Risen 2: Dark Waters Review

23 Apr 2012

Eschalon: Book II

Publisher:Deep Silver
Developer:Piranha Bytes
Release Date:2012-04-24
Genre:
  • Role-Playing
Platforms: Theme: Perspective:
  • Third-Person
Buy this Game: Amazon ebay
Risen 2: Dark Waters is the latest release from Germany-based action/exploration RPG specialist Piranha Bytes. Compared to their usual fare, it does a lot of things differently in setting, character system and in smaller details, but at its core it has the recognizable strengths and weaknesses of a Piranha Bytes game. Therefore, those that enjoyed Risen will likely find much to like in Risen 2 as well, unless, for whatever reason, pirate settings aren't your thing.

Before we get to the nuts and bolts, let me just say that the review copy provided to GameBanshee did not include the pre-order Treasure Isle DLC, so we'll be taking a closer look at any and all add-ons at a later date. Without any DLC, the game clocks in at about 30-35 hours' worth of gameplay.

Setting

The setting has been shifted away from the grim fantasy that Piranha Bytes was known for, which is a big risk to take. But it's a risk that worked out fine, in my opinion. While the pirate setting may not be for everyone, the team executed the setting really well. Rather than just pasting pirates on top of the existing setting, the whole feeling of the world of Risen shifted, to the point where the two games don't really recognizably belong to the same setting at all, though thankfully the gnomes are back from the first.

The designers clearly took their queues in setting from South America during the age of the conquistadors. The native Molucca tribes use voodoo, fight with spears and wear recognizable tribal attire. The Inquisition is dressed in Spanish garbs and have clear superiority over the tribes due to their muskets and cannons. The pirates are the third faction, and look like you'd expect them too, in rough coats and wearing tricorn hats, though there's a lack of eyepatches and wooden legs.

The enemies you meet fit in with the setting. Claw monkeys, gorillas, crocodiles, wild boars and leopards give it the appropriate wild jungle feel, even though not a lot of them are native to our South American continent. Fire birds, giant crabs, giant ants and various undead opponents add to the catalog of typical fantasy monsters, while the aides of the main antagonist – sand devils, leviathans and sunken ones – have a nice "horror from the deep" feel to them.

In general, the setting works really well. It is consistent, it is plausible, it is evocative, it is well executed. What it definitely is not is well-explained. The transition from Risen to Risen 2: Dark Waters is jarring as hell, to the point where it's almost preferable if you didn't play the first (the only important things to make a return are Commandant Carlos, Patty and the nameless hero wearing an eyepatch to cover the ocular he's wearing). Rune magic has been abandoned in the few short years between Risen and Risen 2, but it's not really well explained how it could disappear so completely  –  including the player character's knowledge of it. And while you get to meet the inventor of the musket, it's not really made plausible how it became such an effective and well-spread weapon in such a short time. I don't disagree with the switch in setting, but it could have been implemented with a little more care.

Graphics & Bugs

One thing vital to make a setting work is strong art design implemented well in the game, and Piranha Bytes didn't miss the mark there. Risen 2 is not particularly robust graphically, but it does show their typical signature, as the islands and coasts have numerous beautiful vistas, convincingly breathing worlds. As you switch from location to location, you come upon ancient temples, moluccan villages, pirate towns, Inquisition strongholds and more, and each is well-designed to present a convincing, living world.

As per usual, the high quality world design is off-set by pretty poor work in animations. While the human models are all decent, have some variation, and the garbs people wear are generally well-designed and fit in with the setting, the animations are really just bad, and that's quite a distraction in a game where you spend most of your time looking at your player character (stiffly) run or (awkwardly) jump around.

