Consider this Piranha Byte's gift to beleaguered Gothic fans. An Ardently old school Euro RPG that takes no prisoners.
German RPG masterminds "Piranha Bytes" strayed from that formula in their last effort, Gothic 3, creating a game that alienated longtime fans of the series such as myself while also dooming the series altogether. With the rights now belonging to their former publisher (and some would say their cruel taskmaster) Jowood, Piranha Bytes saw an opportunity to re-establish a link to their fans and redeem themselves by making the type of game that made them so popular amongst the hardcore PC RPG elite.
Of course, with Gothic 3 having been so easy and its combat owing more to Oblivion than to the first two Gothic games that preceded it, few actually believed they'd live up to that promise. Gothic 3 was an imbalanced, sloppy, half-finished game that was so bad it actually tainted my opinion of the previous games in the series. Which was unfortunate, given that Gothic 2 is my favorite RPG of all time.
So has Piranha Bytes made up for Gothic 3 by creating a new game series capable of replacing it or have they failed their fans yet again? The answer can best be summed up with the saying "if you don't know what to do, just keep doing what you're good at".
By that, I mean Risen could simply be retitled "Gothic: The Reboot" and I wouldn't even bat an eyelash.
Where Gothic had King's Sorrell, Risen has Hero's Crown. Where Gothic had meatbugs, Risen has Nautilus. Where Gothic had Magical Ore, Risen has Obsidian. There are so many blatantly obvious similarities to Piranha Bytes earlier games in the Gothic series that one could legitimately call "Risen" a complete Gothic 1 "Do-over" and not be chastised for the comment. They both even share the same "Nameless Hero" player character that looks remarkably plain and has a depressingly out-of-style hairdo.
Though this isn't necessarily a bad thing. In what was obviously an ode to their previous games, Piranha Bytes has Risen starting out in much the same way Gothic 1 did. You play a nameless, morally ambiguous guy who doesn't have a gold piece to his name and finds himself abandoned in a world where he is without any allies or equipment. Only instead of being forced into a magical prison full of bloodthirsty convicts, Risen finds our nameless hero shipwrecked on an Island cut off from the mainland by an odd magical barrier that is meant to keep the evil out, rather than keep it in. Early on, you learn that savage beasts known as Titans have ravaged the world, leaving every square inch of land a blood-drenched battlefield and forcing mankind to hide in fear of monsters they can't hope to defeat. This one island, however, is mysteriously immune to these Titan's attacks and the Inquisition, led by a frighteningly cold and stoic man named Mendoza, has sworn to find out why and use this knowledge to retake the mainland from the beasts. complicating matters is Don Esteban, the former ruler of the Island and admitted extortionist who was ousted from his lofty position when the Inquisition moved onto the island and took complete control of its harbor. With everyone in the city banned from leaving and the Inquisition conscripting every able bodied man into their ranks, a great deal of tension begins to build between Don Esteban's rowdy bandit gang and the well-armed and well trained Inquisition. So here you are, a shipwrecked nobody trying to survive on an island where monsters wait with bated breath to turn the last vestiges of mankind into a pulpy mush and all the while strange ruins have "Risen" out of the ground causing both the Don's men and the Inquisition to mine them for valuable artifacts. The Don wants them for their cash value while Mendoza's Inquisition wants to study them to see if they hold clues to why all of this is happening.
As you can imagine, your nameless hero finds himself stuck between these two factions and will ultimately decide what happens to them during the course of the game.
Like the Gothic series, Risen's gameplay hinges on which faction you join, causing you to walk a different character creation path and either opening up or locking you out of certain abilities depending on which side you take. If you choose Don Esteban's gang you can gain mastery of swords and have access to skilled thief trainers, whereas the Inquisition teaches you several different forms of magic and is the only group that will train you to mastery with battle staves. While I was a bit disappointed that there are only two factions in Risen (especially since Gothic 1 and 2 had three of them) I was pleased with how distinct the differences between them were. Though my first trip through the game was with the Inquisition, I spent the first chapter working for Don Esteban's gang and was impressed with how well the game handled each faction member's personality and tendency. I found it awfully easy to hate the Don's men for being rough with the fearful citizens they once ruled over while admiring the Inquisition for their devotion to protecting and coddling the townsfolk even if they did it in an aggressive and careless way. It added an extra dimension to an otherwise bland faction politic system and was something that should have been done to the Old Camp/New Camp faction way back in Gothic 1.
Though there aren't many truly memorable storyline NPCs such as Gothic's Diego and Milten, Risen does give the nameless hero in this game a rather convincing love interest in the form of a lady pirate named Patty. Though saying too much would spoil you on her role in the game, I will say that I was very pleased with her dialog as well as her infrequent but unforgettable appearances within the game's main quests. Clearly, she is meant to be a reoccurring NPC and will, if the ending credits mean anything, be escorting the main character in any future sequels.
While the four chapter long story is sharp, well written and hiding a few last minute twists, I was a bit disappointed with the size of the game world.
