Piranha Bytes has a well-deserved reputation among PC players for its tough, but fair, CRPGs such as Gothic I and II. The controls were about as friendly as a rabid squirrel but manageable enough to dip into a world that wasn't shy about killing you often. Most of that can be blamed on going where you shouldn't be yet due to a sandbox whose only barriers, beyond the technical fences, were the ones better armed and deadlier than you were.
The first Risen embraces the same tradition, albeit with better controls, but its spiritual gameplay ties to Gothic could still be seen in its skill systems and a wide-open world eager to break you as quickly as its roots did. The ending left things open to a sequel, and Risen 2: Dark Waters expands on the world.
The hero from the first game is swimming in a bed of bottles when things begin. In the last game, he was pulled into a climactic struggle that banished the Fire Titan from the world, and that has given him superstar status as the man for the job that he's being asked to do next. Given that he's part of the Inquisition, he has little choice — especially with the old world burning to ashes around him.
Everything got to this point because somehow, humanity had managed to exile the gods. When that happened, the elemental titans also awoke, and though the Fire Titan was stopped in the last game, four more of his brothers and sisters are still ravaging the world. There is word that a pirate may have found the key to slaying the Titan Lord, Mara. Titan Lords command other titans, and in this case, Mara commands all things related to water.
Ships have gone missing, and with the impending end of the Old Empire on the continent and two titans fighting it out, fleeing across the ocean for a new home far from the war has become the hottest ticket in town. You can see the problem. The only way to solve it is to find this weapon while going undercover as a pirate, though the game regrettably stops short of going all the way with cannon fire and boarding parties.
Despite pirates, the Inquisition, and the natives being exploited by said Inquisition, there is no faction-based class system like that found in the original Risen. Previously, throwing in your lot with a specific faction determined your character's development path, making it a challenging choice on what you wanted to sacrifice. Here, there are no such worries; it might make a few fans a little unhappy, but there are a few minor repercussions in choosing sides.
Risen 2 breaks up things across several lush islands, each with its own dangers. Experience earned is now called "Glory" and acts as money to purchase upgrades from trainers, if you can find the right ones to keep you alive. Death is perhaps a little too easy when compared to the first game, as most creatures often fillet you the first time you run into them.
There are no attributes, only abilities that are divided into general categories. The Blades ability covers anything with an edge, such as swords. Voodoo substitutes for the "magic" ability from the first game since mages have all but disappeared after society blamed them for the state of the world. It also happens to be forbidden by the Inquisition, although they don't seem to have a problem with you using it. Cunning is about thievery skills like picking locks, Toughness determines things like health and your ability to deflect damage, and Firearms covers anything that you can shoot. If you're hoping for crossbows or bows, no one uses them anymore.
Each category is further divided into sub-skills with attributes that can be improved through trainers by spending valuable Glory. Like in the first game, there are only so many monsters, so players can't afford to be carefree in spending Glory. There's no respec of any kind and monsters rarely respawn except after certain milestones. Once they're wiped out again, they're just gone.
Hidden "Legendary Items" scattered throughout the game also give these skills a permanent boost, as do particular herbs and potions. A particular one might save you from having to spend a few thousand Glory points on training up a skill, for example, and an infinite inventory gives kleptomaniac adventurers free reign in snagging anything that isn't nailed down, such as those stat-enhancing herbs. Not all of the special trainers can be easily located, even when the in-game journal does keep track of who you have found.
Being a pirate also means you'll eventually get a crew. You initially join the crew of Patty, the daughter of the legendary Steelbeard. Later, when you get your own crew, you can ask others to tag along. Only one can risk death alongside you at a time, but if they go down, you can run over and resuscitate them, win the battle, or run far enough away, they'll come back to fighting shape. Each crew member also has a specific talent, whether it's being good with both a sword and pistol or healing you in the midst of battle.
With so much going for it, Risen 2 offers a big world with plenty of customization for your character, and there are lots of reasons to go exploring off of the beaten path. Unfortunately, much of that promise is also swamped with bizarre quirks, some of which unexpectedly parody the fantasy sandbox it tries so hard to emulate.
Aside from sleeping in other people's beds all night long and then waking up to see them angrily standing over you, it's far easier to screw up your character than in the last game. Introducing firearms is an advertisement to use them — a lot — as they can make combat too easy once you become proficient. Going purely melee with swords, which I did in the original game, was a mistake here, where certain creatures can annihilate you at close range. There is no middle ground for some of these encounters, especially with some bosses or larger monsters. Either you shoot things at a distance or endure frustration because you focused on something else.
I also wish more could have been done with Voodoo other than it feeling confined. The game talks it up, but in the final view, I didn't find it very useful beyond certain story-related events. Possessing people was certainly a lot of fun, especially when one quest allowed me to essentially destroy a villain's career without firing a shot, but only when the script allowed you to do this.
Then there's the "choice." Whether you side with the heavily clichéd "native" faction who represent Voodoo, or the equally clichéd Inquisition who specialize in firearms, the choice is relatively empty. In siding with the natives, I promised to never use firearms again, but I gained access to Voodoo. On a lark, I went back to the Inquisition stores, loaded up on lead balls, and fired my musket all day without my native friends giving me the evil eye. So much for promises.
Crew can also be used as cannon fodder by exploiting how easy it is to bring them back from "death." In more than one tough battle, I'd run circles around enemies until my partner distracted them, taking the brunt of their attacks while I picked them off with a musket or went in slashing. If my friend went down, I'd maneuver until I could bring them back, and then repeat the whole process. They can also be as dumb as rocks when it comes to negotiating corners, down paths, or following you across shallow water, only to appear from thin air when the game forces them to catch up with you. Otherwise, they're like having indestructible robots that you can't order around other than to stay put, go home or chat.
Switching back to the menu for a swig of grog or rum to restore health also has the annoying tendency to disarm you when you get back to the action, often putting you at risk of whatever is nearby. Given how arcade-like the action is and how much leeway the game gives you everywhere else, this came as a surprise.
Not all of the humor or clichés are particularly good. Some of the lines aren't bad, and the banter between your protagonist and the other party members is done relatively well, but things like the swearing gnome who learned how to speak from pirates quickly wear thin. Don't expect deep choices or NPCs to acknowledge some of the things you did to them. At one point, I stole a big, cannon-laden ship, but when I later returned to the same port, everyone was happy to talk to me. Even my boss, to whom I had to occasionally report, mentions nothing about the incident. Did I possess the Inquisition officer who ran the port so that he could convince everyone that he loaned me the ship? No, although that would have made more sense.
Even with a ship under my command and despite a detailed map, I was restricted to where the game wanted me to go. Forget about sailing up and down the coast or to islands locked out by DLC you might not have if you didn't pre-order the game. You can explore your destinations to your heart's content, but you can't go too far from the sea lanes.
The game also suffered from occasional glitches, the worst of which was having to use quick travel to escape a broken quest. At one point, I discovered the true identity of a character, but because of that inconvenient truth, my dialogue options could no longer complete another quest. I had to confront the character, which dumped me into a fight, and after unmasking the person as the antagonist, the friendly village turned against me. Only by quick-traveling out of there and avoiding it for a time was I able to go back without any further problems.
It took me about 50 hours to plow through Risen 2's winning combination of piracy on the high seas, deep skill system, tough combat, and adventure across unexplored lands. Risen 2 succeeds at what it tries to do if you ignore its more serious issues, though not everyone might have the patience to push through its initially high difficulty, dodgy humor and obvious stereotypes. On the surface, it's hard not to see the spiritual ties to Gothic in the game mechanics and the world. That might be all that Piranha Bytes' fans need to know before signing on.
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