In lieu of a review, I'm keeping a diary of my (mis)adventures in and thoughts on divisive new RPG Risen. The first part's here.
The situation: I’m being followed by a physically impossible woman who’s moaning about being hungry, and I have a pocket full of vulture and rat meat. There’s probably a way to connect these two things. First, however, fighting.
Wandering up the hilly jungle path, I spot a cave entrance on my left. Impossi-woman expresses fear when I head in, and urges me to take another route. Banking on this being a game in which I can make my own decisions, I ignore her and sneak further in. It’s dark and unsettling, but – hooray! - there is treasure here, many mana-restoring mushrooms (though I have no way to use up mana as yet) and, a little further in, some gnomes.
These are not your common hat’n’beard gnomes, but instead pig-faced, goblinoid things that want my blood. It very quickly becomes a serious fight, much harder than my scuffles with beasts, and one death and reload later, I get a sense of why some folk have moaned Risen is too unforgiving. On my second attempt at the fight, my sympathy turns to a glimmer of contempt.
Granted, the game hasn’t told me how to dodge or block yet, but I’ve worked it out myself. If the gnomes hit me, most of my health bar disappears. So I don’t let them hit me. What’s the big problem here? I'm feeling cocky, and so far I'm getting away with it. I'm also understanding why Gothic/Risen's fanbase can be a bit sneery towards other RPGs - it is satisfying to conquer something that's a little unforgiving. Where I disagree with them is that I'm entirely happy for harder RPGs to co-exist with ones that show you every rope or have a magic compass that tells you exactly where to go: diversity is a good thing.
The fight takes a little while, as these ugly midgets turn out to be pretty hardy, but so long as I dodge as well as hammer attack, it’s thoroughly in my favour. I’m rewarded with access to chests containing gold, health potions, some food, a sword and a sickle. This latter ensures the next gnome-packed room is a whole lot easier, though the greater number of minimen in there makes dodging a little more complicated.
I don’t know what Risen’s combat is going to ultimately become, but what I’m enjoying so far (and is still the case later, when I’m fighting the hungry wolves that some demo players have complained about) is that it’s something I have to pay attention to. It doesn’t require awkward key combinations or a complex knowledge of statistics – it just requires not letting my guard down, and feeling as tense as focused as I would in a real fight. I mean, I guess. I don’t fight a lot of people. Only toddlers, really, and they don’t hit back very hard.
So Impossi-woman’s moaning was for naught. I emerge from the other end of the cave near to where the game began, and now I have pockets full of useful things. Back to my original goal – a way to link my frightening-shaped companion’s hunger to raw meat I’m lugging around.
That way turns out to be a frying pan lurking in a chest within an abandoned house. Once I have that, I can click on the weirdly huge firepit outside the house and fry my pocket-meat into something edible. She’s happy. I’m happy, because it heals the hitpoints I lost beating up giant birds and porcine gnomes. I’d previously tried to heal them by drinking from a barrel full of rainwater, like a dog, but gave up because each time I did, it involved a five-second animation but only refilled my health bar by a fraction. Click, click and click again. Booooring.
Risen does a lot of things like this – taking away your control and making you wait for a preset animation to play out for a few seconds. On their own, I wouldn’t notice, but I’m reaching the point where I don’t want to open a chest or drink from a barrel because I know I’ll have control snatched away just so the game can show me something boring for a just a little too long. I’m certainly not going to take 12 seperate drinks from the barrel just to refill my health bar – why can’t the game either spot that, quite obviously, I want to restore my HP and thus give me the lot with one click, or allow me to hold down the button until I’m done drinking? It's unncessarily obstinate and time-consuming.
I’m enjoying the cooking, however. I’ve always liked cooking in RPGs. When I kill a beast, as i do often, all its carcass contains is meat. No gems, no swords, no gore-soaked blueprints for luxury armour. I also can’t just eat its raw, bloody, probably poisonous meat – it has to be cooked first. This makes sense, it creates a visceral link between me and this wild world, and it adds to the survival fantasy that Risen seems keen to create. Sure, there’s mysteriously nothing in the frying pan when I hold it over the fire, but it’s the thought that counts.
