Risen 2: Dark Waters Hands-on Preview
This week, I got the chance to dive into a preview copy of Piranha Bytes' latest game, Risen 2: Dark Waters. I went in with expectations that this sequel would be a vastly different game from the developers' past titles, but I'm not really sure why I thought that'd happen - it's not what the fanbase wants, and it's silly to abandon a working formula that few other developers have been able to reproduce. Risen 2: Dark Waters has a change in look and style, but for better or worse, it feels very much the same as its predecessors. The high fantasy is thrown out in favor of a gritty pirate theme imbued with some frightening and innovative new monster designs, but at its core it's the same Piranha Bytes game that any veteran of their action-RPGs will expect. For some, this couldn't be better news, but for others, I think it's going to be a bit of a letdown.
In Dark Waters, you play as the same titan-killing, otherwise-nameless character from before, but it turns out his victory was short-lived. He only killed one titan, and the most of the rest of the world's population has been wiped out by other titans emerging from underground. The few pockets of humanity that are left are amassed on islands and are trying to consolidate supplies and forces, but strange sea creatures are destroying the ships that keep these islands in contact with each other. This is where our Nameless Hero comes in; his goal is to join the pirates, who have uncovered a weapon that can defeat these creatures. It won't be easy, because even the pirates are now warring with each other, while the gods have abandoned humanity (and taking all that cool magic with them) and left people struggling and starving. The only magic left is the voodoo that native tribes are practicing, and yes, our hero will get a crack at learning some of that alongside more generic thief, warrior, and survival skills. But if he wants to touch the supernatural again, he'll have to earn the trust of the suspicious and oft-exploited tribes buried in the hearts of these dangerous islands.
Risen 2's RPG systems and combat are very similar to its predecessors - both the original Risen and the first three Gothic games. No, the Caribbean-style setting and pirate theme aren't really things that Piranha Bytes' fanbase is too used to seeing, but the mix of RPG and action, along with the overall feel, will be immediately familiar to long-time veterans. You'll be diving into deep RPG systems that involve finding and gaining trust with NPCs before they teach you skills and spells, fighting monsters with a combination of ranged, melee, and spell-based attacks, forging weapons and armor, and trying to survive against a pretty nasty world filled with tough opponents. You'll also complete quests naturally and without modern hand-holding systems that many of today's RPGs use. This means that you'll sometimes get lost or a little stuck when trying to figure out how to complete a quest, and there's no marker on your map pointing exactly where to go. It does feel good to complete a quest without having to be walked through each tiny little step, and I do like that many quests are open enough to include multiple solutions involving stealth, combat, or magic.
The thing that I'm probably the most disappointed with in Risen 2 is its old-and-busted action, something that I doubt will be overhauled between now and the April release date. The developers have put together a wonderful-looking world that has all of the natural environments and organic, exploration-friendly terrain of Gothic 3 and combined it with a lighting and vegetation model that often rivals Crysis' visuals, but all of that effort sometimes feels a bit squandered once you get into the game's clunky and floaty swordfights. Sure, it's fun to use an off-hand pistol for quick and dirty strikes in mid-fight, but the blocking and counter-attack system leaves much to be desired.
Additionally, for some reason the game insists that against a human opponent with a weapon, holding the block button allows you to deflect all incoming melee damage (so by default you should be blocking most of the time), but against any kind of monster or creature, you take at least half-damage from all attacks when trying to block so you should pretty much never block. This makes fights with humanoids and monsters quite a bit different, but they're both inherently full of frustration and annoyance, and you'll be munching on a hell of a lot of provisions (any food or non-alcoholic drink you pick up or cook is listed generically as "provisions" in your inventory) to make up for lost health. Enemies chain together strings of attacks that are often futile to try to interrupt early on, and later on as you build up skills in melee combat (and get more powerful weapons), the added difficulty in some of the later enemies kind of screws up that advantage. On the plus side, the game lets you mash on your quicksave key at any time, even in combat, and it keeps a huge backlog of all your saves so anyone who uses manual saving has plenty to fall back to if they manage to save while in a bad situation.
Risen 2 is a difficult game, but at least at first, the developers have tried to ensure you've got a fighting chance against just about all of the first few hours' enemies. Still, those who aren't used to Piranha Bytes' games will find Normal difficulty quite tough, and players who want to take the more difficult paths to goals will find themselves fighting enemies that can kill them in only a few chained-together hits. Those who want that added difficulty will most certainly get it in some quests, and they will even get some extra loot for their efforts, too. Of course, having an actual party of characters to travel with, a new feature here in Risen 2 does make things easier, as your party members can take a lot of punishment and are capable of open up an enemy's back for easy full-damage swings. Other enemies can only be damaged from the front, or only after using a kick to knock them onto their backs. Throw in the odd secondary attack like a handful of dirt thrown in the eyes or just a hot ball of lead fired from a pistol, and the combat becomes interesting, but it always comes back to the awkward melee fights that I'm now convinced Piranha Bytes is doing on purpose (and, more importantly, doesn't seem to want to change). If they ever do decide to move their combat forwards, which I highly recommend, then I think they should be looking at From Software's efforts in Dark Souls as their inspiration for designing combat.
With all of that said, if you didn't mind the action in the first Risen or in those last couple PB-made Gothic games, then you should be good to go for Risen 2: Dark Waters. It looks better than ever and runs pretty smoothly on even mid-range PCs, the tweaking and control options are solid, and the current preview copy of the game is already working perfectly over Steam. The change of setting and theme does wonders for making the whole thing feel fresh, and the RPG depth of raising skills, finding unique skill trainers, and building your character in a satisfying and deep way is generally right in line with what you'd expect the next Risen to have. Toss in the return of some of their past features and apply them to the new setting and look, like the ability to craft your own swords, guns, and armor (and even distill your own performance-boosting alcoholic beverages!), and it's clear that Risen 2 is shaping up to be just as immersive and engrossing as Piranha Bytes' past games. As long as you can deal with a bit of bugginess, odd character movement, and some unsatisfying melee combat, then get your pre-orders ready, because the April 24th release date will arrive before you know it.