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RPG Codex reviews Risen 2: Dark Waters

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RPG Codex reviews Risen 2: Dark Waters

Review - posted by VentilatorOfDoom on Tue 3 July 2012, 19:22:08

Tags: Piranha Bytes; Risen 2: Dark Waters

Risen 2 – FedEx Waters
[A Risen 2: Dark Waters Review by Darth Roxor]


Good day, coxswain

Ahoy thar, matey! You look like the adventurous type. May I interest you in a once-a-lifetime offer to set sail aboard Risen 2, the magnificent ship of the great captain Neckbeard? The dreaded pirate needs capable men to fulfill his dream – to establish the greatest courier service ever known to this archipelago! Yes, I know “Risen” might sound familiar to you, but make no mistake, these two ol’ boats share only the name.

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Disclaimer: for some very weird reason, the game refused to be photographed, so this review will not contain any pretty pictures. Thus, I’m afraid you’ll have to trust me on everything I write about visuals and other stuff here.

[editors note: despite the in-game screenshot function not working, a sad fact which proved fatal to Darth Roxor's screenshot taking abilities, we've managed to overcome this nearly impossible-to-overcome obstacle due to our high technical aptitude and FRAPS, the screenshots are a courtesy of Elwro]

Yohoho and a bottle of provisions

Risen 2 picks up a year or so after the events of its predecessor. Once again you’ll take control of the nameless dude and proceed on a mission of glorious titan smashing. There are, however, a few problems that stand in your way. First is the fact that after joining up with the Inquisition, the protagonist has become a total bum, seeking refuge at the bottom of the bottle, which has made him pretty much forget all the skills he’s learned before, as well as making him a total wimp. Second problem is that, apparently, the whole civilised world is on fire because Ursegor, the lovely chap whose gear you needed to defeat the fire titan in Risen 1, has gone berserk. That’s why the last human remnants decided they need to evacuate as soon as possible to the “new world”. This is where the third problem arises – all long-ranged sea travel is completely impossible, since the sea titan, Mara, has been awoken, and she’s not much happy about it, that’s why she keeps sinking all human ships that want to go anywhere. This is where you come in – a rumour has it that four pirate captains managed to obtain powerful artifacts that can control, or even destroy Mara. The player character is thus sent as a secret agent by the Inquisition to find the captains and get the artifacts from them, or even persuade them to join the fight against the titan.

As you can see, changes have crept into the world of Risen. Lots of them, in fact. Probably the most visible change is the shift into a pirate themed setting – but that will be addressed later on. What first needs to be discussed is what the hell was Piranha Bytes thinking when they designed the game’s mechanics.

Let’s start by taking a look at the character system. The typical Gothic formula of learning points has been almost completely scrapped. Instead, you’ve got something vaguely resembling skill trees – the character has 5 main attributes: Blades, Firearms, Cunning, Toughness and Voodoo. Each of these attributes has 3 different skills assigned to it, as well as a number of talents. You raise attributes with glory, the local equivalent of experience that you get for just about everything you do. Skills are raised by attributes and certain talents. To get talents, you need to find specific teachers and pay them – if your assigned attribute is high enough.

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Attributes and skills can also be further boosted by special “legendary” items that you can find across your travels. There is around 20 of them, scattered in various places. While some of them make sense, like a good bullet bag that increases pistols by 10, why a cannonball would increase shotguns by 10 is anyone’s guess.

Blades is the attribute that governs all sorts of edgy weapons. The skills assigned to it are Piercing (rapiers and bayonets), Slashing (sabres) and Throwing (knives, spears, etc), increasing damage done. Blades talents unlock some combat moves, like riposte or counterattack, but mostly just increase the damage you do. You can also unlock the Forging talent to craft new weapons.

Firearms – guns, guns, guns! Yes, gunpowder has made it to the world of Risen. Firearms skills are Pistols, Shotguns and Muskets, each improving damage and accuracy. Talents usually further increase damage and accuracy, but also decrease reload time and improve the chance for critical hits (double damage). Gunsmithing unlocks crafting. There is also ‘Nuff said!’, allowing you to end some dialogues quickly with a shot to the face.

Toughness makes your character a mean sonuvabitch. The skills Bladeproof and Bulletproof decrease damage taken from various sources, while Intimidate unlocks new dialogue options from time to time. Apart from further increasing skills, talents allow you to increase your maximum health, prolong the effects of painkillers (massive defensive buffs), give constant health regeneration and distill liquors (health potions).

