Wot I Think – Risen 2: Dark Waters

By Alec Meer on May 11th, 2012 at 9:00 pm.

I've got a bad feeling about this.

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.

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61 Comments »

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  1. wcanyon says:

    “Tickle my pegleg to find out” — dirtiest thing ever said on RPS?

    • abremms says:

      I had soda out my nose on that line. it hurt. regardless, “Tickle my pegleg to find out.” is now officially part of my lexicon, and I will be trying it out at work tomorrow.

      if nothing else, i’ll a lot more time for gaming afterwords!

    • Jesse L says:

      I think Quinns once said something about having sex with a bicycle that was, in my mind, dirtier.

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      • egg-zoo-bear-ant will e 91 says:

        That was literary reference to the third policeman so not dirty attall

  2. The Smilingknight says:

    Aleec, youre a shining spot of light on this dark and dreary site.

    I even read your reviews about games i have no interest in.

  3. ZIGS says:

    I’ve sank 38 hours so far in this game and yes, while it has many issues, it’s also strangelly compelling. I’m having fun with it and in the end, isn’t that all that matters?

  4. HisMastersVoice says:

    There’s a lava pit in the deepest reaches of hell reserved for teachers like Mrs Dixie.

    • Caiman says:

      I had a joyless primary school teacher called Mrs Dixie too. Coincidence? I think not!

  5. Sirico says:

    Turns out you can enable the DLC via the console tut tut

    • Vorphalack says:

      I’m surprised this didn’t get a mention in the article, it certainly deserved inclusion. I wouldn’t buy this game out of principal, even though I know I could get that cut content for free, and have been into the Phyrana Bytes RPGs for over a decade despite their many flaws.

      • Max.I.Candy says:

        yeah more disc locked shennanigans….i was never that bothered before, but lately i have started feeling pretty pissed off about it all, its totally morally wrong, even those cheap small inconsequential dlc’s are bad news too.

  6. Alistair says:

    Finished after 40 hours. Recommended now they’ve patched it and the pop-up and balloon trees can be tweaked out. Agree with Alec that some of that voice budget could have been better deployed and the voodoo made more central though.

  7. SirKicksalot says:

    Sounds like a good bargain bin purchase.
    B-tier games need to have B-tier prices, not full prices and shit day one DLC that amounts to a quarter of the initial payment.

  8. DocSeuss says:

    I’m loving yesterday’s patch. The game now has grog sold on the sword coast (a HUGE issue with the game), lets you dodge and block creatures, and a few other things.

    It’s still not great, in so many ways, but… yeah. Somehow, all the ways it isn’t great are completely overwhelmed by the ways it is, even though I can’t name any of those ways, beyond “it’s pretty and pirates!”

    I like Risen 2. I like it a lot. I’d say it’s worth $35 or less.

    It takes too long to give you a pirate ship, the Glory/Money system is stupid (and rarely do you understand why you need any skill or know what you should pick), combat isn’t fun (but has some neat bits like being able to kick crabs over), it doesn’t tell you how to make potions (well, can you? ’cause I’d like some healing potions), there’s only one person you can buy sugar from (I’ve gotten as far as Antigua) to make rum/grog, combat with spear-throwing humans is evil… but somehow, I like it and I’m going to keep playing. Fun game!

  9. Kodeen says:

    My micro-review of the game: If you’ve liked previous PB games, then you’ll like this one. If you haven’t, then you won’t start here.

    • Soon says:

      Very much so. Although, I don’t remember ever being so frequently frustrated with the others.

      • Kodeen says:

        Stun-locking wolves in Gothic 3 were more frustrating than anything in this game, at least for me. The firebirds can still stun-lock but it’s not necessarily a death sentence.

    • quintesse says:

      I liked previous games, but although it has it some nice bits I’m pretty much fed up with it and would certainly advice getting it right now for this price. Wait for the bargain bin, Which will also mean that the bugs will probably be fixed. I still have to try the new patch but I was forced to stop because it would crash on a central quest dialog entry.

      • Milos says:

        Speaking as a PB fan: even though I think the game was OK I agree that it isn’t worth the release price, not in this state.

