Peg legs. Eye patches. Parrots. Rum. Think "pirate," and these images spring immediately to mind. Risen 2: Dark Waters features all these tropes and more, yet this pirate-themed role-playing game handles its inspiration with care. There are some grizzled pirates and ships flying the Jolly Roger to be sure, but Risen 2 never relies on the usual campy cliches to provide entertainment. Instead, it sends you on an island-hopping adventure to unearth treasure and defeat a sexy sea titan called Mara. This tale isn't just about grog-swilling drunkards sailing the high seas--it's also about a nobleman seeking political gain, a rambling freak with his soul split in two, and an ambitious tribesman proving his superiority.
Risen 2's central quest has you scouring the seas searching for magical artifacts to aid you in the battle against Mara. She's not much of a villain; she appears a few times, but her presence isn't as strongly felt as you'd expect, considering the role she plays in the plot. But the game is more about the journey than the destination, and there is enough variety and joy to keep you fixated on the continuing tale. You use voodoo dolls to take over a hiccuping boozer and infiltrate an enemy camp. You discover a shocking case of stolen identity. Missions rely a little too often on the same fundamental setups--following a quest-giver to a cave, and killing the creature inside, for example. But there's a lot to chew on: collecting fur for a wannabe fashion designer, disguising yourself as a messenger, spearing a gigantic kraken, or just searching for buried treasure.
Humorous dialogue and some sparkling voice acting brighten the tone, though it's unlikely you'll get attached to any of Risen 2's characters. Patty returns from the original Risen, refusing to be treated as a weakling simply because she's a woman. Like other cast members, she's got attitude to spare, but few of them ever threaten to steal any given scene. They give Risen 2 plenty of foul-mouthed color but never come into their own. That included the returning nameless hero, who speaks in the same monotone as in the previous game. It doesn't help that sound levels are occasionally off, allowing the soundtrack to overwhelm the main character's flatness. But at least it's a wonderful soundtrack: the main Risen theme is riffed on in countless subtle ways, never intruding, yet heightening tension when it's called for.
Lackluster lead aside, Risen 2 pulls you into its world, which is not a single spacious territory, but rather a set of scattered tropical islands. If you enjoyed the expansiveness of the original Risen (or the developer's Gothic games), the new structure can come across as disjointed. But each island offers plenty of room to explore and scavenge. Besides, what would a pirate game be without some high-seas travel? (Sadly, you never sail the ship yourself; you only witness it leave the harbor and arrive at its new destination.) Luckily, a few of these islands have their own visual identities, from the burning cityscapes of Caldera to the amber hues of a sacred underworld, and the game makes it easy to travel from isle to isle with a few clicks of the mouse.
Most islands, however, are blanketed with jungle foliage, though there's enough environmental variety that your eyes won't tire. Palm trees cast long shadows on the riverbank as you slosh toward the nearby native village. Investigate the beach near Puerto Isabella, and you can practically feel the sand and stones under your feet. Periodic thunderclaps make for a disquieting trek near alligator-infested waters. If you own an Nvidia card, you could run into some performance issues, but you'll likely enjoy smooth visuals and quick loading times on your journey. That's as it should be: Risen 2 isn't at the cutting edge of modern graphics. Flickering shadows, vegetation that grows into place before your very eyes, and robotic animations are among the blemishes that might distract you.
More problematic are the quest bugs that could interfere with your journey. Do a certain set of quests in an order the game doesn't expect, and your yo-ho-hoing is over, brought to a halt by missing dialogue options. Another apparent bug requires you to exploit the AI so that you can complete a story-critical task. Yet while Risen 2 isn't the most elegant role-playing game, it's a notable improvement over its clumsier predecessor, at least where technical execution is concerned. But it's also not as intricate, or as open-ended. You make some choices that determine how quests play out, but the consequences of the choices you do make are less far-reaching, and there are fewer puzzles to solve and hidden mysteries to uncover.
Yet though it's certainly more approachable, you shouldn't brand Risen 2 as too simple or linear. There's still plenty of do-it-yourself progression that requires you to think carefully about how you want to improve your skills. Swordplay is a returning option, but you may also take aim with muskets. Offensive magic is disappointingly absent, but using voodoo curses and scepters, you can paralyze marauding pirates in fear, or set them against each other. Use your off hand to throw sand in a combatant's eyes, or toss coconuts, or whip out your pistol for a quick shot. You level up your main attributes by earning glory, which is Risen 2's version of experience points. Further skill development, from black magic to gunsmithing, requires you to spend money with a trainer.
Gold doesn't flow freely in Risen 2, so it takes time before combat comes into its own. Until then, you feel remarkably weak even against the simplest of creatures, let alone the giant silverbacks and growling panthers you encounter later. Some elements of combat have been improved over the original Risen; you don't lock on to enemies unless you hold the right mouse button, for instance, and can attack without locking on at all if you prefer. But like before, melee combat still never flows as well as it could, for a number of reasons. The most obvious is that you get interrupted and knocked back with every solid hit you take. Even a couple of termites can be a problem if you get stuck in an irritating sequence of knockback attacks.
There are other combat problems too. You might think you are locked on to a giant beast when you fire your pistol, only to turn away and shoot in the opposite direction. And certain battles are best won not by being good with a sword, but by exploiting the AI; hiding in a hut and mindlessly slashing while a tall creature helplessly tries to get through the doorway can be more effective than devising a more traditional strategy. And yet the action takes off once you expand your repertoire of skills. Raise your scepter to the heavens and watch as two monkeys hoot and holler while they claw each other to death. Join the ghostly pirate you've summoned and inflict massive damage to oversized crabs. Kick a somersaulting warrior and slash at him while he's stymied. And if a quest turns out to be more trouble than it's currently worth, come back later after you've found a few rare items that permanently boost your fighting expertise.
A companion usually accompanies you on your tale of conquest. Patty is one such pal, though ultimately you pick up a few more crewmates, such as a squeaky gnome and a scantily clad islander. You usually choose just one to join you, though there is a triumphant moment near the very end when the whole crew takes up arms and enters the fray. Your comrades aren't always the brightest bulbs, sometimes standing around doing nothing when you could use a spot of healing or an extra blade to damage your target. Yet their usefulness becomes apparent when you have to go it alone and realize just how vulnerable you are.
Risen 2's slow-paced progression and clumsy combat require and reward patience, something Risen and Gothic veterans have in spades. If you are such a player, you might be surprised by how focused this sequel is when compared with its sprawling, unforgiving predecessors. But Risen 2: Dark Waters surpasses its foibles, offering up a joyous and occasionally profane odyssey through humid jungles, dank caves, and imposing temples. It also lets you make monkeys fight each other, and that's a mechanic any RPG lover can get behind.