Risen is the latest RPG from German developer Piranha Bytes, better known as the creators of the Gothic series of games. Anyone familiar with that series knows that they weren’t exactly the friendliest RPGs out there. While the first two games are highly regarded among the hardcore RPG crowd for their gritty style and difficult but ultimately rewarding gameplay, the third was plagued by serious technical issues at launch, addressed later by official and unofficial patches. Despite featuring a game world almost as big and twice as mature as Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, Gothic 3 never really achieved the popularity it could have. Now Piranha Bytes are back to make up for their last game with Risen, a brand new RPG that’s very much Gothic 4 in spirit and then some. If you’re one of those people who were somewhat disappointed by the accessible nature of recent big name RPGs, you’ll find a lot to like here.
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On the surface, Risen looks and feels very much like the next installment of Gothic, but after a few hours of playing, you’ll soon realise that it’s a much more polished and focused effort than Gothic 3 was. You still play as a nameless character unwillingly thrown into a power struggle between two opposing factions. There is no mandatory character creation at the beginning of the game. You will not be choosing any stereotypical classes or adjusting the height of your character’s nose bridge. After a brief opening cutscene, the game immediately puts you in control of a shipwrecked nobody, virtually leaving you to fend for yourself on what seems to be a seemingly uninhabited island. There is a brief tutorial-like section where another shipwrecked survivor (who conveniently, for our hero, happens to be a pretty maiden) educates you on some of the basic gameplay mechanics and skills. But after that, you’re pretty much on your own.
Gradually, you’ll stumble onto other NPCs and find out more about the mysterious island. All of this feels very natural and not like you’re being cunningly guided by a script. Things start getting complicated when the factions come into play. Siding with either of the two main factions isn’t merely about choosing the good guys over the evil ones or vice versa. The Order of the Flame led by the enigmatic Inquisitor seem like religious zealots converting unwilling people to their side while the rogue bandits led by Don Esteban are money hungry cutthroats for whom the islands’ treasures mean far more than anything else.
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However, each side also has characters who can genuinely feel like good people and you’re never really sure just how good or evil a particular faction is. Given these facts, making your decisions isn’t exactly an easy process. However, in order for the story to progress you will have to eventually pick a side. Unlike most games, Risen actually gives you many chances to think upon your decision. But I’m sure when it’s time to do it, you will make multiple saves and still never be sure if you made the right choice, since everything falls into a morally grey area.
In gameplay terms, your alliance with a faction indirectly translates to how the story unfolds and what type of RPG archetype you will eventually become. The Order allows you to take the path of the mage or become a warrior/caster hybrid, while siding with the Don restricts you to a melee or ranged fighter with emphasis on rogue-like skills such as pickpocketing, lockpicking and sneaking. None of this is clearly spelled out for you and you will have to pay attention to NPC dialog to grasp the finer details. Don’t blame Piranha Bytes if you wanted to become a mage but ended up siding with the Don. Still, the game offers a certain amount of flexibility even after choosing a side. Many of the skills can be learned as long as you find the relevant trainers. However, don’t expect a warrior to learn high-level magic or a mage trying to master sword fighting.
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Speaking of skills, Risen features a simple, yet effective system. It’s a single screen, where you can see all your stats, available skills and abilities, and your proficiency in each. There is a wide range of skills to choose from, such as alchemy, scroll creation, smithing, lockpicking, pickpocketing, prospecting (for ore) among others apart from specialisation in weapon types and offensive magic. Unlike other RPGs, you won’t be spending skill points each time you level up. Instead, the game rewards you with a set amount of “learning points” at each level. These points can be cashed in (along with a certain amount of gold) at various trainers to increase your skill level in a particular area. The trainers can also raise your base stats such as Strength and Dexterity. The system is fairly simple and once you’ve figured it out, you can make your character quite proficient in your skills of choice. And it is highly necessary to train every chance you get because the game can be extremely challenging even for seasoned RPG players.
Risen might come in as a rude shock for those whose experience with RPGs is restricted to games like Oblivion or Fable or those who are used to the somewhat accessible nature of combat in RPGs. The island of Faranga is harsh and unforgiving. The wildlife is ferocious and even the lowliest enemies can take you down in a few hits if you don’t know what you’re doing. Fighting humanoid enemies is even trickier as they will constantly block, parry and counter your every wrong move.
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The combat plays out in real time and while it initially may seem like your typical hack-n-slash RPG, you’ll soon realise that approach won’t get you too far. You will have to block constantly and attack only when you feel like you have an opening. It’s even worse when it comes to dealing with multiple enemies at once as they have a tendency of immediately surrounding you. Even at higher levels, you will not be able to effectively engage mobs of enemies and will have to constantly resort to cheap tactics such as luring them into narrow spaces or leading them to friendly NPCs.
Personally, I am a bit torn about Risen’s combat. On one hand, it feels refreshingly challenging, making each enemy encounter feel far more interesting than a boring grind for XP, but it also feels unbalanced and unfair at times. Using magic can be slightly more effective as the spells become quite damaging once you train enough. However, most enemies will quickly close in on you, so you’ll have to resort to melee or hit-and-run tactics. Same goes for using ranged weapons such as bows and crossbows.
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Risen is also extremely stingy when it comes to weapons and gear. You won’t constantly get new and better equipment. But when you do, you will feel like you have actually ‘earned’ it instead of just having stumbled onto it. Regardless of the difficulty, the combat does manage to add an extra layer of depth to the gameplay. You will rarely venture out into the open world without stocking up on potions and scrolls and equipping your best gear.
Next page: Quests, presentation, and IVG verdict