The world is in turmoil; magical storms sweep across land and sea destroying most everything in their path. There are only a few safe harbor against the storm. Luckily you've stowed-away in a ship sailing towards an island protected by its own source of magic. Just within sight of land the ship is attacked by a huge serpentine monster rising from the depths. A powerful mage combats the monster with blasts of magic, then teleports away when his attacks are countered. The ship is destroyed, and you and your fellow castaway wake up among the wreckage of the ship, the only survivors of the fated voyage.
Welcome to the world of Risen, where the major plot points are presented in rapid spurts with long wandering storytelling in between. I wouldn’t say that the story-telling is bad, in fact the pacing of the story matches that of the gameplay perfectly. I was reminded of Oblivion as I became engrossed in an environment that warrants exploration, only to stumble upon little reminders that there is a story to go along with this larger world. After many tens of hours spent exploring and completing side quests, I only began to see the grander story unfold. I would describe Risen, simply, as a western RPG that encourages procrastination.
Most RPGs present the player with a character that is a clean slate to foster the feeling of immersion that comes when a player sees themselves as playing the role of a character who's destiny and development is of their own choosing. Some achieve this with amnesia, casting the player character as young and inexperienced, or other common (some would say cliché) forms of character development. Risen ignores the protagonist’s past entirely and intentionally. How do I know it was intentional? When a player begins a new game the first character they interact with is the woman who also stowed-away on the same ship. Instead of taking the opportunity to establish a history for the character right off the spot, this other castaway is used to give basic instructions, guide the player toward the interior of the island, and then is left to sit in an abandoned shack while the adventure continues without her.
On first encountering the citizens of this wild and weird island sanctuary, one might think them insane. Rather than setting aside the politics and beliefs of the past they continue to feud in the face of cataclysm. Hostile creatures pouring forth from temples rising from the earth, constant earthquakes, no supplies coming from the main land, and investigating the reason why this island hasn’t been affected by the storms should take priority over who gets to control the only established town. Instead there is a tense stalemate between the Inquisition and “the Don’s men” the followers of the enigmatic leader Don Esteban. The first half of the game is spent exploring the interactions and structures within and then between these two groups. Joining either faction has different advantages depending on your style of play and immersing oneself fully in both requires more than one play through.
Even if you choose to play through Risen more than once, you might be one of the few players that do. The user interface, combat system, and control scheme of this ported PC title are difficult to tolerate. Text and even item icons in the inventory menu are barely legible even when played on my 40” HDTV. A very high resolution display is not only recommended, it is required to play Risen. The combat system follows the Oblivion (there’s that game again) method of using the triggers on the controller to control blocking and swinging of your weapon. Dedicated face buttons make your character jump, perform a context sensitive action (pulling a lever), and crouch for sneaking. For instance, with actions such as item use and spell-casting Risen replaces the control bar of the PC by using the left bumper (LB) as a shift function to activate one of the items/spells assigned to one of the face buttons or directional buttons on the D-pad. This is similar to the approach that Divinity II took to adapting PC gameplay to the 360 controller and I would whole-heartedly approve, if it weren’t for two glaring mistakes. The first is that the inventory menu must be brought up on the screen and an item/spell must be assigned by highlighting it then holding LB and pressing the button you want to assign it too. This wouldn’t be a huge deal if it wasn’t for the second mistake. At no time can a player pause the game and assign items/spells to buttons. This means that in combat a player is stuck with whatever they have assigned in the eight slots available to them when they go into combat or risk taking damage while accessing the inventory. The sting of defeat is amplified ten-fold when it comes after spending too long searching for that last health potion you forgot to assign to a hot key. I had a problem with the smoothness of the combat itself. The over sensitive camera, which isn’t helped by the sticky auto-lock-on feature, combined with a slight delay before every hit of every attack can make any fight an exercise in frustration. Using some clever tactics and having an awareness of what attacks are delayed and which aren’t can mitigate this problem some. In the end though, combat is a stuttering affair.
My largest complaint against Risen, and a large reason for the score it has received, is the marriage of the leveling system with the economy of the game. Risen is a loot/gold driven RPG and that aspect isn’t limited to just armor, weapons, and consumables. Adding stat points or new skills to your character, which are used primarily to decide what weapons/armor they can or cannot use, require you to find someone to train you and then spend learning points, which are earned form increasing in level, and ever-increasing increments of gold. This mechanic wouldn’t be such a hassle if it wasn’t for the fact that every time you sell loot, treasure, etc. you only get about one fifth of the value for that item. When a player is forced to decide between gaining a point of strength so they can wield their new sword or buying a health potion so they can venture out and gain more loot, I’d say there’s a slight imbalance in the cost/benefit ratio of the game structure.
Risen also takes a large hit in the looks department. The first time I finished a play session I took out the disk and checked to see if it was an original Xbox title. Character models are on the blocky side and they’re faces are largely expressionless as they move their stiff bodies during dialog sequences. The island itself is very well laid out with clever uses of elevation and natural rock outcropping to make natural barriers to separate different sections of the island; they aren’t stitched together very well, though.
The vast white void of the underworld of the game can be seen through cracks in the blocks that make the geometry of the island, and they’re blatantly obvious during night time in the game. The upside may be that Risen plays at a smoother frame rate, but I would have preferred a more polished look from this PC port.
In the sound department Risen doesn’t make any large strides forward but manages to keep up the pace with other titles. The generic symphonic, meant-to-be-epic-sounding soundtrack accompanies the player and accelerates to a slower or faster pace depending on the location and the initiation of combat. Sound effects fit in their proper places and play at the proper times, with the exception of the weapon blows during the stuttering combat. The voice cast tackles the challenging script and manages to make every character feel unique, despite repeat appearances. I just wish the main character didn’t sound so bi-polar as he see-saws through dialog options, but that has more to do with the non-contextual dialog trees.
After learning to deal with the little quirks, and getting over my frustration concerning design flaws, I was surprised to find myself playing Risen for hours at a time. There are a few things Risen gets wrong, especially for a RPG on a console, but it doesn’t mess with the successful formula many RPGs follow. By providing a story with plenty of character interactions and well performed spoken dialog, a large environment to explore, and hundreds of creatures to kill and collect loot from, Risen gives players plenty of ways to occupy their time. There are also a lot of little things that really add up to make Risen more enjoyable. Whether prospecting for gold in a freshly discovered deposit, cooking a pot of stew with ingredients you’ve scrounged together, robbing your neighbors blind behind their backs, or gathering one of the thousands of medicinal plants dotting the island. there is almost always something to interact with. The abundance of items to collect and combine in unison with a bottomless inventory system makes it easy for one to get side tracked exploring and collecting anything you can get your hands on.
When it comes down to it, I can’t recommend Risen as a buy at full price. I’d say it would be a solid investment at around the $20-30 price range simply for the many hours of gameplay it provides. If you’ve been waiting for the next big western style RPG for the Xbox 360, this isn’t it. I wouldn’t pass it up though if a friend offers to loan you a copy or you see Risen on sale. The only final warning I would give is that there is a lot of strong language in the dialog, and if you prefer your fantasies curse-free Risen isn’t right for you.