By Alec Meer on October 7th, 2009 at 11:56 pm.
Reviewing Risen here wouldn’t be right. For one thing, it’s too big and time right now is too short to mainline it in such a way. For a second thing, to mainline it in such a way would probably be the wrong move. This vast German RPG is really not a game designed to be rushed through. For a third thing, it’s the successor to the Gothic games – a series which, in the US and UK at least, hasn’t reviewed anywhere near as rapturously as the reception they’ve won from their fans (with the exception of the much-maligned third). To a fair few people, Risen is the most important game of the year. What’s the reason for this disparity of opinion and enthusiasm? Well, that’s probably another post.
For this post, the first of several, I want to do something else – I simply want to play the game at a leisurely/sporadic pace. As I do so, I’m going to document my experiences, as a mix of narrative and opinion. Narrapinion I’d call it, if I was a massive arsehole.
What I’m hoping to see during this is what Gothic/Risen’s fans see, rather than solely what a critic with a deadline and at least a veneer of mainstream-focused objectivity would see. Take Eurogamer’s controversial review, for instance – many of its complaints concern the game’s failings on a technical level. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that (though I’ll admit I had a bit of an eye-roll moment when he went off on one about file sizes), as the aim is to be a buyer’s guide for folk who aren’t hardcore RPG players. But it’s not what I want to do in these posts. I want to experience and understand the factors that make people adore these games, and passing critical judgement upon Risen is very much a secondary concern. Whether or not I end up loving the experience myself shouldn’t matter. Though I’m pretty sure it’ll be obvious if I’m not, as I’m an inveterate moaner.
(On which note, it’s worth pointing out that I’m going to go into much more fine detail than I would were this a review, both good and bad. So if I whine at length about something minor, don’t take it as me giving the boot to the game and get all cross. I’m just saying what I see, and writing these fairly stream-of-consciousness. I daresay at the end of all this I’ll offer a broader judgement of the game, but not yet. I’m a long, long way off having a definite opinion about it.)
Either usefully, annoyingly or both, I haven’t played any of the Gothics previously – outside of their essential structure, all I really know about them is that any mention of them tends to result in a odd cocktail of enthusiasm and bitterness from their fans. Arguments in support of them often tend to be less about why they’re great, and more about chastising people who don’t play them or jealously accusing Oblivion of being the end times for roleplaying. Man, screw all that. Let’s just talk about Risen.
So, Night One. I awake washed up on a tropical yet gloomy beach, surrounded by fragments of the Inquisition ship I’d stowed away on and the bodies of my nautical companions. The first instinct I follow in this unfamiliar place is, perhaps understandably, a familiar one – I play the packrat. If it’s not nailed down, I pick it up. This immediately reveals an interesting aspect of Risen – it’s happy to fill its world with minor clutter. A shipwreck leaves a lot of detritus, and when you’re penniless and lost, a great deal of that would be useful. In a lot of other RPGs, I’d expect to find a sword conveniently lying in front of me, then I’d head off on my merry way. Here, I lose a good five minutes to combing the shore for gold, jewellery, food, booze and bits of stick I can use to hit giant vultures with.
Perhaps I’m wasting my time – I don’t have any sense of how useful all this junk I’ve collected is in the long (or even short) term. But I like that I can do it – it makes both the world and the shipwreck seem that much more believable. My interfacing with it isn’t limited to one magic crate or something.
Still, the object collection interface is finickity and rudimentary, popping up an item’s name in a really lousy font only when I’m stood right on top of it, and refusing to do even this if I have the temerity to have a weapon equipped. I can imagine someone defending this latter, Darkfall-style, saying it’s only right that you can’t pick something up when you’ve got something in your hand – and they’re not wrong. But I’m not even able to see the name of something if I have my weapon out. How does holding something make me blind to things on the floor? That’s not a design decision I understand. The unfortunate effect of it is I’m constantly having to remember to put my weapon away at the end of a fight, or I’ll miss a load of pick-uppables.
Once my scavenging comes to an end, I finally turn my attention to the most noticeable body on the beach. Who isn’t a body at all – she’s merely unconcious, and was a fellow – and thus friendly -stowaway. I’d been avoiding her until now – and, to be honest, that’s because I’ve been nervous about the quality of the voice-acting. I’m horribly susceptible to lousy voice-acting and/or translation to English making it near-impossible for me to lose myself in a game. I don’t want to start feeling sour towards Risen so quickly.
But I click on her now. She starts talking – and she’s pretty good. She’s voiced confidently by a posh-ish English lady who seems to get her emphasises right and puts plenty of verve into it. A shame about her character model, which I can’t help but perceive a peurile intent behind. She’s all washboard-stomach and physically improbable bosom, wearing an outfit that’s somewhere between noblewoman and stripper. At this earliest of stages, I don’t have the foggiest what the game’s general attitude to women is – but the first example Risen gives of it is not a positive one.
I’m not singling Risen out as having uncommonly unhealthy sexual politics here – grud only knows it’s one of videogaming’s most habitual sins. It’s more that, as well as being disappointingly teenage, her (not terribly well-rendered, for that matter) porn-fantasy appearance doesn’t mesh with the air of ruin, strife and grime the game otherwise tries to convey. Still – the voice actor’s sterling work genuinely helps keep some of the tawdriness in check.
Then my character opens his mouth, and my great fear returns. Flat, poorly-timed, sounds exactly like he’s reading the script for the first time… Bugger – and this is a voice I’m going to be stuck with for the game’s duration. Dammit, Pirhana Bytes – how could you get such an important aspect of your game so horribly wrong? No doubt the German (the developers’ native language) guy’s a lot better, but this chap’s bad news. At least the translation seems pretty solid.
Onwards, and bird-thumping. Combat’s pretty straightforward at this early stage at least, a simple matter of real-time clicking for real-time thumping – if there are dice-rolls going on in the background, they’re not at all evident. My only gripe is that giant vultures seem to understand how swords work a bit too well, able to expertly and precisely jump backwards at the split-second I lunge. I’d expect that of a human, but I’m pretty sure seabirds aren’t trained in fencing. It stops me from simply steam-rollering through them, at least.
Another thing I enjoy is that the sea vultures are genuinely rather intimidating. It’s often the case that the early stages of RPGs pitch up you against something incredibly and obviously puny, which hardly makes you feel like Captain Hero. I’ll never forget how hard I laughed at the start of Star Wars Galaxies, when epic, John Williamsesque music soundtracked my thumping a mound of mud and a butterfly with a stick. Here, however, the first thing I fight is big, ugly and makes frightening sounds. It makes me feel like my life is in danger, and it makes me feel a certain survivalist satisfaction when I take the thing down. The game doesn’t explain much about its combat system, but I don’t think it needs to – it seems agreeably organic, a mix of frantic clicking and observing your enemies’ attack patterns.
It’s not a one off, either – a little way up the road, I’m fighting porcupine-rats and giant moths. The first is openly silly, but the second are horrible – palpably vicious and sinister. A lot of it’s in the sounds, all malevolent hissing and creepily protracted death rattles. Risen certainly seems a dab hand at creating an atmosphere of wildness and hostility, even if its people seem distractingly stilted and doll-like. Risen’s saddled, it seems, with more rough edges than the pyramid of Giza, yet at the same time it creates an impressively believable place. I’m looking forward to getting lost in it, even if I only have the vaguest sense of what’s going on so far.
Hmm. There was quite a lot more I’d planned to say in this first post, but I want to keep these reasonably short. More tomorrow – including gnome-bashing, meat-frying, drinking like an animal and more worrying about women.