Review: Risen 2: Dark Waters
RPGs by Piranha Bytes are always difficult to review. They are often plagued by several evident design flaws, accessibility issues and poor quality assets that cause critics across the board to write very uncharitable reviews. On the other hand their large explorable worlds and unforgiving hardcore charms are difficult to resist for an old school RPG Gamer like me, contributing to create a strong community of dedicated fans that don’t really appreciate the casual evolution that is causing the genre to navigate in shallow waters.
Risen 2: Dark Waters tries to bridge the gap by making the game more scripted and accessible while still keeping a some of the characteristics that hardcore RPG gamers know and love, doing away with the high fantasy setting and moving to a pirate-based theme. What can go wrong with a pirate-themed hardcore RPG sprinkled with voodoo and muskets?
Unfortunately, quite a lot. While the Xbox 360 and PS3 versions have been delayed to this August, the game has been released largely unfinished on PC, with several glaring issues affecting both gameplay and graphics. This review, coming a little late because honestly the original version wasn’t in a state that would define suitable for fair criticism, takes in consideration the fixes that came with the first patch, making Risen 2 at least playable.
The story of Risen 2 is a large departure from that of it’s prequel. While the unnamed hero is still the same, the fantasy setting has been given a fresh piratey coat of paint. The battle between the titans is ravaging the Old World, and the Inquisition is trying to move what’s left of humanity to the promised land of the New World beyond the ocean. Unfortunately the sea-dwelling titan Mara isn’t keen on the idea, and sends a massive Kraken to interdict navigation, turning colonization and resupply efforts into an impossible task.
In the meanwhile our hero has joined the inquisition, and to fit the new theme he got an eye patch to cover the monocle he acquired at the end of the first game. Like most retired heroes, he’s also resorting to drink in order to keep the ghosts of his past at bay. Of course ghosts of the pasts really don’t like to stay put in video games (especially in one that features voodoo magic), so he’s stripped of his rank and position and sent in an undercover mission to infiltrate the pirates of Captain Steelbeard, in order to investigate a possible weapon to defeat Mara.
The plot is definitely interesting, and despite the popularity of pirates, you don’t see many video games featuring them. This contributes to creating many memorable moments and characters that are definitely one of the high points of the whole game, but it also comes with some problems.
The most glaring issue is the departure from the large sandbox world seen in Gothic 3 and Risen. Risen 2 is set in a series of small islands, and the “small” definition isn’t an overstatement. The environments you can explore are extremely limited and constrict your roaming even further by tethering you to a few narrow paths and caves in each island, with thick vegetation and rocks blocking the way in basically every direction you’re not supposed to pursue.
The Visuals of Risen 2 are pretty good, but nothing to write home about. Character design is generally adequate and contributes to create the memorable characters I mentioned above, even thanks to a really lovely costume design, that really fits the setting perfectly, while often giving it a slightly original spin.
Unfortunately only main characters tend to be memorable, mostly because Piranha Bytes engaged in one of the most extensive processes of face recycling I ever saw in a modern video game. Pirates are well known for being a little promiscuous, and that seems to have filled the islands of the game with a lot of long lost brothers and sisters sharing exactly the same face.
Environmental design isn’t bad as well, featuring lush jungles, derelict native ruins and small Caribbean-themed villages and cities that fit the motif like a glove. The problem is that there’s basically nothing else, causing the world to become a little boring after a while. Lighting design is definitely a highly positive point, contributing to make the lush but repetitive and slightly boring world feel more alive and varied, even thanks to the dynamic cycle between day and night.
While everything looks fairly good when stationary, things start to get worse when they are set in motion. Animations, from combat to walking and conversation, tend to be extremely clunky, and seem to have made a time leap directly from a game developed more than five years ago. Some are utterly ridiculous, and tend to really break the immersion created by the setting.
The presence of slow-motion killcams adds insult to injury. Having bad animations is one thing, but putting the spotlight on them even further simply borders the nonsensical.
Sound design is a bit hit and miss. While the soundtrack isn’t exceptional, but is adequate and fitting to the genre, with tracks that will definitely contribute to immerse the player in the adventurous world of pirates, voice acting is just a little short of a disaster.
Most voice actors fit the role very well, and the writing of the lines is great, often proving witty, funny and exactly what you would expect from a bunch of dirty, ragged swashbuckling buccaneers. The problem is how those lines are delivered.
Either the voice actors were forced to do a rush job due to a low budget, or they were badly directed, or they didn’t receive enough information on the emotions they had to convey in every given scene. The result is that expressiveness and tone are often completely off or simply lacking, turning dialogue into a lot less enjoyable experience. As a rather likable character dies, creating a scene that would otherwise be very moving, the poor voice acting turns it into a farce that will just make you stare at the screen in disbelief.
