Let’s get this out of the way up front: I had mixed emotions about Risen before I went out to preview the game last week. The game, at first glance, looked to be another third person action RPG on a console flush with them. Reviews of the European Xbox 360 release had been unkind to the game, to say the least, citing unfriendly controls and technical issues as major problems with the console port. The developer, Piranha Bytes, has only the Gothic series to their credit prior to this game, and while the first two Gothic games were generally acceptable pieces of work, Gothic III was almost universally panned when it was released in the US. Even SouthPeak’s involvement in the US release didn’t assuage my worries, despite their generally solid reputation. When I sat down with game producer Thorsten Flugel and SouthPeak representative Aubrey Norris, I imagine they had probably met plenty of other people with the same impressions of the game, because they started off by assuring me that the US release of Risen was being redesigned specifically to address a lot of the issues the European release had suffered from. When they booted their demonstration copy up and began showing me the ropes, I have to admit, I was pleasantly surprised. Risen, though it might not be a massive seller for the Xbox 360, could be a solid sleeper hit, if the final game impresses as much as the demonstration did.
The basic storyline in Risen takes place on the island of Faranga, where, as the game begins, some fantastic changes are taking place. The world the game takes place in is one of old gods, and as the introductory cinematic explains, the old gods have long since been banished from this world by humanity. It seems that, though the gods have left, their handiworks remain, as the game begins with several ancient temples rising fully formed from the ground (hence the title), which causes a massive panic amongst the people. A group of foreign soldiers, known as the Inquisition, come to the island and impose martial law while they investigate the appearance of these temples and what they mean, which is causing no end of problems to the islanders. Your nameless main character is thrust straight into the middle of these events after stowing away on an Inquisitor’s boat and witnessing the Inquisitor battle a giant monstrosity before bailing out, leaving you to said monster’s mercy. You wake up on the beach after this goes down, which is where the game begins. The story will carry you through one of two factions, each with different story arcs and missions to perform, allowing you replay value if you choose to go through both story arcs, which should give players looking for some depth something to look forward to from the start.
The visuals are solid, all in all, and the US release of the game will sport some updated lighting effects and visual improvements, as well as a solid voice cast, including John Rhys-Davies and Andy Serkis, AKA Gimli and Gollum from The Lord of the Rings trilogy. One of the more interesting elements of Risen that both Thorsten and and Aubrey pointed out is that the game is a mostly seamless experience. The game will spend about thirty to forty-five seconds initially loading the game, and after this, won’t load noticeably again unless you load a save game. There are no loading screens when entering or leaving a zone, and the game is a fairly seamless experience, which is exciting, considering that most games in the genre often feature loading screens every time you move from zone to zone. There were no noticeable technical issues during my time spent with this demo, though the game will occasionally hiccup when autosaving, which is something that seems to happen a lot in games with such features. This didn’t noticeably impede the experience in any way, but it does happen, for the record.
We started out from the beginning zone, where Thorsten showed off the collection and combat mechanics. The gameplay should be instantly accessible to fans of the genre from the start, as the left stick controls movement, the right stick looks around, the A button interacts with the environment, the right trigger attacks, and the left trigger allows you to block incoming attacks. Fighting enemies looks to be simple enough, and the introductory zones are balanced well for new players learning the ropes. This actually highlights two of the major changes made to the US release of Risen, as the friendly and easy to use control scheme is new to the release, and the zones have been rebalanced for this release. Aubrey pointed out a cave in the starting zone that contained enemies that would smear the player in the European release, and noted that in the US release the cave will be toned down, allowing new players to explore with less fear of instant death. I was also shown the inventory system at this point, which is notable for two things. First, the inventory system will allow you to pick up just about anything you can find, from plates to weapons to individual gold pieces, allowing you to grab almost anything that isn’t nailed down, and second, the inventory system is limitless. You will never need to worry about making space in the inventory, as you’ll always have space for anything you can find. This might annoy purists a bit, but speaking as someone who loves to pick up EVERY THING HE FINDS, I can see the appeal in this mechanic. You’re also able to hotkey every single item, spell, and otherwise useful consumable to the D-pad and face buttons, allowing you to customize a fairly large list of useful items you can employ at any given time at the press of a face button, which is useful.
At this time, we jumped ahead a couple hours in the game to the first major city, which I’m told you’ll have to negotiate your way into, as the city is under some sort of martial law. The city allows you to interact with various NPC’s, to buy and sell goods when needed among other things, and it is here that I’m informed that instead of simply buying and selling items, you’ll be able to trade goods for goods, similar to how the original Fallout did things. This makes item sales a little more interesting than the typical “sell your stuff, buy new stuff”Â mechanics most games implement, at least. I’m also informed that you’ll be able to craft various goods at this point, though instead of simply selecting the custom item from a list, you’ll actually have to perform the various steps needed to craft the item. Smithing a weapon, for example, would require you to heat the metal, bang out the sword, cool the sword, and then sharpen the edge until you’ve created the item you’re looking for. There won’t be any mini-games associated with these actions, for those who are dreading such a thing; you’ll simply interact with the various implements in order and make the item you’re looking for. The exception to this is picking locks, which will employ a mini-game that I wasn’t able to see at this point, though I’m assured it, as with the rest of the game, is simple to pick up. You’ll be able to learn several crafting classes, I’m told, and each will allow you to level up your skills as you wish. There won’t be any options to create magically advanced items by increasing levels, but increasing levels will open up new items you can craft, which will allow players to make better gear as they improve at the craft. Leveling up your crafting abilities, and for that matter leveling up any ability, will require you to visit with trainers to improve your skills. You won’t simply be able to level up any time you wish, nor will you be able to level up a skill without the appropriate trainer, which gives the game a more “true”Â RPG feel, although it may take some time to adjust to for more casual RPG fans.
