Risen is more than just another European role-playing game. It is a thumb in the eye to publisher JoWooD -- which, in its infinite wisdom, decided to take the Gothic franchise away from Piranha Bytes and hand it over to Spellbound Software after the buggy mess that was Gothic 3. What is a developer, known for making nothing but role-playing games, supposed to do when its pride and joy is in the hands of another?
Piranha Bytes decided to make Risen, a very familiar RPG with a different setting and a new name. Risen succeeds in laying down the foundation for a brand-new series, wholly owned by the developer, that will continue the traditions of Gothic.
Fans of that series will recognize all the trademark gameplay: an odd and sometimes difficult combat system, a story with multiple plot paths based on opposing factions, and the exact same magic system (runes, crystals, scrolls, alchemy) and skill system (hunting, lock picking, sneaking, blacksmithing, mining, bows, swords, staves and axes). The only things missing are the Gothic lore and locales.
I get the feeling that Piranha Bytes wanted to introduce this new RPG world to players slowly. The story opens with you being shipwrecked on an island, and there won't be much talk about the outside world during the game. You are now trapped here with the people and the problems that they face. Oh, but to take up a simple life as a farmer or a fisherman; but that's not the lot you ever draw as a hero in a role-playing game. In typical RPG fashion, you'll be doing the heavy lifting -- solving the problems, killing the big bad foozle, and finding the island's most powerful trinkets in some ancient temple or in the inventory of some ferocious bastard that no one else has the courage to battle.
Risen uses the same combat system as Gothic. The biggest problem is in how enemies are thrown at you. When you block an enemy directly in front of you, you are locked into a dance with that character. This leaves you exposed from the rear and sides, making you very susceptible to attacks. Since most monsters come in twos, threes and fours, this really makes combat a serious matter of survival. You may want to focus on that one bad guy in front of you, but doing so often ends in tragedy.
These monsters want to kill you, and so they are constantly strafing and jockeying for a better position. And unlike in Diablo or even Oblivion, you can't just cast that healing spell or quaff that potion while you are in combat, because there's animation attached to these actions. You have to stop blocking and hope you don't get clobbered or clawed to death while you chug that pot.
It's really hard, at the beginning of the game, to survive combat situations. But it is a familiar trapping of Piranha Bytes' games. This added difficulty is part of the appeal for many who have fallen in love with the Gothic series, and Risen at least tries to stay true to the formula.
And good things come to those who wait: Unlike a game like Oblivion, where monsters scale with your growth, Risenmakes you feel like your character progression matters. When you first start playing the game, you'll have to figure out a way to stay alive -- as a Fighter, a pure Mage or a Warrior of the Order (a mix of the other two). As you get stronger and get access to better weapons, you'll be able to take down those epic monsters that sent you running into the darkness like a kitten. You'll wonder why you were so scared of those vultures and that acid-spitting Rotworm. The trick is to find your vocation early, follow its path, and earn from it to gain the experience, gold and training points you'll need.
The system is pretty wide open, though it is sometimes hard to decide what you need. Magic users may not need to learn lock picking, for example, but they may want to take on mining and blacksmithing in order to create special jewelry that enhances stats and skills. A warrior of order may not want to be a pickpocket, but it's sometimes easier to steal from non-player characters than negotiate or pay money to access an item needed to move the plot forward. In the end, most players will resign themselves to simply taking every skill that they can find, and later regret their choices because they have found a more efficient way of doing things.
No matter what kind of character you end up building, all roads in Risen ultimately lead to the same conclusions, with a little variation here and there for color. But there's one important thing Risen does correctly in its storytelling: perspective. The game really convinces you that the opposing faction is evil. That's important for a storyline that puts you in the same situations and quests. To players that decide to throw their lot in with Don Estaban (the outlaw leader), the Warriors of the Order, the Monastery and the Inquisitor are a bunch of extremists that want to brainwash and control the populace. To those that have joined the Monastery, Don Esteban is nothing more than a common criminal who bullies and extorts for his own gain. These unique perspectives, even though the game leads you mostly to the same path no matter which side you've chosen, make it worth a replay to see how the other side of the coin is presented.
I would be remiss to not mention a few of the technical issues and design decisions that impact players out of the box. Of particular note is a bug related to AMD Athlon 64 processors that causes the day-and-night cycle to constantly change, like a crazy "Looney Tunes" cartoon. In another technical issue related to certain NVIDIA cards, a gray mist makes the weather terminally cloudy with a chance of rain.
Then there are a myriad of odd design choices -- like how the map doesn't update to indicate that you have completed a certain location or part of a mission; the inability to resize the map when it is opened; and an end boss battle that feels like it belongs in a Zelda game -- that just make things more difficult than they need to be.
Despite these small problems, Risen is a solid game that religiously follows the design of the Gothic series. It would even be fair to say that the game is a wholesale rip-off of JoWooD's RPG under another name. But who cares? Isn't this what fans of these games expect from Piranha Bytes? We have to wonder what JoWooD and Spellbound are going to do with the Gothic universe in the upcoming sequel, and to be thankful that someone is working on a franchise that will give us the familiar role-playing game experience we want. Risen is our safety net.
This review is based on a final build of the PC game downloaded from Steam.