Risen 2: Dark Waters review

By Jeff Mattas, May 10, 2012 9:00am PDT

Sit right back and you'll hear a tale; a tale of a fateful trip into Piranha Bytes latest action-RPG, Risen 2: Dark Waters. Pirate-themed aesthetics replace the standard fantasy fare of orcs and elves but underneath that veneer beats the heart of a classic role-playing game. The resulting world of Risen 2 feels at once both fresh and familiar. There's a lot to like about the game, too, but it winds up being held back by issues such as its unintuitive leveling system and combat that's much more promising in concept than in practice. These problems hurt its accessibility and, though not insurmountable, can lead to frustration.

Risen 2's story isn't going to win any awards for originality, but is appropriately pirate-themed. The tale it tells centers on a morally-flexible hero conscripted by the imperial Inquisition to infiltrate the pirates, who have their own shadow society. Meanwhile, giant sea-creatures threaten coastlines and naval vessels at the behest of an aquatic demon named Mara. The whole thing really kicked into gear when I finally got my own ship and set out to track down a handful of legendary pirate captains who each possess a special weapon that can be used to defeat the water-bound nemesis.

Choice is the staple of any RPG worth its salt, and there were many meaningful decisions for me to make in Risen 2. Some choices affected how the story unfolded, particularly with respect to which factions with which I chose to ally myself. At its most basic, Risen 2 nevertheless reduces to yet another story about a hero collecting artifacts, battling bosses, and saving the world. The pirate theme, though, goes a long way to make going through those familiar motions feel relatively fresh. My main criticism of the game in this regard is that it rarely makes clear what a given situation’s alternate approaches entail. I found this type of quest design could be rewarding--as when I finally figured out one of the less-obvious approaches to a problem—but also very frustrating. When I got stuck—which happened on occasion--it felt more like I was trying to read the developer's mind, than immersing myself and finding a truly natural solution.

On a high-end PC—with graphic settings maxed--Risen 2: Dark Waters treated me to some stunning island vistas and ambiance. Though not without some minor (but relatively frequent) graphical glitches, the use of lighting, day and night cycles, and dynamic weather, coupled with some good environment design and art helped make each island feel as unique to me as it was dangerous. The world is immersive, to be sure, and I felt that it really captured the classic, romanticized vision of seafaring pirates. It's grittier and darker than Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean films, by far, but the pirates’ priorities in Risen 2 are still primarily rum and treasure.

Not all of the eye-candy in Risen 2 is delicious, however. Character animations have a rough, marionette-like quality, especially during the scores of in-engine cinematic dialog sequences. Likewise, movements aren't always stitched together effectively either, making both combat and conversations feel stilted to me at times. It's not a deal breaker, but given how much time I spent talking to NPCs, it was tough not to notice how wooden many of these interactions seemed.

As with the look of the game, its sound is a mixed bag. I loved Risen 2's ambient music and sound work, which includes stringed instruments and reeds that make it feel like a more mature, serious take on something like the Secret of Monkey Island's score. The dialog and voice acting, though, ranged from good to cringe-worthy, to downright offensive. There are some memorable NPCs, but many of the world's denizens--including the main character himself--tend to fall flat in their vocal delivery. Add to this some uncomfortable moments with surprisingly racist overtones--one pirate regularly referring to the (stereotypically primitive, dark-skinned) natives as "spear-chuckers" springs to mind--and the result is unnecessarily uncomfortable, crass, and seems irresponsible, on the whole.

The exploration-based elements in Risen 2 reap the benefits of the game's beautiful presentation. The design and variety of the game's seven islands for the most part lent themselves quite well to side-quests, or just straight-out wandering. This is a good thing, because I often found myself needing to amass more experience (called Glory) or loot so that I could learn the skills necessary to proceed. In another twist that I agree with conceptually--but one that doesn't make for great gameplay--the player begins each new island without a map. Maps can be found, stolen, or purchased on each island, making figuring out where I needed to go a heck of a lot easier, and opening up fast-travel options. Prior to finding the requisite maps, though, I had to rely solely on my memory, a compass, and a giant zoomed-out sea chart for reference.

Character progression in Risen 2: Dark Waters is also quite interesting, but manages to be a bit too convoluted and inaccessible for its own good. By killing enemies and completing quests, I earned Glory, which could be used to upgrade skills like Blades, Firearms, Cunning, Toughness, and Voodoo. Primary skills have a host of sub-abilities which are taught by a number of NPCs scattered throughout the various islands. New skills also had other requisites I had to meet beforehand, and each new skill or upgrade also required a significant sum of gold be paid. Though many of the quests in Risen 2 have multiple solutions, some of those solutions have ability proficiency prerequisites. For example, I came across an NPC that I could pickpocket, kill, or sweet-talk out of a much needed quest-item, but each possible solution had skill requirements. Therefore, I'd be unable to progress until I accrued some more Glory and gold, leveled-up, and found someone who could train a very specific ability I needed.

