Review: Risen (Microsoft Xbox 360)
by Mark B. on March 9, 2010

Risen
Genre: Action RPG
Developer: Piranha Bytes
Publisher: Deep Silver
Release Date: 02/22/10

Risen has a lot working against it as an Xbox 360 game. For one thing, it started its life as a PC game, and while some genres convert from PC to console easily (FPS titles for instance), action RPG’s can be rather complex to convert, if for no other reason than the fact that properly mapping the controls can kill even the most promising release. For another, Risen immediately draws comparisons to other 360 action RPG releases, such as Oblivion, Two Worlds and, of course, Fable II, which makes it seem like more of a “me too” experience than anything else. It also doesn’t help that the European 360 release has generally received some horrid press due to some severe technical issues, and while the preview build I saw showed some major progress forward from that release, there was no guarantee the final build wouldn’t have its own set of issues. Risen, as it turns out, is generally a competent action RPG, and would be a solid addition to the library of anyone who is a big fan of the genre. However, it’s also a game with some notable, though not crippling issues, and it’s very archaic in a lot of ways, making it something of a niche game that may only appeal to the most die-hard of genre fans.

Risen takes place on the island of Faranga, in a world where man has banished the old gods, but the gods have not quite gone away. As it happens, ruins have begun springing up on Faranga, which has turned the island into a major political nightmare. An organization known as the Inquisition comes into town and deposes the current ruling faction before instituting martial law on the island. You take on the role of a (by all indications) nameless protagonist who stowed away on an Inquisitor’s boat, only for the boat to be wrecked. You to wash ashore on the island with no idea where you are or what’s going on. In order to survive and make sense of things, you’ll have to ally with either the Inquisition, the local government or the local mages. You’ll also have to train yourself into a powerful warrior, and uncover the secrets of the island and the ruins upon it. The storyline of Risen is generally by the numbers, and the writing is generally solid and believable, if not masterful. The biggest positives to the writing are that the quests assigned to you all generally tie into the plot in some way, more so than in similar games where side quests may have nothing whatsoever to do with the plot, and that the quest structure differs depending on who you align yourself with. The factions also aren’t expressly good or evil, as each side has their own positives and negatives. You can decide who you want to work for based more on your personal preferences than whether or not you want to be the good or bad guy this game. These elements aren’t major additions to the game, as the game still follows a fairly linear path from start to finish, but they add enough variety and personality to the narrative that they help turn a fairly cut and dry plot into something interesting, if nothing else.

Risen is visually functional, but technologically it’s not anything exciting. The character models are rendered acceptably, and animate as one would expect. The enemy and monster designs are a mix of the familiar and the exotic, and there’s an interesting and varied mix of enemies to rend asunder, which is to the game’s benefit. The environments are also many and varied, and the areas are often quite expansive, which help to make the game feel massive and expansive. However, the textures are generally low resolution. While this is done to make it easier for the game to transition from one area to the next with no noticeable loading, this also isn’t terribly impressive considering what the system is capable of. The game also repeats character and enemy models frequently, so much so that you’ll see this sort of repetition within the first few hours of play in fact. There are also some odd tearing and clipping issues as well as some weird death animations that, while not game-breaking, detract from the game a bit. Aurally, the experience is a little better overall. The voice acting is generally good, though the performances aren’t uniformly positive. This means that overall the voice work is great but some performances are far better than others. The music has a distinct fantasy feel to it and generally consists of some solid orchestral compositions that, while not especially memorable, fit the game nicely. The sound effects are generally good, as combat sounds like it should and the various monsters sound as they should, although in the same way that monster designs repeat, so too do the sound effects these monsters make.

If you’ve played an action RPG on the 360 in the past few years, Risen should immediately be familiar to you, as it uses many obvious and understandable control mechanics. The left stick controls your movement while the right stick looks around, the X button brandishes and sheathes your melee weapons, the right trigger attacks and the left trigger blocks. When using ranged weapons, the right bumper instead brandishes your weapon, the left trigger zooms, the right trigger fires and B sheathes your weapon. You can have one of each equipped, allowing you to switch between them as needed. The A button interacts with the environment, the Y button allows you to jump when needed, and B allows you to cancel an action if you’re in the middle of, say, sitting down or sawing wood. The D-pad allows you to bring up your inventory, maps, quest screen, and status screens depending on the direction pressed, with each direction mapped to a particular choice. Picking up the controls should take no time at all even if your experience with action RPG’s is minimal, but fans of the genre should have no trouble jumping right into the game and getting to work. In an interesting touch, you can also set up eight hotkeys for various useful items and spells, which you can use at any time by holding the left bumper and pressing one of the four D-pad directions or the four face buttons, depending on which item you want to use at the moment. You needn’t specifically use items from the hotkeys, mind you, as the game will pause the action around you while you poke around in your inventory, but it can be useful to have certain items available from the hotkeys, especially when you’re trying to use a specific spell under certain circumstances.

