Everything changed when I made it to the first city.
Cities are the lifeblood of roleplaying games. It’s here that the designers really get to show what kind of world they’ve dreamed up, both in terms of architecture and atmosphere. It’s all very well to hit a few wolves with a stick in the wilderness or go fight some gnomes in a cave, but it says absolutely nothing about who you are and why you are in this game.
Risen’s initial couple of hours showed its cracks too openly. When your entire picture of the game and its character hinges on some short, please-go-here-next conversations with just a couple of thinly-sketched, clumsily-animated NPCs, you fixate on them a little too much. Is this the best this game can do? But when you’re – oh, let’s drop this second-person pretence – when I’m in a town, there’s a sort of gentle sensory overload. Purely by dint of sheer volume of people, the place seems that much more real. The animation’s patchy and a few of the voices misfire, but suddenly the game’s full of movement and noise and faces and objectives and incidental scenery and chickens I can kill without the guards arresting me. The place visibily breathes.
I have no idea how Harbour Town rates amongst Risen’s cities. There may well be a bigger one later for all I know, but right now it’s big enough. It makes a point of introducing tiny human drama from the off – a local farmer begging me to buy something, anything from him, because a mercenary trader has bought everything of value from him and his peers for mere pennies. Please, he asks, don’t buy anything from the trader – don’t help him earn yet more money to fleece us with. So I look at the farmer’s stuff. It’s all junk. I look at said trader’s stuff – he has armour and weapons. Hmm. I would very much like some armour and weapons. The silk-clad trader continues to show his half-smile, half-grimace, while across the road, the rag-clad farmer saws feverishly at a log. Hmm.
“It’s for the greater good”, I reason, as I stride towards the sunset-lit harbour in my posh new cloth armour. The more powerful I am, the more use I can be once the time comes to help throw off the yoke of this town’s oppression, right? Right? I try not to think about how useful those 200 coins would have been to the poor farmer.
This isn’t the last time that Risen holds up a mirror to my own morality, and the reflection I see shows altruism and selfishness running into each other, inseperable. I take a quest from a local docker, who wants me to retrieve some artifacts from his fellows. I don’t get a lot of background information as to who’s really screwing over who – the first guy claims the others are withholding stuff they owe him, and they claim he’d promised them money for them. I don’t know who’s right, but I know I managed to talk the first guy into giving me 500 gold if I manage to get everything back. I have a nasty feeling I’m helping the middle class exploit the working class. But… 500 gold. That buys me a big whack of combat training from the friendly ogre-thing just around the corner. For the greater good, right?
Achieving the greater good involves, it seems, fighting three hitherto helpful guys then taking everything that’s in their pockets. I get my first taste of combat against a human, and it’s fascinatingly different to fighting beasts in the jungle. There’s blocking and parrying to contend with, and far less predictability. Broadly speaking, it’s a fun and tense sword fight, but I’m not keen on their ability to side or backstep like they’re rollerskating across of a puddle of oil. Seems like cheating. Mind you, I have quickload on my side, so I can’t talk.
The last guy doesn’t have his artifact on him, saying it’s hidden and I’ll never find it. Moreover, if I duff him up the aforementioned ogre-thing, who owes him a favour, will come box my ears. So I go talk to the aforementioned ogre-thing. He’s hungry, which seems to dominate his every thought. I give him some fried rat I made earlier. Grateful, all other loyalties are dispensed, and he cheerfully tells me that problem-guy’s got a locked chest hidden in nearby attic.
I’m enjoying the constant moral-greyness of Risen – no-one’s an out-and-out good guy, and bribery, corruption and self-interest inform and, most interestingly, can subvert everything. There’s also scope of organic problem solving – for instance, waiting for the ogre-protected guy to wander into a warehouse, then knocking seven shades of pixel-shader out of him. By the time his ogrish mate arrives on the scene, it’s all over, and I’m wandering over to the chest, key-in-hand.
It’s worth noting I haven’t killed anyone yet. This is something I really appreciate about Risen – I can be a grim, rule-breaking adventurer with my own interests at heart, but that doesn’t necessitate me becoming a murderer. These guys, and everyone else I fight inside the town, don’t expire once their health bar’s depleted. They just fall over for a bit, then their health bar slowly returns and they get up again. I haven’t tried this yet, but I’m pretty sure that I could finish them off if I wanted. I don’t want to, and I like that I don’t have to.
