Marius Titus was once a family man, but it's only a few minutes into Ryse: Son of Rome when all that he loves is forcibly ripped away from him. Barbarians are at the gates, and Marius' mother and sister are slaughtered before he and his father have time to draw their swords. Marius' father, too, is not long for this world. After Marius watches his beloved mentor succumb to a bloody death, he cries out in vengeance. His thirst for blood has been activated, and yet I suspect it shall be difficult to quench.
Indeed, after recently playing almost two hours of Ryse, I was struck by just how carefully and lovingly the camera caressed each brutal slow-motion execution. If you come to video games in the hope of expressing your most carnal instincts, Ryse seems a fine outlet for it. As for me, the sensory overload was overwhelming. After all the close camera angles, the guttural howls, and the freshly amputated limbs, I was exhausted. Marius still needed blood, but I was ready for a bath.
At the same time, I grew to appreciate Ryse more than I had previously. After seeing the game for the first time at E3 2013, I joined a chorus of voices expressing concern over gameplay that looked more like a succession of quick-time events than responsive combat. As it turns out, Ryse certainly has its share of QTEs, but they appear only when you are ready to finish off your growling opponent, and the game signals them not with a button prompt, but by highlighting your foe with a temporary glow that corresponds to the color of the button you must press. Before you can perform this backstabbing ballet, however, you engage barbarians and brutes with standard attacks and counters that recall the fluid combat of the Arkham Batman games. Ryse: Son of Rome tries to bridge the gap between standard action games and cinematic spectacle with this rhythmic tug of war between standard swordplay and in-your-face violence.
Faces contort in pain and brows furrow in grief, and the camera sticks close to Marius' back, ensuring that you stare down every disembodied limb.
Armed with gladius and shield, I waded through the barbarous hordes, slashing and countering my way to uproarious glory. I enjoyed myself most when surrounded by baddies, reacting to oncoming attacks with quick blocks and rolls, and then slicing off their arms, heads, or whatever body parts might be protruding from these grunting bags of meat. You can finish off each and every enemy with a grotesque execution, and I must say: the game did a great job of making these executions contextual. If I were in the midst of vulnerable enemies, the move might involve stabbing more than one of them in the same execution, and there were enough varied animations to keep the moves from becoming visually stagnant.
You don't have to perform these executions, but you gain more experience when you do. Ryse encourages you to shed as much blood as possible, and the game is clearly in love with its levels of gore. When lopping off an arm or leg, you can see the bone and viscera that remain. Each quick-time event is accompanied by a slight pause that gives you time to react--and time to notice every grimace and every spurt. Ryse's impressive visuals drive home the madness. Faces contort in pain and brows furrow in grief, and the camera sticks close to Marius' back, ensuring that you stare down every disembodied limb. Ryse's focus meter further hones the power trip, allowing you to enter a temporary slow-mo state that lets you slice away with abandon.
So closely does the camera focus on the violence (and Marius' back) that I was frequently attacked by enemies I couldn't see, making it all but impossible to counter their blades. Outside of combat, moving around as Marius wasn't very satisfying. The levels I played were as linear as they come, and every time I tried to move outside Ryse's limited corridors, I jittered and bumped against the geometry and invisible barriers. Marius can leap and climb when the game wants you to, but he can't step over a single fallen beam if it isn't what developer Crytek had in mind.
Ryse replaces the joy of exploration with contextual combat moves and other surprises. You can grab and fling pikes to take out foes at a distance, man mounted bows and point them at cauldrons of oil or explosive barrels, and even give your fellow soldiers contextual commands when the game calls for it. At predetermined locations, you can also join your compatriots in formation, deflecting flaming arrows before launching a volley of your own. These are brief and simple diversions, however: Ryse's focus is primarily on the melee action, and it was a level in which I faced heinous barbarians clad in horned masks that Ryse's combat rhythms began to click.
The atmosphere was dark and dreadful, and the men were spooked. We moved slowly through the dank forest, unable to trot any faster until the game allowed it. And then the brutes arrived, forcing me to tumble out of the way of the deadliest attacks and stab combatants from behind. I enjoyed the tempo here as each button press led me from one merciless chop to the next. There were two battles that further upped the ante, but rather than deepen the combat, they only served to highlight Ryse's limitations. A boss fight against a towering warrior involved performing the same tumble-and-slash move over and over again, though to be fair, a quick-time dodge maneuver was added to the boss fight's second half. In another battle, I had to focus my efforts on the savages that attempted to set fire to my caged comrades. Unless I overlooked this mysterious feature, Ryse doesn't allow you to break free of combat once you are engaged. I couldn't sprint towards my targets, and ended up rolling in that direction so that I could execute them before my fellow soldiers died in a flaming heap.
The narrative context for all this killing was flimsy but straightforward. Murder is at the forefront of Ryse, yet in its finest moments, there's an undeniably satisfying rhythm to the hacking. I am more curious than ever to see whether Ryse: Son of Rome can vary this rhythm enough to avoid tedium, or to at very least allow players to take some deep breaths and clear their heads. This is the kind of audiovisual assault I might enjoy in short spurts, rather than by the riverful that flows from Ryse.