Thorsten opted to pick a fight with an NPC at this point to show off how the NPC’s respond to negative behavior. For those wondering, they respond badly, and will usually report you to the local guards. NPC’s that are not plot important (which would be most of them) can be smited with impunity, I’m told, though if you need a smited NPC for a quest, that quest will be lost to you, so it’s best to consider your actions before wiping people out. If you accidentally annoy an NPC, you can cast a spell, similar to the gesture options in Fable, that will improve said NPC’s opinion of you and erase the bad deed done to them. This allows you to undo accidental bad deeds, though it seems difficult to implement in situations where you’re surrounded by multiple guards or NPC’s at one time, for obvious reasons. I’m told at this point that you can also interact with various items in the environment, like brooms and sawhorses, for purely cosmetic reasons, so you could sweep up the area or saw some lumber if you wished to. There’s no obvious benefit to this, mind you, but it’s an option for those who like to be able to interact with the environment. Further, NPC’s can do to you what you can do to them, meaning that NPC’s can knock you unconscious, for example, and take your loot if they wish. This makes it imperative to try to avoid losing in battle if one likes their stuff to remain on their person. You CAN kill NPC’s, of course, by performing a finishing move on them, but it can be unwise to do so, as NPC’s who might not become involved in a simple scuffle might jump in once you kill one of their friends, so you’ll want to consider who you kill and don’t kill. NPC’s also have a solid sense of their own personal space, as was demonstrated to me when Thorsten moved the main character into a building and the owner complained at him for doing so, which is nice to see after years of JRPG’s where NPC’s just let you loot them blind without consequence.
At this point we loaded up the monastery, which is several hours into the game at this point, to show off some of what’s involved in choosing a faction. Upon visiting the monastery, we noted that we’ve offered to volunteer for service, though the NPC’s indicate that they often force vagrants and lawbreakers into service, which is interesting in a foreshadowing sort of way. At this point we’re offered the option to learn different combat abilities, like warrior and mage skills, which will open up different trainers to teach us things. As we walk around town, the presenters take turns mentioning a few things about Risen that we won’t have a chance to explore in the demo, such as the effort made to avoid duplicating dungeon textures to make each dungeon feel unique, and the ability to upgrade your cooking ability without experience investment by simply learning recipes, which are useful for healing yourself. Also, a major effort has been made to integrate all of the optional side quests into the main storyline, so that their importance doesn’t seem minimal. As such, it’s promised that you won’t, for example, find yourself murdering rats in the basement for no adequately explained reason, but that your quests will at least SEEM like they’re important, even if they might not directly affect the plot. It was also mentioned at this point that there is no level cap to the game, though Thorsten pointed out that enemies don’t respawn after being killed, so there may potentially be a finite amount of experience to earn in the game. The game also doesn’t really cater to those who wish to munchkin, in case you were curious.
At this point, we had experienced a decent amount of the melee combat, so Thorsten decided to drop us into a later save to show off some of the magic in the game. There will be various offensive spells, like your typical elemental damage spells, available to your caster at various points, but some other spells are less obvious and more interesting. The Levitate spell, as expected, allows your character to levitate around like Dhalsim, thus allowing you to levitate over gaps and openings as needed. Another spell, Nautilus, allows you to turn into, well, a nautilus, which allows you to sneak around and spy on enemies without attracting attention, or to squeeze through small holes that would be impassible by a normal size person. Of course, no game with magic use would be complete without massive damage area of effect spells, as Thorsten demonstrated when he unleashed a spell that wiped out four enemies. He then summoned a skeletal minion (his name is Fred) who helps you in battle… though Fred didn’t seem to do very much at the time. His moral support was appreciated, however.
The game is expected to take around forty hours to complete if you shoot straight through the storyline without stopping to invest time in side quests, though you could easily double that time investment. If you’re looking to complete both campaigns, you could potentially spend around one hundred and sixty hours clearing out the game. There aren’t any invisible walls keeping you from entering zones you shouldn’t be accessing, I’m told, though you’ll know if you’ve entered a zone you shouldn’t be in if the monsters in it smear you in two hits. There are multiple difficulties to use, and the game allows you to switch factions at any point in the game in case you decide that you’re uninterested in the needs of the current faction and want to trade up. There won’t be any options to customize your character, unfortunately, as the game is focused on the story more than the main character himself. There will be some spiffy magical weapons to claim if you’re looking to make your character into an avatar of destruction, of course, so this, at least, is completely intact. There won’t be any sort of New Game Plus option either, so if you do choose to start the campaign over, it will be with a fresh character, for storyline purposes. With the ability to play through two notably different storylines, this more than likely won’t be an issue, however.
Risen should be coming to the Xbox 360 on February 23rd, 2010, and it’s entirely possible we’ll have a review available shortly thereafter. At this point, Risen is looking to be a solid sleeper hit, as what was shown to me during the demonstration looked solid, and the game looks to be technically strong. While it remains to be seen if the game can adequately pull off all of the elements addressed effectively, what was on display was a solid game that looks like a worthwhile addition to the 360 library. Risen looks like it could also be a fun time for fans of third person action RPG’s like Fable, as it looks to be a similar, if not identical, experience. If the final product is as good as this demonstration build was, Risen could be an interesting sleeper hit for 2010, and hopefully it can pull this off without a problem. We’ll know in a few weeks.