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.
This isn't the largest open world you'll see in an RPG, but there's still plenty to explore. You scavenge caves searching for ore deposits and treasure chests to break into, discover shortcuts by transforming into a tiny snail-like creature, and pull unmarked rings to open hidden passages. You'll get good use out of abilities like levitation, which lets you hover over spike traps (though inexplicably, the spikes still stick right up through you, but they don't do any damage), and telekinesis, which lets you flip levers from afar. You'll remember your first glimpse of an ash beast, a giant simian creature with a ferocious temper--and the first time you take one on and win. Unfortunately, the terrible interface is an enormous hindrance to the exploration. Most RPGs feature an onscreen minimap that makes it easy to find points of interest. For that matter, most of them also know which region you're traveling in and will pull up the proper map automatically. But not Risen. Just figuring out how to find the nearest blacksmith involves pulling up the quest interface, choosing your current region, selecting the trainer you wish to locate, and then tabbing over to the quest map. And every time you leave the map interface, it resets, so if you just want to take a quick peek at the same map again, you have to go through the same process again. The maps themselves are small, poorly drawn, and lack detail. Rarely does a game make just figuring out where to go and what to do so irritatingly unintuitive.
The Xbox 360 version seems a mite easier than the PC release, but even with the best weapons, spells, and armor equipped, you sometimes feel surprisingly fragile as you explore scattered ruins and volcano innards. You eventually lord over those pesky stingrats and have a fighting chance against reptilian priests and undead beasts, but even at higher levels, you won't feel all that powerful. Many encounters are a matter of life or death, so you'll want to save often, given the infrequent autosaves. Unfortunately, Risen's laborious combat doesn't offer enough precision to let you feel in control of your own destiny. The big problem is the bizarre automated target lock that focuses your view, and your attacks, on a single enemy. It's too sticky, particularly when you're blocking, and makes fighting multiple enemies in battle a hassle. The game might target a different foe than the one you mean to attack, giving another enemy a chance to flank while you adjust. You're meant to play defensively, but enemies are unpredictable, and it's hard to get a feel for the right time to strike back. Fortunately, you're occasionally accompanied by a companion of your own, which makes battles a lot more fun. Spells, scrolls, and ranged weapons also help ease these woes, but while you get used to the melee combat in time, it's too sloppy to embrace.
Risen is not a well-oiled piece of machinery, so awkward moments are not limited to combat. The superfast camera speed is uncomfortable and can't be adjusted, and the camera nauseatingly adjusts after you open a chest or jump down from a ledge. These are small irritants, but there are many others, and the game eventually buckles under the weight of them all. We also encountered multiple bugs. Some were as simple as dialogue inconsistencies in which one line was spoken but another was displayed. Others were more severe, such as a case in which a scripted action caused the action to freeze, so while we could pull up interface elements, the camera remained stuck in place and we weren't able to move our character. Nor does the game engine perform well. In most cases, the game will pause briefly when you defeat an enemy, which is an additional interference the gawky combat didn't need. Furthermore, the frame rate tends to drag in certain areas, making it even more uncomfortable just to move around the world.
The inconsistent performance would make more sense if Risen were graphically ambitious, but it is not an attractive game. The world offers few visual surprises, though there are scattered artistic and architectural touches here and there that deserved a chance to shine. Unfortunately, any goodwill the art design might inspire is squashed by low-low-resolution textures, poor character models, and mediocre lighting. Both meadows and dungeons look washed out, so colors and details that popped in the PC version fade into the background here. The sound design fares better, at least. The music is standard for the genre: pretty enough to set the right mood and not grate, but not powerful enough that you'd want to buy a recording of the soundtrack.
Risen is the kind of game you want to love, and if you give it a chance, it may still suck you in. It is not, however, generous with its delights. This is a demanding mistress, expecting a lot from you before gifting you in return. As numerous as the quirks are, tolerant RPG lovers that appreciate ambition will find something here to sink their teeth into. Just be prepared for the bitter aftertaste.