Review: Risen (Xbox 360)

risen-X360-US-packshot_2D.jpg The track record has not been very good for console ports of PC-first RPGs. Divinity II comes to mind first, as its Xbox 360 port is terrible from what I’ve been able to endure, and as much as I loved it, even the console versions of Sacred 2 were trumped by the PC original. Two Worlds is another, which again suffered from shoddy performance on the 360 more so than on PC. And I have to admit, even the Xbox 360 port of Risen – Piranha Bytes’ spiritual successor to the Gothic series – is just as disappointing when it comes to technical performance. The graphics are quite muddy, the animations are straight out of the 90’s, the framerate is woefully inconsistent, and lots of little bugs leave the game in an unpolished state.

Yet and still, Risen for the Xbox 360 is an RPG triumph, and what it lacks in polish and production values it more than makes up for with compelling gameplay. If you can stick around long enough to see it all come together…

Risen opens with your nameless hero marooned on a volcanic island after a treacherous sea voyage wrecks his ship, an island you later learn is under duress from a series of mysterious ruins that have risen from beneath the ground. Fear of these events has caused the populace to splinter into two factions – a gang of bandits hiding out in the swamps and a group of battlemages called the Inquisition who have taken control of Harbour Town and are investigating the ancient ruins — and as you explore the island you get caught smack dab in the middle of the two and must ultimately choose which one to side with.

I’ll be straight up with you – Risen gives off a depressing first impression. The pacing early on is glacial as you wander around the island — with little knowledge of what’s going on or where you should be going — in control of a character so generic and so pathetically weak that moths and spiky rodents can easily mop the floor with you in combat. Then there are the technical shortcomings I’ve already mentioned, which don’t exactly help paint a very promising picture when you are first starting out. For the first 5-10 hours, I was concerned about where things were going, but I could sense that there was tremendous potential just waiting to burst through so I kept plugging away. And I’m glad I did, because the subsequent 40-50+ hours I invested rewarded me far more than I ever imagined.

Though competently written and well acted, the main storyline is pretty predictable for a fantasy RPG and, to a certain extent, is a throwaway. But what separates Risen from other games is the believability of its world and inhabitants. Risen is an open world experience in its purest form. You are free to explore the island pretty much at will, searching caves for loot, slaying creatures and taking on quests however you choose – though keep in mind, your choices do have consequences. For me, the main quest line took a back seat to chatting with NPCs and completing the side quests that developed little sub-stories within the overarching plot. Quests are largely of the “fetch item X” and “kill creature X” style, but there always seems to be an underlying conflict behind each quest that involves multiple characters, and how you choose to proceed is much more ambiguous than simply deciding to make the good choice or the evil choice.

But the real star of the game is Faranga, the island itself. In Risen, Piranha Bytes has created a virtual world that is so natural and believable that it takes on a life of its own as a character in the story. While I wandered through ruins and caves, I’d often feel completely lost and overwhelmed wondering how I’d ever return to where I began, only to come out the other side higher up the mountain overlooking the area I just came from or find an interconnecting tunnel or path that led me to a familiar location. The environment isn’t necessarily the largest in scope when compared to an Oblivion or Fallout 3 (or those of other open world games like GTA IV, Red Faction: Guerrilla and Just Cause 2), but what it does have is impressive verticality and an incredibly rich atmosphere that I think outshines any of the aforementioned games.

NPCs and creatures actually live in the world too, following routines that change according to the night/day cycle and realistically reacting to your actions. Animals sleep at night, giving you the chance to attack them by surprise, and NPCs walk around town, take breaks from their jobs, and actually question you sternly if you just walk into their homes uninvited or snatch up random items that don’t belong to you. Small touches like this make it easier to believe that Faranga is a real place (even though it isn’t), and that’s what great game design is all about.

Combat is another of Risen’s strengths once you learn its intricacies, although it isn’t without some serious flaws. Third-person hacking and slashing is the name of the game here, but there is a lot more to it than button mashing. On the contrary, combat requires patience, strategy and skill, rewarding you for properly timing counterattacks but punishing you harshly for charging into action haphazardly. Unfortunately, the combat system is clunky and outdated in a few areas. When confronted with multiple enemies, the automated targeting is rarely capable of holding steady on one creature, so you constantly have to back out of your defensive posture and tweak the camera around until you are locked onto your intended target again. The controls and animations are fairly sluggish overall as well, but certainly not enough to ruin the game.

Actually, the most disappointing part of Risen isn’t its control and technical inadequacies, but rather its limited character progression. You gain experience and level up by completing quests and killing monsters, but upon advancing in level you don’t get points to improve character attributes or unlock new skills. Instead, you earn Learning Points, which you use to buy stat increases and skill advancements from NPC trainers. This system is annoying for two reasons: one, it is often tedious just finding who the trainers are; and two, when you are out exploring the island you don’t have access to a trainer, so most of the time you end up gaining a few levels while out and about without benefiting from doing so. There is no instant satisfaction or immediate reward to gaining a level, and frankly, the options you do have in determining your character’s development once you make it to a trainer are far too slim. You are either a fighter or a mage, and even though you specialize in one you essentially still become a hybrid of both by game’s end.

One last topic I would like to touch on before wrapping things up is how the game as a whole fits into the console landscape. Risen was developed as a PC game first and foremost, and very little has changed in the port to the Xbox 360, which is a possible area of concern if you are a console gamer expecting certain features. This is not a game that holds your hand with on-screen quest markers, navigation guides and early tutorials. The interface is deep and fairly complicated, and you basically have to learn how to play and learn the lay of the land through play experience. This is something that I appreciated, but I know many players won’t.

As for some of the PC complaints, I’ve heard a lot about how the first half of the game is so great and the second half falls apart, but I didn’t see it that way at all. I do agree that the final boss is absolutely absurd – it’s the type of pattern-based boss you’d expect to find in a Zelda game, and it’s completely different from anything else in the entire game – but other than that I thought that, after the slow start, the game grew consistently better and better with each chapter. The quest focus narrows and dungeon crawling becomes more prevalent over the latter stages, but this is all part of a natural progression as you reach the end of the adventure, so it made complete sense to me.

Overall, my experience was filled with a lot of ups and a lot of downs, but in the end the ups outweighed the downs. Risen is a game that is far greater than the quality of its individual parts – a true diamond in the rough. Save for the incredibly immersive atmosphere and seamless open-world scope, there isn’t one specific part of the game that I would single out and say is particularly special. But collectively, the game’s challenging combat, natural quest integration and compelling exploration elevate it to a level few console RPGs in recent memory have been able to achieve. However, as deeply as I personally enjoyed the game, I concede that it has many technical flaws and consists of a certain design style that I think many console gamers will struggle to embrace. All I can do is strongly urge you to look past the warts and at least give it a chance. I think it just might surprise you.

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Pros:
+ Phenomenal open world level design
+ Immersive atmosphere
+ Excellent side quest integration
+ Challenging skill-based combat
+ Huge game with a lot of meaningful choices

Cons:
– Limited character development
– Muddy graphics and poor technical performance
– Combat mechanics and animations are pretty clunky
– Terrible end boss

Game Info:
Platform: Xbox 360
Publisher: Deep Silver
Developer: Wizarbox / Piranha Bytes
Release Date: 2/22/2010
Genre: RPG
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1
Source: Review copy provided by publisher

About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!