Review: Risen 2: Dark Waters

There’s a bit of a pirate revival in the works at the moment. As well as the upcoming Port Royale and Pirate Warriors we’ve got Risen 2: Dark Waters, a piratey RPG from Piranha Bytes which tries to mix a huge number of quests with a storyline intended to keep you hooked to the end. It succeeds to a degree, but in a generation where we’ve been spoilt with incredible RPGs we’re still left wanting.

The main character, known simply as the Hero, is freed of his position in the Inquisition in order to join up with the pirate order and find a weapon that will allow sailors to take to the seas without fear of being sunk by a lethal ship-sinking kraken. There are other themes underlying the adventure, but with the early stages taken up by trying to find Steelbeard – a famous pirate with the most stereotypical pirate name you could think of – that’ll be your main focus for quite some time. It’s a slow burning story which takes a fair while to wind itself up, not helped by the fact it’s so easy to have no idea what’s going on. With no map initially available when you land on a new island it’s very easy to get lost in the jungles and plains, leading to you either spending an hour finding your way back to civilisation or getting attacked by a range of savages and animals, quite possibly leaving your either dead or seriously injured. But take it steady and pick your quests carefully and you’ll get a chance to learn new fighting skills, get hold of a map and buy some better kit to help you on your way. It’s a challenging learning curve that’s for sure, but a bit of perseverance will pay off before too long.

The console version doesn’t look as pretty as this, sadly…

The biggest difficulty is finding that perseverance. Even as early as the main menu you wonder if some effort was left behind when coming up with the general interface in Risen 2. Text is often fuzzy and difficult to read without getting up close to the TV, there’s no option to use a surround sound audio setup (highly unusual nowadays) and the visuals are very rough around the edges with some almighty popup occurring on items and environments not all that far from you. Characters sometimes walk through each other, combat is tougher than it should be due to a tricky camera and the passing of time is done in chunks of half an hour or so at a time. Stand still for a few moments and you’ll see the shadows suddenly leaping a few inches all at once as the sun moves. After the amazing time lapsing seen in Skyrim, it’s quite jarring to see something so raw, although with the character models and landscapes also far less polished it doesn’t seem like a huge surprise.

Something that still makes me laugh is the conversations you have with NPCs; not the conversations themselves but the way the characters behave during them. In addition to the camera and player stances leaping around all over the shop between sentences (weird when the person speaking doesn’t change and the camera shifts a few inches to the side) there’s a distinct Power Rangers feel to things, with huge amounts of arm and hand movements to try and make the characters look more animated. Interestingly, if you skip the sentence before it finishes they’ll start the next sentence with the exact same gesticulation, and will keep doing so until you let them finish the movement.

Voiceovers are generally pretty decent, although there are some issues here as well – trying to buy something too expensive will show a subtitle saying “I don’t have enough gold”, which would be fine if the voice didn’t say “I don’t have gold enough”, and when you hear this quite a lot it’s amazing it was never picked up in the game’s testing phase.Nothing amongst any of these issues mean the game is broken as such, but it’s very rough around the edges.

And yet, despite me writing 3 paragraphs outlining what’s wrong with the game, it isn’t all that terrible once things get going. You can learn to pick locks, steal from people (although only from a predefined set of characters) as well as beefing up your stats and weapons. There’s a deceptively deep set of skills for you to play around with which shows that the RPG element of the game definitely hasn’t been ignored. You can get hold of different swords, various guns and bombs and pick up sneaky tricks to give you an advantage in combat. If you choose a certain path you even get to dabble in magic, but it’s not terribly powerful and isn’t as cool as it could’ve been. The quests are numerous too, with each island having its own set of things to do, many of which will need you to hone your fighting, persuasion and stealing skills to be successful – one wrong move and you’re toast. When the loading screen suggests you save often, there’s a good reason for that: Risen 2 can be very tough and very unforgiving. Quests are varied and numerous, ranging from simple fetch quests (which more often than not aren’t all that simple) through to killing certain people or creatures, stealing equipment or searching for stuff. Quests will link into each other too, so you’ll need to think carefully about how to go about completing them so as not to bugger up something else. This isn’t a bad thing at all, you’ll need to think a bit more about what you’re doing and the ramifications. You don’t want to annoy someone who you’ll later rely on for information, for example.

It’s difficult to know what to think of Risen 2. On the one hand you’ve got an RPG adventure that gives you a lot to do, will keep you occupied for many many hours and lets you use grog as a bartering chip. Not many games let you do that. It’s also fairly cool knowing you’re a pirate, using piratey weapons and doing piratey things. But on the other side I struggle to comprehend why, so long after the PC version was released, there are still so many weird issues. Big games have their bugs, there’s little chance of avoiding that because of their scope, but this just seems quite rushed. It’s a difficult game to stick with in the early hours (again, as many RPG titles are) but when you’re taking on Bethesda in the RPG stakes things need to be very slick, very polished and very up to date. Risen 2 is none of those things which is a massive shame, because look beyond the grubby exterior and you’ve got a very passable and potentially enjoyable game on your hands. Give yourself a few hours to reach the temple-raiding, gun-shooting sections and you’ll be rewarded with some fun, but don’t expect this to turn non-RPG fans any time soon.

Incidentally, my favourite (only) pirate joke: Why are pirates called pirates? I’ve no idea, they just arrrrrr.

I’ll get my coat.

Reviewed on PS3

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