Highly immersive and masterfully designed, Risen is Piranha Bytes's best game, and that is high praise.
If you are unfamiliar with Piranha Bytes's previous games, then Risen's first chapter could be a shock to your system. Since Risen is an open-ended RPG that features no level scaling and little hand-holding, it starts off very hostile. In the game, you play as a nameless vagabond or criminal who survives a shipwreck on a foreign shore. You have no skills, friends, or reputation. The early stages of this game are an excellent simulation of what life would be like under these circumstances. All but the most pitiful creatures can slaughter you easily, and almost everyone reacts negatively to you at first. You never know if you are too weak to win a battle until you find out the hard way. In one encounter, a bandit offers to take you on a hunt with him. Instead, he takes you to an isolated place, beats you down, and takes half of your gold. Because you are so weak, you will have to accept that everyone is going to insult you as you delay completing some quests which are too hard for you. It can be hard to swallow, but the tough start comes with huge payoffs down the road. As you get stronger and gain more skills and respect, the game changes dramatically. You feel your power growing steadily as fierce monsters that used to rip you apart become fodder for you. You no longer have to tolerate rudeness from the numerous jerk characters that you encounter. The bootlicking ends and the buttkicking begins. And when it does, it becomes RPG heaven.
Another aspect of this game that might seem unusual to you is the small size of the open-ended world. Nowadays, the big trend in gaming is for worlds to be bigger and bigger and bigger. Games like Oblivion, Far Cry 2, and Assassin's Creed are constantly one-upping each other and boasting about how huge and sprawling their game worlds are. Unfortunately, these games usually have a ton of copy-and-paste and randomly generated content. Risen eschews that trend in favor of a smaller world with much more focus on design. The playable area is of relatively modest size, and lots of areas are too hard for you to enter early in the game. The tradeoff is a good one, and one of the reasons why Risen is such a terrific game. Every area has been wonderfully crafted, with hand-placed loot and monsters. Tough enemies are placed along certain paths to act as "gatekeepers". This is how the game brilliantly and subtly uses monsters and cleverly designed topography to keep you from straying too far from story areas where you belong. There are numerous landmarks and high points where you can get a great view of the land. Piranha Bytes and Rockstar are the two best developers in the business when it comes to designing open-ended game worlds.
Quality AI is a major strength of this game. NPCs behave about as realistically as the NPCs in any other role-playing game. They have night and day routines, and when they aren't talking to you, they perform their daily activities instead of standing around staring at walls. If animals chase you into a settlement, the NPCs draw their swords and fight alongside you. If you draw your weapon around them, they will draw theirs. If you help them, they tend to be friendly, and if you screw them over, they get hostile. Almost every named character has some unique dialog and function. They all seem like they have some kind of important role in their settlements and they aren't just generic NPCs who are there to provide bodies. The settlements where the game takes place feel like real places. The big island where the team takes place feels like a real island. This attention to detail and focus on realism is what makes Risen such an immersive experience.
If you played Gothic I, II, and/or III, then you have experienced a lot of what Risen has to offer. Risen is, unapologetically, a re-skinned and re-named Gothic game. Everything in it is like Gothic. You have to find people to train you when you level up. Everyone you meet has just one name like "Luis" or "Domingo". The monsters are basically the same, but now they have different names. Mole rats are Stingrats. Scavengers are Vultures. Wolves are… still wolves. You can smoke reefer. The art style is exactly the same. Like Gothic, you play as a nameless hero. Like Gothic, you gain friends by performing quests for them and then ultimately make a decision about who you are going to side with. You cook meat using frying pans and you find recipes to brew potions. The soundtrack is composed by the same guy (I don't like this one as much as any of the Gothic soundtracks though). Even the font in the game's text is all the same.
The Gothic series had lots of potential, but each game had at least a few nagging problems. Risen is much more stable than those games and it runs smoother. The engine looks largely the same as Gothic 3, but the horrendous lag that marred that game's open world isn't a problem here. With that said, Risen still gets choppy sometimes. The interface in Risen is an improvement over the Gothic series as well. The character sheet is very intuitive and it does a good job of showing you what abilities they have and what each of them do. The journal has quest markers so that if you leave the game for a few days and then come back, you can pick up where you left off without much of a problem.
In Gothic 1 and 2, the controls were horribly clunky and your character was about as agile as Frankenstein. In Gothic 3, combat was downright comical. Risen's combat is better than all of those games – so much, that it is some of the best that the genre has to offer. It depends heavily upon your role-playing traits, but it also requires a lot of timing and precision. It strikes a fine balance between your skills playing the game and how you have developed your character. Combat is usually a challenge, even when you get to higher levels. If you approach this game like most action-RPGs, it can seem very frustrating. If you misfire on an attempt at a three-hit combo, strong enemies can score a couple of hits on you and drain half of your health in seconds. Enemies come at you with a huge variety of tactics, lending the game a surprising level of depth. Wolves for example, attack you quickly in small packs. They sometimes dart sideways when you lunge forward and counter-attack you from your flank. Huge ashbeasts, on the other hand, knock you off balance so that you can't block them with your shield. Some enemies use magic. Others wield swords and staves with devastating ability. Thanks, once again, to terrific design, combat manages to stay fresh for much longer than it does for most RPGs.
Risen is a somewhat ambitious niche title developed by a relatively small team. As you might expect, the game suffers from some tradeoffs. The voice acting and dialog are of somewhat mixed quality. Graphically, it is an average looking game for late 2009. It has some lovely outdoor environments, but the animations in the game are really crude. During conversations, you will see mostly the same few stiff animations over and over again. When monsters sidestep one of your attacks, it looks like the creature is just magically teleporting three feet to the side. They also sometimes pop up 15 feet in the air when you deliver a killing blow in an example of buggy physics hilarity. Indoor areas and lots of objects look kind of ugly. But Risen as a whole is not an ugly game, and the quality of the game overwhelms its cosmetic issues.
Risen isn't as heavy on side quests as your typical open-ended RPG, but there is still a lot of content in this package. The never-ending sense of adventure that you feel as you explore every nook and cranny of the world more than makes up for its relatively small size. There is a hook to the game that doesn't fit into a typical category like "graphics" or "sound". It is simply a wonderful experience that sucks you in and doesn't let you go until the end. It has the charm of an old-school game, but it doesn't feel outdated, because it is still accessible and polished enough for the minor flaws to not get in the way. Risen is the best game from this developer, and that's saying a lot considering their pedigree as good RPG developers.