        And despite being a hefty game I still felt it ended somewhat abruptly and without much fanfare considering how many hours they spent building up to the “epic’ battle with the big baddie. Quite underwhelming.

  10. marcusfell says:

    Not a day one purchase for me, but this is something to look forward to with patches and maybe a mod or two.

  11. sinister agent says:

    Several, you say?

  12. Maldomel says:

    Well, that’s probably the first time that I heard a RPG was too long for its own good.

    I loved Risen, it was really a good experience of an open world game (okay the world was not as big as an Elder Scroll but still). Too bad this one isn’t on par judging from what I’m reading here.

    Also, you didn’t put enough points in the combat skilltree? How appropriate, you fight like a cow!

  13. wodin says:

    Risen had great combat mechanics far better than say Skyrims, I believe that has all gone by the wayside though.

  14. Lagwolf says:

    Here is another take on this game. I so wanted to like Risen II, but my god is frustrating as hell.

  15. Chiller says:

    Looks interesting. However, the game’s performance is abysmal on my laptop – I’ll have to wait to play it on my desktop computer (which is actually older), but that one happens to be in another country atm. So yeah, that will be a while.

    It’s times like these when I wish this game was a multi-platform release. Then they would have to optimize it for the limited resources of consoles rather than assuming everyone has near-infinite PC horsepower to throw at their poorly built engine.

    TLDR version: this game should have come out on the XBOX360 as well. YES I WENT THERE.

  16. E_FD says:

    Huge fan of the Gothic/Risen games, so it’s a pity this one sounds flawed, particularly since the new setting is a great idea for an RPG.

    I’ll probably get it in a few months, when it’s cheap and a few more patches have come out.

  17. Burky says:

    There’s only three problems I really had with this game; monster sword combat, muskets being incredibly overpowered and a couple of the islands being a bit throwaway and linear. The patch fixes the first issue, no doubt they’ll probably balance the second out at some point, and you only spend a couple of hours game-time with the third.

    I really enjoyed this a lot more than the two Witcher games (although I felt the same about Risen 1), and it’s probably the best thing they’ve done since G2.

  18. Chiller says:

    If there’s one thing which I’ve never been able to understand, it’s complaining about games being too long. I find it absurd.

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      jaheira says:

      Imagine you liked a game because of the story, but you had to play it for 14,000 years to find out how the story ends.

      • Chiller says:

        I’d wait for at least 14k years then search ” ending” on YouTube, of course :)

        If a game takes too long to finish, you can play up to the point where you don’t feel it’s worth putting time into it anymore. If a game is too short, you don’t have that option at all.

        If you play a game for the story ONLY (unlikely, but let’s roll with it), then the gameplay elements are at best something you can ignore and at worst a bloody nuisance. You’d be better off reading a plot synopsis or watching a playthrough video.

        Shorter games don’t really benefit the playerbase. They benefit the producers/devs (looks better if more people complete your game), and the occasional game journalist who is stuck with playing a game he or she doesn’t really enjoy.

      • Chiller says:

        I’d wait for 14k years then search for the game’s ending on YouTube, of course :)

        Also, I wish RPS would stop eating my comments, because apparently I can’t be bothered to retype them.

        EDIT – Ohhh, now it comes back. That’s just evil.

    • bill says:

      It’s because the reason most games are too long is filler and repetition.

      Pacing can be very important for games, and games which are too long are no better than games which are too short.

      Would poker be a better game if each hand lasted 8 hours?

      Portal 1 > Portal 2.

      • Chiller says:

        All gameplay is based on repetition, but I can’t disagree with you there, filler is not useful for anything if it’s intended to be only filler and nothing else.

        Ironically, I thought Portal 2 was too short, while Portal 1 wasn’t. That was because they didn’t give themselves enough level space to explore the full scope of the new mechanics introduced in 2.

    • NathanH says:

      The criticism isn’t really that the game is just too long, it’s that it’s too long relative to the amount of good content in it, as far as I can see. If your game contains 10 hours of fun then the correct length for the game is 10 hours. You could make it longer by padding it out but that would make the game worse.

