Risen – First Look

Title   Risen
Developer  Piranha Bytes
Publisher  Deep Silver
Platform  PC
Genre  RPG
Release Date  October 2, 2009

Risen was first recommended to me as being better than Two Worlds but not quite as good as Oblivion.  To some gamers, the reaction would instantly be something akin to “well, it’s BOUND to be better than Two Worlds” but to me that was an incredibly positive reaction.  I loved Two Worlds and so a game which sat somewhere between Two Worlds and Oblivion, which is my most played game to date, was likely too good to miss.  Unfortunately, my first trip to the volcanic island of Faranga was through the XBox 360 and I was almost put off the game for life.  If it hadn’t been for PC screen shots allowing me to see the vast difference between what I’d experienced on the 360 and what the PC gamers were being treated to, I would never have given the game a second chance.  Thankfully, I did.

Any game that lets you forge your own weapons from scratch gets the vote from me!

The comparisons to Two Worlds and Oblivion are, however, greatly flawed in that both the aforementioned titles are strict RPGs whereas Risen lies somewhere between action and role playing genres and can’t easily be categorised as either.  In terms of the gameplay, it is very much in the realms of role playing with the open world ability to embark upon quests in whichever order suits but one can just as easily idle around the world and explore every nook and cranny without it affecting the overall gameplay or any main quest.

The storyline has your character, which is a predetermined character with no customisation, as one of two survivors of a shipwreck washed up on the aforementioned volcanic island of Faranga.  In what seems to be the way of most games these days, the first few scenes are primarily there to provide you with a tutorial into the controls of the game and what to expect of the world around you.  Deep water kills you, every time, thanks to a giant sea worm which emerges in an instant and causes instant death… the perfect way for the developers to avoid creating obvious barriers in the ocean where you’re simply asked to turn back.  The island is experiencing an unrelenting wave of demonic creatures, spawning from a number of ruins that have suddenly risen to the surface, forcing the inhabitants of the island to create an Inquisition whereby no-one is permitted to enter or leave the island.  Your skills are determined by whichever side you take, either as a staff-wielding Mage on the side of High Inquisitor Mendoza against the bandits, or as a Warrior with sword and axe skills in allegiance with Don Estaban’s bandits against The Inquisition.  The very nature of this choice means that there is no neutrality to the game as you will, at every stage, be working for one or the other and the opposing side will react accordingly, so you cannot learn staff fighting skills if you have already sworn allegiance to the Don or vice versa.

The level of detail, on the PC anyway, makes Risen a joy to play even for those with graphic whore tendencies... like me!

The typical facet of the RPG genre which is missing is the ability to level up the character to move in a particular direction towards a specific path or class.  With Risen, an on-screen message informs you that you’ve just levelled up… but that’s as far as it goes.

The expectancy is, as you’d imagine, that the game would halt briefly and allow you to select which of the available skills you’d like to spend your points on, but the game merely continues as before and your stats screen shows no progress.  Instead you are awarded with learning points which can be spent, along with a levelled amount of gold, whenever you meet with a trainer and so your levelling up is entirely dependent on whether you’ve previously met a trainer in a specific skill, otherwise your character won’t progress.  As you progress through the game, however, all of the trainers you’ve met along the way are shown on your map so you can quickly see where to go when it next comes time to spend those all-important learning points.

In the early stages of the game, this approach to levelling up can be disastrous as what little weaponry afforded to your character really isn’t sufficient to take out the indigenous species dotted around the island and so, in lieu of having the training necessary to better utilise the weapons, the only option is to avoid any sort of conflict… or face certain death.  The actual combat system isn’t the easiest to get to grips with as your foe can very easily move around to the side of you requiring lightning fast reflexes to refocus your attention on them before total annihilation, which isn’t the simplest of tasks.  Wondering if I was just remarkably bad at playing the game, I had a quick look on the ‘net to see if there was perhaps something I’d missed that would allow my character to better deal with confrontation and actually found a number of people suggesting that the best way to progress through the early stages of Risen was to avoid any of the native beasts and conserve health and energy for the necessary quest encounters. Good advice.

It wasn’t until half way through the first chapter of Risen (of which there are four) that I realised why the combat could be so difficult, and it wasn’t actually down to the somewhat clumsy approach to the combat controls, but more because the foes in the game do exhibit a very strong sense of artificial intelligence.  If, as I was, you are unlucky enough to leave cover and walk straight into a clearing with four black wolves… these wolves won’t attack like they would in other games.  They do so with a high degree of intelligence, with one taking the lead while the others wait for your energy to drop before attacking and in the blink of an eye you’ll find yourself surrounded by three attacking wolves that have flanked you while you’ve been preoccupied with the main aggressor on the frontline.  Personally speaking, I adore this.  There’s nothing I hate more than games that lack the realism of nature and this aspect certainly mirrors the way wolves would react in reality, and yet each encounter still differs enough to show that the combat engine is thinking rather than merely presenting enemies. It does make the game considerably more challenging than the aforementioned comparisons and, for that reason, you can’t rely on a plethora of healing potions and super reinforced armour… you have to think, react and consider every aspect of your character’s progression.