The fact that most voices are recycled endlessly on several NPCs doesn’t help either, especially when paired with the aforementioned repetition of character faces, creating a world of clones that is hard not to find at least a little jarring.
Unfortunately, the weakest spot of the game still has to come. The gameplay of Risen 2 features more than a few glaring design flaws that contribute to lessen it even more than its honestly sub-par production values.
First of all, while the game is obviously about pirates, they are little more than landlubbers. While you do get your own ship, it’s nothing else than a teleport system used to travel from one island to another. There’s no real navigation, no sea battles, no chain-shot exchange between galleons. You walk on your ship, select a new course, get presented with a short and rather lackluster cutscene, and you’re on land again on the next island, you damn landlubber. You can’t even swim, as jumping into the water deeper than a foot will just teleport you back on solid ground.
But is land-game gameplay good at least? No. Not really. In Risen 2 there are no classes, and you’re given freedom to evolve your character’s stats and skills pretty much however you want. The main problem is that alcohol abuse seem to have turned our world-saving unnamed hero into a completely useless chump that doesn’t even know how to parry an attack or how to kick an enemy.
At the beginning of the game you don’t know how to perform even the most basic actions, turning combat into an absolutely frustrating left-click-fest in which you’ll die a whole lot because basically every enemy does know how to parry your attacks and always strikes faster than you do. Things take many long and infuriating hours to get better, as purchasing even the most basic skill costs inordinate amounts of gold, and gold is always scarce to begin with.
Skills like pickpocketing or lock picking will help a little bit, but guess what? Acquiring and improving them will cost your remaining eye, and will prevent you to improve your fighting skills decently (given that you won’t have nearly enough coins and glory points to improve both at an acceptable rate), turning the whole progression process into an extremely painful vicious circle. I can’t remember a single game that made me want to actually cheat in order to bypass the simply unfair progression system and finally enjoy the story. Risen 2 did. I didn’t give in to the temptation just because I had to review the game.
The worst consequence of the excessively unforgiving progression is that, if you want to fight decently, you’ll have to give up, at least for most of the game, the most fun parts of the whole system. Cunning and Voodoo-based skills offer a lot of interesting interactions and mechanics, but progressing too far into those lines will gimp you way too much, turning the already cumbersome battles into absolutely frustrating experiences.
That’s a pity, because not only those skills fit the setting perfectly, but they’re actually very fun to use. You can perform a voodoo ritual to take control of an NPC and make him do your bidding to solve quests creatively, or train a monkey to send it to recover items otherwise inaccessible (or requiring to perform much more difficult and time consuming tasks). The Cunning-based Silver Tongue skill hides some of the most enjoyable interactions with the colorful cast of the game.
The difficulty of combat is somewhat mitigated by the ability to recruit companions for your crew, and bring one of them along in your adventures. Unfortunately, at least during the beginning of the game, those completely AI-controlled helpers will outperform the main hero in basically everything, serving as both meat shields, damage dealers and sometimes even healers, exacerbating the sense of impotence created by the clunky battle and progression systems.
The first patch actually implemented a dodge system, allowing the player to roll away from attacks (Thankfully it doesn’t even require paying a trainer in order to learn it). The problem is that the implementation is still lacking and dodging will still leave you vulnerable to further strikes more often than not. It helps, but not nearly as much as it should.
Luckily there are also some positive factors. Filler quests that will send you to gather ten boxes lost on the beach are few and far between, and most of the time will be spent performing actually meaningful tasks, limiting the “errand boy” sensation that often permeates this kind of game and that helps developers to stretch the duration of the adventure.
Things get even better during the many quests that can be tackled with multiple approaches. Quite often combat won’t be the only option, and cunning, stealth and trickery (or voodoo) will often help you get past hurdles that would otherwise require quite a lot of frustrating hacking and slashing. While this comes with the price already mentioned (you’ll struggle even more in combat due to raising those skills), it does make the whole experience more enjoyable and varied.
Risen 2: Dark Waters is a big missed opportunity. The setting, the story and the main characters are extremely enjoyable, but in order to make the game accessible Piranha Bytes removed a lot of the elements that made the previous Risen shine. A rushed release and probably an excessively low budget ended up cutting off the legs of the game and the wooden peg legs used as replacements struggle in supporting the weight of the experience.
While those that love pirates and are craving a rare RPG set in a fictional version of the Caribbean will probably find Risen 2 enjoyable, the absolutely clunky combat system will turn it into a frustrating experience for almost everyone else. It’s not a terrible game, especially after the first patch, but it really struggles to compare with the rest of the genre. It’s really regrettable, but ultimately Risen 2 ends up walking the plank.