Ryse: Son of Rome is huge in scale, but small in scope. For all the stunning spectacle it throws at you--the sight of a hundred-strong army laying bloody waste to a barbarian horde, the march of a legion as hulking great fireballs rain down from the sky--your part in it all is that of an outlier, a lone wolf single-handedly trying to save a crumbling empire. What you're left with, then, are the scraps: small melee battles against a procession of mindless opponents who you slaughter in painfully shallow third-person combat.
What initially seems like an impressive system based on precision and timing, largely thanks to some nice visual cues and elegant slow-motion animations, quickly becomes an exercise in mind-numbing tedium--and with just a sword and a shield attack on offer, it's hardly surprising. Sure, there are blocks, dodges, and counters to help things along, but when you're faced with opponents whose repetitive moves you'll have seen in their entirety after the first hour of the game, it's not long before you've experienced everything the combat system has to offer and figured out a sequence to repeat ad nauseam.
Even the gruesome stabs and bloody dismemberments of hero Marius' quick-time finishing moves do little to ease the banality of it all. Blood is spilled with such ferocious regularity in Ryse that what was once shocking and impressive is soon reduced to just another repetitive sight to endure. Killing enemies is less and less satisfying every time you lop off another limb, and for a game that's all about the combat, that's a really big problem. It's not as if you can avoid the bloody finishing moves either, with bonuses such as health regeneration and experience boosts tied to the attacks.
And so battles quickly blur into one another as you're endlessly marched from one small group of opponents to another, spilling litres of barbarian blood along the way. The odd turret defense mission and sections where you march a small legion towards a tower--raising shields to avoid a flurry of fiery arrows along the way--do their best to mix things up, but these moments are short-lived and so painfully easy that you feel like you might as well not be in control of the game at all. Even the moments when it seems like the game is drawing you into the larger fight offer only the illusion of control. You can bark orders at the Kinect to unleash a flurry of arrows, or choose where you want to station your archers while you fight, but all you have to do is play such battles a few times to discover that your choices have little bearing on the battle at large.
Ryse is all sizzle and no steak, a stunning visage paired with a vapid personality.
That you're funneled into these battles along tightly controlled paths without any sense of exploration hammers home the fact that Ryse is a graphical show pony for the Xbox One, rather than a fully fleshed-out experience. Incredibly detailed cities and huge, beautiful vistas with impressive draw distances lure you into thinking that this is a living, breathing world, but as soon as you try to venture off the beaten path to explore it, you're sent crashing back to reality. Sure, many games put up invisible walls in an effort to keep the narrative and action flowing, but Son of Rome does little to disguise its limitations. You can climb up a huge towering wall one moment, only to have the savior of the Roman Empire stopped dead in his tracks seconds later by a small plank of wood. It's simply maddening.
With brain-dead combat playing such a large role in Ryse, it falls to the story to keep you ploughing through the battles. The trouble is that the hackneyed tale of murder and revenge is so full of cliches and iffy dialogue that it's hard to take it seriously. That I actually laughed out loud when Marius was asked to "put on this hat" to take his place as a centurion speaks volumes about the script here. Things pick up a little later in the game, particularly when you meet the wonderfully acted and thoroughly despicable sons of Emperor Nero, but for the most part, the story--like the combat--serves to showcase impressive visual touches such as the eerily good facial animation, rather than flesh out the game.
The online arena co-op mode mirrors the campaign's problems. The impressive-looking Colosseum is filled with spikes and obstacles, and it's there that you perform mindless missions like knocking over a cauldron to burn a catapult, or--in a wonder of originality--knocking over a cauldron to burn a pit of barbarians. It doesn't help that you're stuck using the same monotonous combat system as in the single-player game to fight off the waves of barbarians hurled at you, the only tweak being that you must choose a single bonus power such as health regeneration or strength boosts, rather than have access to them all. It's a mode you'll play once, and then never touch again.
Ryse is all sizzle and no steak, a stunning visage paired with a vapid personality. Everything from the leveling system that's so painfully easy to complete (and so devoid of any impact on the game that it might as well not be there), to the story that does little to flesh out its lead characters beyond puerile notions of revenge is a testament to how little Ryse can back up its gorgeous visuals with anything more than a shallow set of fisticuffs.