By Alec Meer on May 11th, 2012 at 9:00 pm.
Risen 2, Piranha Bytes’ sequel to semi-great RPG Risen (spiritual sequel to the Gothic games) arrived a couple of weeks back, and I’ve been sinking hours of my time into it on and off since then. It puts you in the shiny-buckled boots of a neophyte pirate as he attempts to save the world from evil sea gods. Yeah, it’s Pirates of the Caribbean: the roleplaying game. But does it offer the freeform, amoral delights of its predecessor, or the flabby tedium of three of the four PotC films? Tickle my pegleg to find out.
If you’re going to have the vast majority of your videogame involve two people standing stock still and having overly-long conversations, you might want to include more than about three animations and give them more than one facial expression. Dramatic discourse about the end of the world and voodoo piracy shouldn’t really come across like standing in the baskets-only checkout queue at Tesco, surely.
Risen 2 is intrinsically addled – its priorities are wrong, its presentation is all over the place, it’s about as well-balanced as your mum standing on a pinhead and I started skipping through every dialogue scene after only about three hours of play. I should hate it. I should want to lock in an iron chest and sink it to the bottom of the North Sea. I should want to fire it into the sun from a cannon. I should want to write approximately 1000 words of colloquial English eviscerating it on a computer games blog.
And yet I don’t. I’ve kept playing it despite being disappointed, infuriated and bored at regular intervals. The one-note characterisation stretched across enough dialogue for ten seasons of Dawson’s Creek, the unending exposition, the agonisingly slow wait to become more capable a swordsman than an eight-year wielding a rotten treebranch, the tedious fetch-based sidequests, what’s less a difficulty curve and more a 30-hour difficulty spasm… They don’t make me hate Risen 2. They make me want to tell it that it could be so much better, not that it must immediately remove ever last byte of itself from my hard drive and never again return.
So why don’t I loathe it even more than I do Mrs Dixie, the joyless primary school teacher who confiscated my brand new pencil crayon set on the first day at a new school under the insane belief that I’d somehow stolen them from the class supplies within seconds of arriving? Two reasons: its own clear and infectious enthusiasm and its roleplaying systems.
One thing to be clear on: this has really very little in common with the game whose name it shares even if could very easily be made to sound as though it does. A heavily story-led roleplaying game in a low-ish fantasy setting, with open world aspects but a fixed protagonist: it’s certainly from the Gothic/Risen bloodline but in most respects it’s a very different experience in practice. It doesn’t have the unusualness or the sense of consequence that Gothic had, despite picking the relatively novel (for an RPG) theme of pirates. It’s a direct game in both mechanics and progression, though at about the ten or 15 hour point it opened up substantially.
As for the piratical angle, it’s approached with gusto and certainly provides a cast-iron justification for the Piranha Bytes tradition of most NPCs being sweary, aggressive cockheads but it doesn’t entirely pull it off. Mostly that’s because of the ohgodsomuch and oh-so-stilted talking, which robs the game of the requisite yo-ho-ho-flow, and partly it’s because you spend far more time fighting monsters and ‘natives’ than you do buckling the swash against eyepatch-wearing sea-scoundrels. In other words, while it’s full of neat touches like grog and rum replacing health potions and white or black tricorner hats offering Persuasion and Intimidate bonuses respectively, ultimately it comes across as fairly routine noble soul vs mystic evil fare.
The slightly more grounded fantasy entailed by the setting does offer some well-observed twists on roleplaying mechanics, however. Magic is limited to ‘voodoo’, which focuses on potions and curses rather than supernatural pyrotechnics, while combat is simply, and fairly hacky-slashy, swords, guns and thrown weapons. The narrow focus suits it well, as does a rather miserly flow of the experience points (‘glory’) and cash required to upgrade your abilities. You pick carefully, not willy-nilly, so you have a character build, not someone who’s just gradually improving on all fronts. The downside of this is the all-over-the-place difficulty and balance, and that the Cunning (stealth/charm/thievery) tree has very little effect on combat so if, like me, you’ve poured most of your earlier points into that, you’ll find the regular beast-bashing often taxing to the point of misery.
A patch released today at least allows you to block against monsters, where previously it was only vs human opponents, so it’s a bit less of a chore than before. But an expensive and lengthy diversion into upgrading my swordability as a survival necessity did mean I was kept from my monkey for far longer than I’d hoped.
Ah, you’ve got me. Yes, perhaps the key reason I felt a certain fondness for Risen 2 despite its many boo-boos was because it includes an option to have a pet monkey. Not just a cute little devil to follow me around, oh no – a monkey I can take control of then use it to rob the place blind. I got a parrot later too, but that was less exciting. Point being a) the game really has had a good think about how to make pirates fit an RPG and b) it’s pretty good at offering clear and exciting goals. Getting my Cunning up to 6 and then having a spare 1000 gold to have a trained monkey drove me forwards through many miserable hours of collecting crates from the shoreline or being pecked to death by fiery chickens. The major skill trees – blades, guns, toughness, cunning, voodoo – all split into sub-trees that take your character in significantly differing directions. So, you’re unlikely to be able to afford both monkeys and gun-making, or crafting voodoo talismans and having the full set of swordfighting moves. At least, not for a long time.
Again, the game is heavily weighted towards straight-up combat, and the voodoo/magic stuff doesn’t turn up until perhaps too late in the day so you’ll probably have headed a long way down other trees by that point, so it doesn’t blossom into the free-form character building it deserves to. Cunning especially is terribly and sadly underserved, largely only used for nicking stuff in towns and opening up a few new dialogue options, and primarily the game wants you to tackle its challenges (i.e. fights) in a fixed way, even if you get to choose the order of them to some extent later on.
So, a bit of a mess but it’s got charm and brains underneath it. It is inventive and it is trying to avoid genericism, and even though its conversations are far too numerous, far too long-winded, full of the same animations, faces and bodies and occasionally lumbered with characterisation that might cause some upset (I’m going to decline labouring that point, mind), the voice-acting and to a lesser extent the writing isn’t half-bad. The major lesson Risen 2 needs to learn is the value of brevity.
How many hours?’ has become a lazy benchmark for the perceived quality of many games, but RPGs especially, and Risen 2 proves that such a sweeping generalisation is a dangerous one. It’s an enormous game, but I could count the number of honestly memorable moments on the fingers of Captain Hook’s hands. Cutting the number and length of the conversations in half would do it the world of good, and the same again for the side-quests. It’s a big game, but it takes a long while to get anywhere and a lot of it feels like padding. At one point, where simply getting onboard a ship involves completing five separate quests, even your perma-snarky character comments upon what a chore it is. If the game’s makers were aware they’d let things get too flabby, I can’t agree with the sentiment that making it into a joke was the best way to resolve it.
I guess I’m procrastinating from saying what I need to say, which is that you’re better off avoiding Risen 2 than picking it up. I know full well that’s the right thing to say, but I’ve been reluctant to because it’s clearly got heart and soul, the skill tree is full of genre-unusual delights and it offers several sweet hats. If it could have worked off about 10 to 15 hours of needless flab I’d probably have taken Risen 2 to heart in the same way I did the first half of its predecessor. Instead, I feel a gentle regret for having given it so much of my time and a strong frustration that it didn’t manage to make more of itself.