Cunning is the main tool of a sly bastard. Thievery increases the effectiveness of your pickpocketing and lockpicking, Dirty Tricks increase accuracy and potency of various combat moves (such as throwing salt into an enemy’s eye), Silver Tongue is the diplomacy edition of Intimidate. Cunning talents decrease cooldown on dirty tricks and allow you to train monkeys and parrots. Monkeys can be sent into otherwise unreachable nooks and crannies, while a smug parrot can distract an enemy in combat, effectively “stunning” them. The monkey training is an interesting mechanic – when you use the monkey, you take control of it and can run around doing various activities, such as getting into hidden areas, nicking people’s stuff (although they will kill the monkey if its spotted), scouting, etc.

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Voodoo is the only magic to be found in Risen 2. Its skills are Death Cult, increasing the combat effectiveness of summoned spirits, Black Magic, improving various curses, and Rituals, allowing for more powerful potions to be brewed. Voodoo talents generally increase effectiveness and cooldown of curse dolls and sceptres, as well as unlocking crafting potions and talismans.

While looking good on paper, there is a couple of important issues with this character system. First, Toughness is simply not worth raising. The increased resistances never really become truly visible, increasing health is not worth the bother and I’ve never noticed Intimidate being terribly useful as well. On the other hand, if you don’t raise Cunning, you’ll never unlock a single meaningful chest, you won’t have different options in some quests thanks to the monkey, and you’ll never penetrate all ruins thoroughly, as they almost always require you to send the monkey somewhere to pull a lever.

There is also the problem of some skills simply being totally inferior. There is not a single piercing weapon in the game that would be better than a slashing one. They only differ in base damage, nothing else, and the slashing ones are better. Moreover, the damage on the bayonets is also pitiful even with maxed Piercing, so I simply see no reason for taking rapiers over sabres. Throwing weapons are also so unbelievably bad I have no idea why anyone would ever want to pick them. The Death Cult voodoo skill can be useful only depending on when you’ve visited one specific island that “unlocks” summoning, and it’s still rather disappointing regardless. The firearms talent ‘nuff said can be used in the whole damn game about a total of 3 times, and it’s never even “gamechanging”, so to speak.

There is also the problem of crafting. The very FIRST sword you can craft with ease right after leaving the game’s second island (which opens up the “full world”) also happens to be the best sword in game. Thanks to this, you can never ever bother yourself with melee weapon crafting again, unless you do it for the glory (because reassembling broken weapons gives it). There are also schematics for “regular” weapons, but the funny thing is that they cost only marginally less than the weapons themselves, and odds are that by the time you’ve found them, you already have a better weapon anyway. It is also absurd that there are two “megaswords” you can assemble that are identical in terms of stats and look, but only differ in names.

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Next is gunsmithing. This is even worse than forging, simply because you can’t craft any “legendary” guns. Only regular ones that share the exact same problems forging regular swords does.

Distilling liquor also is completely not worth the money and glory spent, since I’ve never actually even had to buy any additional grog or rum that act as the game’s health potions, so I wouldn’t need to brew them either. I kept running all the way to the end on stuff I found.

Last is the voodoo crafting. This is actually more useful because you can’t really find or buy all the curse dolls and sceptres anywhere, so you must to craft them if you want to use them, and voodoo dolls are only good for one use. The potions you can brew are so-so, it’s very often useful to have a situational potion handy to boost your thievery if you’ve come across a chest you can’t open because you lack 1 skill point, for example. Combat buff potions, however, I had to use only once in a ridiculously unfair fight. There are also potions that increase skills permanently, but this is also a bit absurd – like in previous Piranha Bytes games, you can find special plants all over the world that permanently increase your skills by 1. However, you can brew potions from them, to further increase the stat... to 2. Underwhelming doesn’t even begin to cut it. Last voodoo-related crafting is talisman creation, which let’s you forge magic jewellery, and again, it’s simply not worth it because the same, or better, items can be found easily.

What I also found especially disappointing, was that Risen 1’s cooking has been axed. No longer can you use glorious potato to produce a delicious soup. In fact, you can no longer even find potato because all food articles you can find – apple, meat, wine, water, everything – falls under the generic label of ‘provisions’. Every piece of food does exactly the same thing, it regenerates 20% of your health over time. Lame.

As you may have noticed, prospecting and hunting skills have been axed as well. Indeed, our protagonist has become a hobo that forgot which end of the sword he should hold in combat, but he still can mine for gold and skin an animal, alright. All you need is a pickaxe to dig, or a bunch of hunting tools to grab trophies.
After all this ado, I believe it is time to address the game’s single biggest, and most enjoyment-killing flaw. The combat. If Risen 1’s combat was one step forward, then the sequel’s is five steps back because it’s simply mindboggling how this horribly unbalanced and tiresome slog could have made it into the game.