As for bugs... I had two saves in place after playing the preview version, which ended at about 8-10 hours in, which is where you choose to either learn voodoo or gain access to guns. I picked up the game from my voodoo save, and everything was going well, I'd gathered all but one of the artefacts, and...the game didn't spawn an NPC and I was stuck. Since I visited that island pretty early and he never spawned in any save going hours back, I effectively lost 10 hours of playtime. Piranha Bytes veterans will just smirk at this, because quest-breaking bugs are a staple of the Gothic and Risen games. Ignoring that big bug, the game ran without too many problems, occasional AI bugs and graphical glitches aside. However, it did run terribly on my PC, which is hardly top-of-the-line, but Risen 2 performed worse on it than a console port like Batman: Arkham City did. Troubling. Not to mention I kept having to turn down graphical options as it would reset them every time I booted up the game.
Non-linearity & Island Exploration

The Piranha Bytes tradition for non-linearity is to have you explore the world, then pick a faction, then one chapter is different based on the faction you chose, and then the game turns linear again for the final chapters. Well, throw all of those concepts out the window. Risen 2 starts with a degree of linearity in the order of the islands/coast locations you explore, before opening up a few islands that you can explore in any order, with a few more to be unlocked, and finishes with one final, small location. The order in which you do the three main quests to find the artefacts is up to you, and those account for more than half of the game.

Even though faction gameplay has always been a core feature for PB-developed titles, they cut it out completely in this game. This title does have three factions (Inquisition, natives and pirates), but you can't join any of them. You are sent undercover by the Inquisition at the start of the game, disguised as a pirate, and so you remain. The choice you make ten hours in is not a choice to join a faction, it's a choice to either open up the path of voodoo, or to make muskets and shotguns available. You can loot guns from enemies, but not until much later in the game, as you can only knock out friendly NPCs, not kill and loot them. If you don't unlock voodoo at that point in the game, no one will teach you any of it at any point.

This choice does have some impact on the game's progression. For instance, on the voodoo path the Isle of the Dead opens up earlier than on the Inquisition path, and this game does not do any level-scaling, so as a voodoo disciple you can jump in too early and have your ass handed to you on that island. It also influences the way certain quests progress, for instance which chieftain candidate welcomes your help on Maracai Bay. And it determines whether the voodoo witch Chani or the Inquisition sharpshooter Venturo joins your crew.

But it's all pretty minor. The main focus seems to be on having each island be an isolated classic Gothic/Risen-style map in itself, where each time you explore with fresh eyes and have to uncover secrets and solve quests to progress. Piranha Bytes did this part fairly well. While the game has a number of main quests you have to do, the way you can approach them does vary somewhat based on your specialization as a voodoo magician or a gunslinger or swordmaster, and while there are some "fetch" and "kill" quests, a large portion of the quests have more depth and often offer multiple paths. One example would be in the Inquisition city of Caldera, where you need some information from the archives that are inside the Council's Buildings, which you can't just barge in to. There is also a discussion in the Council whether to sign a treaty with Mara (your main antagonist) or not, which you can get involved in or choose to ignore. The gain access to the building, you either accept a nobleman's help to dress up as a messenger and steal a signet ring from one councilman to forge a letter, or you use your voodoo skills to take over the mind of that same councilman, in which case you have a much easier time finding the info you're looking for, breaking into his own office for incriminating info, and you can even decide to call a council meeting and vote against the treaty with Mara.

While options are fairly strong in quests, and most of them have a pretty interesting design (a number of "kill the monster" quests aside), one thing the game lacks is consequences. Since you don't join a faction, there is no closing off options on who to talk to or learn from. Even worse, locations never really close to you or turn against you. At one point you steal an inquisition ship straight out of their harbor, and when you return later to that inquisition fort, they are still friendly to you, and only a few people even acknowledge you stole their ship.

