Codemasters and Liquid Entertainment had quite a task before them when they set out to create Rise of the Argonauts. Like all of the great myths the game is based on, there was a gigantic and intimidating presence blocking their success, and this particular titan goes by the name God of War. Unlike the great stories of ancient times, there is no happy ending here, as Jason and his crew, while putting up a valiant fight, are ultimately slain by Kratos, and the mortal who would replace Ares remains undefeated atop the mountain. The developers should take heart, as Rise of the Argonauts is still a good game, even great in some respects, and would serve nearly all gamers well if they can look past the title's myriad technical deficiencies.
The game opens with Jason on his wedding day, set to live out his days with Alceme, princess of Mycenae. Things go horribly wrong, though, and their wedding is interrupted by the Blacktongues, a fanatical cult devoted to the ancient goddess Hecate. Sadly, Alceme is slain in the fighting, but Jason refuses to let her go. Appealing to the gods, he learns that if he can find and retrieve the legendary Golden Fleece, he can undo Alceme's death and the two can find happiness once more. Of course there is a downside; if Jason fails, then not only will his bride remain dead, but her soul will be forced to wander lost forever and never knowing the afterlife, effectively separating the two lovers for all eternity.
The story line of Rise of the Argonauts is exceptionally well-crafted, with plenty of twists and turns along the way to keep you glued to your seat. The game interweaves the stories of many other Greek mythological characters, allowing Jason the excuse to cross paths with Hercules, Achilles and Medusa, among others. The gods also obviously play an important role in all this, and Jason will regularly find himself interacting with Apollo, Hermes, Athena and Ares as he sails the seas in search of the key to retrieving the Fleece.
Jason's patron gods play a much larger role than mere story agents, though, as they are also the conduit through which he learns new abilities and strengthens old ones. In one of the cleverest methods of leveling in modern RPGs, Jason's tasks throughout the game manifest themselves as "deeds." These events may be as simple as helping an NPC with a problem or as complex as shattering a certain number of enemy shields, but each deed plays a critical role in winning the support of the gods. You see, every time Jason acquires a deed, he can then dedicate it to one of the gods, who in turn grant him favor. With enough favor, the gods allow Jason to acquire a new power, some of which are passive and others which are designated as "God Powers" and can be called upon in battle. Furthermore, each god's powers portray a specific aspect of the game, so those looking for a powerhouse who can mow down foes with reckless abandon would likely enjoy dedicating deeds to Ares, while those wishing to play as an artful dodger would be best suited loading up on skills granted by Hermes.
Aspects aren't the only way to curry the gods' favor, though, as dialogue also affects how the deities view you. At several points throughout the adventure, Jason will be presented with the now-ubiquitous Mass Effect-style dialogue tree with certain responses that are favored by each god. If you are looking to please Athena, then select the wise and justice-serving approach, whereas Ares favors that you be direct, bold and fearless. It's a great way to keep the conversations in the game interesting and give you incentive to think about your answers rather than simply skipping past the dialogue in order to jump back into the action.
As far as combat itself, Rise of the Argonauts is good, but it's far from the best you're likely to see. Jason wields three different weapons (a sword, a spear and a mace) and can switch between each on the fly. As each weapon exists in a rock-paper-scissors alignment with the other two, it's critical to be able to jump from sword to spear to mace as the situation requires. Jason also carries with him his trusty shield, which, in addition to deflecting enemy attacks, can also be used to stun or bash foes.
The main issue with combat is not that it is unresponsive or cumbersome, but rather that it lacks fluidity. Whereas in God of War, Kratos can spin and slice and toss opponents to rack up huge combos, Jason is restricted to only two to three blows per series. Furthermore, the inclusion of shields on most enemies means that if you're the impatient type, you may spend a lot of time hacking through defenses rather than slaying simple baddies and moving on. The combat system is meant to inspire thoughtful, deliberate fighting where you probe for weaknesses and attack when the moment is right, but since the title throws hordes of weakling baddies at you one after another, it's best to simply wade in arms flailing and mindlessly button-mash until all of the foes lay dead at your feet. Don't even worry about the God Powers you spent all those points on; aside from some of the harder bosses at the higher difficulties, they aren't even worth calling upon. In short, combat isn't bad, and battling alongside your Argonaut buddies can be fun, but it falls well short of the visceral high some other titles can offer.
The other problem some may have with Rise of the Argonauts is its pacing. While the game bills itself as a Western-style action RPG, many of its non-combat aspects are a clear throwback to the JRPGs of old. For instance, in the first two hours of the game, there is almost no fighting whatsoever. Things kick off with an intense sequence of combat as you try and drive the Blacktongues out of the palace, but after that, the game quickly descends into the minutiae of naming a new captain of the guard, running errands for people who were injured in the attack and trying to find just the right person to talk to in your labyrinthine palace in order to advance the story. This issue crops up fairly thoroughly throughout the game, and at many stops along the way, you may be doing just as much talking and investigating as fighting. While old-school RPG gamers won't mind, those who expect constant combat and excitement will likely lose interest before long.
While some can dismiss criticisms against the game's combat or pace as matters of opinion, it is difficult to dispute the title's various technical flaws, particularly when it comes to issues of graphics and sound. The PS3 version of Rise of the Argonauts requires a mandatory install, but it's hard to know what all that data now occupying the hard drive is for. There are still a multitude of loading screens, sometimes even appearing when you're simply traversing one part of an island (or worse, the Argo) to another, and when the game isn't loading, it is beset with stuttering frame rate issues and texture load-in. Animations can also be wonky, as Jason's stoop-shouldered run is especially hilarious for all the wrong reasons, particularly when he's loping down a hill. In addition, sometimes during conversations, one of the parties involved would simply vanish, as though some sort of invisibility spell had been cast. The person would still talk, but the avatar representing him was gone. This is all in a game that's not exactly pushing the barriers of next-gen graphics either.
Sound design also has some problems, specifically missing dialogue and odd pauses. There were several times throughout the game where I would be talking to a character when both parties suddenly clammed up, refusing to speak a word. At first I thought it was a dramatic pause, but once it ran over a minute, and once it happened on more than one occasion, I realized that it was an unfixed bug. While it was a simple problem to remedy by skipping past the offending scene, it hurts to lose out on information in a game as story-driven as this one. Things weren't much better when the characters were talking, as the title is littered with strange pauses and oddly emoted dialogue, leading me to believe that the VO director was telling the actor to feel one way in a scene one day, and then telling another actor to feel completely differently the next. If it were meant as a wink to the old "Jason and the Argonauts" movie, which was just horrendous, that would be one thing, but since the game takes itself so seriously in all other aspects, I doubt that is the case.
In spite of its technical shortcomings, Rise of the Argonauts is still a truly fun game that has gotten a bit of a bum rap. The story is very intriguing, and the leveling system is handled superbly. While the combat may not be particularly heart-pounding, it's still quite enjoyable to bash in a baddie's head with a mace, impale and toss him with your spear, or chop him in half with your sword. Granted, animation and sound problems are annoying and unforgivable, but the title still manages to be fun in spite of all that, which is saying something. Much like the Greek heroes it portrays, Rise of the Argonauts is a flawed but otherwise noble and good game, and one well worthy of your time.
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