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Let’s start with the swordplay. Any sense of timing has been completely removed, all you have left is mashing the left mouse button to attack your enemy. Funny fact: when you mash your basic attack, the enemy is totally free to retaliate or suddenly block. But if the enemy mashes his basic attacks against you, you can witness the Vengeful Return of the Stunlock (TM), and yell at your monitor for the goddamn ghoul/town guard/sand devil to stop finally attacking you because you want to react. This can be at least a bit circumvented once you unlock power attacks because you can just keep your distance and spam those against your hapless enemies, since they have more range, break blocking and do more damage. The only timing you can hope to get is once you unlock ripostes. By left clicking in a Very Specific Moment (TM) when parrying, you can evade/riposte and enemy’s attack, leaving him off-guard for a couple of attacks. However, the Very Specific Moment (TM) required to do this means that riposting is actually much more luck than skill based. Especially since every damn enemy seems to have different attack animations that you have to remember.

One funny fact that also needs to be mentioned. Your only defence against enemy attacks are parries and dodges (trademark rolls) that you activate by double-tapping movement keys. Before a patch that came out around 2 weeks after the game’s launch, dodging was not even implemented. That patch also allowed parrying some monster attacks. Indeed, for two whole weeks, the only hope you had for surviving was that the enemy swordsman wouldn’t use power attacks to break your parries, and that you would stunlock the enemy creature before it could stunlock you. This was even more absurd when I found an NPC on the first island before the patch – he told me that warthogs are not to be underestimated, but dodging their charges is relatively easy... uh, dodging? Oh wait, no, dodging and parrying are not your only defences because you are now free to gulp down as much rum to heal yourself in combat as needed – there is no inventory access/drinking animation whatsoever, and using the inventory pauses the game.

Suffice to say, I’ve never had a decent swordfight in the game, which is a real damn shame because those were always the highlights in Gothics and Risen. The fact that there is also next to no sense of progression in the game doesn’t help either. You can raise your skills with the blade as much as you want, you can get the ultimate sword, but the enemies are still goddamn annoying health sponges that take way too long to die, even basic overgrown fish that happen to be your first enemies in the game! Not only that, no, the lack of progression can be also clearly seen in the other gear you get – Risen 2 has disposed of the “one big suit of armour” policy, instead letting you get different hats, coats, trousers, etc. But the thing is, the clothes you get have pathetic defensive values, and you are much better off choosing them for their skillboosts (like, a menacing pirate hat will give you an intimidate bonus). This means that not only enemies remain annoying hp sponges, they also keep hitting you for relatively the same amount of damage for the whole game.

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The addition of guns is probably the best thing in this game. And no, no, not because the mechanics are cool or something because they are as basic as it gets. Rifles go into your main hand (like the sword), and all you need to do is right click to aim, left to fire. Pistols go into the offhand and can be fired by pressing E. You can wield both a rifle and a pistol at the same time, shoot them in quick succession and reload both at once, thanks to the main character’s leg muscle, well-developed and evolved specifically for this reason. The muskets dish out some seriously serious damage at a long range, and with high enough musket skill, it’s downright impossible to miss. And since you don’t even have to remain stationary to reload, you can just shoot, roll away, shoot, rinse and repeat. At least this makes the combat go into “easy mode”, ending it faster and sparing you the retarded stunlock mechanics.

Apart from regular fighting methods like swords and guns, you also have a couple of additional abilities at your disposal. Those are voodoo and dirty tricks. Due to the game’s plot structure, voodoo and muskets are mutually exclusive, and while I’d say the muskets are much more worth it overall, voodoo is not entirely useless in combat either. The interesting aspect of voodoo is that it doesn’t have any directly damaging spells, instead cursing your enemies with debuffs. Curse dolls make your enemies take more damage, while lowering their damage done as well. This is very useful against some more powerful adversaries, as at high black magic, you can make an enemy take even triple damage, while giving yourself an effective IDDQD. Sceptres, on the other hand, let you summon a ghostly meatshield in battle, “stun” enemies with fear, and make them go frenzy and attack their comrades. Sort of neat. As for the cunning-based dirty tricks, they are rather underwhelming because they are a bit like a poor man’s voodoo. That is to say, you won’t really need them in the game. A gunslinger character will not need dirty tricks because he can simply shoot everything down, while a voodoo guy’s voodoo is much more effective. Dirty tricks go into your offhand, and they have cooldowns after use, which doesn’t make an awful lot of sense – why would throwing a coconut at an enemy to KO him have cooldown? Or throwing salt into his eyes, for that matter?

