Review: Risen (Xbox 360)

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Risen sets the player loose to die at their own peril in their quest to save the world. That is, if the bugs don’t eat them alive first.

I’m not talking about the giant bugs that can kill you in seconds. I’m talking about the kind that can turn your screen yellow, make the ground invisible, or respawn you in the ceiling of a big room after reloading a save forcing you to drop to your death. I hope you save often.

This is developer Piranha Bytes’ first foray into the console world after having spent most of their history on the PC with the Gothic RPG series which, unfortunately, were known as much for their technical issues as they were for their hardcore environments. But whether the conversion by WizarBox over to the Xbox 360 also had something to do with the bizarre issues or not, it still tops out as one of the most embarrassingly buggy games I’ve ever played on the Xbox 360.

And that’s a true pity because beneath this Renaissance Faire of glitches lies a solid RPG carved out from old school hardwood. It’s tough, it can be unforgivingly cheap, but if you can put up with it, it delivers the kind of sandbox experience that Piranha Bytes has struggled to perfect.

Risen’s world is introduced through a CG movie that lays out what happened to the world the game takes place in. It seems that humans had enough of the gods, so they found a way to banish them and take control of their own destinies. In doing so, however, something else had been unleashed on the land.

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The player is cast as a stowaway on a ship owned by a man known as the Inquisitor. In the midst of a storm, the Inquisitor does battle with an unseen horror only to disappear leaving the ship to capsize in the waves. Washing up on the beach with another survivor, they realize that this is the island that the Inquisitor was traveling to before he conveniently vanished. But with little more than rags on your back, figuring out how to survive is the first order of business.

I started out with a club made out of a branch and that was literally the only weapon I had for awhile before finding a rusty sword. I found armor only hours later despite finding magical rings and amulets that gave me marginal benefits like an additional point to my dexterity. Risen isn’t overflowing with enchanted uber weapons and pieces of armor as other RPGs are. Its frugal approach to rewarding the player pays off in making moments such as when you do discover or recover a particularly useful piece later on.

Combat in Risen is in real-time with dodges, feints, parries, and carefully timed strikes. Button mashing will get you killed, especially early on. Enemies will often try to flank by circling around, especially if I were outnumbered, with a variety of enemies to keep things interesting ranging from normal wolves to brutal ash beasts and undead horrors. To add to the challenge, there’s only a finite number of enemies in the game leaving areas cleared out empty. Certain areas are replenished with new foes after certain milestones in the story are met, but for the most part, getting out there and finding enemies to fight to beef yourself up is just as important as exploring.

The game doesn’t fence the player in with invisible walls allowing you to ignore your next destination by running around and seeing just what is on this island. If you die by foolishly wandering somewhere that the shirt on your back and the rusty knife in your hand can’t handle, that’s your fault. But it’s a refreshing degree of independence that other sandbox RPGs, such as Fallout 3, offer up to entice would-be adventurers to explore as far as their virtual feet can take them. And like them, can also reward you with a piece of a valuable weapon that can be reforged or the next clue to a buried fortune if you manage to survive.

“Learning points” are awarded to the player when they level up and can be used to improve a number of skills and three major attributes…if they can find the right trainer. A number of these are found throughout the island, either in the swamp among rogues answering to the Don, behind the restricted walls of Harbor Town, or in the wilderness. As long as you have the gold, they’re willing to train the player in everything ranging from becoming stronger, learning new combat moves with the sword, or how to prospect and mine for ore to make weapons with.

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Risen allows the player a large amount of latitude in what they want to do in the game, though with a much more challenging edge to how it pursues that within its gameplay mechanics such as having to find a specific trainer to learn certain skills, or gather the right number of ingredients scattered throughout the island to build up your collection of potions. Enemies rarely drop massive amounts of gold, items, or goods which can be kind of aggravating when a dead foe is wearing a nice set of armor that isn’t lootable. But it all manages to balance out in the end by rewarding the patient.

Factions also give the player something new to think about. There are the seedy rogues in the swamp who claim to love independence and freedom away from the Inquisition. There’s Harbor Town whose rules say that no one can leave and that anyone found outside of its walls are immediately conscripted into the holier-than-thou Order. And then there’s you who must choose who to support and betray between them.

