Monday, September 17, 2012

Risen 2: Dark Waters Review

Written by Debbie Lloyd

It’s always brave to attempt a brand new twist on the traditional RPG. If it’s Japanese, it likely involves saving the world from a magic-wielding lunatic, and if it’s Western it probably involves trolls and mountain demons. Risen 2: Dark Waters has taken the RPG on a different direction though, using pirates as their main focus... with mixed results.

It takes quite a long time for Risen 2 to get going, but once it does it can be quite exciting. It’s not exactly an original story; a sea demon called Mara is wreaking havoc, and she’s trying her best to manipulate the humans into bringing her banished titan friends back to help her. You start off as a member of the Inquisition, and are soon sent to befriend the feared pirates in a bid to gain some powerful weapons from them. Naturally it’s up to you and your crafty crew to defeat her and her rather large companions with these weapons. Obviously there are a few obstacles thrown in the way, but it’s a very basic plotline, only really enhanced by the entertaining characters.

It seems for a long time that you are going to be on your own throughout the game, until you're gradually introduced to each and every member of your crew.  Before you're allowed access to these additional characters, it is very difficult to survive in battles - even on the easiest setting. Food and potions restore your health in battle, but only gradually so if you’re anything like me you will be spending a lot of time healing, running away and then coming back for more when you’ve regained some health. This is only really alleviated when you can take one extra person with you on each island. It seems strange to me that with a full crew of people, you are only allowed one person to assist you in battle when sometimes you are faced with a swarm of enemies and an occasional boss that wants to turn your head into mush.

The loading times of Risen 2 are very slow, even after installing the game. This only really becomes a problem when you have to reload after either making a mistake, or the sudden death of your character. It's also frustrating when the game glitches and freezes, prompting you to reset the console and go through the whole loading process from whenever your last auto save was. I have had my crew members stuck in an endless animation loop as if they are fighting an enemy, forcing me to reload or head back to the ship, losing any progress I'd made. Despite these issues, I was never put off coming back for more and only rage quit a few times when my patience ran short.

Customisation of your main character is basic but engrossing when you actually start building up experience. You do not gain standard experience points, instead receiving glory points for every defeated enemy and completed mission. These glory points are then used to level up certain stats. You can level up blades, guns, cunning, toughness and voodoo. Once you raise a specific stat base, you need an extra 1000 glory points each time you want to level up again. It's a very basic but satisfactory means of levelling your character. It's just a shame that you cannot do this for the members of your crew as well. You cannot even change their appearance, and just hope that they are levelling up with you.

Each crewmember you can take with you also has a certain skillset. One may be able to heal you, while another will cast powerful magic spells to swing the battle in your favour. It can be difficult trying to choose one character however when you have no idea what you will be walking into, so a certain degree of logic and strategy is involved when choosing your crew. Many a time I walked into a new area without a healer only to be completely annihilated by the locals and had to trek back to the ship to swap crew members for round two.

Considering this is a pirate-focused RPG, there is little to no opportunity to actually control your own ship. Every time you set sail for a new island, the game takes over with a cut scene, another loading screen and you don’t actually get to navigate the ship through the dangerous sea at all. That said, it was not an element that I particularly missed. It worked well with the kind of game that Risen 2 is trying to be. The addition of control over your sea journey may have just complicated an otherwise relatively easy game to follow.

Another frustrating issue is that it's not possible to earn skills with glory points, but instead you have to purchase them. You see, the characters of Risen 2 are greedy, and will rarely do anything unless you give them a rather steep amount of cash for it. Even learning new skills requires a hefty amount of gold in order to get anywhere. Want to learn the lock pick skill to get all the loot from that chest? That will be about 1000 gold then. Want to learn how to persuade absolutely anyone to your way of thinking? Then you will have to fork out up to 1500 gold for that privilege.

There was many a mission I was unable to complete until I had made myself 1000 gold or more, and even then I had to decide between missions. Some quests require you to have a certain skill set, and when you don’t have the money available you can find yourself having to have to sell half of your inventory, or travel to another island to see if you can complete another quest first. This also makes it very difficult at times to purchase any new weaponry or armour for your character as you have spent it all on learning how to pick locks. The line between character and story progression is very fine, leaving you to make some very difficult decisions that could leave you having to search around the island for things to sell. It’s a good thing then that new weapons and armour aren’t exactly abundant, so you don’t always find yourself falling behind in terms of skill.

There is no on screen map, which can make for a very difficult time if you lack a sense of direction. All you have is a compass to tell you which direction you are heading in, and that is mostly useless to you unless you have been given a direction in the first place. In each new area you have to purchase a map, but even that is not a simple task sometimes. The thing is, Risen 2 is a game where it certainly doesn’t hold your hand. But a little hint on where to go would be nice! It’s lovely to wander around the different islands meeting new people and discovering new locations, but when I’m on a mission I want to know where I need to go to complete it. It’s more like a guessing game than anything else half the time with some quest givers telling me, ‘It’s just over there’. Despite this, once you find out where you’re meant to be heading, the rest of the missions appear to be fairly easy sailing.

Visually, Risen 2 is far from stunning, but is certainly not the worst looking game out there. The characters mouths move when they should and you don’t experience any awkward walking or bouncing on rough terrain. The landscapes have beautiful colours, and the characters' faces are very detailed. When fast travelling, the game suffers from slow graphic drop-ins however, and occasionally I have been walking up invisible stairs, found myself staring through the back of my characters head during a conversation, and walking through a basic white graphic set before the game remembered textures and colours.

The game also suffers from very small text during conversations, and in menus, making it very difficult to read without being sat very close to the screen, or owning an extremely high definition TV.  Due to the dialogue-heavy nature of Risen 2, this is a major issue as the text can really put a strain on your eyes sometimes. It’s not too bad in conversations as you can simply listen, but when it comes to making dialogue choices you really do have to see exactly what you’re saying.  Unless you have perfect vision, prepare to find yourself sitting close to the TV.

The voice acting of the characters is average, but can sometimes feel a bit awkward. It can sound as though the NPCs are speaking with an almost robotic voice when the main characters emotions come through much stronger. It’s got a very British cast making it a little bit like a Fable game, just with more swearing and slightly less of the silly humour.

The background music is also very well placed, shifting between calming ambience as you wander through a luscious green landscape, and fast-paced dramatic compositions to accompany battles. Not once have I become bored with what Risen 2 has made me listen to, and that is an excellent quality for any game.

All in all, Risen 2 is decent but by no means perfect. I have enjoyed my time with it thoroughly, even struggling to put it down on several occasions because I just wanted to complete one more mission. As long as you can put up with slow loading times and random difficulty curves then Risen 2: Dark Waters is an excellent change of pace from the usual RPGs on the market.

Reviewed on Xbox 360