To close the mechanics chapter, I’ll also address thievery. The way it’s done is kind of dumb. Pickpocketing or lockpicking always has a “threshold” you need to pass. Thus, a chest locked for 50 requires you to have 50 in thievery. And even still, when picking the lock you need to go through a pointless minigame that sort of resembles the lockpicking from previous games. Pointless because it can’t be failed. The same applies to pickpocketing and intimidate/silver tongue checks in dialogues – there is a threshold you must reach, and you can’t fail. There is also one more, way bigger, problem with lockpicking, but I’ll address that in the exploration section. Another strange thing is that NPCs often don’t even react to you sneaking into their houses and stealing all their belongings. Some of them will chase you away with swords drawn, sure, but others will just look at you robbing them blind and just say “pfff, you should be ashamed!”. This includes, among others, a wealthy and powerful merchant on the isle of Caldera, who has guards walking throughout his mansion. Why bother calling for them, eh?

Plot a course for Corridor Island

When talking about a Piranha Bytes game, exploration and worldbuilding, naturally, go into the spotlight. Their games always had massive, open worlds filled with dungeoneering, sightseeing, looting and monster-bashing. And it is those trademark features that Risen 2 fails the most at.

First off, the world is no longer seamless. It’s composed of an archipelago of unlockable islands. There are about seven islands in the game, but for the first ten hours you are stuck on two of them – Tacarigua and the Sword Coast (mad props for originality here) that is unlocked after you finish the first one. After the Sword Coast, the world sort of opens up, with a few more islands to plunder, and the other remaining ones are unlocked when you get information about them from advancing the storyline.

You sail from island to island on board your ship, which also serves as your base of operations, storing your crewmembers. Rather disappointing is that there is no management of the ship, there are no sudden emergencies when travelling, no further mechanics, it’s simply a means of faster travel.

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The island design goes from decent to horribad. The Sword Coast is probably the best one overall, with two settlements and a sizable chunk of stuff to explore. Caldera is another good one, if only because it’s composed only of a city, without any wilderness, which means you can forget, at least for an hour or two, about the clumsy combat. But then you get to Maracai Bay, which can only be described as “corridor island” because the whole damn area is made of nothing more than corridors carved out between huge, impassable mountains. And after that you get to corridor island’s revenge, otherwise known as the Isle of the Dead – this island is actually doubly disappointing because it’s the only one in the game that looks nice. Once you’ve been to the first island, Tacarigua, you’ve pretty much seen them all – they are all rather generic-looking jungles, that differ only with the shades of green used for vegetation (such as Tacarigua Happy and Maracai Grimdark). Meanwhile, when you land on the Isle of the Dead, you see those large, distressing mountains, a huge jade portal leading to the inner sanctum, and everything has those bleak and depressing colours. Inside, the island is made to resemble an Indian city carved out in stone. But then you get a map of the place and realise it’s nothing other than 2 corridors joined at the entrance, filled with undead and one fetch quest. Sigh.

All the islands, however, maybe except Caldera, suffer from a couple of really bad design choices that simply make exploration feel unrewarding, bland and just not fun.

The already mentioned atrocious combat is one factor. You simply don’t look forward to moving into new places because you know there will be all those trash mobs of overgrown monkeys and warthogs blocking your way. This is doubly annoying because enemy variety in Risen 2 is rather poor, I can’t remember any of the islands having some sort of unique fauna, so you literally know that there will be nothing but overgrown monkeys and warthogs on your way and nothing else that you haven’t seen before. Even worse, the enemy encounters are almost always perfectly killable, which means you won’t even run into some sort of a challenge, stumbling upon a black troll by accident.

The first island, Tacarigua, is especially guilty of the above. Half of the island’s enemies are warthogs. And then you make it into a section, where giant crabs attack you every 2 steps. Even better – those crabs actually hide under the sand and pop up when you get close, so you can’t even avoid them. EVEN better – the crabs are almost impossible to damage with the sword, unless you kick them on their shells and then start attacking. This means, a casual trek through that area looks like this: 3 pop up crabs appear -> kick slash slash kick slash slash kick slash slash -> move two steps ahead -> 3 pop up crabs appear. Repeat until you quit in rage. Although, at least in Tacarigua you can run into two of the hardest enemies the game has to offer, something that doesn’t really happen in the other isles.

One thing that is sort of an improvement over Risen 1, though, is that you actually meet enemies with ranged attacks this time. However, you next to never meet anything with guns, which makes the Bulletproof stat almost completely obsolete. Instead, you find undead warriors throwing spears (and they are the only ones that are dangerous), termites spraying acid and monkeys throwing coconuts. Does that count as bladeproof or bulletproof?

