are skills for stealing, smooth talking, and dirty fighting. This game is the first that I have played to successfully blend medieval weapons and primitive firearms (I didn’t play Fable 2, so I don’t know how this game compares). You can play this game as a dirty scoundrel who throws sand in your enemies’ face to blind them, pops them with a pistol, and then stabs them with a sword.
The role-playing system has general categories of swordsmanship, toughness, guns, cunning, and voodoo. Voodoo replaces the traditional magic function in RPGs, which is another interesting way in which the setting is reinforced by the game. You gain experience (called “glory” in this game), and you use XP to raise these categories. To learn skills, you have to have minimum ratings in a certain category. To learn thieving skills, you need a certain level of cunning. To learn how to brew potions, you need a certain level of voodoo. There are dozens of skills to learn, and that means there are dozens of trainers that you need to meet. The whole system is confusing and very poorly explained. You an figure it out as you go along, but that is just one more barrier for the nwcomers to this series.
This great setting is ultimately what makes the game worth laying. Without it, Risen 2 would be a ediocre RPG, at best, with an okay story and a dreadful lack of polish. The hook that draws you into the genre’s best ames is sort of missing here. A big ulprit is that the geography within the game has obviously been limited to ake the game playable on consoles. Areas are smaller and more constricted. Villages are small and sparsely populated. The indoor areas don’t have as many ojects tat you can manipulate or pick up. The game doesn’t have impressive vistas or a long view distance -- critical aspects that open world games frequently benefit from. There simply isn’t the sense of being on a grand adventure.
When I say that Risen 2 is unpolished, I mean that it is really really unpolished. The game practically feels like a beta. It looks horrible. My memory of Risen 1 is that it looked much better. Characters and monsters in Risen 2 are about par for 2005. Animations are stiff and crude, and the ones in conversation repeat themselves constantly. There is still a somewhat overused bloom effect which makes everyone look like they have a bright orange light shining directly on their face. NPCs and monsters will clip right through one another, creating lots of temporary two-headed monsters in the process.
The biggest problem with the graphics isn’t with the game’s general look though. It is with all of the graphical glitches that the game suffers from. In particular, the object pop-in is the worst I have ever seen in video games. With most games, bad pop-in means that far out on the horizon, you might see a texture suddenly appear. In Risen 2, whole objects appear just a few feet away from you. A dinner table might look bare until you get close to it, at which time a grand feast pops up out of nowhere. The game also has lots of flickering, and other annoyances.
All over Risen 2, there are little flaws that feel like shortcuts that were put in place as quick fixes for the game’s problems. For example, in this game, your jump is about six inches high. No, seriously. You can only jump six inches off of the ground. That way, you can’t get into any areas where you’re not supposed to be by jumping over a knee high object. One of the great things about the Gothic games and Risen was the ability to navigate through environments and find
sneaky ways into restricted areas. Risen 2 doesn’t have any of that. The game also has no swimming. If you walk too far into the water, the screen just goes black and you show up again standing where you just were.
Risen 2 has what turns out to be a pretty standard RPG story. It’s not bad, but it also doesn’t have any memorable characters like the first game did. Patty, the semi-romantic interest from the first game, shows up, but her overblown personality is a bit annoying. Her father, the infamous Steelbeard, also shows up. You will probably be disappointed by how ordinary and inconsequential he ends up being after hearing so much about him in the first game.
On the whole, Risen 2 is still sort of fun, but it is still a disappointment. Had it been designed with the same ambition as the first game and more polished, it could have been even better than the first game. Instead, the great setting is largely squandered, thanks to loads of glitches and unsatisfying design. If you are a fan of this developer’s games and you love the challenge that they provide, you will probably still be able to look past these problems and enjoy the game (albeit while holding your nose sometimes). If, on the other hand, you are a newcomer to this type of action-RPG and you are looking for a polished experience or another grand open world, you should probably pass on it.