Christmas is a time to appreciate the under-appreciated. Like rat milk, the later films of Steve Martin, and boating shoes. And, more earnestly, the game that the hand of the one true leader of the Autobots is trepidatiously gesturing toward...
The Risen Report, Coda: Is This Thing On?
There's a reason my once-regular documents of my time in Pirhana Bytes' divisive RPG sputtered to a halt. After an unsure start, I grew to love the thing - its lack of hand-holding, even the way its poorly-explained levelling up worked, turning every skill upgrade into something meaningful. This grim, half-broken thing got into my head and took over. It cost me a week of paid work, and it led to me having an excruiatingly embarrasing drunken argument with someone from a site that had reviewed it poorly that will probably haunt me for years. In a heap of ways, it got roleplaying absolutely right, and when a game does that, it will inevitably take control of me.
Then the spell broke. After 12 hours of trials, tribulations, abductions and proud hat collection, Risen just let go, gave up. Caves. Monsters. Monsters. Caves. The gritty glory, the constant balancing act of philathropy and self-interest of my adventures in the prison-monastery, the corrupt-as-Berlusconi town and the hate-fuelled bandit camp were gone, remembered as if from a dream of another game.
I couldn't find the will to keep playing for long in this lonely new world of spelunking and thumping, let alone to find interesting things to say about hitting scorpion after scorpion and ashbeast after ashbeast with a staff. It did grow into a much more satisfying combat game, my (accidental) fighter-mage path allowing me to mix melee with roundly destructive magic, rather than being stuck to the somewhat inept swordplay of before. And there's something to be said for its boldness in switching from a low-fantasy game of dark ages survival and subterfuge and into lizardman and steampunk-filled high fantasy. It forever had ambition, even if it couldn't keep pace with that.
I have been back since, and for quite a while, but it was too late. The Risen Report was done - a document of a dozen or so hours of my scowling character's rise, fall and rise. Survivor, prisoner, hero. It's tale enough. I don't need to know what happens at the end of all those caves and monsters. All I need to know is that, for quite a while, I had a far better time than Dragon Age. A wider world, decisions with consquences that instantly and dramatically affected me rather than a bunch of behind the scenes sliders, a type of magic that's wierd and dirty, and the chance to use my cunning rather than simply my skill points to get what I wanted. I'm fine with praising half a roleplaying game. It's a better half a roleplaying game than any other I've played this year.
Jim: It's never really a good year for RPGs, at least not in this century, but 2009 was at least an interesting one. Risen, which I hadn't expected to be able to get into at all, entirely took me by surprise with its agreeably taciturn and reactive world. One helpful beardy chap is about all you get to set you on your way in a remarkably unapproachable game that is, nevertheless, quite rewarding once you struggle your way - head-first, with a feeling of alienation - into it.
What is best about Risen is how it tries to offer a world fully-formed. You wash up the beach and get cracking, with plenty of options opening up as you explore. I found myself thinking most of The Witcher, and how it had stubbornly refused to open up until many hours into the game. Risen, by contrast, offers you the broadside of a world - limited as it is - from the outset. Run out of options in the bandit camp and you can head off to a nearby farm and the 'orrible city beyond. I stumbled around, testing the limits of world and liking what I found. There were little reminders in there of plenty of other games that have attempted similar things - there's even echoes of Outcast - and although it's entirely imperfect, Risen is also a kind of notice that RPGs are the gaming form that's still got the most unexplored potential. Pirhana Bytes do take some time to explore it, and you have to give credit for that.
That's not to say that this isn't willfully-rigid and typically under-imagined in places. (Ladies being heavily boobed and lightly characterised being one obvious problem). It sits very much in the realm of the Fantasy Typicals, contributing to that same conversation that has been going on in books, films, and games for far too long now. Despite this there's some strong writing, decent voice acting, and occasional neat design touches. The non-lethality of combat with other humans is certainly one such fascinating feature, but the RPG functionality of weapons and magic are worth investigating too. Allowing, as Alec points out, the creation of a character with unexpected inventories.
Risen is a thing that responds in interesting ways to your input, and that, I feel, is how RPGs should be.