But this time, you’re not alone in your struggles against the dreaded wilderness. Risen 2 introduces companions that you can take with you on your journeys. There is about ten of them, each providing some different skills. The inquisitorial marksman, Venturo, shoots stuff at long range, Chani, the voodoo shaman, can heal you, Patty, the pirate girl from Risen 1, is a decent meatshield, etc. The companions will follow you everywhere, except for some plot areas they are blocked from. You can always choose to have one with you, they make for pretty good combat support, and it’s a good idea to always pick a bro, if only because they make the combat faster. They never really step up from being just combat support, there is no room for Emotional Engagement (TM) here, sometimes they’ll just offer a single flavour comment in dialogues.

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Another reason why exploring the islands feels bland is that you never stumble upon anything that looks “cool”. You keep running through those jungles, you’ll run into some cave with giant bats, then you’ll find an ancient Aztec-style tomb, and that’s all. Except for those native tombs that all look the same, there are actually no ruins that you can explore. No funky-looking abandoned watchtowers, forts, castles, temples, not even lighthouses, while that would seem a no-brainer in a pirate setting (hell, even Gothic 1 had a cool haunted lighthouse). Furthermore, sometimes you’ll come across some chorten-like structures on the hills – turns out they are nothing but art deco. Or sometimes you can’t even get to them because vertical exploration in this game is almost non-existent. Yup, no proper climbing.

No swimming, either. A loading screen “protip” saying “high mountains and deep water limit the areas you can explore” looks almost absurd. And even more absurd is how this “deep water” works – if your character walks into said water, he gets instantly teleported back to his previous position. Half-arsed doesn’t even begin to describe this.
I said vertical exploration is “almost” non-existent because, sure, you can climb some places. Except that it’s a context-sensitive command and will work only where the developers want you to go. And where do they want you to go? Every now and then you’ll come across those idiotically conspicuous rock shelves, piled up one above another. Going up all those takes a stupid amount of time because of the silly climbing animations, and the rewards are almost always not worth the bother, which means you’ll simply find yourself ignoring those rock shelves after you’ve slogged through them like five times.

Above were some of the reasons why exploring feels unrewarding. Let me give you the ultimate one now. The lockpicking. This is quite possibly the most serious downfall of exploring. As I said before, opening locked chests now requires you to pass a skill threshold, without reaching it, you can’t even attempt to open the chest. This means that you’ll keep coming across dozens of chests you won’t be able to open, especially in the earlier parts of the game, and you’ll need to do mental notes, or whatever, to get back to them later after your skill’s gone up. Let me tell you that there is nothing more frustrating than going through another generic cave full of giant bats, only to find a chest with a master lock at the end. But you make a note of it and decide to get back later. Which is another painful thing to do because the islands are not connected with each other at all, so the locked chests are the only reason why you are returning there. And after you finally return, with your maxed out thievery, you open the chest and find 20 gold and 3 torches inside. Really, oftentimes the loot scheme in this game seems like a bad joke, as the lockpicking thresholds don’t correspond with the chest content in the least. Sometimes you’ll find a chest with a simple lock that holds a part of an ubersword, while another master-lock one will have absolutely nothing inside.

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As you can see, the fact that just about everything that can be looted is stored in locked chests means that you are pretty much needed to get very high cunning. And the stuff that isn’t locked in chests? You usually need the monkey to access it. But to get the monkey, you need 6 points in Cunning. The vast majority of native ruins have various cracks in walls that can be accessed only by the monkey, after that it pulls a lever or something, opening secret doors. There’s also a handful (but very little) different quest approaches that can be only performed with the monkey. So remember – raise that cunning, kids.

The last part of worldbuilding that needs to be addressed are the cities, or more like settlements. I was a bit disappointed that the game didn’t have this one big city, like Harbour Town or Khorinis. I suspect the fact that it has more smaller colonies/villages was supposed to circumvent that. But it doesn’t, really. The towns in Risen 2 just feel lifeless, which is a shame. In Gothic 2, if you took a walk from the side gate to the docks, you’d see all those citizens chatting, some guy would go piss into a nearby bush, another one was sawing a log, the blacksmith was working his anvil. That city felt alive through NPC routines, the sounds of typical day-to-day activities happening all around, etc.

Not so much in Risen 2. For each settlement here, around 75% of its population are quest givers/merchants/teachers, 15% are no-name guards standing around doing nothing, 5% are “citizens” standing around doing nothing, and the rest are 2 guys going back and forth with some crates. Only the tribal natives gather around fires and disco the night away in their villages, civilised citizens do absolutely nothing. This is a major disappoint after the well-crafted cities of previous Piranha Bytes games, and seriously breaks immersion, since you effectively drop your fourth wall and just run from merchant to quest giver to teacher.

The brass is what we'll polish and the deck is what we'll mop.

