Review | Risen
Format: Xbox360/PC | Genre: RPG | Publisher: Deep Silver | Developer: Piranha Bytes | Release date: 02/10/09 | RRP: £34.99-£44.99
By Lewis Denby
Around 20 hours into Risen, I realised I’d not been having as much fun as I thought.
Not for the last while, at least. It had started better, more emphatically. Dropped on the shore of a mysterious island, with no knowledge of my location or the quirks of this factionalised land, I’d felt a deep fascination with what was to come. It didn’t last. Not really, anyway. For all Risen’s ambition, for all its gentle introductions combined with bravely harsh challenges, there’s something barely tangible that somehow, subsequently, fell to pieces.
The problem is that, even now, I’m worried I’ve got it wrong, or that it was all my own fault.
I once had a conversation about games reviewing with a friend. The debated question was: to what extent should critics be able to develop an intrinsic connection with each game; to what level should they automatically engage with a product, and be able to report with some confidence on their findings? Should every review emerge with the same amount of conviction? Essentially, should every review be so certain?
Playing Risen for the past couple of weeks has left me totally unsure. Is this a good game? Is it worthy of a purchase? Is it going to lead to further discussion? Is it reasonable to not know what I think of it?
And no, none of this is rhetorical. I’m really curious. Maybe, if you play it, you could help me out a little here.
Rewind. There’s been a terrible storm, my boat’s sunk, and I’m now on the shore of a hostile island. It’s probably a few hundred years ago, or the fantasy equivalent, and I’m probably somewhere near Italy, only not in this universe. Everyone’s been washed up on this same beach, and most people are dead. I can steal their equipment, and I can speak with one other lucky survivor.
That’s how Risen opens. This isn’t playing around. This isn’t a harrowing opening that leads to an immediately friendlier game. That’s Risen’s mood throughout. Your situation is absolutely shit. It makes no bones about that.
You snap off a branch and ready it as a weapon. Some wild beasts are attacking, and you’ve to put them in their place. Quickly, you’ll find a path that leads to a house, and some food, and then you’ll follow it some more and find another house, this one occupied by a cagey and suspicious gentleman. You’ll talk to him, and convince him you’re no threat. He’ll heal you up, give you a proper sword, and guide you on your way.
Risen’s primary aim is to create a world that responds to your own choices. Your first one is now, some fifteen minutes into the game, and it’s intimidating. You’re advised to join up with the Don’s men, a group of fighters and guards who have set up their own rebellious camp in the swamp. They’re rough and ready, but seem kind-hearted enough when they’re not snarling at you, which is most of the time. Or you could make your way over to Harbour Town, from where the Don’s men emerged – a once prosperous but now dwindling population, watched over by the Orwellian eye of the Inquisition. The choice is yours, but it’ll affect how the rest of the game pans out. No one ever makes it clear who’s the best to side with.
Rewind even further. Open-world RPGs aren’t a new thing, and there’s an established formula that each seems to stick to. Bethesda have pioneered this. The game, almost invariably, starts with some terrible unfriendliness, but quickly allows you to create bonds with characters, with places, with the world itself. From there, you carve your own path, but essentially stick fairly rigidly to the main story.
Risen rejects this. For all its similarities with… well, let’s face it, with Oblivion, it deviates hugely from the trodden path. Risen starts unfriendly, and continues unfriendly. In two weeks, I’ve not met a single person I fully trust. What’s most striking about this tempestuous game is how utterly horrible everything is. This is a game in which, when you meet someone who only swears at you three times and threatens to beat the living daylights out of you twice, you feel relatively at ease. You’re an outsider, a terrible foreigner, and pretty much everyone is going to make sure you know where you stand. And those who are friendlier are downtrodden, scared and depressed.
The first time I played, I followed the house-gentelman’s advice and joined up with the Don’s clan. I accepted a quest to go and retrive some money – a simple enough task – and got the shit kicked out of me. I went back to my makeshift boss, and he laughed, and told me I should wisen up.