This isn’t a game where you can make everyone happy. Certain decisions and quests will permanently close off anything from trainers to side-quests that tell the story from different perspectives. There are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ paradigms to follow here, only decisions that may make your life easier or hard. In Risen, decisions often have long lasting consequences and if you run from a monster and it happens to kill an NPC on the way, don’t expect someone else to step into their shoes. Unfortunately, there’s still a little hand holding here as particularly important NPCs are conveniently indestructible.

I was also a vacuum cleaner, sucking into my infinite inventory anything that wasn’t nailed down. Any corpse that I left behind was searched and stripped of any fur (once my character learned how to hunt), teeth, or rare baubles that they might have which could be later sold for cold, hard gold pieces. Plants, chests, anything that I could get my hands on ended up in my inventory which was apparently bottomless without any weight encumbrance to think of.

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Convenient, certainly, otherwise I’d have to do a lot of running around to dump this stuff in a chest somewhere which the game actually provides plenty of. It’s one concession the designers apparently made here to keep the pace of the game from feeling bored with itself because if there’s one thing that you will be doing in Risen, it’s a lot of running about. It’s only until much later that you actually get the first of several “teleporting stones” to make it a little easier in getting around. Of course, in true Risen fashion, the others won’t simply be handed to you and have to be found.

You can also save anywhere, even in the middle of combat and the game even tips you to save often as it loads. It also has an autosave feature to back you up in case you forget to make your own save. Later, I started saving more often because of the bugs instead of my character having been gored, stabbed, crushed, or speared.

The downside is that the loads are slow. Given how easy it is to die in the game (Risen has an achievement called “Idiot” that is awarded when you fall to your death three times), reloading quickly became something to be dreaded atop of getting killed. Did I mention that some enemies can instantly kill you? I didn’t know whether that was an actual feature, or yet another glitch. All I knew is that I was going to be staring at another loading screen which eventually annoyed me more than the actual dying did.

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Visually, the game looks good as a world filled in with plenty of dungeons, hidden caves, and underground ruins to explore behind the lush forests and rushing streams that lie scattered throughout the island. NPCs even follow schedules over night and day as they go about their daily tasks. But even out here, Risen’s problems will find you. Stretched cave textures are often a problem, making it appear as if a few of these places had been wallpapered by a blind man armed with a spray paint gun. The music by longtime Piranha Bytes composer, Kai Rosenkranz, on the other hand, brings out the epic nature of Risen’s adventure with its mixture of atmospheric strings, drums, and choral voices easily complementing the action and thrill of discovery.

Despite the emphasis on decisions in the game, it’s also kind of odd to see just how forgiving the other faction was when you embarrass some of their members by ruining their plans. In my playthrough, I played the goody-two-shoes castaway and helped expose some of the corruption in Harbor Town which closed off a quest that I had been following for the Don. But much later, I ran into the same rogues that I had ruined in Harbor Town and even spoke to the Don who apparently didn’t think twice about me stabbing him or his faction in the back. Of course, by that time, I was a walking tank, but even so, I wouldn’t think that I’d be so welcome back in the swamp as to still receive training from its members.

Then there’s the end battle which was garbage involving disappearing platforms and a lame boss that stood there. Without spoiling too much more, I’ll just say that the more rewarding fight occurred right before it. This was hugely disappointing considering Piranha Bytes’ previous efforts in providing more memorable battles in their Gothic series. Like giant dragons.

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Risen can be a rewarding RPG allowing the player a degree of freedom in exploring its world and screwing up the lives of its characters. It doesn’t do a lot of hand holding with most of its secrets coming to light only if you are willing to put in the time to poke through the wilderness on your own, but exploring its dungeons and overcoming its tricks easily make the journey to get to the end as rewarding as any. There are hundreds of quests

That said, adventurers expecting a forgiving RPG may find Risen’s ability to throw them literally to the wolves within the first hour too steep a learning curve to tolerate while the bugs finish off whatever patience they may have left. Playing through Risen’s world is something of a labor of love aimed squarely at die hard RPGers, an experience that even some of them might begin to hate when they find themselves staring at another yellow screen.

Risen
Deep Silver / Piranha Bytes
PC / Xbox 360
Rated: M for Mature