Now that all those things are out of the way, the narrative part of the game ought to be discussed.
First, the setting. On its own, the setting is actually pretty neat, Piranha Bytes managed to craft a pirate atmosphere pretty well. You’ve got the pirates, cussing all the time, going “yarr” and plundering, you’ve got the Inquisition again, who this time look more like British/Spanish colonisers than the fancy KKK of Risen 1, keeping plantations with slaves and sugar, and you’ve got some tribal natives with voodoo and ancient traditions. There are also places where the game resembles Monkey Island a bit, especially on an island full of gnomes, or when you have to become a pirate on Tacarigua - lighthearted humour, “x marks the spot”, all that stuff. Neat.

But then, you have to look at the setting as a continuation of Risen 1, and it simply falls apart and makes no sense at all. We are supposed to believe that the game takes a year or so later, and humanity (constantly under siege from titan forces) has developed gunpowder and huge cannons, completely dropping armour and archery? You want to tell me that magic has been completely banned by the Inquisition and mages have been exiled for aiding Mendoza in Risen 1? Meanwhile, the natives’ voodoo causes the Inquisition some really serious problems. Sure could use some counter magic out there, eh? There’s also the part about the main character carrying an eyepatch now, since he has the inquisitor’s monocle to spot titans. But it’s only referenced like two times in the whole game, and it’s never really used – everyone can see titans just as well. It simply feels like this game was originally totally unrelated, but then someone decided to plaster “Risen” all over it.

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Still, from this description it might look like there could be some neat faction interplay. But there isn’t. You are forced to join the pirates at first, and then you just need to make a choice between the Inquisition and natives on the Sword Coast. Siding with the Inquisition gives you access to muskets, while the tribals can teach you voodoo. And that’s just about all there is. There are pretty much no other things to this choice, except for some minor quest differences later on, which is disappointing as hell.

Another thing that took a serious hit to the starboard is quest design. While it may be said that Piranha Bytes never really had stellar quest design, Risen 2 is just shameless. I hope you like running back and forth doing stupid and pointless errands because that’s almost everything you’ll be doing here. To be quite honest, I don’t think I can point to a single memorable quest in Risen 2. Not a single one. They all boil down to the very same things, and this is achieved through a couple of key factors.

First, there are barely any different approaches to quests. In fact, after you’ve gone through the first hundred FedEx quests, you get so used to the lack of at least SOME choice that you stop even looking for it. There are very, very rare instances of things like the monkey, dialogue skills or pickpocketing unlocking new ways to do a quest. At least the fetch quests in Gothic/Risen could be resolved through the typical 3 ways of steal/bribe/beat up. Not so much here. Stealing is reserved almost exclusively for just getting quick cash, there are maybe two or three occasions where you can snatch a quest item with thievery. Same with intimidate/silver tongue.

As for beating up the quest giver to get your stuff, forget about it, son. Pirates are gentlemen, that’s you why you can no longer loot NPCs that you’ve KO’d. In fact, you can’t finish them off once they are on the ground either. The only thing you can do is “help them get up”. What is also fairly absurd, is that once you thrash some guy, he becomes “offended” and won’t talk to you. He stays offended for about five minutes, and then goes back to normal relations.

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Thanks to all that, quests join exploration in the “simply not fun to do” category. Because there’s only so many times you can run back and forth. Sometimes, those FedEx quests are so obviously placed there just to prolong your suffering it’s not even funny. The Sword Coast has some of the most outrageous examples.

One is when you join up with the inquisition and have to go storm a temple of the natives. But first, you must gather up a squad of gunmen. This means running from guy to guy, asking where the hell can you find those gunmen – there is no involvement or challenge in this quest, just getting directions from a bunch of NPCs and fetching gunmen. And of course, once you have all of them, it turns out one has lost his rifle somewhere, and you gotta get it back. The rifle is so obviously held by one particular NPC it hurts, but you can’t beat him up to get it or something, no. You have to get to the end of this horribly boring set of running back and forth, getting directions and obvious info.
Second is when you are leaving the Sword Coast. You have to steal a ship, and to do this you have to: sabotage 4 cannons, recruit 2 crewmembers, bribe a woman with 5 golden statues strewn around the settlement to get drinking water. After that, you board the ship, in broad daylight, with your mates and sail away. Your crew of 4 has just stolen a heavily guarded ship from an armed-to-the-teeth port, with gunners walking across the place all the time. And you sailed away without anyone reacting. Right.

Another example comes from the Isle of the Dead, and coupled with that place’s flaws is more like kicking you when you’re already down. The shaman you find on the Isle tells you that he’ll take you to the Underworld, your goal... but you need to bring him 5 plants and 6 piles of bone dust. All scattered across the island.

