Oh man. A pirate RPG. With the Inquisition. What a fantastic concept. And the Kraken is an antagonist, no less. Could the premise behind Risen 2 be any more perfect? In all honesty, however, while the potential is there in buckets, an utter lack of polish and thought on the developer’s part seems to have bottlenecked this pirate-y sequel’s success. Some might argue that gritty edges are a trademark of Piranha Bytes’ games, but Risen 2 really needed to be a well-crafted labour of love from the developers in order to stand out from the competing ARPG heavyweights.
Let’s start with the combat system. First of all, combat can get very tedious very quickly. It all ends up in a parry-button-holding-fest, sporadically interrupted by a few hopeful sword thrusts. In this case, what is a significant weakness might also be considered a strength. Taking Skyrim as a comparison; in Skyrim, you are a beast. You can rip through hordes of enemies without so much as breaking a sweat. In Risen 2? Your first couple of hours of play will feature more duels than monster battles – and the people you duel don’t take it easy. You will get your ass absolutely handed to you on multiple occasions. These people go apeshit, using techniques you won’t even learn for a couple of hours and swinging their sword around in fancy flourishes like they’re performing rhythmic gymnastics. If you’re game enough to try to take a swing at them, they’ll counter with one that does three times the damage without giving you time to set up your parry again. The combat does seem to face a massive drop in difficulty about midway through the game, but that is likely simply due to your skills improving. In short – in Risen 2, you don’t feel like a god. Which is nice. Unfortunately, this will also result in the consumption of copious amounts of rum. And rum costs money.
Money, or gold I should say, seems to be a scarce resource for the first part of the game. Everything costs gold. In your first duel, you’ll get kicked in the face a number of times. Can you kick back? No. Want to? Then pay a kicking master gold. And I hope your toughness skill is good enough. Learning anything – sneaking, lockpicking, swordplay, gunplay, dirty tricks, speechcraft, and even monkey-catching – requires a certain amount of money and a specific skill level. There are some speech options early in the game that, as far as I can work out, are actually impossible to choose – at that point, it would honestly be impossible to have the required “silver tongue” rating to select that option. I didn’t realise the value of gold, and spent my hard-earned 1000 coins in the very first town on the very first island – and still forgot to buy a map. So I had to wing it with a compass and a few comments by townsfolk in order to navigate to the nearby pirate camp. All the while not realising that, if you are persistent enough, the governor will give you a map for free. Shit.
The Voodoo feature does add a number of bonus points onto Risen 2‘s combat mechanics, however. Rather than opt for a stock-standard magic-bullet/lightning/firebolt/ice magic system, we have a unique mechanic based on, well, voodoo. The idea of it is that you manipulate the minds of foes, crafting voodoo dolls, brewing potions and just generally being an evil dick. A black magic wielding, evil dick.
Risen 2 does manage to keep a fantastic, if occasionally offensive, sense of humour. A particularly memorable scene is simple banter between two drunken water-carriers, who use at least one instance of the word “fuck” in every line, as they argue over who should be the one to take an easier job manning the gate to the settlement. Curses are bandied about as though they are the most common words in the spoken dialect, so if you have a sensitive ear to hearing British accents saying “fuck”, maybe you should give this one a miss. Also, despite it being the norm in this setting, there are a few moments that might stir offence in more susceptible players – near the start of the game, a cook tries to force your female partner to help in the kitchen, purely because she’s a woman; and there are other quasi-racist and homophobic terms thrown around. What’s most alarming is when your own character, the “nameless hero” (as per Piranha tradition) uses these terms himself. It’s true that, technically, it does fit within the game’s context, but that doesn’t stop it from being a little jarring on initial encounter.
Another thing that I don’t understand is why the NPCs, with names like Pedro, Diego, and De Fuego all speak with broad Northern accents. I might be being a bit presumptuous, but surely they’d have Spanish accents, right? Sure, the last serious attempt at a Spanish accent in a video game didn’t turn out all that well (I’m looking at you, Just Cause 2), but every time Sebastiano speaks in a highly refined English accent, a part of me just cringes. That said, the voice acting as a whole is actually rather good, as long as you attempt to ignore the ridiculous character animations. Seriously, your companion Patty waves her arms about so much as she speaks that you’d honestly assume that she was halfway through a seizure (sorry, couldn’t resist). Maybe she’s just passionate about everything? Who knows. What I know is that, useful as she could be, I just wanted to cut her hands off. Try and wave them now, dick.
I apologise in advance, but I’m going to bring up that Skyrim comparison again. I know it’s not fair, but hey, I think it helps. I’m sure that even the least enthusiastic Skyrim fan will agree with me when I say that the world of Tamriel felt like a living, breathing, world. Environments and landscapes had fluidity, a feeling of nature, and, most importantly, were massive. Here, the explorable area is expectedly split up into islands. Yeah, this is expected for a pirate RPG that’s set on the seas, but the problem is that the islands are wholly too small. Far, far too small. Foes always seem to appear in scripted packs of 3, and every location seems to be relevant to at least one side-quest and have a path leading to it. The islands simply don’t exude that feeling of natural beauty that Cyrodiil, Panau, or New Austin offer.
Your nameless hero is absolutely non-customisable and has a set backstory, which I have no idea of because the game’s predecessor, Risen, was refused classification in my country. I will, however, say that you can dress him up to be so fucking pirate-y. Red bandanna? Check. Baggy shirt? Check. Gold earring, striped trousers, eyepatch (non-optional), and amulet? Fucking check. Awesome. It’s strange to have a non-customisable character in an ARPG like this, but it’s a nice change from the play-doh characters of Risen 2‘s contemporaries.
Risen 2 presents some really nice concepts. First of all, and I know that it’s a sequel, but pirate ARPG. Excellent idea. It’s a shame then that the entire game feels hampered by a lack of attention to detail from the developers. It’s buggy, the loading times are ridiculous, and everything seems to be a little bit jagged around the edges (not literally, there’s plenty of AA options). Despite being the home of probably the greatest jump animation in the history of video games as we know them, Risen 2 fails where it really, really could have succeeded. I’ll still be playing it, mind you. If only for the pirates and the repeated swear words.
Select Start Media were provided with a review copy of Risen 2: Dark Waters by AFA Interactive, on behalf of Deep Silver.