Having debuted as an Xbox One exclusive, Ryse has now decided to be an ex-exclusive and is out on PC today. My memories of its reception on Xbox were fairly dim - shiny in that Crytek way but with a short campaign and repetitive combat - and I went in having never even seen the classical carnage running outside of a trailer. Here's wot I think.
Ryse does one thing and it does it just about well enough to make the six or seven hours of the campaign tolerable. That thing is combat, which is almost exactly like the biffing and kapowing in the Arkham games, except lead character Marius doesn't just snap his opponent's bones to put them out of action - he lops their legs off, leaving stumps of bone exposed, pirouettes and slashes their throat into rosy red ribbons, and then stabs them through the gut, leaving a gaping mouth-wound with a drooling instestinal tongue.
That description is actually more grotesque than anything you'll see in the game, but it's a close thing. Marius has a grand total of five combat moves and it's the 'execution', activated by a button press or joypad trigger when an enemy is sufficiently weakened, that unleashes the gore. Executions play out automatically but a simple QTE sequence guides you through the dismemberment. Time the button presses just right, and hit the right sequence, and you're rewarded with a boost to health, experience, damage or focus. The latter allows you to slow the action down so that the next bout of limb-lopping will be a little more manageable.
A few hours of that and you're done. Vengeance achieved, barbarians and traitors left in bits. Job's a good 'un.
There's nothing wrong with that. Double Dragon and Renegade didn't need an open world or parkour sections to keep the coins flowing, and Ryse has a decent combat system, but I didn't find the experience particularly satisfying. There are several disconnects in the way that combat is communicated and occurs that left me feeling as if I were floating somewhere above, pulling the strings of a puppet peditatus rather than directly engaging in the desperate clash of arms.
Marius himself is part of the problem. As a character, he ticks sufficient boxes to make me glad to join him on his murder-spree, even though the story is best when the writers and actors acknowledge that it's an excuse to get from one fight to the next. Again, there's nothing wrong with that - it's how Liam Neeson resignedly performs dialogue and interviews these days, and he's an OBE - but it's when the talking stops that Marius seems somewhat out of place.
Quite why that is may not be entirely the fault of the game. Come to Ryse without Arkham, Assassin's Creed or Shadow Of Mordor in mind, and the combat may seem more than tolerable. With Batman's whirling cape and acrobatic movement from thug to thug lurking behind him in the shadows, Marius feels too cumbersome and weighty to convince in his role.
As well as executing, he can stab, push, dodge and block. Sometimes the stab is a slash, to be fair, but the conclusion is always the same. The basic rhythm of combat is to alternate between stabbing and pushing, while nudging in the direction of the enemies that are the target for a particular stab or push. Say there are three barbarians approaching - one at 12 o'clock, one ready to knock off work at 5 o'clock and one settled in the recliner with a shandy at 7 o'clock - you might go for the closest one first, with a stab, then whirl around and push the next with your shield. By that point, the third is in position to strike so you roll aside, block a blow and then repeat until everyone is in bits.
That's the entire game... aside from turret sections - in which you'll be shooting exploding barrels (really!) - unremarkable boss battles, and brief affairs where you'll join a squad of soldiers and turtle up with them. There might be more than three enemies and there are a handful of different types, but there's no attempt to play with the formula of the combat. Despite it's technically impressive graphics, Ryse doesn't have the spectacle and variety of a God of War game, and it doesn't have the gadgets and inventive world of an Arkham game. Nor does it have a combat system as complex or satisfying as either of the above. Next to DMC, it's like a one-man performance of Stomp being compared to Cirque du Soleil at its best.
Marius never felt appropriate for the role, sluggish as he is. Rocksteady's Batman lines up with enemies smoothly and it becomes second nature to judge distances and timings. As Marius, despite the comparitive simplicity, I never felt convinced by my actions. Whether I'd be able to string a succession of blows together relied on an understanding of the animations and weight of the character, which I didn't feel secure about even by the end of the story. Perhaps that's because I spent around a quarter of the time I was playing watching execution animations that suspend all involvement with other entities in the world. They're effectively cutscenes, with other assailants politely standing by as their chums are turned into chum.
There's a multiplayer mode, which seems to involve grinding for experience and new equipment with marginal stat changes. I haven't tried it. The story was enough and despite all of my complaining, I didn't mind the six or so hours I spent with Ryse. It's almost admirably single-minded. A game about killing people in brutal ways, with a combat system simple enough to ensure that nothing much will get in the way of that.
And, yes, it's a looker, although you'll mostly be looking at things like the screenshot just above. I found myself admiring the work that had gone into it rather than the results. Man hits other men and those men fall down, and apart. It's a tale as old as time and there's nothing new to see except the "realtime physical dangling pieces".
Ryse: Son of Rome is out tomorrow.