And those are only three examples of stuff that just keeps happening and happening. And it doesn’t end there. You’ve also got some other neat absurdities, like when you summon the spirit of an old shaman, and he tells you that he’ll answer only three questions, so you better think about them well. All three dialogue choices lead to the very same result. All. Three.

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Another big chain of quests that is simply dumb beyond belief is the one that takes place on Maracai Bay. Without spoiling too much, basically, you actually get punished for being inquisitive and thorough – if you complete all the quests the island has to offer, you learn of a “big plot twist”. This leads you to an insanely difficult fight against around 8 people at once that can only be completed by tapping your rum hotkey like mad, while desperately running around and firing your musket. And this fight can’t be avoided, you can tell just about everyone about the big plot twist – natives, inquisition, whatever – and all they do is say “well, you better do something about it then!”. Meanwhile, if you ignore the quests and don’t learn about the big plot twist, you don’t have to engage in a 1 vs 8 fight, there are no negative consequences, and you actually get a little more plot exposition. What were they thinking?

A bit related example is the aforementioned assault on the native temple on the Sword Coast. No matter whether you side with the Inquisition or the natives, you’ll have to storm it. It is guarded by 8 armed tribals, although you can take them in packets of 4-2-2. However, the difference between the sides you pick is the support you get – the colonisers give you 4 gunmen, thanks to which the fight is decently even, but the natives only lend you the help of their voodoo priestess, who does no damage in combat, just heals you when you drop really low on health. Have fun.
The only quests that can be actually considered sort of “interesting” are possible in the voodoo path. They are very rare, though, might be only around three of them, actually. In those quests you craft voodoo dolls that let you take control of another character and do some funny stuff. But those quests are so rare, they simply can’t carry the overall horrid design.

Also, since this is an epicdarkmaturegritty RPG, Risen 2 couldn’t have ignored the opportunity to put in some majestic bossfights. Fortunately, there is only a handful of them, but they are so bad they make the final boss of Risen 1 look exciting. There are two bossfights that work on the same principle – run around avoiding obvious slow blows from the oversized monster, while waiting for it to open its mouth so you can shoot your panzerfaust magic spear into it. WHY does it keep opening its mouth? Beats me. WHY doesn’t the Kraken simply break your ship in two instead of emerging from the water to open its mouth malevolently? Dunno. To add insult to injury, the first bossfight also has a QTE at the end. Although it’s not the only QTE that you’ll find on your way, there are also some in the native ruins that you penetrate. Fortunately, they are extremely rare, but still – why bother with actual trap mechanisms and puzzles if you can put just in a QTE.

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Possibly the only thing that generally comes out on a positive note in Risen 2 is the writing. It’s simply solid, typical Piranha Bytes business, really (except for the nonsensical setting). The main character is once again a snarky bastard that we all know and love, I especially liked how he kept referring to voodoo dolls as “action figures”. The pirates are all sleazy and properly piratey, using proper lingo and manners of speech. Gnomes speak in a funny broken pidgin. The Inquisition are an amalgam of Spanish and British colonists, which is also reflected in who they are and how they act – while at first it seems a bit jarring that all those people named Carlos, Sebastiano and Corrientes speak in a totally British manner, throwing “chaps”, “chums” and “lads” left and right, you actually grow to appreciate it. The overall solid writing is, again, what makes the island of Caldera the best part of the game – all talking, no fighting.

That is not to say that the writing is flawless, however. In one of the branches of the main quest, the protagonist suffers from such incredible plot stupidity, he can’t see the word “BETRAYAL” even though there are neon signs pointing to it. There are also a few instances where Emotional Engagement (TM) is trying to be smuggled into the game, and its effect is usually hilarious (in a bad way). There is one situation I simply have to cite, but it contains some spoilers, so you can skip the next paragraph if you care.

The scene happens at the end of the Sword Coast. After you’ve defeated pirate captain Crow and took his panzerfaust magic anti-titan spear, you’re returning with Patty and cpt Steelbeard to his ship. On the beach, Steelbeard notices his ship being crushed by the Kraken, so he rushes to the shore, going all “Nooooo!”, sword drawn. Then, Mara the bitch queen suddenly appears and impales Steelbeard with his own sabre. Your hapless protagonist rushes to the shore, going all “Nooooo!”, with the panzerfaust spear raised. Mara, of course, in typical JRPG antagonist fashion disappears. Then Patty rushes to Steelbeard going all “Nooooo!”. Steelbeard dies with typical Famous Last Words (TM) and Patty starts crying, actually popping up a dialogue line saying “boohoo”. Engaging!