True, it creates an immersive setup, but tracking down a trainer who could help me learn a specific ability, and then completing side-quests until I could earn that ability, wasn't always fun because it required me to step away from the main storyline for significant stretches. And not all trainers can teach all skills—even those related to their particular specialty. There were times when I wandered from island to island, in search of just the right trainer. Accruing enough gold and Glory to learn how to counterattack was one thing. Remembering who could actually teach me that specific ability was quite another.

I found the swashbuckling in Risen 2 to be quite difficult at first, especially prior to unlocking a solid base of offensive and defensive skills. The game touts a timing-based, fencing-like swordplay system, which is bolstered by ranged combat, Voodoo, and cunning-based offense, depending on how the player levels up his character. I personally found the timing-based swordplay with other human NPCs to be fun once things like ripostes, power-attacks, counterattacks, and kicks had been unlocked, but it doesn't end up being as deep or responsive--and therefore, rewarding--as it could have been.

When fighting wild animals or monsters, however, the combat system sort of falls apart. Most creatures simply went toe-to-toe with me, and because they don't wield a blade, weren't susceptible to things like ripostes and counterattacks. A dodge or roll ability would have done wonders by fleshing out a more practical defensive layer against these enemies. As is stands, a lot of Risen 2's swordplay boils down to tactic-free slug-fests—unless you consider running away a tactic. Wild animals would sometimes simply charge, run circles around me, or get caught on a piece of the world’s geometry as I hacked them to pieces. In short, there are some pretty glaring cracks in the game's creature AI.

Though it packs a variety of hostiles--from human NPCs, to jungle wildlife, to monsters--even had the combat been better, the actual engagements also posed some issues. Difficult enemies were often used as natural barriers to block low-level players from certain parts of the maps. While I generally like this as a gameplay concept—used effectively in games like Dark Souls or The Witcher 2--it does mean that saving before most battles is highly-recommended, lest one is unwittingly pounded into jam by a giant beastie for being too bold.

The option to focus on gunplay over swordplay in Risen 2 is a nice addition, but the game's use of firearms feels a little underdeveloped and less fluid than it should. It's more naturally conducive to the "attack-run-repeat" flow of combat than the swordplay, but also isn't terribly satisfying. That said, having a pistol my melee and magic-focused hero could fire off occasionally during a sword fight was a welcome addition.

Some time into my adventure, I allied myself with some island natives who taught me Voodoo, which turned out to be one of the more interesting skills to pursue. Aside from the more standard spells I could deploy during combat, I was eventually able to complete quests by gathering components, creating a Voodoo Doll at one of the game's many altars, and actually taking control of other characters. By and large, these gameplay segments helped break up the action with an atypical and welcome addition to questing.

Some of the thief-like skills that I learned also complimented the game's pirate motif quite well. Familiars like monkeys and parrots became available once my Cunning skill was high enough, and could be deployed to steal for me or distract enemies during combat, respectively. Another cool, cunning-related skill allowed me to shoot some NPCs in the face, mid-conversation, if I felt a particular chat was going awry. While systems like these weren't game-changing, they were nice additions that helped me keep my mind on treasure hunting, grog-swilling, and swashbuckling.

For all the specifically pirate-themed rigmarole, it becomes evident quite quickly that Risen 2 is more of a standard RPG with a pirate skin than a completely new type of experience. As one would hope in a pirate-themed RPG, I got a ship of my own as the story unfolded, but it was relegated to being a taxi that ferried me between the game's multiple islands. It's expected, but still a bit disappointing, that sailing the high seas is pretty much relegated to a "click-and-go" affair managed via the world map.

Risen 2: Dark Waters offers a lot to like taken in its parts. A competent story, a good amount of player-driven choices, and beautiful locations to explore make it one of the best (and only) pirate RPGs out there. But it fell short for me when it came to other mechanical things like combat and character development. Fans of previous Piranha Bytes titles will likely have an easier time getting going, because familiarity with the developer's particular style game systems takes some of the sting out. However, I can't wholeheartedly recommend it at the end of the day, because the stew of gameplay mechanics it contains—particularly the bread-and-butter combat--just didn't hold up for hours on end.


[This Risen 2: Dark Waters review is based on a digital PC retail version of the game, provided by the publisher.]

Click here to comment...

Comments

See All Comments | 1 Thread | 6 Comments