Leveling up earns you “learning points” which you can spend, along with gold, at trainers to increase your combat abilities and learn professions. It’s a strange system to those used to the standard RPG way of advancement or who want instant gratification for gaining a level, but it does work well enough once you get used to the way Pirahna Bytes does things.
But that’s the hard part: the 360 port of Risen doesn’t do much at all to charm you. Its ugly visuals show that the development team Pirahna Bytes hired to bring the game to the 360 have little experience with it, and the core game’s eventual depth and splendor come far too late – and the hardcore gamers that got used to the rather inaccessible Gothic games are playing the superior PC version anyway. There’s also an overall lack of polish here that will constantly make you question whether that quest objective you can’t find is because of a bug. Eventually I was able to figure things out and the game winds up being surprisingly bug-free, but after the bug-ridden (yet often brilliant) Gothic 3, it was difficult not to expect them. Still, Risen‘s inexplicably obtuse interface for equipment, inventory, quests, and the map seems to bury pertinent info as deep as it can; it almost seems like the developers knew they had to add these features, but wanted to bury them so far down that gamers learned to deal without them.
And let’s face it : FPS and RPG developers from Germany and Eastern Europe often have a habit of doing this. Over there, games are not something to be fed to a player, they’re something to be figured out through trial and error, with the eventual discovery of greatness taking many hours worth of work. If American games are strawberries, theirs are coconuts. And sometimes this formula does work, but often it doesn’t, and here on the 360, Risen fails to make it worth figuring out what makes it a good game.
Can’t there be a balance between spoon-fed objectives that require no exploration, and the kind of open world that gives you no direction at all, even when told to go somewhere and finish a quest ? Developers like Bethesda and Mass effect 2 seem to have found something that works with console RPG fans the best, and if Risen was an experiment to see if they can be pushed further in the direction of discovering the game all by themselves, I think we can call this one a failure.
It’s too bad, because Pirahna Bytes does know how to craft a very interesting world and some deep, interesting RPG systems. The passion they have for their work clearly comes through – but only if you can slog through the tough parts to find the brilliance that’s deep down in a game like Risen. But they just haven’t figured out how to add the kind of intelligent accessibility to their games that keeps it interesting right from the start but doesn’t compromise on the mystery or the discovery. If they ever do manage that, they’ll probably deliver the best effort they’ve ever made, but until then, frustrating games like Risen will continue to be the result.