Each island is explored separately, you don't even have a map for them when you start out, there is no quest compass, and map markers are only used if you know the exact location (if you have a treasure map, for example). That keeps providing a new sense of wonderment and exploration that usually only lasts for the first few hours of a Gothic or Risen game. In general, while each island is fairly small, they take at least a few hours to explore, and have the usual hallmarks of Piranha Bytes' games. There's ledges to climb to find small troves of gold and booze, treasure maps to follow to dig up pirate booty, and enemies wandering around to fight. Some maps are pretty dense (like Maracai Bay), some are a little emptier in treasure to uncover and enemies to fight, but overall, the draw of exploration is as effective as it is in this studio's previous titles. In rewards, the game offers not just gold and booty, but interesting legendary items that give permanent boosts, as well as parts of high-level weapons you can forge.

Story & Writing

The main story of Risen 2 is nothing special in content, but very well executed in details and pacing. Just as the nameless hero spent the first game fighting one of the Titans that was unleashed by the banning of the Gods, you fight another one in Risen 2. This time, it's the "sea-bitch" Mara, who is attacking ships to isolate the Inquisition while also having placed a curse on a quadrumvirate of pirate captains that stole artefacts from her temple.

The PC is sent out by the Inquisition to travel with Patty to find her father – Captain Steelbeard. The goal is to find the four artefacts held by the four pirate captains, and once you have them all you can reach Mara's temple and defeat her. Finding the four artefacts is the main body of the game, as once you have them all it peters out rather quickly. Reaching the Water Temple and the final boss battle are short and fairly uninteresting sequences, with almost all the artefacts you worked hard to gather being used in cutscenes, but it is preferable to the combat slog and weird puzzle boss-fight that ended Risen.

Piranha Bytes did an excellent job of making the situation surrounding each artefact unique. Steelbeard has one, but he won't hand it to you immediately, and the path to finding it differs depending on your knowledge of voodoo or guns. The three other pirate captains are either hiding, holed up in a temple or stuck in a harbor and actually quite friendly. The situation of each differs, and for none of the three are things quite what they seem. The main plot is simple, but it shines in execution exactly where it counts, by not making each artefact or island an overly similar slog and situation, but instead making the path to each artefact completely unique.

In general, the writing is witty and well-done, including the often wry commentary of the nameless hero (particularly the running joke of everyone always being surprised when he defeats them). Despite the weak voice acting, Piranha Bytes often succeeds at making even fairly insignificant named NPCs feel unique and memorable. The language is salty and strewn with vulgarities, if not outright offensive in the various racist and sexist expressions in language and situation. This lack of niceties fits the setting perfectly well, but it's not made for the politically correct-minded.
Combat & Companions

While I'll talk a little more about voodoo and gun combat below, it should be noted that specializing in swords (be they rapiers or sabers) is always an option no matter what path you choose, and is always available as a fall-back. Combat is your usual PB fare if you use swords, a fairly simple and intuitive system of timed combinations of strikes, while also being able to parry and riposte an opponent's attacks. Combat with humans is a more involved series of blocks and counter-strikes, while combat with animals usually involves moving out of the way of their charges or kicking them as they get too close. The attacks of monsters and animals can't be blocked, and fights with these creatures usually end with trying to stunlock them with a series of strikes. As you grow more accustomed the game you'll get used to certain opponents strengths and weaknesses, for instance how ghouls need strong blows to help keep them at bay and finish them quickly.

The close combat has been pared down to only one-handed rapiers or sabers, which feel slightly different in use (sabers are heavier and slower). The combat is spiced up by the item you have in your off-hand, activated by the E button. This is alternatively a pistol or a dirty trick item. Pistols are always available, unlike muskets and shotguns, and are single-shot (or for one of them, two-shot) items that take off a lick of the opponent's health if you land a shot (which is determined by distance and your character's skill). Dirty tricks are things like coconuts, sand, or a trained parrot that you set on opponents to stun them. Dirty tricks belongs to the Cunning attribute character development, and while I never used it much it's a nice alternative. Throwing knives and spears round up the bunch, though I really did not see them as worthwhile to invest in.