Risen has more going for it than some inventory hotkeying, mind you. One of the big selling points of the game is that the level up system isn’t as simple as choosing a stat and improving it. As with most RPG’s, earning experience points will allow you to level up, which improves your character’s overall being but little else. Each level earns you Learning Points, however, which can be committed to anything you want, so long as someone can teach it to you. You’ll have to find a teacher if you want to upgrade your stats, however, and teachers will often want you to take on a quest and/or pay them for their services before they’ll train you, much like one would expect. This adds a bit more to the level up system, as you’ll have to seek out trainers for the skills you want before you can learn certain skills and abilities, which makes proper skill management important throughout the game. Further, the game generally doesn’t limit your ability to explore, as you can go anywhere on the island that you can see at any point, but the game makes it a point to upgrade the enemies based on the location. What this means is that you can go pretty much anywhere you want, but it’s entirely possible the local wildlife will be able to smear you when you go there. This doesn’t necessarily prevent you from going to new locations, but it makes you more aware of where you’re going and less likely to just run about unconcerned with the fact that you might get ruined in five seconds.

Risen also has a few other novel additions that make it appealing on top of the above. The game makes a good effort to add a role-playing element to the experience, both by asking you to go through the steps of forging and making items and such and by allowing you to do simple things like sit on chairs, cut wood, and otherwise putter around. These elements don’t add anything to the game per say, but they’re cute and show an attention to detail some games lack. The game also allows you to pick up nearly anything that isn’t nailed down, and gives you infinite inventory space to do so, allowing you to carry pretty much anything you find that looks useful or worth gold if you wish. As the game progresses you’ll also come into contact with world-manipulating spells, like Telekinesis for moving objects, Levitation for floating around, and so on, which will pop up periodically for puzzle-solving purposes, making the game about more than just completing quests and slaying monsters. On top of the puzzle solving and questing, you can also mine for ore, dig for treasure, cook up food to eat when you need healing, pick locks and pockets, and other fun stuff, as you wish. As such, Risen offers a decent amount of variety to keep things interesting beyond simply slaying wolves and demons and such, and it keeps the game moving along nicely without letting the game become bogged down.

The campaign generally takes around thirty to forty hours to complete, depending on how much exploration you do, but there are different factions to ally with, meaning you can potentially see different storyline missions and goals each time you play. The ending to your quest will ultimately more or less end up the same, mind you, but the path to get there can be different enough to encourage replay value. There are plenty of locations to explore and things to do no matter which group you ally with, so the game does offer some incentive to return. There’s no New Game Plus option to allow you to carry on with your gear and stats intact, unfortunately, so you’ll be starting your game over should you choose to see the different missions, but the variety is appreciated all the same. Risen is also fairly well balanced overall, though it may not seem like it at first. Though it is entirely possible to, say, wander into an area where enemies can smite you in seconds, you’ll be able to remember where these areas are and return once you level up, obliterate the inhabitants and claim their wonderful loot, thus giving you a reason to improve beyond the simple need to do so. Further, following the quest missions and going to the locations laid out in said quests usually isn’t exceptionally difficult, as the quest missions are often scaled in difficulty properly and don’t usually massively ramp up their difficulty in an unreasonable manner. Whatever build you choose to give your character will usually be useful from the beginning of the game to the end, and the game offers you plenty of chances to make money and earn experience points if you want to level up and develop your character, making the game generally challenging without being oppressive throughout the game.