Unfortunately, the island you have to explore in Risen is extremely small. I'd actually say it's smaller than Gothic 1 in terms of landmass. Though there are plenty of grottoes, ruins, and out-of-the way towers to explore, a good percentage of them are locked off until you are told to go there later in the game. By the end of chapter one I had cleared out the entire map and the only new places I saw from that point on were previously blocked underground destinations that were painfully repetitive and nothing more than claustrophobic combat arenas. Partly due to this, the game felt rushed after the halfway point and the last two chapters paled in comparison to the first two. I was expecting the game's second half storyline quests to involve the same faction play and clever quest goals that the first half exhibited, but instead it devolved into a third person fighting game. The first half has you solving a murder, shaking down townsfolk for protection money, stealing tool bags from ridiculous little gnomes, breaking a pirate out of jail, negotiating the release of a felon, helping three brothers smuggle goods out of town and bargaining for pieces of a broken relic blade. All of these quests were clever, entertaining and mostly non-combat. Then, as if the designers ran out of ideas, it all ends halfway through and you find yourself unsheathing your sword after every dialog box closes. Though I loved the overall story, the rushed feeling of the game's last two chapters and the smallish world left a bitter taste in my mouth.
If there is one good side to all of that late game combat, it's that the fighting system itself is one of the best I've ever played in an RPG.
For those who never played Gothic 3, you should know that the game had an absolutely abysmal combat system. Any enemy, no matter how strong, could be defeated just by smashing the left mouse button. The game was set up so that whoever scored the first hit sent their opponent into a never-ending stun condition known affectionately as "stunlock", and could abuse this to great effect. It made clearing out dozens of high level orcish enemies as easy as killing rats in Everquest and destroyed the delicate balance that the Gothic games had been known for up until that point. Combat was nothing more than an Oblivion inspired button masher that was so unrefined it made Diablo's system seem as deep as the Marianas Trench.
Thankfully, this has been fixed in Risen.
Risen's combat is almost like a separate game. While fighting monsters is easily done by button mashing (since they don't block), humanoid opponents present a whole new level of challenge to the player by incorporating some of the best real time combat A.I. I've ever witnessed in a computer game.
Enemies block, dodge, circle strafe, perform special moves and back you into corners as if controlled by a human. The delicate dance of lateral strikes, parrying moves, sword clashes, ripostes and evasive maneuvers brings a degree of strategy to real time RPGs that I never even thought was possible. Though combat has a steep learning curve, it's slowly taught to you over the course of your weapon training. With each point spent in your chosen weapon discipline, new moves and effects are applied to your combat technique. As you rise in level you'll learn how to parry, perform side-swipes, gain the ability to knock an enemy's weapon back with your own, and even wield two handed weapons with one hand. Human-to-human Combat is a very slow and ponderous thing in Risen, since blocking and waiting for an opening is much more effective than smashing the left mouse button and hoping for a win. Enemies will circle strafe you, split up, wait for counter attacks and exploit your blindside if you aren't paying attention...which was a refreshing change of pace from the fast-paced and relatively strategy-free combat of recent RPGs such as Fallout 3 and Mass Effect. Granted, not everyone will enjoy the added complexity of Risen's combat system. Gamers who won't dodge and instead choose to turtle beneath their shields will have a hard time coping with the game's more aggressive enemies. Proper positioning and timing of strikes will win battles, which from what I've seen has been a major complaint from posters on the Risen message boards. While the combat is rather tough it rewards thoughtful players that take the time to learn its rhythm and undocumented nuances. With Gothic 3's stunlock now a thing of the past (You can get stunned, but only if they break through your blocks) battles have become a hybrid of all 3 Gothic titles, resulting in a much more refined system of swordplay that I hope Piranha Bytes doesn't abandon in any future games.
So you have improved faction play, an impressive amount of character creation options and an addicting combat system that rewards patient players...so what about the "little" things?
One aspect of the game that shocked me was the journal page. The Gothic series was never known for having a very intuitive journal screen, and even though they tried to improve it in the third game they ended up destroying it entirely. There were no quest markers on the map, no synopsis to remind you what you had to do next in each quest, and the entries in the journal itself were nothing more than the last 5 lines of dialog spoken to the quest giver. What resulted was one of the most broken journals I had ever seen and due to that I wasn't expecting much of a difference with Risen. Thankfully, Piranha Bytes learned from their previous mistakes. Not only does the journal now (usually) record the locations of quest givers and your next targets, but they include a short description of what remains to be done in the lower left window whenever you click on an uncompleted quest. You can still see remnants of Gothic 3's journal interface in the way that the last few lines of quest giver dialog are rehashed in the journal window, but the fact that everything is now marked on your map and a small synopsis is given under each entry helps balance that out.
The downside to this is that oftentimes quests go uncompleted even when you've met the conditions for their removal from the journal. On the other side of the coin you can sometimes find yourself prematurely completing quests and have them removed from your journal even though you haven't even actually started them yet.
