Ryse: Son of Rome has had a pretty rough go since its unveiling at E3 2013. Since then, it has undergone some additional tweaks and polish, and a lot of the negative feedback about the game seems overly harsh. That's not to say that it doesn't have significant flaws, as the gameplay doesn't have much depth due to its emphasis on combat and little else. While the game isn't as polished as it could be, it is one of the better launch titles available for the Xbox One.
You play as Marius Titus, a soldier climbing the ranks in the Roman legion just as his father did. During a visit home, Rome is attacked by a barbarian army, and this throws his world upside-down and forces him to seek vengeance upon the barbarian hordes. He joins the war effort, climbs the ranks and becomes a general. As he does so, he finds that he has enemies on both sides of the war front.
Most of the gameplay boils down to melee combat, which plays out in a manner very similar to that of the recent Batman games. You can attack with your sword, bash forward with your shield, and unleash heavier attacks. A timed block can deflect light enemy attacks, and heavier enemy attacks must be dodged by rolling. It's a system that works quite well, and it quickly allows you to feel confident when engaging multiple foes at once.
This is important because enemies don't always take turns hitting you, one after another. You can only block one attack at a time, so watching enemy movements is necessary so you may roll out of the way of two or more enemies. Foes also telegraph their heavy attacks by glowing red while winding up; it's color-coded to the button you'd better press if you want to get out of the way.
There are a variety of enemy types, and even the basic fodder blocks your attacks if you hit them with a sword over and over again. Unfortunately, most enemies can be defeated by alternating sword and shield attacks, which feels kind of cheap. Other enemy types require ore finesse, such as blocking a complete flurry of their attacks to stagger them, or hitting them with a shield three times to do the same. This puts some emphasis on recognizing enemy types and tailoring your attacks accordingly.
Once you've hit an enemy enough, a skull appears above his head, and you can engage in an execution, which is essentially a Quick Time Event (QTE). This means the enemy and Marius engage in a set of canned animations with the action periodically going into slow-motion. During this time, the enemy either glows blue or yellow, meaning you continue the execution with a sword or shield attack. You cannot fail at these, so pressing the wrong button or none at all still results in the same animations playing out — with the death of the enemy at the end. However, doing so accurately still influences the benefit you gain from the execution.
At any time, you can use the d-pad to change the benefit. Setting it to health is the only reliable way you can regain health, whereas setting it to focus refills your focus meter. Damage and experience bonuses round out the rest of the selections, with the latter giving you more experience to upgrade Marius's abilities, health/focus amounts, or unlock new execution moves. The better timed your execution, the higher the bonus, and to get the best bonuses, you have to memorize the execution's actions or keep a close eye on which hand Marius is about to use against the opponent.
The executions are brutal and are composed of a few different categories. Performing an execution in front of an enemy pulls from a different set than that being behind them, and there are also environmental executions, such as kicking someone off a wall, stabbing him while you pin him against a wall with your shield, or holding him down over a burning pot of oil. There are also dual executions if two enemies are nearby and are both showing skulls above their heads, and that results in an even higher potential score. This adds some strategy to the combat, as you could get one enemy to that state and do the same for another rather than execute them individually.
The focus bar is beneath the health bar. In focus mode, all nearby enemies are in slow-motion and are unable to block Marius's attack, while he is accelerated and can dash and hack at nearby enemies with impunity. This can be a good way to quickly cut down an enemy group into a more manageable size, or whittle down a few until they're near executions. It is best used to get out of a jam, and on harder difficulties, it's handy to retain a chunk of focus for just that purpose.
Unfortunately, combat comprises the majority of the game. While the combat works incredibly well, the game doesn't offer any breaks from it, other than occasionally finding a collectible item. Other breaks are few and far between, such as commanding a group of soldiers to form a line and throw pilums at enemy archers while occasionally forming a shield wall to defend against arrows. Less often, you command a battle using your voice (or the controller). It would be nice to have some more depth to the game, but the combat is tuned well enough.
The game offers a multiplayer component in the form of two players playing as nameless gladiators as they work together to fight off waves of enemies in the Roman Colosseum. There's a fanciful element in that sections of the floor can drop and rise up in a new configuration, allowing the arena to be subtly reconfigured between waves. This can add new traps, new racks of pilums for the players, or new objectives that the players must protect or destroy.
As you complete rounds in the arena, you gain gold, which can be both used in the single-player campaign to upgrade Marius or spent on booster packs for your multiplayer gladiator. These booster packs contain a selection of new gear, and each piece can be beneficial and detrimental. For example, a piece may add to your health regeneration but reduce your maximum focus amount. It often feels inconsequential and cosmetic, but better gear does have a slight impact on your success in the arena. The system lacks any real means of player expression; regardless of what gear you pick, you'll have a shield in one hand and a sword in the other, and pilums are your ranged weapon.
Ryse: Son of Rome is a solid game and arguably has the best graphics of any console game to date. The combat is engaging, and the multiplayer extension feels like the Shadows of Rome multiplayer that never was. Although the title does come across as a one-trick pony, a fair amount of care was put into that element. Ultimately, I found the game to be the most enjoyable of all Xbox One launch titles, and putting this much emphasis on a new IP is always commendable. If you want the best-looking game on the new Xbox One console, Ryse is the easy choice to make, and the combat is enough to keep your interest until the end.
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