The biggest surprise for me when playing Risen was that I didn’t end up hating it. If I hadn’t been reviewing it, I probably would still hate it, much like I did for the first four or five or maybe seven hours that I played it. For me, this mostly generic fantasy RPG got off to a very rough start. It’s not an attractive game. Although many of the settings on this mystic isle look nice, the character models and animations seem primitive and are decidedly ugly. On the Xbox 360, everything has an unfinished jerkiness when in motion, and the controls are overly sensitive in an unpleasant way while the timing of the action seems sluggish. Combined with mediocre storytelling, sub-par voice acting, and mostly uninspired creature design, Risen‘s look and feel leave almost everything to be desired.
The game begins with you being shipwrecked on an island with nothing but what’s washed up on the beach with you. I liked this set-up, and it gives a good reason for your character to be an unseasoned newcomer to the island. It also provides the only real plot motivation for all of the action that follows, which amounts to: “Well, now I need to survive and make my way in the world.” That’s a good place to start, but the story doesn’t ever give you much more than that. As you explore the island, you can join up with the magic-using warrior monks of The Order or throw in with the outlaws who work for The Don. Both have their fingers in the island’s only settlement, Harbor Town. You’re free to wander all over the island, although getting in and out of Harbor Town is restricted in various ways. However, all this freedom leads to the game feeling very aimless. There were plenty of quests and tasks to carry out, but it all seemed piecemeal with no larger, grander narrative driving events. As a result, the world never engaged me as a whole, nor did the game.
Moment to moment, there are a lot of things to do. The game has a detailed crafting system for making weapons, magic items, scrolls, potions, and even cooking food, so you’re constantly gathering ingredients as you wander around the island. And there are tons of quests, which vary in both intricacy and interest level. Some are simple “fetch quest” style, but there are more involved detective-style quests where you have to solve mysteries or put together the pieces of a puzzle. Unfortunately, the in game maps are hard to read and sometimes are just not helpful at all, and on more then one occasion, I abandoned a quest because I just couldn’t find that last person that I needed to talk to. At least there was almost always something else I could go and do instead, especially once I figured out that you could just jump over the wall of Harbor Town to escape.
All that freedom to roam comes at a cost — you’ll end up fighting monsters out in the wilderness. That means using Risen‘s terrible, boring, and deadly combat system. It’s mostly a matter of block and counterstrike, but at a slow pace and with sluggish controls, it’s easy to die very fast when you’re outmatched by an opponent. Often the only way to find out if you’re outmatched is to learn by dying. This game has a lot of that, which is one of my biggest pet peeves in all of gaming. Learning by dying means you need to save all the time, a process that takes longer than you want. A quick save button would make this game twice as good (but still not very good). As it is, especially early on, I died over and over again, killed by wild boars or giant moths or gnomes. Even at higher levels, a quest would set me up against impossible foes, requiring me to go find something else to do so that I could level up. That made for a lot of dangling quests, which in turn killed much of the games already slow momentum.
Finally, I want to bitch about the leveling up system. Like most RPGs, you kill things and complete quests to earn experience points. When you level up, you get extra hit points and earn Learning Points. You then have to run around and find a trainer in order to spend those points. That trainer will almost always charge you a tidy sum to raise your strength by one point or learn a new level of lock picking, and gold, especially early on, is not easy to come by. I often found myself unable to train because I needed that money for potions or weapons or to pay costs associated with completing quests. As the game proceeded, gold became less of an issue, but having to find a different trainer for each and every thing that I wanted to raise never got less than tiresome. In short, leveling up wasn’t fun, which is a cardinal sin when it comes to RPGs of any kind.
Tiresome sums up a lot of my feelings about Risen. There’s some genuine, classic RPG fun to be had here, and once you commit the time and energy to get your character going, the Pavlovian need to grind for XP and gold kicks in. But with its clunky combat, endless wandering back and forth, and dull storytelling, I don’t think that it’s worth the time or effort.