Risen Xbox 360 Review
If you've been itching for another game like Fallout 3 or Oblivion on 360, a few developers have offered up some options, but none have quite hit the mark. If you've kept an eye on Risen, it might fit the bill - but I hope you're ready for a deep and yet deeply flawed, rewarding but also excruciatingly frustrating game. German developer Pirahna Bytes split with their previous publisher JoWood and didn't get to keep the license to their Gothic franchise, so they've partnered with Southpeak Interactive and have started over with a whole new intellectual property, Risen. But veterans of their games will notice quickly that this could have easily been a Gothic spinoff or sequel, as Pirahna Bytes' signature style of RPG will be immediately familiar to anyone who's played their past games.
Risen has you playing a nameless stowaway that shipwrecks on a jungle-filled volcanic island named Faranga. After a brief scramble to find food and the most basic of weapons, you begin on a journey to help the inhabitants of the island and solve the mystery of why temples and catacomb entrances started popping up from underground and spewing forth all kinds of otherworldly creatures.
The action is in real-time as it is with most western RPGs nowadays, but you'll quickly find that early on, the combat is clumsy, frustrating and shallow - yep, just like it often was in Gothic. Eventually it improves, but in Risen it lasts even longer than in past games, because you don't even start to work on becoming a warrior, archer or a mage until you've spent quite a while in the game. Until that point, you'll be forced to endure many RPG-stereotype side quests and more than a few deaths at the snout of the stereotypical annoying Pirahna Bytes enemies: wolves and boars.
The fact that the protagonist makes fun of NPCs who can't protect themselves from woodland creatures is only a small consolation to gamers who are sick of these kinds of quests, especially since the developers then make you go and kill them anyway. (If you're going to make fun of it, at least make it seem like it's beneath us. Then again, the main character did just wash ashore with nothing but the soggy shirt on his back.) And if you yourself get killed while flailing around trying to fight off a couple of wolves at once, no amount of jokes will make this experience fun. Early on, fights are tougher than you might think, too, especially when you find out that popping into your inventory to drink a potion doesn't pause the game.
Eventually the experience picks up as you learn to endure the ridiculous interface and get some decent equipment buckled onto your nameless hero. It is nice to see that when you choose one of the three factions that locks you into a "class", the rest of the populace recognizes you as being part of that group - and you can quickly make enemies that way, too. It extends a system started in the Gothic games that never quite got it right, but here it does seem to work better. Even the equipment you wear sort of identifies you with a group.
Leveling up earns you "learning points" which you can spend, along with gold, at trainers to increase your combat abilities and learn professions. It's a strange system to those used to the standard RPG way of advancement or who want instant gratification for gaining a level, but it does work well enough once you get used to the way Pirahna Bytes does things.
But that's the hard part: the 360 port of Risen doesn't do much at all to charm you. Its ugly visuals show that the development team Pirahna Bytes hired to bring the game to the 360 have little experience with it, and the core game's eventual depth and splendor come far too late - and the hardcore gamers that got used to the rather inaccessible Gothic games are playing the superior PC version anyway. There's also an overall lack of polish here that will constantly make you question whether that quest objective you can't find is because of a bug. Eventually I was able to figure things out and the game winds up being surprisingly bug-free, but after the bug-ridden (yet often brilliant) Gothic 3, it was difficult not to expect them. Still, Risen's inexplicably obtuse interface for equipment, inventory, quests, and the map seems to bury pertinent info as deep as it can; it almost seems like the developers knew they had to add these features, but wanted to bury them so far down that gamers learned to deal without them.
And let's face it: FPS and RPG developers from Germany and Eastern Europe often have a habit of doing this. Over there, games are not something to be fed to a player, they're something to be figured out through trial and error, with the eventual discovery of greatness taking many hours worth of work. If American games are strawberries, theirs are coconuts. And sometimes this formula does work, but often it doesn't, and here on the 360, Risen fails to make it worth figuring out what makes it a good game.
Can't there be a balance between spoon-fed objectives that require no exploration, and the kind of open world that gives you no direction at all, even when told to go somewhere and finish a quest? Developers like Bethesda and Bioware seem to have found something that works with console RPG fans the best, and if Risen was an experiment to see if they can be pushed further in the direction of discovering the game all by themselves, I think we can call this one a failure.
It's too bad, because Pirahna Bytes does know how to craft a very interesting world and some deep, interesting RPG systems. The passion they have for their work clearly comes through - but only if you can slog through the tough parts to find the brilliance that's deep down in a game like Risen. But they just haven't figured out how to add the kind of intelligent accessibility to their games that keeps it interesting right from the start but doesn't compromise on the mystery or the discovery. If they ever do manage that, they'll probably deliver the best effort they've ever made, but until then, frustrating games like Risen will continue to be the result.