  19. Jarenth says:

    I pretty much had a similar gameplay experience, except curved a little more negatively. When, after ten or so hours, I still routinely got murdered by animals and savages, I still hadn’t gotten any Voodoo training, and I still didn’t really care about anything I was doing, I decided to call it quits. I really wanted to like Risen II, but it just didn’t jive.

    Though the ‘You can block monsters now. Our bad; we don’t even remember why we turned that off!’-patch probably improves matters on the endless terrible dying front. Might dive back in after more patches have hit.

  20. FakeAssName says:

    It honestly sounds like every other game Parana Bites has put out, except from how “Natives” was emphasized in the article and lumped in with monsters, they have now upgraded from Sexist to Racist.

    • nil says:

      You can talk to them (sometimes;) I think this means they’re not monsters, by definition.

      • FakeAssName says:

        yeah, but from how Alec put it combined with your own comment; they aren’t really presented as “people” either, are they.

        • Alistair says:

          Talking about games you haven’t played does tend to mean you get things wrong.

    • Malawi Frontier Guard says:

      Pretty sure all of the writing came out of brainstorming sessions with titles like “what are natives like?” where they listed all the clichés the team could come up with and instead of working from that they just took it and called it a day.

      • FakeAssName says:

        lol, it’s a Pirate Game made by a bunch of Germans.

        I have this funny feeling that there wasn’t that much “brain” involved, just a lot of beer and a stack of pirate movies from the 50’s & 60’s.

        • BooleanBob says:

          I am intrigued. Please direct me to one of these stacks of pirate movies from the 50s and 60s.

        • Arglebargle says:

          This sort of blaise dismissal is why this approach leads to crap. ‘Oh it’s just (name of genre), no need to be serious or do anything good.’

        • MondSemmel says:

          Do you really lack the self-awareness to see that in your own comment above this, you complained about the game being racist, and then in this one made your own sweeping generalisation insulting all Germans?
          Amazing.

          • FakeAssName says:

            Do unto others as they would do unto you; if the game wasn’t crappy and racist I wouldn’t be saying anything at all.

            But if it will please you, I’m guessing that -most- of the Racist content comes from ignorance (I say “most” because PB’s belligerence about it’s sexism is legendary, so I’m guessing at least some of the racism is intentional), and that door swings both ways since American Viking games that try to address the content in a serious manner are typically abysmal.

  21. skyturnedred says:

    There aren’t nearly enough pirate games in the world, so I feel obligated to at least give this one a try.

  22. Arglebargle says:

    This game sounds just awful. Repetitive, clunky, boring. Or perhaps I just don’t appreciate pet monkeys enough.

    Maybe when it drops down to the low end of the bargain bin.

  23. sinisterandroid says:

    So this isn’t the Pirates of Dark Water game I’ve been waiting my whole life for?

  24. Tourgen says:

    I look forward to a steam deal with all the DLC included for around a $15 price.

  25. n3burgener says:

    “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…. I started skipping through every dialogue scene after only about three hours of play.”

    I don’t really understand what you found so boring about the dialogue, Alec. I thought it was a major step up in quality from any previous Piranha Bytes game, and surely having “about three animations” makes the conversations infinitely more animated than, say, Skyrim, where 90% of the NPCs stood perfectly rigid through the whole conversation.

    Some of the conversation animations aren’t great (Patty’s constant, exaggerated movements), but I found they fit into most lines of dialogue very well, and the quality of the voice acting made characters feel real and genuine to me (not just talking heads or whatever). I almost always play with subtitles turned on and then skip ahead in conversation, since I can read faster than people talk, but I found myself in a rare situation where I actually just enjoyed listening to (and watching) people talk.

    That’s not even to mention some of the great writing and translation / localization, which had me smiling or flat out laughing at some of the great wit on display. Like when you’re learning how to make voodoo dolls, and Nameless insists “Can we call them action figures?” or when Badriya asks you about Kanadiktu, and Nameless responds “Can a dick do? I don’t know, shag-a-numbi?”