Risen 2: Dark Waters Review
Serious pirate-themed games only come once every few years or so. Sometimes the gimmicks the theme brings are welcome additions, and other times games feel bogged down with half-baked swashbuckling gags and silliness. Luckily, Risen 2: Dark Waters is one of the former, but it seems that Piranha Bytes refuses to learn their lesson about making games accessible, so you can expect your first few hours with the game to be quite frustrating as you learn (or re-learn) the peculiar way that the developers want you to play it.
Risen 2 takes the plot of the first game and bashes its head against a rock, nearly rebooting the world and giving the nameless hero from the first game an entirely new goal: in what's left of the world that wasn't ravaged by titans, he must infiltrate the world of pirates and learn how to defeat the massive sea creatures that are now attacking what little humanity is left on a collection of tropical islands. To reach that objective, our hero will be getting into swordfights, using voodoo magic, and even pulling some ridiculous stunts - a toss of sand to blind an opponent or the unleashing of a trained monkey to pickpocket people remotely - to gain an edge.
And as the player, you'll need every edge you can get to succeed in Risen 2. Combat is just as frustrating as what we've seen in the last few Piranha Bytes games, and while your fights with humanoids will eventually allow you to block, parry, riposte, and generally use as much defense as you do offense (or at least, only after you've gained XP, called Glory here, and used it along with plenty of gold to train up the necessary skills), all of that can be thrown out when fighting the game's rather terrifyingly-designed creatures. For some reason, the developers have decided that if the enemy in front of you is of the monster variety, you cannot defend yourself at all, so your battles with the local fauna usually turn into button-spamming click fests. Food and rum for regeneration, along with liberal use of the quicksave key, will be the main things keeping you from landing face-first in the sand in many fights. There is a voodoo-using young lady that comes along well into the game that can keep you healed up, but even that doesn't fix this game's issues of attack stun, inability to retreat from fast-moving enemies, or the general janky and unsatisfying non-feeling of hitting and getting hit. Oh, and speaking of party members, there are others as well that will join your crew as you go on, but the one with the heals supplies the thing you need the most of in Risen 2.
Once you do figure out the game's steep difficulty curve and deal with its unfair and annoying combat - if you do manage it, rather - you'll actually find a really amusing and exciting RPG underneath. Since you'll need to find the trainers to improve your character and offer both large sums of gold and big chunks of Risen 2's version of XP to make some significant improvements, unleashing new attacks and showing off improved toughness is quite satisfying. Eventually you'll be on the same footing as your enemies, but be prepared to feel like the low rung on the totem pole until then.
From a technical perspective, it's probably not a surprise to find out that most of the time, any given studio's latest game is their best-looking one yet. This is true especially on PC, and Risen 2 is no exception. Sometimes the lighting in the tropical islands will have you thinking of Crysis, although the odd level-of-detail issue or other small problem will remind you that no, you're not playing a Crytek game. Level design is generally quite good, and texture quality and special effects are impressive, while the frame rate is maintained pretty well on nearly any PC that can handle other modern games. You won't be wowing any gamer friends that stop by with Risen 2's eye candy, but what you get is usually better than average.
As pirate games go, Risen 2 does offer plenty of legitimately fun and unique tidbits that few games of this style have really tried. You'll get your own ship as part of the plot, and the offensive, grating attitudes of the characters, frankly, seems to mirror the feelings that I imagine Piranha Bytes probably has towards their mostly devout fans: we love you, but for whatever reason, we can't possibly let any of that affection show. And for that matter, while I complain about the developers' refusal to change a few key things, it should be pointed out that their core audience, European PC gamers, seems to be getting precisely the game they really want. Maybe some Euro critics will offer some unkind words about Risen 2, but the sales of this studio's games over there easily keeps the company afloat. Yes, their games always make it to the US and garner half-decent sales for those who are willing to slog through annoying fights to find a deep, well-crafted RPG underneath, but it really does make this game difficult for me to suggest to someone looking for something new to play - even if they're looking for something with some difficulty. To make a not-entirely-fair comparison, Dark Souls offers some soul-crushing lows around the eighth time you've failed a level and have to start over, but its high points, like finally killing that massive boss after a week of attempts, are usually worth all of the effort. Risen 2 doesn't take you to those depths of failure, but it never really feels all that rewarding to succeed in, either.
It turns out that if you throw enough pirate gags at the player, you still can't really cover up a stiff and busted combat system that's been holding you back for nearly a decade. What's new with the pirate theme is often original and off-beat, and with just a few tweaks and maybe a little letting go of their own traditions, Piranha Bytes could be making far more entertaining and exciting games. But as you play, you'll keep coming back to the feeling that the developers didn't seem to make a game that you wanted to play in the first place, and no amount of gnomish profanity, monkey thieving, or parrot antics are going to fix that. Risen 2 is another ambitious effort from one of Germany's most well-known game developers, but once again it is dragged down by combat that doesn't really ever feel right, and it's kind of sad to see so much effort and talent go into their games when some of the fundamentals have been ignored for so many years.
Disclosure: This review is based on a final PC build provided over Steam by the publisher.