Ryse: Son of Rome review: one long fall

Crytek sure knows how to make pretty games. Ryse: Son of Rome is a feast for the eyes, with brilliant environments and detailed character models. But watching the game and playing it are two different things. Ultimately, its dull gameplay cannot come close to matching its awe-inspiring visuals.

Ryse follows the story of loyal Roman foot soldier Marius Titus, who works his way up the ranks of the fourteenth legion to become a high-ranking centurion. Along the way, he witnesses his family's murder and uncovers the conspiracy behind it, as he plows his way through armies of Britons. The rise of Marius is one of Ryse's few high points, as his character evolution is genuinely intriguing to follow, even if the plot takes a turn towards the silly at the end.


Combat in Ryse starts off promising. It's built on a series of counters and parries, with enemy strikes helpfully color-coded to cue players on which button to press. The same quick-time event system is used for executions, which can result in satisfying dismemberment. The D-pad is used to mix up player rewards for successful executions, which, on paper, sounds like a cool idea. Unfortunately, because executions are so easy, you can easily cheat this system to upgrade most, if not all, of your attacks about halfway through the game. Worse yet, there's no penalty at all for missing a cue, as hitting the wrong button will simply dispatch the enemy with a lower score.

While combat is initially promising, it doesn't evolve or ever demand more from the player. Even as different enemy types are introduced, the formula remains the same. Block, counter, parry, dodge, strike, execute. Lather, rinse, repeat for eight levels. Even the boss battles don't stray from the combat formula, except bosses will block more and use heavier strikes. Beyond that, they won't do anything else out of the ordinary. It becomes such a tedious process that you quickly learn to spam the Focus ability (the ability to slow down time) just to get the whole thing over with as quickly as possible.

Ryse attempts variety once in a while, but it's not always successful. Certain sequences will have Marius lead his army forward, having them raise shields to block incoming arrow volleys, and flinging spears when given an opening. While I appreciate that the game was shooting for authenticity here, these sequences felt sluggish and only slowed down an already-tiresome experience.

Unexpected tower defense sequences prove to be the most entertaining diversion. Players are given a choice on how to dispatch would-be attackers: direct combat, using a crossbow station, or directing the army to deal with aggressors. One version of this sequence had me dealing with rampaging elephants--that's cool. These areas offered some much-needed variety to an otherwise boring formula.

Although Ryse initially began as a Kinect game, the way it is ultimately implemented in Son of Rome is cosmetic, at best. You'll frequently receive prompts to yell orders to your army, such as "Fire volley!" to fire a barrage of arrows. Kinect proved accurate and highly responsive, a surprise given some of my aggravations with the last generation of Kinect. However, if you don't want to shout, there is an alternative: hold down the left bumper, which, by comparison, takes an excessive amount of time. It's a fun idea, but doesn't do enough to mix up the core combat.

Ryse: Son of Rome had potential, but Crytek did too little to expand upon its repetitive combat. While I ran through the campaign in about five hours, it honestly felt like 20. And with the formula becoming more and more boring with each by-the-numbers execution, the addition of throwaway collectibles, like vistas and scrolls, couldn't save this game. Ryse doesn't come close to living up to Roman standards. [5]

This review is based on early Xbox One code provided by the publisher. Ryse will be available at retail and for download on November 22 on Xbox Live for $59.99. The game is rated M.