The enemies within Risen become more varied as the game progresses, and you need to think on your feet if you want to avoid certain death early on

The number of puzzles to be solved within the game is certainly more than you’d expect from a game of this type, with certain areas appearing to be a dead end unless you think outside of the box.  A shrewdly placed crack in the wall will have you fumbling for the Nautilus spell to transform your character into a small snail-like creature in the hope that the crack will in fact be a concealed entrance to another area of the map that is, to a human, completely inaccessible.  The same can be said for seemingly out of reach areas which immediately become a breeze if you were smart enough to arm yourself with enough levitation spells earlier in the game.  There are an incredible number of hidden rooms which can be found by pulling on wall-mounted rings or pushing switches, none of which are highlighted by default and so you have to always be aware of your surroundings.  The lock picking aspect of this game differs from most in that it’s not based on your reaction time when a tumbler is in a specific position on screen – instead it is transformed into a memory game where you have to remember a sequence of left/right combinations which, as the locks become more complex, can become a lot to remember for those not blessed with a great memory.  Certainly, one thing that sets Risen apart from games such as Oblivion and Two Worlds is that you have to pay attention to your surroundings and be prepared to solve puzzles in order to continue on your journey.

Personally speaking, this level of mental dexterity has made Risen much more enjoyable than I had first expected, harking back to the first Tomb Raider outing in terms of expecting the player to be thinking about overcoming obstacles rather than having each area spoon fed with obvious entrances and exits.  Taking the size of the island into consideration, the longevity of the game may ultimately rely on the player reading forums and discovering that a particular cavern they’d previously emptied actually has another section filled with further enemies and enchanted goodies to be pilfered.  While it is usually the nature of the RPG player to leave no stone unturned and no room unlooted, the triggers, switches and trap doors within Risen force the player to step up their game if they want to fully explore every area.

The weather in Faranga is unpredictable, to say the least, and when the skies open up and the storms let loose it becomes as dark as night, even at noon.

One very negative thing I would say about Risen, which sets it apart from other games in the same genre, is that there is no way to simply rest or allow time to pass without having access to a bed.  Under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t really see this as a negative but the nights in Risen are incredibly dark and it becomes almost impossible to continue exploration without either an illumination spell or a flaming torch, both of which mean you’re easily seen by enemies well before you’re even aware of their existence.  The option is there to adjust the gamma and bring the blacks up to a more acceptable level but then the level of realism is lost in a wash of under-saturation and I can’t compromise on quality like that.  If I could just sit down and wait for eight hours until dawn, the vacuous darkness could easily be forgiven and even lapped up for aesthetic value… because it IS beautiful in terms of realism, but just a little too impractical.

I have it on good authority that, as the game progresses, the need for walking every inch of the map will become unnecessary when teleport stones are introduced.  As much as I look forward to being able to transport my character from one edge of the map to another in the blink of an eye… I do actually enjoy taking in the terrain on foot and the map, being an island, isn’t exactly prohibitive when it comes to option to navigate on foot rather than the familiar RPG fast travel method.

    More to think about than other games of the genre.
    Artificial intelligence of the enemies is refreshing.
    Some fantastic touches with the spells.
    The restrictions on training and levelling up make it difficult to survive early on.
    Lack of "wait" option means that you have to either find a bed or continue to play through the darkness hours.

While Risen may not be as long as Oblivion or Two Worlds in terms of the number of hours required for completion, it does offer different gameplay that make the typical comparisons quite oddly placed. The voice acting is much better than expected, with some recognisable British actors in the credits, and make the game more immersive than others that have gone before. The difficulty early on can be frustrating, especially to someone who doesn't like to save very often, and so it is best to avoid confrontation where possible until the character has progressed enough to handle himself better. Storyline is interesting enough to make me want to continue through all four chapters and the quests encountered so far not only have a considerable amount of heart, but also a degree of humour. With three chapters to go, I'm already hooked.

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  1. Ben Ben says:

    I’ve still not picked this up yet, which is shame seeing as you can find it for just £18 at some online retailers. Sadly for me it arrived at exactly the wrong time (assignment crunch time) and by the time my gaming had a look in Dragon Age was out (which has since sucked all my RPG time up).

    Good to hear the voice acting is quite good, that’s one area that I found Two Worlds to be exceptionally disappointing in, although never did get far in it as my 360 promptly chewed the disc and spat it out, perhaps it was trying to tell me something =/

  2. Mark R MarkuzR says:

    I heard a lot of people complaining about the voice acting in Two Worlds but I kinda saw it as being tongue in cheek in its approach… like when your character wanders around singing “It’s raining, it’s pouring” whenever the storms come, or his obvious disdain at finding the SAME plant over and over again goes from an enthusiastic “What’s this?” to either a sarcastic “what IS it??” or something equally annoyed sounding :) Maybe I’m reading/hearing too much into it though, maybe it IS just dodgy!!

    I’m on chapter three of Risen now, and will hopefully get it finished in the next week or so if I can give myself enough discipline to play it every night. I’ll miss it though, there are some beautiful sunsets and vistas… I may try to contact the tourist office and buy a small shack by the harbour ;)

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