There’s something about being a pirate. Perhaps it’s the freedom of sailing a ship wherever the wind blows, striking fear into land-lovers with the help of comrades-in-arms, and hunting treasure across the seven seas. But maybe it would be better to say that there’s something about the idea of being a pirate. A sense of high adventure can lift up a story, sometimes against unfavorable odds. It’s a major reason I can look back fondly on my play-through of the Risen 2: Dark Waters preview, despite some problems with the game.
The biggest problems are present in combat and unfortunately, Risen 2 is an action role-playing game so the combat plays a large part. It has the underpinnings to be fun though, and sometimes succeeds despite itself. There’s no lack of weapons to be mastered; for the main hand, there are piercing and slashing swords, muskets, shotguns, and spears. In the off-hand, pistols and throwing knives are the order of the day. The hero can also spice things up with dirty tricks, such as using a coconut to knock someone unconscious, or throwing sand in an enemy’s eyes to blind them. The fighting is at its best against human NPCs and combat is difficult but dynamic. In fact, the need to be more tactical because of the difficulty was refreshing. Learning more tricks and skills from trainers during the game gets combat closer to the swashbuckling fun it should be, but battle slips towards frustration far too easily because of inconsistency.
Problems in combat, such as attacks from monsters and animals being un-blockable, result in strategy being thrown out the window and ruining the otherwise tense, tactical feel of combat. Another flaw gets highlighted within the game’s first few encounters as well: it’s common for the hero to have an attack interrupted or an animation stopped due to an incoming attack, but other humans (and most animals and monsters) don’t have the same problem. Taking advantage of the holes in an enemy’s defense isn’t fun when the player is punished relentlessly because opponents can bull right through any attack. To make matters worse, creatures that are near human-size (or larger) get even more advantages and special attacks, depending on their type.
Another part of why the Risen 2 experience was uneven as well, although nowhere near the level of the combat problems, was the game’s tone. Dark Waters starts off very somber, explaining the devastation Titans have caused to the continent, rendering it all but uninhabitable, and the dire straits the world is in. Then it promptly pisses all that seriousness away in the first hour of play. The nameless hero is supposed to be a depressed wreck because of his failure at the end of the first Risen, but his depression is only expressed by bottles of grog strewn around his room. Nothing else, not even the hero’s own behavior or dialogue even tries to pick up that narrative thread again.
After Patty (the hero’s treasure-hungry friend) appears, the hero gets sent on a secret mission to ingratiate himself with pirates and recover a weapon capable of killing Titans. Events move to the island of Tacariqua, more characters get introduced, and things only become sillier. The silliness ends up being for the best in hindsight, even if it is uneven; the game wouldn’t work as well going through with the heavy-handed approach presented at the start. It’s just jarring to go from doom and gloom to pirates whose only cares in the world are rum, gold, and (ahem) bow-legged women.
The game isn’t all bad though, not by far. Piranha Bytes took the novel approach of using a semi-open world to cut down on loading times. Each island is loaded as an individual area when the hero visits it, but once it’s loaded a player can visit any part of it – indoors or outside – without needing to load additional areas. It’s nice to be able to wander straight into a town to offload loot without any delays, and fast-traveling from one area to another is almost instant. I also experienced almost no bugs even with the preview being built on the beta version of the game, which is an encouraging sign.
Risen 2 is built on a much-upgraded version of the graphics engine used in the original game and it shows. Visuals are pleasing to the eye, with pretty vistas and detailed character models (although some NPC faces are repeated quite a bit). The graphics are as capable of dark, foreboding environments as they are coastlines and lush jungles filled with vibrant colors. The game also makes use of a day/night cycle as well as dynamic weather, adding to the variety of scenery. The music and sound is just as dynamic, matching the mood of events, environments, and battles perfectly.
Risen was noted by critics as being a less hardcore RPG in the vein of the Gothic series (also by developer Piranha Bytes), and Risen 2 has improved accessibility even further. The game still has incredible depth to it – there’s even more freedom now for a player to develop the hero as they see fit – but the user interface has been adjusted and improved. There’s still a large compliment of talents and skills to be raised and learned, but now they’re organized better under the major attributes blades, firearms, toughness, cunning, and voodoo. Glory earned from completing quests and defeating enemies is the main way to raise attributes, but certain equipment and legendary items can affect them as well. Gold paid to trainers gives access to skills, but sometimes they will teach the hero for free if he does the right task for the right person.
Perhaps the best thing in Risen 2, besides the pirate theme, is the open-ended quest structure. This concept goes beyond quests being available from a multitude of characters and places; it also throws the doors wide open on unique player experiences by allowing quests to be completed in different ways. Not only are there different approaches that can be used with each person involved in a quest, but sometimes conversations, characters, or events can be skipped entirely in taking a quest to completion. Risen 2’s mission structure boldly strides into Skyrim territory and it does so skillfully.
Risen 2: Dark Waters is walking a thin line leading into its April 24th release date. On one side is a combat system that would be enjoyable if it wasn’t marred by some big flaws, and on the other is a host of improvements and great ideas that could make the game a hit. I’m hopeful for what the pirate life may be like, but not confident enough to say Risen 2 is a must buy with the shadow of its combat looming so large. We will see what the final verdict is come launch day.