Risen has several truly wonderful elements, but unfortunately, the title stumbles just enough that it'll be entirely forgotten by gamers within a year. Piranha Byte did its best to redeem itself after the technical mess that was Gothic 3, but it wasn't quite able to develop a product that gamers will truly love.
The immediate problem is that the first of the game's four acts is tedious. RPG games are constantly hounded when they hand you a fetch quest, which means that people tell you to get X number of Y item and bring it back because they're way too lazy to do it themselves. Upon receipt of the item(s), they'll either part with a measly sum of money or introduce you to another character who will inch forward the story. These kinds of quests are rather boring; they're the sort of tasks that people do in MMO games to grind out experience points to level up. (Yes, the first act ultimately boils down to playing World of Warcraft by yourself.)
The setup for this is all extremely well-trodden ground. You are a nameless fellow who stows away on a ship with a gypsy named Sara, and you end up shipwrecked on the remote island of Faranga. (The game doesn't let you customize the playable character at all.) It turns out that the people from whom you were trying to escape, the Inquisition, have a foothold on the island due to some ruins rising out of the ground. Everybody is far too scared to do much because monsters are roaming everywhere, and there's a power struggle between the island inhabitants and the Inquisition. You get sucked up into it all, and the story … well, it goes places, but if that synopsis didn't sound interesting to you, then the story will leave you bored.
The interesting thing about this setup is that for a short while, the choices you make actually seem to have an effect on your character and the surrounding environment. The major decisions vanish and Risen moves to a more linear setup when the big bad guy is revealed. You must side with one of the factions — Don Esteban (an exiled gang that had previously controlled the island), the Inquisition (nutjob mages) or the Warriors of the Order (footsoldiers of the Inquisition) — and it affects the game in a big way. When you're presented with the choice, you aren't warned that, "You'd better think long and hard because this is a major decision!" It's simply idle conversation between two characters about where they think they might go once they part ways.
Side-quests can often be open to interpretation. You're welcome to double-cross people on a regular basis, and if you truly want to be an evil person, you're usually welcome to kill off the person who gave you the quest and take their gold. I didn't like to do that, as the leveling in the game is a bit slow and the quests are a good source of experience. The only time I felt compelled to do this was when the quest-giver was a drunkard who refused to go hunting, sat around crying about how everyone was going to die, and then had the audacity to ask me to kill some animals that had been bugging him. The man was such a train wreck that I simply killed him right then and there and took his gold.
Regardless of which faction you end up siding with and the choices you make, you'll quickly find that the real star of the show is not you or the island, but the island's inhabitants. These characters are extremely well-written, wonderfully acted, and just a joy to interact with. The people of Harbor Town genuinely sound like they're weary of being repressed, and if you go to the swamps to deal with Don Esteban, the people's desperation and depression as they find themselves slowly losing to the swamp is entirely believable. It starts to feel a little bizarre that the least believable character in the game is you. Everyone else in the game is well-acted, well-written and oozing with personality. Your character, on the other hand, always sounds like an emotionless fellow whose sarcastic responses are usually way off the mark.
Since Risen is an RPG, you'll find that as you progress through the game, you'll need to improve your skills to survive in an increasingly dangerous world. Levels allow you to learn specific new skills as you go. Most of your stats aren't determined by the slow crawl of the leveling up system, though; they'll need to be learned from one of the many trainers in the game world. This usually means giving them some gold to increase one of your stats. Occasionally, you can also exchange the gold for skills by getting hunters to show you how to skin an animal or learning how to smith better weapons. As a result of being able to learn all of these skills, getting things in the game is a process with some flexibility. You can make a weapon with an anvil, exchange gold for it, or maybe create some complex potions with alchemy and trade them for a new weapon.
The world is filled with many side-quests, and this is both a good thing and a bad thing. In a nod toward realism, the in-game map doesn't mark many things for you. You can gather from the conversations that you need to head in a general direction, but otherwise, the player must spend time exploring the nooks and crannies of the world, which can be tedious and rewarding. It slows down the game's pacing and can frustrate players when they can't find an objective, but you can often find useful goodies — treasure, weapons and shortcuts — in these places.
For all the good things I've had to say so far, it's not enough to carry the game past its biggest problem: the combat. You never feel particularly powerful as you play the game, and that's fine because it manages to make every single encounter feel like a life-or-death situation. This helps the combat feel intense, even though it's a bland and uninteresting chore. You can block, attempt to sidestep and attack, and that's about it for melee combat. The magic combat fares better but still isn't that interesting. Beyond the simplicity that fails to entice the player, the combat is never as precise as you need it to be, and this problem really rears its ugly head during encounters with more than one enemy. Risen uses a frustrating auto-targeting system. The game targets the enemy in the back, and when you slash your sword, it fails to do any damage because it attempts to hit the guy in front instead. It's aggravating because the combat constantly puts you on the defensive.
That unpolished feel also extends beyond the combat. The game's huge dialogue system really needed somebody to debug and proofread it. There are several points in the game where characters fail to speak lines, they say things out of order, the subtitles are completely different from the spoken lines, or the wrong character is speaking the line. The voice of a gruff old man should never come from the lips of a young woman. The little problems extend everywhere, getting stuck on things that don't make sense. Allies end up registering as enemies to other friendlies, and this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to random bugs. While no game is perfect, this is enough of a mess to be noticeable and regularly interrupt the flow of gameplay. Risen is not nearly as broken as Gothic 3, but it still feels like it needed more time in development.
Risen is an attractive title. While it's not technically very impressive, the game world looks good. The meadows seem lush, the swamp feels dank and depressing, and the environments handle spectacularly and capture the perfect feel. It's unfortunate that the same can't be said of the characters. Many of the characters are oozing with personality, but there are just as many great characters as there are ones who look out of place — particularly when it comes to the females.
Audio is also good, and the voice acting is fantastic … except for the main character. The sound effects get the job done, and the music sets the mood, although it's nothing that you'll remember after you turn off the game.
There's no real way around it: Risen has issues. While the characters are all wonderfully done and the world is appealing enough to immerse you in its fantasy setting, the onslaught of technical problems and woefully unsatisfying combat system will turn off most players in a hurry. Things get better as you progress, but a painful first quarter of the game, coupled with all of its other problems, means that Risen falls short of being worth your time. There's some great gameplay in Risen, but you have to trudge though too many problems to find it.
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