Rise of the Argonauts (PS3)
For Jason, the classic hero of Greek myth and the central figure in Rise of the Argonauts, "choice" is a core action. In order to search for the Golden Fleece, which may bring his wife back to life, Jason must make a raft of choices. Who will guide his kingdom in his absence? What route will he take to the possible mythical resting place of the Fleece? How will he curry favor with his four patron gods?
In reality, since the player is meant to see Jason succeed (in some manner), there are no truly bad choices. You can do more or less what you want, in whatever order seems appropriate, and let something stronger than the will of the gods -- the game's narrative drive -- see Jason through to the end. This illusion of choice is a gaming axiom (one dying to be more thoroughly explored). But it becomes an unfortunate metaphor for Rise of the Argonauts, through which Codemasters may learn that in game development, making good choices is actually of tremendous import.
Argonauts seeks to be many things at once -- foremost an action role-playing game, a brawler, and a deep portrait of mythical Greece -- and in doing so fails on almost all fronts. The basic design document is straightforward: Activate quests and side-quests, each of which is replete with sprawling dialogue trees, and fight many groups of enemies and the occasional boss, all while earning new skills and divine favor.
Combat almost feels incidental. This is strange for an action RPG, but a blessing given how spotty Argonauts' brawling turned out. Jason has three weapons (sword, spear, mace), each with slightly different combos, but the bottom line is that you'll get through much of the game by spamming the light attack button and making liberal use of the block and dodge functions. Other Argonauts (you can have two in your "party" at any time) can assist with context- and proximity-sensitive moves, but they mostly get in the way and soak up damage.
(One early power earns you the option to create an illusory Jason to attract enemies and absorb damage; this becomes superfluous as soon as you've got a couple Argonauts in tow, as they serve the exact same purpose.)
Dialogue, rather than combat, is your primary interaction with the game. This might have been refreshing, but Argonauts features reams of dialogue, almost all of which is delivered by nearly static characters in frequent cut scenes. The upside is that it's all rendered live, and you can button through the dialogue line-by-line. But the game is written so that the incidental details revealed in conversation are important -- they'll recur in later conversations, and may be needed to complete dialogue trees in which you can curry favor with the gods.
So you don't want to skip too much of the dialogue, but that means sitting through a Metal Gear's worth of cut scenes in which you'll stare at homogenous character models acting out a script that plays like a first draft. There's so much unnecessary, extraneous detail that I'd swear no one ever took a red pen to the massive script.
And yet, on the story side, I have a fond respect for Argonauts. In how many modern games will you duel a mini-boss in debate? How often do you hear "Pure sophistry!" used as a taunt? When most games can barely manage to cobble together a well-structured story, Rise of the Argonauts is proudly dense with interwoven tales from Greek myth. It's not all straight from Edith Hamilton; in some ways this is the club remix of mythology. Some of the heavily reworked details come across well, as when Medusa's vanity proves to be her undoing. Others are difficult to fathom. Why are Perseus and Medusa brother and sister? Why is Atalanta raised by Centaurs?
(Ancient game history trivia: Atalanta would only marry the man who could beat her in a race, which led Hippomenes to strike a deal with Aphrodite to win. He was given golden apples to drop on the track, which distracted Atalanta and cost her the race. She was therefore the first person to lose at a game of Mario Kart.)
For all that narrative detail, the leveling system -- which has Jason dedicating Deeds to his patron gods (Ares, Apollo, Hermes and Athena) -- feels too arbitrary. Certain conversations allow you to choose dialogue paths to please one god or the other. Being aggressive and militaristic favors Ares; hewing to a strict sense of justice puts a smile on Athena's face.
Furthermore, completing quests and dominating enemies earns named Deeds, which can be given over to any of the four gods for points of Favor, which are then spent on new skills and "God Powers." (The "shadow Jason" tactic I mentioned before is one early God Power.) How to dedicate some Deeds is obvious -- ones earned by defeating enemies should obviously go to Ares.
With all the storytelling going on, you'd think that dedicating Deeds would be more interwoven into the story at large. But it's all too easy to just dedicate Deeds to any old gods -- you might not earn as much Favor that way, but eventually you'll unlock almost all of the skill prizes, anyway. What could have been the most interesting and myth-appropriate aspect of the game becomes just another half-done "feature" among many others.
There is enough narrative ambition here that I hovered over a "Try It" rating for a long time. But the more I played, the more the game just felt like work. It's not just the script that feels unpolished; the entire game feels as if it was rushed to get out the door in time for the holidays. Twenty years ago, this would have been a killer title from SSI. Now it feels all too much like shovelware. That's anything but mythic.
This review is based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.