We’re ready to set sail, but the cannons need a priming

The last remaining aspect of the game is the technical side.

I don’t know whether it’s because of the art direction, or the small islands, or the high mountains that limit the places you can go and vistas you can see, but Risen 2 actually looks worse than its predecessor. The jungles all look the same, nothing makes you stop for a sec and say “hey, this looks neat”. The graphics are overall pretty meh.

Music in the game is also pretty meh, mostly because it’s recycled too much. There are some cool tunes in towns or ruins, but those tunes are used in every town and every ruin, which means you’ll get tired of them fast. I don’t know how lengthy is the soundtrack for this game, but to be honest, I don’t think I’ve caught more than 8 or so tunes.

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When it comes to polish, the engine and optimisation are pretty good, though. The game didn’t crash almost at all and it ran pretty smoothly. What I didn’t like, however, was that the options in the options menu were pretty limited, and if you actually want to customise your game to disable the goddamn depth of field, for example, you have to manually edit the config files.

The controls and interface leave much to be desired. Controls are clunky as hell, especially in combat. Ripostes are unresponsive, sometimes the character will do one attack more than he should, and you’ll be yelling ‘no, no, parry you idiot!’ at your screen. There is no aiming with your offhand weapon, it hits whoever you currently have targeted, which means you’ll often miss your shots because the enemy decided to do a step back, or suddenly something funky happened to the camera and your character decides to shoot in the completely opposite direction. The inventory and character screens are grouped in a bunch of separate menus with scrolling lists of items that take way too long to browse through.

I also hated the overlong animations it takes for everything to take effect. I already mentioned climbing the rock shelves – the character first has to jump and catch a ledge, then pull himself up with a “hnnggg”, then stand up, it simply takes way too long. The same is true for almost everything you do – digging for treasure, mining for gold, using voodoo dolls, etc. Just like I stopped climbing, after a while I stopped mining as well – ore veins only offer gold now, a few worthless lumps. And it takes the character three looooooong aaaaaaaaass swiiiiiiiiiiiiiings to get them, which makes you grow old just by watching it.

There were a few bugs here and there, but nothing serious. The most annoying one was probably in most native ruins. The ruins sometimes have traps that make the floor collapse, sending you straight into angry monsters. But elite QTE skillz can help you evade that, dodging the crumbling ground. Now, you could think that it’s a perfect opportunity to shoot the monsters from above with your rifle. Nope! You just can’t. The bullets all smash on an invisible wall and don’t reach their targets. I also witnessed the enemies run into walls instead of attacking me two or three times. There’s also a slightly annoying bug where companions get lost somewhere along the way, and they never really come back unless you fast travel or something. Another bug that is more funny than annoying, is that the plants in this game are, uh, alive. And out to get you. Depending on your distance to various grass, bushes, trees, whatever, suddenly they change their size rapidly, sometimes becoming even four times bigger.

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Plants aren’t the only ones out to get you, though, the whole world wants your guts. Remember when I wrote about the 1 vs 8 fight? I don’t know whether this is a glitch concerning some AI routines or whatever, but oftentimes, if you fight someone in a populated area, other, completely unrelated people who are in sight will join the rumble. That specific fight takes place in a settlement, and “normally” is “only” a 1 vs 6. But there is a bunch of neutral citizens in the vicinity, and they all decide to jump you if they see you fighting, which even further limits your manoeuvring field in this unfair fight because if you run away further to kite your opponents, odds are you’ll stumble upon more neutral folk who’ll suddenly get filled with bloodlust.

And for a last note, we’ll leave a disgusting insult. DLC. Disc-locked content in this case. Two DLCs for Risen 2 have already been released after the game’s launch – Air Temple and Treasure Isle, each for the bargain price of 10$. What is not being said, however, is that all the content of these DLCs can be unlocked via console commands in the vanilla game. So much for developers still supporting the game with additional content “after it’s been done”.

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Heave away

Ending this review, I can only ask myself one question. Just what the hell happened? Risen 2 has basically screwed up everything it could. The combat is horrid, the exploration tedious, the quest design atrocious. The 25 hours it takes to finish the game is better spent hitting your head against the wall. What was Piranha Bytes trying to do? Have they not learned their friggin lesson with the transition from Gothic 2 to Gothic 3 and then to Risen again? The saddest part is that there is actually some potential here, some interesting ideas hidden under all the piles of horrible design. It could have been a truly great game, if only they copied the mechanics from Risen 1 with some tweaks. But ideas are not substance.

In any case, someone needs to kick some sense into Piranha Bytes again as soon as possible. That is, unless they really want to emulate the splendid critical success of the latest entry in the Gothic series - Arcania.

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