Posted by Brother None at 11:38 am on 04.23.2012 (1 year ago)
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.
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.