Which is not to say that Risen is flawless, as it is unfortunately far from that. The biggest problem with the game is that it has a very old-school PC game mindset, and while this sort of thing might fly with an actual PC release, with a console release, it quickly becomes a niche title. The game is bad about marking down locations to visit when you’re trying to complete quests. If you have a quest map the game MIGHT give you an indication where to go, but more often than not it just says, “Find these people somewhere in this area,” and leaves you to your own devices. If you don’t have a quest map at the time, forget it, you’re going to be spending two hours looking for one item when the game has given you no clue as to its location, all because you need it to progress the story. I can understand that PC players like this sort of freedom and despise hand-holding, but if you hand a game like this to a fan of Fable the person will be absolutely confused and defeated by it. Making some sort of concession to the console market would have done wonders, but none exists. Further, should you happen to attract the attention of a monster several levels higher than you, your options are to die or hope a guard catches its attention as you run like hell from it, because monsters in Risen are incredibly unlikely to lose aggro while chasing you. I trained a ghoul for ten minutes until it finally killed me just because I was hoping that it would EVENTUALLY lose aggro and let me go on with my exploration, and I swear I’m not even exaggerating in the least. Final Fantasy XI wasn’t even that belligerent with its aggro, and that is a game developed by people who hate you.

Fighting monsters that are higher level than you can be a crapshoot as well, for several reasons. First, the combat isn’t as slick as it pretends to be, so while you can block, parry, dodge and so on, this often doesn’t work well. Enemies often lack patterns due to dim AI, so they might attack multiple times in a row or they might take your beating without issue, and you’re given no indication as to which. The timing on the parry mechanic is weird and very hard to adjust to, the lock-on system is spotty and doesn’t work very well, and frankly, you can do just as well in combat by repeatedly mashing the right trigger and praying, as enemies can spend minutes not attacking. Even if you DO catch them off-guard, they can just as easily break your combo and completely ignore their stun situation for no reason. It’s also possible to glitch enemies into a position where they simply take their beating with no response, as I did when I killed a monster I had NO RIGHT beating when I did (he could kill me in two hits and my attacks did slivers of damage to him). Oh, and I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that sometimes, enemies will randomly one-hit kill you for no reason whatsoever. I’m not even saying, “enemies that are massively higher level than you.” I mean enemies that are one or two levels higher than you. You’ll be in combat with an enemy you can fight and kill without much of a problem and suddenly, BAM, you’re dead for no reason. It could be some sort of critical hit, or it could be some sort of glitch. I have no idea which it is, but it’s annoying and inane and it put me off of the game entirely all three times it happened. If this is a bug, it needs to be patched yesterday. If this is a legitimate thing the developers incorporated into the game on purpose then the developers made a very bad decision and should rethink that in future games.

Outside of combat, there are other accessibility and technical issues that make the game somewhat less impressive than it could be. While the progression of leveling up, acquiring gear, and learning skills is well balanced, it’s also incredibly slow. There’s certainly something to be said for earning your progress and slowly building up your character, but compared to something like Fable II or Mass Effect 2, spending eight hours solving other people’s problems before you can even get your first (incredibly expensive) armor upgrade is tedious at the best of times. Meaningful long-term improvement over short-term upgrading isn’t a bad thing if the game makes the experience interesting, but Risen can take this to absurd levels, as noted above. Still, when one has some degree of investment in their character, even long stretches with a lack of progress can be ignored, but there’s no reason to care about your main character in Risen either. Most RPG’s either allow you to name and create your character to your specifications or provide you with some sort of already named hero for you to play as, but Risen opts to merge these concepts by giving you a nameless protagonist that cannot be customized in any way, which is… not the best way to do things. When discussing the story of the game during my hands-on preview, the rationale presented was that the story was meant to take center stage and the character was meant to simply experience it all. While this isn’t a terrible idea, consider how other games do this thing. In Oblivion, Fallout 3, Mass Effect 2, and other, similar games, you can customize your avatar as you see fit, allowing you to pretend he’s, well, you. Compare that with a story-driven RPG with set characters, like a Final Fantasy or a Persona, where the core characters are all their own characters who have their own motivations and goals and the player simply watches the story unfold. Risen features a set storyline with characters motivated by their own goals, but gives the player a static and unidentified main character, which has the effect of disconnecting the player from the experience. You’re not playing as you and there’s nothing that makes the main character stand out in any way, so it just feels like you’re moving from event to event instead of doing anything meaningful. Finally, the game features some odd technical issues, like the aforementioned instant-death attacks and odd glitches where the camera freaks out in combat or walking toward a building puts you on the roof for no reason, and while these glitches aren’t common, they are noticeable enough to detract from the experience a bit.

