There's a great role-playing game here, but it's hiding behind a terrible interface and clunky combat.
- Choices result in tangible consequences
- Large cast of interesting, well-acted characters
- A lot of well-constructed, interconnected quests.
- Takes a long time to get interesting
- The combat is awkward and unsatisfying
- Abysmal interface
- Bland, washed out visuals.
Risen is the great role-playing game that almost was. Many of the components of a wonderful open-world RPG are all here: monsters to slay, decisions to make, nooks and crannies to explore, loot to plunder. But while the freedom is exciting and the questing is occasionally compelling, even patient adventurers will find it difficult to overlook Risen's more egregious flaws. Clunky combat makes fighting lizardmen and wolves alike a chore, poor visuals dull the fun of exploration, and the second-rate interface complicates the simplest of tasks. There's still a worthy game floating about in all this muck, but you'll have to dive down a ways to get to the good stuff.
The setup may sound familiar: You are a nameless protagonist washed ashore on a remote island after a disaster at sea. As you make your way inland, you discover three havens of civilization offering respite: A swamp oppressed by the domineering Don Esteban, a fortified town struggling to keep the don at bay, and a monastery harboring spiritual recruits who didn't necessarily volunteer for their new lot in life. Risen's first act drones on endlessly and sends you on a series of fetch quests (distribute these potions; deliver this message; find me some weeds.) While island politics eventually play a large role in gameplay, there's nothing initially compelling about the faction struggles, and it takes a while before the world opens up and the story takes hold. The upside to this slow start is that you get to know the world's inhabitants. The characters make an impression, such as the stubborn and manipulative Don, the local barmaid afraid to reveal her secrets, and a mother worried about her missing sons. When a greater threat is eventually exposed and the story expands, you realize that you care about them and their fates. By the time your real enemy is revealed, you'll embrace your role as hero, because you know how desperately these people need one.
Some strong voice acting helps inspire this kind of empathy. Some of the voice-overs could have used a jolt of energy, including that of the main character, who often sounds uninterested. However, most of the acting is quite good, which is a wonderful thing, considering that almost every line is spoken as well as displayed on the screen. As your standing within your faction rises, characters will offer words of encouragement and react to your presence more positively, which lends a nice sense of social progression. Even a few of the quests themselves display personality, such as one in which you place a severed cow's head in someone's bed (an amusing reference to The Godfather). The main story regarding the forces responsible for a bunch of temples rising to the isle's surface is standard fantasy fluff, but the peripheral touches keep you involved and make the island come to life.
Risen's greatest strength is the number of choices it gives you, and how well it balances them. Your choice of faction is the most obvious example of the decisions you face, and it affects which quests you can take, the skills available to you, and even how the world evolves. But even many side quests can be approached in multiple ways. Do you betray a friend and steal a pirate's bounty, or do you remain loyal and fight for your due? Do you scheme with scoundrels, or do you turn them in? These kinds of choices don't pervade the later portions of the game, but even when progression becomes more linear, the questing is still enjoyable. Not only will finding the scattered teleport stones complete a quest line, but these magical objects will make getting around the world a lot simpler. And the relationships you build with other characters add extra flavor. Digging up graves looking for clues is fun on its own because you get to explore various parts of the island; knowing you're performing the task for a character you like sweetens the deal.
Progression isn't limited to leveling, which occurs relatively slowly. As you advance, you visit trainers who teach you the skills needed to get the most out of your exploration. Eventually, locked chests won't be a problem for you as long as you improve your lock-picking skills and have enough picks (or the right spell or scroll). Some trainers teach you how to skin creatures; others help you with your alchemy skills so you can create potions out of herbs and roots, or teach you to make swords and jewelry. You also train up your combat skills and related stats, such as strength and dexterity, by visiting helpful citizens. Risen offers a lot of flexibility as a result, and the side activities are varied enough to keep you interested. For example, smithing a new weapon is a multistep process that involves using an anvil, a trough, and a grindstone (though it's admittedly annoying when you have to wait for a non-player character to finish using the tools first). Picking a lock entails entering a sequence of key presses in the correct order, and you can use a frying pan to cook raw meat over a campfire. These activities are simple on their own, but they're nice diversions between temple excursions and result in helpful items and equipment.