Although I enjoy many genres, RPGs are often my poison of choice. Remarkably, I actually learned how to read as a youngster thanks to Final Fantasy on NES. As such, I sometimes yearn for the days of yore; when players had to search far and wide for their objectives, and random monsters would wipe out the hero without a second thought. Earlier this year, I had a chance to preview Risen 2. At the time, I praised the game nearly universally. Now that I have experienced the finished product, does it stand up to industry giants like Mass Effect 3 or Skyrim? In many ways, Risen 2 offers a superior experience to such blockbusters. Read on to find out why.
Set in the Caribbean during the Inquisition, Risen 2: Dark Waters continues the story that began in 2009’s Risen. The world is under attack by the Titans, along with the sea goddess Mara, and as the hero, you’re tasked with ending the threat. The game begins with the hero (who is nameless) in the employ of the Inquisition. Right off the hop, an attack by the Kraken prompts the inquisition to send you undercover with pirates. The goal is to stop the Titans, Kraken, and sea goddess by any means necessary. From there, things are fairly wide open as the player is free to approach things from as virtuous or villainous a perspective as they like. There is no explicit ‘morality meter’ in the game, but your actions will certainly have consequences. For instance, making a lewd comment to an admiral’s daughter just happened to cut off a number of side quest opportunities. Although the game is a sequel, players should have no trouble following along with things except for minor references to people and places.
Risen 2 is an open world RPG that harkens back to the glory days of the genre. By glory days, I mean that the game will hand you your head if you don’t pay attention. Running across a Jaguar or Gorilla in the jungle can easily end your life. It is no wonder one of the most prominent loading screen tips you’ll see is ‘save often’. Beyond the sheer difficulty, the game forces you to use your noggin. If you’re a member of what I call the ‘waypoint generation’, you’ll be in for a few surprises. Unless you buy one, you won’t a have a map. If you have a map, it doesn’t tell you where to go. There’s no enemy radar. Your logbook gives you only basic quest information, and doesn’t update when you hear new information. That’s right, you’d be well advised to have a pad of paper nearby to write key information down when you play Risen 2. And I love that.
In my mind, it almost seems as if exploration has gone by the wayside with most RPG’s these days. You’re constantly ushered to the next waypoint, or down the golden trail of breadcrumbs, and this makes most RPGs feel overly linear. Developer Piranha Bytes decided to eschew this practice, and I commend them on making such a bold and potentially polarizing design choice. As I said in my preview “The feeling of excitement when you discover something in Risen 2 is much greater than other RPGs, simply because you don’t know it’s there.”
Another interesting design choice occurs in character progression. Every activity in the game earns you Glory, Risen’s version of experience points. Unlike other RPGs, there are no levels, classes or specializations. Instead, you improve stat categories like toughness and cunning using your glory-like currency. Each broad category governs a number of more specific skills too (which you improve by paying various NPCs in gold): cunning for example governs thievery (lockpicking), silver tongue (speechcraft) and dirty tricks. I really like the flexibility this brings to the game, as it lets you pick all the skills you like, and ignore everything you don’t. In my case, I built a true pirate: a rum-swilling, pistol packing, silver tongued liar. The flexibility would really pay dividends in replaying the game. Voodoo magic, alchemy, smithing, fencing, and sneaking are all paths one could follow.
The only real sticking point of Risen 2 is in how it controls. The word that kept coming to mind while playing was ‘clunky’; however, it is perhaps more accurate to say that everything has a distinct weight to it. Particularly in combat, you have to be very strategic and deliberate in how you approach the battle. Once you learn some more advanced counterattacks and techniques things become easier, but the game constantly forces you to be on your toes: complacency will result in your death. At other times, it feels like there is somewhat of a delay between input and result, but once you’ve acclimatized it doesn’t really affect the gameplay. The AI in the game is generally invisible, exactly as it should be. In combat, opponents will try a variety of strategies in attacking you, and multiple enemies will attack you at once if given the chance.
Visually, Risen 2 is a real stunner. The old-world jungle environments of the game have lots of bells and whistles, and I frequently found myself just staring at things. HDR and depth of field are used to great effect, and the jungle foliage is very realistic. Just watching the way sunlight filters through tree branches is practically awe inspiring. Even things that traditionally look ‘off’ in games look fantastic. Case in point is fire, which looks lifelike and kicks off a very convincing glow. Character models are equally impressive and are animated in a rather hilarious over the top manner. Pirates look like they haven’t bathed in months, and noble characters are suitably regal. The lip synching during dialogue isn’t perfect and sometimes there is a little clipping, but these didn’t bother me based on the overall quality of the visuals.
Likewise, the sound in Risen 2 is excellent. The music is appropriate for the setting and well written, sounding like a mixture of Uncharted, Fallout 3, and The Dark Knight: impressive company. The various themes weave their way in and out as you play, and genuinely add emotion to the situations you encounter. Effects and environmental sounds are first-rate too. Thunderstorms, gunshots, and sword strikes are all sharp and unique. Voice acting in the game is really well done with distinctive main characters and a decently wide variety of nameless NPCs (certainly less irritating than those seen in Skyrim). Sometimes the characters exhibit a little bit of cheese in their delivery, but it’s really quite charming, and fits perfectly into the overall feel of the game.
Overall, I really enjoyed Risen 2: Dark Waters. Between the beautiful visuals, intriguing story and environments, and unique take on the RPG genre, Risen 2 should be on the radar of any RPG fan. It has an undeniable charm, and a more personal feel than many blockbuster games. It’s well worth a look.