Risen is the sort of game that will appeal to diehard fans of the action RPG genre, as there’s enough good elements to the game to make it enjoyable, but it’s more than likely to put off more console-oriented fans because of its obtuse nature and more casual fans because of its stylistic and mechanical issues. The story is interesting and varied enough to keep the game going, the visuals and audio are competent and inoffensive, and the gameplay offers enough variety to be interesting. There’s plenty of variety to the things the player can do, and plenty of challenge to the game all around, and with a long quest and different factions to ally with, there’s plenty of play and replay value for anyone interested in the game. However, console-oriented action RPG fans may well be put off by the often unhelpful quest maps and lack of solid directions to objectives and the unimpressive presentation, while more casual genre fans may be put off by the, “exploration equals death,” mentality, the long time it takes to achieve any sort of notable character development, the lack of attachment to the main character as either a personal avatar or a character in the story, and the general technical issues. If you’re looking for a challenging and time consuming action RPG with some depth and substance and you don’t mind some mechanical issues and presentation flaws, Risen will be worth a look, but anyone looking for something a little more technically competent and polished may find this a bit too flawed and archaic to enjoy.

The Scores:
Story: GOOD
Graphics: MEDIOCRE
Sound: ABOVE AVERAGE
Control/Gameplay: MEDIOCRE
Replayability: GOOD
Balance: ABOVE AVERAGE
Originality: MEDIOCRE
Addictiveness: POOR
Appeal: POOR
Miscellaneous: POOR

FINAL SCORE: DECENT GAME.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Risen is something of an archaic game in many ways. While it will please diehard action RPG fans or players who appreciate older PC gaming sensibilities, console gaming fans and casual gamers will more than likely want to rent this before they invest their money in it. The story is solid, the visuals and audio are serviceable, and the gameplay is varied and interesting in a lot of ways. There’s plenty of depth to the game as well, and anyone who finds the game entertaining will enjoy the branching plot-lines enough to play through the game multiple times to see what the missions have to offer them. That said, the game isn’t for everyone. Console gamers will be put off by the lack of any sort of functional guidance for mission objectives, as well as the adequate but unimpressive presentation. Further, casual gamers will find the game unfriendly, between the harsh penalties for exploration, the massive time ratio between “work done” and “impressive upgrades earned”, the lack of an impressive hero and the ability to customize their avatar, and the general technical glitches. For someone with patience and a love of substance over style, Risen will satisfy the action RPG itch, but unless you’re a diehard action RPG fan the negatives and often draconian design elements may be too much for you to deal with.




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Mark B.

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  • Jaime

    I always remember an early mission that goes something like “Go east to the ruins”. You’d think it was one of the 2 ruins that were next to the camp, or the ones you passed in the east as you walked to the camp. It turned out they were MILES away in the FAR EAST of the map.

    I agree that Combat AI is pretty bad, but it’s not unmasterable. Generally, all enemies either dodge backwards or they dodge to the sides. So if you’re facing a wolf, do it in a narrow area and if you’re facing a rotworm, push them back against a wall… or just fireball everything to death, regardless of their AI. :)

    I am loving the game, but if you don’t like exploring or working hard for progression then don’t bother.

  • Mark B.

    Oh, I generally like the game fine, except for the instant-kills. When I’m fighting monsters around my level and something one-shots me from full to dead when it can otherwise only do about a tenth of my bar in damage, something’s wrong there.

    That said, I can’t imagine someone who liked Fable II or something similar is going to be jumping for joy at the prospect of what this game offers, and the review reflects that.

  • http://www.largegreenbird.blogspot.com Green Eagle

    This game generally retains both the strengths and weaknesses of the company’s Gothic series. I remember playing all three Gothic games and in each case really enjoying them until their combination of bugs, slow load times and unreasonable combat situations (where you were all to likely to be killed even later in the game by creatures that you encountered right from the beginning) finally robbed the game of any fun. The load times seem better in Risen, and the random creatures are slightly more manageable, but still the game can be very unrewarding at times, and requires a lot of perseverance if you are to stick at it.

  • DG

    I have been trolling for reviews of the North Am release of this game for awhile now, and this is the most comprehensive one I’ve found so far. Thank you..

    I’d like to try this title, but not at full price..this will be a great $20 buy in 3-4 months.

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