Once upon a time, there was a game called Gothic II. Released for the PC in 2002, it featured a massive open world, an interesting story, tons of side quests and a very real sense of exploration and accomplishment, and despite a myriad of flaws it is firmly settled as one of my all time favorite RPGs. In fact, despite outdated graphics, bad controls, simple combat, and awful voice-acting, I hold Gothic II as a close runner up to the original Fallout games in the “best old-school RPG” category.
For the last 10 years, I’ve watched developer Pirahna Bytes desperately try and fail to recapture the essence of the open-world RPG so beautifully realized in Gothic II. Gothic 3, the sequel I waited for with great anticipation, ended up a beautiful mess- the new graphics engine was so full of bugs and crashes and the gameplay was so repetitive and devoid of inspiration it was difficult to see it as anything but inferior to their previous title. Risen was essentially a reboot of the same game series and failed in similar ways.
Despite Gothic 3 and Risen, I was quivering with excitement when I picked up Risen 2. It’s not only Pirahna Bytes’ newest title but is a pirate-themed RPG as well, an as-of-yet unexplored region of the genre. I put on my nostalgia glasses and prepared to find out if the third time’s a charm for one of my favorite developers of last decade.
The story goes something like this: there is a war raging on in the world of Risen. Humans have forsaken the ancient Gods and damned them into exile. Now, under siege by great beasts called Titans, humanity finds itself on the verge of extinction. Risen 2 continues the story of a nameless hero’s quest to destroy the Titans and save the world.
There’s more to it than that, but it’s a moot point in the end. This is not a return to form for Pirahna Bytes. It falls prey to all the flaws that ruined their previous titles. Risen 2 is nothing but a mess.
First thing I noticed is that the graphics are awful. Textures stretch awkwardly over the terrain; character models are passable at best. This becomes particularly awkward during dialogue as characters’ teeth tend to stand out like the graphics engine was designed in 2004. Landscapes are cluttered and densely packed with foliage that manages to all look the same. The lighting doesn’t seem to affect the characters on screen half the time. NPCs bump into walls and the animations are the epitome of jerky and unnatural. The first time I saw my hero jump, I literally laughed out loud.
Admittedly some of the backgrounds and cutscenes are pretty enough, but I spent most of the game wondering how anyone could even pass these sub par graphics off as professional in 2012. I’ve seen Minecraft levels with better looks than Risen 2.
Every aspect of the game gets bogged down by being stuck in the middle of a stagnant, static world. Everything seems frozen in time and there is little you do that noticeably affects the world. Titans are waging war on the mainland, but the mainland always looks exactly the same. Even the impressive backdrop of the port city Caldera, full of flames and molten rock, never changes from the start of the game. Animals, plants, and enemies all spawn in the exact same locations time and time again. No creature seems to move until they come into your line of sight. Sustaining any suspension of disbelief approaches impossible.
The world map I glimpsed at the start of the game looked suitably expansive, even if it was mostly water. “Sailing the seas! How novel an idea for an RPG,” I thought. I pictured guiding my ship along uncharted waters, discovering previously unknown lands, savage natives and treasure galore. Halfway through the game, I realized that there was no naval exploration to be found- the islands you see are the islands you get and the water is just there to fill space.
That could even be alright if the islands themselves weren’t all similar in appearance. (Spoiler: They’re all jungles.) Each island has a confusing mess of a map – paths, caves and ports with barely enough detail to provide assistance. Any real sense of discovery is tempered by the fact that every building and character is related to a quest in some way or another.
Even more frustrating, the vast majority of quests are mandatory for progressing in the game. Everywhere I went, someone whose assistance I needed to continue with the main storyline would tell me to “go help people until I trust you.” Acceptable once, sure, but when I found myself having to seek out and complete just about every side quest offered in order to move on with the game, it began to feel less like fun and more like a chore.
Mandatory side quests could be acceptable, but I encountered another common problem. When attempting to find NPCs again after gaining enough “trust,” characters sometimes inexplicably move from one location to another. Once they’re gone, they are nearly impossible to locate again. This is because of repetitive graphics and a lack of good direction on the game’s map system.