What is sligtly irksome is that this is the only cooking fire I’ll see for the next couple of hours, which means I spend a lot of time with a lot of raw meat in my pocket. I’m hoping there’ll be a system whereby I can create fires myself later, as there is no logical reason why I shouldn’t be able to. Most of all, I want to do guerrilla cooking – running into the middle of an enemy camp and trying to fry up a chicken drumstick before they get me.
Meanwhile, impossi-woman announces she’s tired and needs a sit down. It’s another vague hint that women aren’t considered all that highly by this world. So, I’m asked to leave her where she is and go find help. Seems unwise, given the jungle is brimming with angry wildlife, but I don’t seem to have any other choice. A short way up the hill, I find the grave moths I mentioned yesterday, and promptly demolish them with my sickle. A little further on, I find a man with a ginger beard – it’s a face I will see several times, on several different characters. While initially hostile, once I explain my shipwrecked status, he’s friendly. He even says he’ll go collect Impossi-woman and take her to safety, which pops up a ‘Quest Completed’ message and gives me a few experience points.
Now, I’m rendered deeply uncomfortable by this – I already know that Gothic and Risen’s worlds are full of people you can’t trust, and that there’s rarely a right or wrong choice. To leave my only friend’s safety in the hands of a scowling guy with a sword who I’ve only just met seems incredibly foolish, especially when she’s dressed like an erotic cosplayer. Perhaps it’s a decision that’ll come back to haunt me. I’ll be impressed if it is, but also annoyed, given I don’t seem to have had much choice in the matter. That said, I could have just tried to kill this guy. God knows how that would have altered my future in this world, or what fate it would have given to impossi-woman.
One choice I am given is where to go next. Beardyface really, really wants me to come back to the bandit camp he works for, but also talks of a harbour town nearby. If I go there, there’s a good chance I’ll be recruited by the – he says – sinister Inquisition. These are bad men, and I should avoid them. But, I reason, a harbour sounds like a place of trade and information, while a bandit camp sounds like a place of, well, bandits. So I ignore this chap’s insistence, and already it feels like I’m not having to do what the game tells me to do. That’s what I want from Risen, frankly.
He leads me close to some folk who, he says, can tell me how to get to the harbour, then heads back. Presumably to either help or abduct my pornographic companion. Still plagued by doubt, I head down to a quiet farm. In short order, a robed bloke with a Northern English accent has me harvesting grain for him. I’m not totally clear why he can’t do it himself, but right now making people like me seems like the right course of action. Next, I chat to his dad, who, I’m glad to see, hints that his son is a bit of a simpleton – which explains this grain-collecting business.
He also sheds some more light on the nature of the Inquisition. Sounds as though they’re not treating the island’s populace well, but their ultimate aim seems to be altruistic – fending off a volcano-related sinister force that’s up to no good. Like beardyface, he’s not a fan of the Inquisition, but does believe they’re working for the greater good. Who should I trust? Well, no-one for now. However, a major choice is becoming clear – join the Inquisition, join the bandits or, most appealingly to me, sneak past the Inquisition to become a mage. They’re intercepting and recruiting/batting away anyone trying to reach the mage’s monastery, but as far as I can tell, it’s the only faction that hasn’t yet demonstrated a hostile intent towards others. Also, I’d really like to learn some magic.
So, becoming a mage becomes my number one priority - and, frankly, it's a relief to have a definite goal, but doubly pleasing because it's one I've decided on myself. To achieve it, and to bypass the patrolling Inquisition, I need the help of this sombre farming family. I’ve already helped with the harvest, so next it’s the aforementioned wolf-killing time. Stay away from combat until you’ve been trained as a fighter, people in yesterday’s comments keep saying. Listen: I couldn’t fight my way out of a wet paper bag in real life. This, though – this is my chance to be a man.
I’m doing my own thing, to a point. I’m enjoying myself. Could really do with another fire to cook all this raw meat, mind.