A rather big deal for both the combat and the story are your companions. They are determined by the story early on, as you travel with Patty and (a bit later) Steelbeard. Once you get your own ship, you have a full crew. There's three companions at first: Patty, a cook and either the voodoo witch or Inquisition sharpshooter. As you travel, you can add a mad doctor whose soul is stuck in the underworld, and the gnome Jaffar, who is traveling to fulfill his gnomish right of passage by finding a valuable item to take back to his village and show his fellow gnomes. Each of these characters is very colorful, not in the least Jaffar, who was taught the human tongue by pirates and uses swearwords as punctuation. You can periodically talk to them about your progress and they will sometimes bring up their own comments in dialog (though they never impact dialog). It feels kind of like a Bioware-lite version of the follower mechanics, with the emphasis on lite; taking along followers or talking with followers are in no way obligated, and there's no like/dislike mechanic, nor any romantic options. Sorry, gnome fetishists.

They do have a significant impact on the game's balance, as each of them is immortal, though they can be knocked out during a fight. I particularly found the sharpshooter Venturo outright game-breaking, as he has infinite ammo for his musket and will take down the average enemy in two shots, and usually draw the attention of the bigger threats like tomb spiders or gorillas to himself. Even though you can only take along one followers, it does make the game significantly easier. The developers seemingly realized the follower mechanic is pretty exploitable, and finds excuses at several key points to separate you from your companions. None of them will travel to the Isle of the Dead, or there's a wall of fire only you can pass. These areas immediately tend to be much harder, especially if you were lax in investing in combat skills as the companion can often deal with the opposition well enough.

Character System

I discussed the character system in-depth in my preview. The gist of it is: there are no levels, instead you gain Glory (experience) which you invest directly into attributes. Increasing your attributes allows you to learn passive and active skills from teachers around the world for gold. Your attributes, passive skills and items all function to increase your talents, which then determines things like your combat prowess or your ability to pick locks or convince or intimidate people in dialog.

As systems go, it's a fairly simple but also very effective one. There's no infinite pool of gold or glory, and progression feels natural and fairly well-paced. It's not particularly quick as you do not gain either gold or glory very fast, and you do often have to think carefully on where you're going to invest available points and gold, or whether to save up for the next big update.

The skill system in particular is interesting but underutilized. While the passive ones that simply add to your talent score are rote, there's a large amount of interesting skills to learn as you progress. It offers crafting skills: distilling for healing items, potion making for temporary and permanent boost potions, or sword and gun-making, with sword-making in particular allowing access to high-level, unique weapons, the parts of which you can discover during your travels. It offers thieving and dialog skills, like sneak, pickpocketing and intimidate. It also has a lot of unique ideas on offer: monkey training, where you release a monkey to go into a house and pick up items, 'nuff said, where you end an ongoing dialog by drawing your pistol and shooting the other person (often a solution to a quest or circumventing a fight), voodoo mind control, and more. If anything, the sense you get here is that the designers were adding too many "neat ideas", the consequences of which is most of them are underutilized.
Voodoo

The attribute that suffers most from under-utilization is Voodoo, which has a ton of interesting uses that are consistently underutilized. Voodoo mind control in particular is a lot of fun to use, but you can only use it as determined by the developers, as only when they offer you the option to get a lock of hair or something similar from the character can you finish a voodoo doll. This is completely understandable, as for every voodoo-controlled character they have to write and voice unique dialog not just for the character, but for the people you talk to while controlling him, as you can run around pretty freely (albeit within a limited part of the map) as the mind-controlled character. But understandable though it may be, it feels pretty underwhelming for a player.

As a combat option, I never saw much use in Voodoo. You gain the ability to create scepters with different effects, such as inducing fear or aggression, but I found the mechanic of using it and then switching back to my sword so awkward that I ended up just using my sword for my entire voodoo run. You can use the scepter as a close combat weapon, but their stats are terrible and even an inexpert swordfighter is much better off with a blade. Scepters are useful to stun enemies or turn them against one another, it's just not particularly fun or engaging an option.