There was one instance when I was told to kill four enemy leaders that were positioned outside of the harbor town and found the entry filed under "completed" after only defeating two of them. Thirty gameplay hours and two chapters later I accidentally ran into the two remaining leaders I never got to kill and shook my head in disbelief as it gave me a second "quest completed" sign after beating them.
Another weird quest bug happened when at the very start of the game when I was told to talk to Master Illumanar, a magician in the monastery. I finally reached him near the end of chapter one, but the quest did not remove itself after I spoke with him. Instead it remained with me the entire game and was still asking to be completed as I struck the final blow on the game's last boss.
Overall, the GUI is fairly useful and well organized for a European CRPG. Most of their games tend to be a little unpolished anyway, so considering how much of it actually works and how what little *doesn't* work hadn't ruined the game I was pleasantly surprised with how it all turned out.
Another nasty side effect of European designed RPGs is that their engines tend to be unoptimized and are prone to crashes, stuttering, or general instability. Though I've heard some truly horrifying stories on the Risen boards concerning the game's stability, I didn't experience any problems myself. In the 60+ hours I played the game I only crashed once, and I determined that it was an in-game overlay I was running for a chat client. After closing the chat client the game ran fine and it never dropped to the desktop again.
As for performance and fluidity, the game gave me no problem in that area either. Unlike Gothic 3 which ran slow even on my Quad Core, 8GB of RAM super machine, Risen was as smooth as butter and never showed any slowdown. The only two things I noticed were occasional screen tearing due to the lack of an in-game Vsync option and the roaring sound of my video card's fans as they hit the 100% speed mark for the first time since Crysis. Simply put, Risen looks gorgeous if you have the proper horsepower. I'm lucky to have recently built my machine, since I doubt anything but a bleeding edge PC could run this game in its full glory. For a DirectX 9 game, it's amazing how good it looks. Up until now, I considered Half-Life 2 to have the best HDR I'd ever seen. Now, that distinction belongs to Risen. Nothing causes me to hit the PRNTSCRN button with more gusto than Risen's breathtaking sunrises. The way the "god rays" stream down through the gently waving tree canopy and bounce off of your shiny armor makes the money I spent on my video card finally feel worth it. It wouldn't surprise me if hardware websites begin using Risen as a DX9 benchmarking program instead of Left 4 Dead from now on.
Last, but certainly not least, we have the game's soundtrack. Like all of Piranha Byte's games, Risen has a very low key but dramatic background track that dynamically changes according to the on screen action. The music stays low enough to be "out of the way" but still manages to add to the tension as you explore the island. Longtime Gothic fans will recognize the light, airy, flute heavy chords in the soundtrack and feel right at home while new fans will find it just as, if not even more of a treat since it's so vastly different from all the Inon Zur/Jeremy Soule copy-pasted orchestral tunes that populate the RPG landscape nowadays.
Frankly speaking, Risen is a game that falls somewhere between Gothic 1/2 and Gothic 3 in terms of quality. While it's a significant step up from the abysmally awful Gothic 3, it is so much of a carbon copy of Gothic 1 that anyone who has played it will feel a little slighted. New players who enjoy these types of games won't have this problem and will probably derive much more pleasure from it than old Piranha Bytes fans. Still, several tweaks to the old Piranha Bytes formula help make this game stand out among its predecessors.
Little things such as an increased importance on jewelry and weapon crafting, the return of the clever little lock picking mini-game from Gothic 1 & 2, the ability to drink potions while running away from enemies, and a truly diverse selection of weapon specializations that make axe/sword/stave users play considerably different from each other.
Overall, Risen is a tremendous step forward for Piranha Bytes and shows that they are capable of making the same old school PC RPGs that made them famous back at the beginning of this decade. While the landmass is small, there are only two factions, the second half is too combat heavy and most of the game feels like a re-tread through Gothic 1, I can honestly say that anyone who loves old school and/or throwback European CRPGs owes it to themselves to buy Risen. The good truly does outweigh the bad.
Unfortunately, players new to the RPG genre or fans who cut their RPG teeth on games like Morrowind, Mass Effect and Fallout 3 will find absolutely nothing of worth in Risen. Its increased difficulty, slow pace, steep learning curve, rigid NPCs (Except for a few, notably Patty) and ambivalence towards the player's need for guidance during quests will confuse and aggravate anyone who isn't accustomed to European CRPGs. Only a small minority of cranky, hard-to-please hardcore gamers like myself find these types of RPGs enjoyable, and because of this your typical gamer won't tolerate Risen for very long. Add in the high system requirements and you can see why these games never sell as much as the typical open world, streamlined RPGs of the modern era. For this reason I think the soon to be released Xbox 360 port of Risen will sell miserably and find itself unfairly compared to another ported European CRPG...2007's mega-flop "Two Worlds".
In the end, only the hardcore need apply. Risen is Gothic 1 all over again, and if playing a game this unabashedly oldschool is your idea of a good time, then you've found your next purchase. Otherwise, you'd be doing yourself a favor by avoiding it entirely.
With that being said, It's good to have you back PB. Your fans have missed you.