Let’s get this out of the way from the beginning; Risen is, for all intents and purposes, Gothic without the license. Piranha Bytes wasn’t about to lose every RPG mechanic they’ve built for the last 10 years to licensing oblivion. If you loved Gothic go out and pick up this game now. If you found issues with the previous releases but are in search of a strong PC RPG I hope this review can shine a light on a hidden gem among the blockbuster holiday releases.
The entire game takes place on the island of Faranga, a foreign environment the protagonist is marooned on. After witnessing a Godzilla-style battle at sea, the hero is impressed into an army set on conquering Faranga. A lot of beginning quests and narrative evolve around gaining people’s trusts enough to further the storyline. The story is relatively lengthy, though, and has hefty replay value. What makes an RPG fun to me isn’t the combat, but the actual role playing you are asked to do by the game designer. Stuck on this island, the Wanderer is tasked with nothing other than surviving. How you survive and what groups you hang out with are all up to you. The storyline follows a linear path but is presented differently, depending on your choices. With a new IP comes the ability to start fresh with an interesting story about gods, titans and the evil that lurks outside the stone walls of cities. While the story is engrossing, the sluggishness of the gameplay can stifle your interest.
To the core, Risen is a European RPG, which means unless you level up your character, don’t expect the entire island to be open to you from the start. Enemies are set to the level the developer believes you should be when the storyline quests guides you in that direction. This limits how freely you can upgrade certain skill sets or weapon specialties, but gives the world a little more context when you finally break away and discover. The game has a relatively typical leveling system, where you accrue skill points that are applied towards new skills. Everything costs gold so make sure to loot every sword, item or flower you can find or you’ll stay a poor Wanderer forever.
Combat is a mess of clunky controls and brilliant strategy. Any enemy you come across will be on guard most of the time, so waiting till they attack and side stepping is the most effective way of fighting, but different classes can handle enemies in other ways as well. Mechanically, Risen’s combat falters at the same spot the Gothic series did, it’s very frustrating and you never feel like you’re in direct control over the outcome. Every attack can be parried but in order to do so you must first give up the ability to block…but the parrying is spotty at best. Damage is uneven, getting hit three times can kill you in one battle but the next you can take a dozen before going down. Blocking will only protect your front side, and once you hit the right mouse button to block you’ll also lock onto the person in front of you. Multiple Enemies will take you on from the front and then flank to the back, making death almost certain. Because of this difficulty, though, you are pressed into planning the battle and picking your attacks.
The island that the Wanderer is washed up on is a mixed bag of old technology and new environmental effects. The outside world itself is very well-crafted, but the cities themselves are oddly bad. Every character outside of the hero looks like they are a few thousand polygons short of where they should be, looking less-developed and blockier than they should be. It’s a minor complaint but some of the objects have very little detail outside of four planes and a repeating texture on each. It’s amazing how little detail objects inside a house can be but how lush trees, plants and the mountains are. Uneven graphical polish isn’t something new for PC RPG’s but still needs penalization.
Risen has its faults but what it does do is bring you into a world that won’t let you leave till you’ve uncovered the secrets in every corner. To some it’s just something to hold them over until the next Gothic game comes out, but to me it’s the start of something new and wonderful from an experienced RPG developer.