When an NPC does have the decency to tell you where to find them next, it’s usually in very vague terms- for example, “find me at the bluff of the hill that is nearby the docks,” which is misleading because often the docks on that particular map are completely surrounded by bluffs and hills. “I’ll be hiding out in a cave.” Really? Because last I checked there were seven different unmarked caves scattered across this island. Unfortunately, you’ll be lucky to even get that much guidance out of the people of Risen 2. It is possible to mark quest locations on the map, but many times there was no quest available for the person I was seeking.
Leveling up your character is done via “glory” points, a fancy name for experience. There are five different abilities to spend your points on: firearms, blades, toughness, cunning, and voodoo. Each of these affects a few different stats that cannot be modified directly except through training with other characters. Unfortunately, this training is not only crucial to your success and survival, but also very expensive. It is hard to keep track of who can provide specific skills as well, since the NPCs are prone to moving around unexpectedly.
As a pirate, you’re going to want to seek out your fortune while saving the world. However, there is shockingly little treasure be had in Risen 2. Aside from the rare X-marks-the-spot chest to be dug up, most of your wealth will be amassed via selling useless weapons and items and measly rewards for completing quests. Even then, most booty is just generic artifacts like “Jade Statue” or “Silver Goblet.”
Control is generally awful and unresponsive. Many times I’d have to mash buttons just to interact with an object in front of me or draw my weapon. Worst of all, while aiming a firearm and trying to back away from the enemy, I frequently found myself moving forward. This led to my untimely demise more than a few times.
The combat system is unpolished and borders on being unfair in its difficulty. The ability to dual-wield a bladed weapon and a pistol is a neat idea- one button press is all it takes to brandish your gun, fire a round, and return to your sword. Swordplay itself is a frustrating experience in button mashing and luck. When fighting other human opponents, parries and counters are critical to your success. You can learn to parry and counter via the expensive training described earlier. If you don’t learn those skills early on, you will be limited to mashing the strike button and hoping you can get in enough hits to fell your opponent before they do the same to you.
Combat versus animals and other creatures is even worse. You can’t block their attacks, meaning enemies will sometimes hit you so frequently that it’s impossible to get a swing in or even retreat. Larger, more agile creatures such as jaguars can pounce on top of you, forcing you to mash a button repeatedly to push them off. However, there were quite a few times when I found the controls unresponsive and I was mauled to death. If you’re anything like me, the only way to ensure the safety of the game disc from angry annihilation is to save often.
If there is a positive to be found in Risen 2′s combat system, it’s the ability to pick fights with friendly characters without the risk of dying. These duels can occur at any time and are often spectated by other nearby characters who will cheer you on. If you best your opponent, he will turn a blind eye to any crimes you are going to commit and forgive any you may have already. I’m like this idea and I think it should be incorporated into more RPGs.
I’m saddened that there is little good to be said about Risen 2. Aside from the interesting setting and story, there’s not a whole lot of fun to be had here. If you do manage to get through the game, there’s really no reason to play through it again. The progression is very linear despite its open world. The exploration is limited and unsatisfying. The poor control makes a wreck of the combat mechanics. The only really redeeming values of Risen 2 are its setting and story. Even the nostalgia invoked in Gothic-series veterans (like myself) will wane quickly.
I think at this point it’s safe to say that developer Pirahna Bytes is no longer capable of what they used to be. Let’s take a moment of silence and mourn the loss.
I can’t really recommend this game to anyone at all. If you’re looking to re-live the glory of Gothic II, play Gothic II. If you’re looking for a decent pirate-themed RPG, I guess you’ll have to keep waiting. If you are in need of a good fantasy RPG that isn’t an Elder Scrolls game, pick up Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning instead. Let Risen 2 quietly slip into the bargain bin where it belongs.
Platform reviewed: PS3
Overall: Even purely as a vehicle for nostalgia, it will be hard to get past all of its problems. Risen 2: Dark Waters tries to be a swashbuckling good time, but in the end it is a wasted effort from developer Pirahna Bytes. Scores 2 out of 10.