The ghost summoning skill is much more useful for combat, as it basically gives you an extra companion, and one that is actually available when the others are not. The ghost will fight alongside you as companions do, and can be re-summoned if he's "killed". But once again, there is an amount of under-utilization here, as I only found one ghost I could summon, where you would think this spell could also be of use in solving certain quests, or even opening new ones where you dig up a dead man's treasure, or offering extra ghost companion options. In general, while I did not get to finish the game using voodoo, the impact of voodoo felt a little underwhelming.

Guns

Unlocking muskets and shotguns early in the game has pretty much the opposite effect, but it's debatable whether that's a good thing. Unlike voodoo, none of the gun-related skills have much of an impact on quests, other than 'nuff said which sometimes allows you to bypass fights.

But muskets and shotguns both are very powerful, to the point where you don't even have to think about certain fights in the game, especially since you can travel with Venturo, a very powerful companion. The mechanic is pretty simple: there is no precision aiming involved, instead you hold the right mouse button to "aim", which means a very large (almost screen-covering) circle is shown, and an enemy within that circle is highlighted. You shoot, and your skill (and the distance) determines whether you land a hit. It can be a little fiddly to get the game to aim at the right enemy in combat with multiple enemies, but it functions fairly well and is pretty simple.

In fact, it functions so well as to be pretty boring. There is no reloading, the guns all function by cooldown timers. So you can shoot, then run around a bit avoiding enemies, or hit them with the butt of your gun or skewer them on your bayonet, then shoot again when the cooldown timer has ended. The final fight of the game consisted of me running around in a wide circle and occasionally turning around to unload both barrels of my musket on the end boss, and it lasted all of 3 minutes that way.

Guns don't make you invulnerable, and several enemies do move too fast to keep avoiding, but as long as you can keep them out of your face you can kill pretty much any enemy in the game with an almost mind-numbing ease. When they do get up in your face, just swing your gun around to create some distance. It never felt gratingly tedious to me, especially as combat is usually over quickly, but as combat mechanics go, it's certainly not very involved.
Thieving & Dialogue

Other than choosing which combat attribute to focus on, the game has the supporting attributes of toughness and cunning, that lead to a wide array of extras. Cunning in particular is a must-have, and you can unlock sneaking, lockpicking and pickpocketing fairly early. Once you've got the basic skills unlocked, it's a question of having a high enough talent score in thievery to check whether or not you can actually pick someone's pocket or open a chest. In a bid of weakness, when you do not have the score to pick the in-conversation option for pickpocketing or intimidation or silver tongue, the PC will shrug and go "I'm not good enough for that yet", rather than try and fail.

Thievery is – if anything – a little too easy. It does require an investment of glory and gold to up your thievery score, but once you have the minimum it's a click of a button or too-easy mini-game away. While people will follow you if you just walk into their homes and often attack if they see you steal, a lot of items can be picked up with no consequences but a cry of "you filthy thief!", and sneaking into someone's home is often much too easy, whether they're awake or not. There are some sequences that are a little more involved (sending people up to distract a worker, things like that) but in general, stealing is pretty simple, to the point where I never used my pet monkey simply because it was too easy for me to just sneak in everywhere.

The dialog skills consist of intimidation (tied to Toughness) and silver tongue (tied to Cunning). Both are very frequently used. Often simply to gain small rewards or discounts, but also frequently as a part of quests or to unlock merchants or trainers. Neither feel vital, but both are worthwhile investments, which seems like the right balance for Piranha Bytes' type of action-RPG.

One minor annoyance is that Piranha Bytes added jewelry and clothing that adds bonuses to these thieving and dialog talent scores. The bonuses are small, though they can be further boosted by potions, but the net effect is that if you want to maximize your options, you are constantly switching out earrings, armors, rings and more. A very tedious affair, especially since Risen 2 has a nested inventory system (open inventory, open equipment, open head-options, select scarf). Why developers keep implementing these nested inventories is a mystery to me, they are not particularly functional on PC or consoles.