So, the coffers are increasing and I’ve picked up a ton of quests. Within a few hours, I’ve helped someone sell his failing fishmongers to an idiot, I’ve been a double-agent pretending to help the local authority investigate a spate of thefts but in fact using it to find out what dirt they have on a chummy local petty crook, and, to the great joy of my conscience, I’ve beaten the snot out of that exploitative trader from a few paragraphs back. Though sadly this was to convince him to repay a debt to a guard, not to the farmer. But I like to think the farmer was pretty chuffed about it anyway.
I’ve also gathered enough compromising information on a couple of a local shopkeepers that I’m now in a position to blackmail them into paying me protection money. I can’t quite bring myself to complete those quests. Dirty odd-jobs for dirty men is one thing, but becoming one of those dirty men myself is a step I’m not prepared to take. I just need some cash for weapons and training – I don’t need to run a protection racket.
I have also: temporarily transformed into a giant snail, distracted a guard with a conjured image of a dancing girl and used telekensis to drag a valuable artifact to me from the top of a lighthouse. Risen’s magic (achieved so far only by one-shot spells) is strange, rustic and pleasing. It gives me extra options for stealth, deception and puzzle-solving, rather than purely for combat and recovery.
Oh, and at one point I took a bath whilst still fully-clothed, watched solmenly by two frowning bearded men all the while. Risen’s women might all look like strippers, but it’s hilariously afraid of nudity:
Most importantly, I’ve worked out and employed the game’s levelling/skill system. It didn’t explain it to me at all, which is one reason why some reviews have slammed it, but I’ve had enough RPG experience to puzzle it out for myself. Essentially, every time you level you earn 10 Learning Points. You can then spend these Learning Points on skills or skill upgrades from specific trainers (who also demand gold for the privelege).
That’s all there is to it, but the lack of in-game explanation (presumably it’s documented in the manual, but this is a digitally distributed version – manual-help can’t be taken for granted in this new age) did briefly trip me up in terms of the learning points, which I initially burned my way through willy-nilly because I thought I earned rather than spent them whenever I bought a skill. No harm done really, though.
Figuring this out means I’m now what I always end up becoming in RPGs, whether I mean to or not. I’m a thief. A dirty little thief.
A really rather rich dirty little thief.
And to think that the last time I wrote one of these, I had high-faluting dreams of becoming a mage. Sigh. A combination of self-interest and being convinced by the other side of the argument has seen me become, essentially, a Rogue. I’m handy with a sword and shield, I can break into anywhere, pick most locks and pockets, and I’m now more or less in the employ of the local Don. I hadn’t intended to do this latter – it’s simply that he seemed the best of a bad bunch, so ended up taking on the quests that earned me favour with him. He’s mercenary and his men are thuggish without a doubt, but the opposing Inquisition faction seem determined to drive all local trade and pride out of this place. I hear they’re doing it for the greater good. Rings a bell… Enough of a bell that I doubt the sincerity of their ultimate intentions. I’ve just reached the point where the Don’s men have achieved dominance in the town, and I’m a little afraid this will mean bloodshed. We shall see. At least I’m no longer as weak as an athsmatic kitten – I’m looking forward to hitting the wilderness again and giving some wolves what-for.
And I can mine and I can skin animals and I can brew potions and I can make a delicious stew. An adventurer is me. I can also saw logs, though this doesn’t seem to achieve anything. I might just sell my saw.
So I’ve gone native. Risen’s gotten a hold of a me, with its surfeit of things to do, surfeit of ways to do them and constant, beguiling ambiguity. I’m still bristling at how most of the women appear to have two beachballs strapped to their chest, the majority of them aren’t given names and only two of the seven I’ve been able to have a conversation with weren’t prostitutes (though I took great pleasure in the quest that involved me brutalising a bloke who’d been beating one of the prostitutes), I’m still annoyed by the stupid length of the crate-opening animation, and I could really do without the lockpicking minigame, but amidst all the noise and bustle of this small city, these don’t seem like big things. Risen has its stumbles, but there’s a dense and subtle RPG underneath the sometimes unsure surface.
I’m also becoming steadily more distressed about the disinterest and, in some cases, baffling negativity Risen has received in much of the gaming press. In either marketing or criticism or both, something went badly wrong. What and why? Again, that’s probably another post, though I will observe that, for instance, RPS didn’t really hear anything of the game from either its developer or publisher until a couple of weeks before release. With a game this big and complicated, that’s not ideal in terms of getting the word out. Whatever the reason though, I’m increasingly convinced Risen should have loomed much larger on all our horizons than it did.