Risen

Forethought:

I didn't manage to post this yesterday because, well, Sunday was my birthday, and I didn't wake up until late yesterday.  And when I woke up, it was in a casino.  So, you know.

I have absolutely no knowledge about the story, gameplay, or production of Risen.  All I do know is that it was developed by Piranha Bytes, who developed the Gothic series before Risen, and that it was published by Deep Silver, the group behind Catherine, Stalker, and Dead Island, and the new home for Saints Row IV and Metro: Last Light.  They are also the video game branch of Koch media, who, as far as I can tell, are not related at all to the evil brothers of the same name.

I haven't played anything in the Gothic series, and I can't really make a qualitative assessment based on a parent company that has published both Dead Island, a broken game that I actually liked a great deal, and the hilariously inept Ride to Hell: Retribution.  Wikipedia tells me that it is a "single-player fantasy-themed role playing game", although that is about as vague a description for a game as I can imagine.  I'll mix that with the accompanying art for the game and guess that it is an Elder Scrolls game set int he Mediterranean.  As I'm writing this, the main menu music is looping, and man does it sound like Fallout. 

Here we go.

Risen

(All screenshots have been googled.  I completely forgot to take any.)

01.jpg

Risen falls more on the Dead Island end of the Deep Silver spectrum than the Ride to Hell: Retribution spectrum, but the things I loved and hated about the former game exist in spades here.  I realize, of course, that these are games by different developers.  There's really zero crossover in terms of creative collaboration, but there are a lot of parallels to be drawn between the two games.  

Like Dead Island, Risen is a game that has a theoretical value I can really get behind.  I like fantasy games.  I like open world games.  I like magic, I love collecting loot, I love stumbling on dungeons and caves, I love health bars.  I even like forests.  But all of these things are with the same proviso - "if it's done well."  In the same way that "I like open-world zombie melee games" only got Dead Island so far before "I hate boring bullshit and glitches" interfered, all of the aforementioned theories behind Risen only get it so far before "this game didn't have the budget it needed" starts to impede.

I don't want to harp on the negative.  Right from the start, Risen makes clear what kind of game it is.  While we watch an evil man totally fuck up an Inquisition boat that our protagonist has stowed away on, a voiceover tells us that something has risen from before the time of man.  #heythatsthetitle

This building is one of the things that has risen in Risen.

Smash cut to the less-impressive-looking in-game model of the main character waking up on an island, surrounded by dead bodies and a woman whom you must lead to an abandoned house.  No real story development, except the realization that everyone else on the ship appears to have died, and the woman you help off the ground doesn't appear to be terribly affected by this news.  

There's some crab-things and wolves and giant bees to be clubbed to death, and there's loot to be had.  And the looting feels pretty good, even though after a numbed of hours I'm still not entirely confident I know what all the loot is going to be used for, or what of it is useful.

I have not played Skyrim (a tragedy, I know, but I was a PS3-only person until very recently), but my experience with previous games in that series makes it clear that Risen is very much an Elder Scrolls game in terms of combat.  The melee attacking has the same kind of strange unsatisfying feel to it that Oblivion and earlier did for me.  It could be that the swings always feel slow and lumbering, and when they hit they don't really make a satisfying sound or change of animation.  Having said that, watching an enemy's life-bar tick down was extremely satisfying, and parrying (which I almost never take part in) felt pretty good.

The graphics in Risen are acceptable until they start moving, and until you realize that this game came out for the PC in 2009.  The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion was released in 2006, and boasts more impressive graphics.  Far be it from me to declare a game as inferior just because it doesn't appear to have the kind of budget that an Elder Scrolls game does, but there elements of Risen that genuinely interfered with my enjoyment of it.  The character animation, for example, made the protagonist and the girl look downright goofy - when I approached her near-death body, and I discovered she was still breathing, she jumped up from the ground and began talking to me.

This animation isn't made any less dopey by the voice acting, which in my time with game ranged from uninspired to awful.  As I mentioned, the woman (whose name I refuse to look up) did not sound like she was bothered one bit by the dead bodies strewn about her.  Later the same woman told me to head for some torches, well after I had walked past the very torches towards which she was supposed to gesture.  No matter.  None of the characters seemed particularly interested in anything that was going on, anyhow - when I entered a house and its owner stuck a sword in my face threateningly, he simultaneously spoke to me quite casually about what I was doing on the island.  When he found out I was shipwrecked, he just kept talking.  

Hopefully whoever attacks me in this house will at least enjoy it.

So what exactly am I doing on this island?  In the moment I'm running around (slowly), picking up mushrooms and herbs, stumbling on very small dungeons, fighting animals, opening treasure chests, fighting more animals, and meeting characters without much to offer in terms of plot, but with cabinets full of good that they're willing to give a complete strange who burst into their home.  On a larger scale, I have no idea what's happening.  My natural tendency in open-world games is to try to cover as much area as possible, with the assumption that the game's story was responsible for catching up with me.  In games such as Grand Theft Auto, Saints Row, Dead Island, and Oblivion, this was the case.  So far in Risen, it is not.

But this island is tripping mushrooms.

Looking on Wikipedia, it seems the game is about aligning yourself with certain factions on the island, all of whom have some sort of relationship with the Inquisition, whose ship you were stowed away upon.  I also learned that that lady's name was Sara.  All of this comes as a complete shock to me.  It also appears that the Volcano is a fairly important location in the game, which is good, because I'm pretty sure that's where I was headed.

I don't mind games that put other aspects before story, but open-world games, for me, need to have a strong enough story for me to be invested in the environment.  It's entirely possible that Risen has this, and I just missed it, so I can't hold it against the game.  The story I did encounter, however, was very ordinary, either playing off of typical fantasy tropes, or written and delivered poorly.

There has been a lot of discussion on websites like Giant Bomb and Game Informer about the position of middle-tier games in the industry - that is, whether there is a place for them at all.  For my money, I believe there is still room for games without huge budgets to do interesting, meaningful things.  What I don't think can survive anymore is games that mimic larger, more well-produced games.  Games like The Darkness, Condemned, Vanquish, and Darksiders all made interesting and impactful choices inside their (presumably) mid-range budgets.  And Metro 2033, a mid-tier game in budget, appeared in no way to be anything less than polished and well-produced, while still making interesting choices.  

Or, you know, you could fight some bird animals.  Sure.

It remains to be seen which category Risen falls into.  So far in my play-through, it seems as though there aren't many exciting decisions being made in terms of story or gameplay.  And Risen did not come out at $39.99 - it cost the same as any full-priced Xbox or PC game.  So the question is - when you look at this game on a shelf, and see Oblivion or (I assume) Skyrim next to it, why would you choose Risen?

So far, there is hope in the environment.  The Mediterranean setting could prove interesting, and the way the game handles indoor and outdoor environments seamlessly is something I would like to see in every game.  Entering a crypt or cave that may or may not be significant is always exciting, and the game's ability to blend these areas seamlessly is very impressive.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of games on my Steam list, and Skyrim is one of them.  So for the time being, I

Will Not Revisit

Risen.  I do, however, look forward to looking at its sequel in a few weeks.  If they can focus the story, and put just a little more of the game's budget into the presentation of that story, the game might be more imminently likable.

For tomorrow, I'm going to be looking at another game that I've wanted to play for quite some time.  It was an Xbox 360 exclusive for a while, but when it released for PC I bought it immediately, without even having a machine to play it on.  I'm thrilled to look at...

Mark of the Ninja!