The Odd Stuff

I usually don't make a separate note of "odd stuff", but in Risen 2 they stick out like a sore thumb. The role-playing veterans have half-heartedly implemented a couple of "conventions" from modern RPGs, and none of them really fit. The lockpicking mini-game has been mentioned, and while lockpicking mini-games aren't new to Piranha Bytes games, this one fails exactly because there's no way of failing it. Lockpicks don't break, time freezes while you're doing it, so why am I even carrying out the menial task? What's the point if there's no conclusion to the event other than success?

Other mini-games don't suffer from this, but they do suffer from shoddy design. There's a shooting mini-game, as well as a drinking mini-game. Both are usually optional ways of making some extra cash, but they do rear their ugly heads in some quests. The drinking mini-game is kind of funny but just your typical fare. The shooting mini-game – where targets are thrown across the screen and you have to quickly shoot them – was pretty much unplayable for me, until I found out it scales down with difficulty, so I could set the game to easy just for the mini-game. I don't know if it's my twitch reflexes degrading or a bug, but I saw no way of reasonably beating it on normal.

Another oddity they added is a form of quick-time event... sort of. It's not a "press buttons as they appear" sequence, but rather it's just a "press this one button or die". They appear, most often in old ruins, as traps that you have to dodge by hitting the spacebar. Unfortunately, it serves as more of an annoyance than anything entertaining. You're usually not ready for it, so you die and reload, then you are ready for it and it's easy. Compared to the involved process of bypassing traps with spells and skills in Risen, I find this change to be more than few steps back. There is also one, but only one, instance of pressing a button to further a cinematic as you finish a boss. While I'm not a fan of QTEs, their pointlessness is accentuated even further when they're implemented in this half-hearted a manner.

And speaking of half-hearted, the game also has a killcam, which is triggered after you finish a particularly tough fight (usually when you just finished half a dozen opponents in one go). It looks ridiculous for a sword wielder, as half the time all it does is highlight how your blade is not even in contact with the enemy. I got a few cool shots out of it as a gun-wielder, with finishing pistol or musket fire shots, but that's rarely the case. Thankfully, it can be turned off.
Conclusion

Risen 2 is your quintessential two steps forward, one step back title. At its core, it is recognizably a Piranha Bytes game, and it offers the expected boons and drawbacks. It's fairly unforgiving at the start before becoming too easy at the end (at least, when I was wielding a musket). Its main draw is exploration and it offers enough rewards and hand-crafted locales to keep that interesting. Its lack of polish and clumsiness in design is off-set by the interesting world design and fairly decent quest options. The game doesn't do a lot of hand-holding, you need to pay attention to what people are telling you as it offers no quest compass or similar aid.

For everything it added to Risen, in making the setting more interesting and adding a ton of skill and combat options, it seems to ask for something back. Exploration suffers a bit on some islands as there's just not much to discover. The challenge is lacking once you're 10 hours in and regularly traveling with a companion, to the point where I'd almost advise people to go it alone most of the time. The team also added a lot of superfluous content like mini-games and killcams that don't add necessarily add much, and what's worse they implement some of it so poorly that it won't even add much for the people who do like this kind of material.

But my most important criticism is this: Risen 2 is not focused enough on its good ideas. It'd be too easy to blame some of the obvious simplifications and casual nature of the character system and mini-games, but the core problem seems to be that they spread themselves too thin on implementing various worthwhile ideas while also crafting an open, dense world. There's a lot of neat ideas in the game, but none of them are used enough. Voodoo mind control is great, but they were so busy with other things they end up using it only half a dozen times or so.

So, an unbridled success this is not, nor is it a sequel that is "better in every way". It is better in some ways to Risen, but it also loses some of its shine to needless simplifications, the occasional lack of openness of some locations, and the addition of superfluous gameplay elements. Still, as a fan of Piranha Bytes' work, I found this to be a very enjoyable (if flawed) addition to their library.
 
 

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