If you’ve been itching for another game like Fallout 3 or Oblivion on 360, a few developers have offered up some options, but none have quite hit the mark. If you’ve kept an eye on Risen, it might fit the bill – but I hope you’re ready for a deep and yet deeply flawed, rewarding but also excruciatingly frustrating game. German developer Pirahna Bytes split with their previous publisher JoWood and didn’t get to keep the license to their Gothic franchise, so they’ve partnered with Southpeak Interactive and have started over with a whole new intellectual property, Risen. But veterans of their games will notice quickly that this could have easily been a Gothic spinoff or sequel, as Pirahna Bytes’ signature style of RPG will be immediately familiar to anyone who’s played their past games.
Risen has you playing a nameless stowaway that shipwrecks on a jungle-filled volcanic island named Faranga. After a brief scramble to find food and the most basic of weapons, you begin on a journey to help the inhabitants of the island and solve the mystery of why temples and catacomb entrances started popping up from underground and spewing forth all kinds of otherworldly creatures.
The action is in real-time as it is with most western RPGs nowadays, but you’ll quickly find that early on, the combat is clumsy, frustrating and shallow – yep, just like it often was in Gothic. Eventually it improves, but in Risen it lasts even longer than in past games, because you don’t even start to work on becoming a warrior, archer or a mage until you’ve spent quite a while in the game. Until that point, you’ll be forced to endure many RPG-stereotype side quests and more than a few deaths at the snout of the stereotypical annoying Pirahna Bytes enemies: wolves and boars.
The fact that the protagonist makes fun of NPCs who can’t protect themselves from woodland creatures is only a small consolation to gamers who are sick of these kinds of quests, especially since the developers then make you go and kill them anyway. (If you’re going to make fun of it, at least make it seem like it’s beneath us. Then again, the main character did just wash ashore with nothing but the soggy shirt on his back.) And if you yourself get killed while flailing around trying to fight off a couple of wolves at once, no amount of jokes will make this experience fun. Early on, fights are tougher than you might think, too, especially when you find out that popping into your inventory to drink a potion doesn’t pause the game.
Eventually the experience picks up as you learn to endure the ridiculous interface and get some decent equipment buckled onto your nameless hero. It is nice to see that when you choose one of the three factions that locks you into a “class”, the rest of the populace recognizes you as being part of that group – and you can quickly make enemies that way, too. It extends a system started in the Gothic games that never quite got it right, but here it does seem to work better. Even the equipment you wear sort of identifies you with a group.