Risen is a game with an unusual history. Its developers, Piranha Bytes, split with their publisher JoWood Productions in 2007, and with it lost the license to their flagship IP, Gothic. A developing house like Piranha Bytes doesn't really have the option to completely reset its design philosophy and start anew, even if it would like to. So everyone would expect their game to stay close to their former franchise.
Even so, I did not really expect them to stay quite as close as they ended up doing. Risen is as close to being Gothic 4 as it can be without risking a lawsuit. Gothic veterans can jump in and never miss a step when it comes to interface, character system and quest structure. To be fair, Piranha Bytes used the opportunity to advance or rework some concepts, as we'll discuss later, but it fits the franchise like a glove. That makes this review fairly easy to write to people who played Gothic: if you liked it, you'll like Risen. If you didn't, you won't.
Still, that doesn't really hold true even to the most faithful of sequels. And there are some things Risen tweaks that might turn off old fans and bring in new ones. But, like Gothic, Risen is a third-person realtime combat-centric action RPG, with a heavy overtone on exploration and dialogue-heavy human locales, and an open-world made attractive by its by its beautiful vistas. How does it hold up as such?
Graphics & Tech
Graphically, Risen is slightly behind its RPG AAA contemporaries, but not by much. The environments are beautifully rendered, and the use of animations and lighting in the game's world is subtle and superior to that of many other titles. In technical capability Risen may be a bit behind, but the graphical design makes up for its shortcomings.
It becomes a bit more of a mixed bag when you view the game's animations and character models. The monsters are already somewhat weak, particularly in their circling animations, but the human models are really the game's weakest point graphically. It doesn't help that you're staring at your PC all the time, which requires a good set of animations this game simply lacks, mostly notably in the somewhat hilarious jumping animation. A lack of details in faces and limited set of body language animations does little in keeping dialogue feeling lively. The camera is a boon here, preferring to put the point of view at some distance of the speakers and taking both of them in a single shot.
On the tech side, I personally had a completely trouble-free time with Risen, not running into a single bug, a few minor collision detection issues aside. As with any PC game that's not really a promise you will have a bug-free experience, but from the reports it seems Risen is significantly more polished than pretty much any Gothic title was on release.
Sound & Localization
The music of Risen is atmospheric and rock-solid. Usually it stays appropriately in the background, helping to reinforce the game's bleak atmosphere, though it also varies to slightly more intrusive combat-music and recognizable location-tied themes. The loading screen theme is delightfully bombastic, and again fits the game's atmosphere to a T. Sound effects are all right but nothing really special. Spells can sound a bit odd, but the weapons swinging and impact sounds are convincing enough.The localization is of a quality I have rarely if ever seen in non-English RPG releases. Piranha Bytes and Deep Silver pulled no punches in ensuring the quality of this release to English audiences, both in hiring a set of established game writers to translate and rework the script in Andrew Walsh, James Leach and Rhianna Pratchett (whose work was also used as the basis of other localizations, like the Polish one), and in hiring a – mostly British – voice-cast that would not look bad on the average AAA release.The results speak for themselves; the writing lacks the stilted quality of many localized RPGs, instead offering solidly-written and entertaining dialogue – especially the wry tone of the player character is often very amusing, as he is much more personable than PB's previous nameless PC.
The quality of the cast shines throughout the game. I'm usually not a big fan of videogames hiring big names just for the purpose of having big names, and Risen sidesteps this trap by hiring established but not huge names with the requisite experience and/or skill in voice works. The two that most stand out are John Rhys-Davies (Lord of the Rings' Gimli, Indiana Jones' Sallah), whose nearly 20 years of experience in voice-acting enable him to give a convincing and delightfully subtle performance as Don Estaban, and Andy Serkis (Lord of the Rings' Gollum), who gives an authoritative performance as the Inquisitor. Both actors do a lot with limited screen time and low word counts in which to get the message across, setting down exquisitely convincing, human characters. I'd also like to tip my hat at Lena Headey (300's Queen Gorgo, Sarah Connor Chronicles' Sarah Connor), whose solid performance allowed Piranha Bytes to finally set down a strong female character in Patty, a lack in their games that was becoming a bit noticeable after all these years.
It's not all praise that makes the world go around: there are some slightly more tepid performances, including the PC's which can be a bit uneven. There are also some very odd amateurish mistakes, including a voice actor actually reading the other character's line, or a complete bit of dialogue being unvoiced. Blemishes aside, Risen easily stands amongst it's bigger American cousins when it comes to voice-over work, and while it can't duke it out with the likes of BioWare, it easily outpaces Bethesda's efforts.
Combat & Interface
Risen's combat feels fairly similar to that of Gothic 1 and 2, though with more intuitive controls. Like the combat system of its predecessors, it's been getting some criticism, which I don't really get. CRPGs as a genre are not really known for their strong combat systems, and while neither Gothic nor Risen will ever be a Mount & Blade, as real-time sword-swinging goes Risen is easily amongst the best, and leagues beyond the click-click-click mess of Gothic 3.
The combat modes available are split between close combat (one-handed weapons, two-handed weapons, staves), ranged combat (bows, crossbows) and attack magic (magic bolt, frost, fireball). Close combat is the mainstay of the game and probably preferable for a first playthrough. For each weapon type you are stuck with basic three-string combos until you gain more skill in the usage of the weapon, at which point you unlock faster, more fluent and longer combos.
The feel of combat depends heavily on what you're fighting. As a rule, there are few tactics involved in fighting animals or monsters, as their attacks are often unblockable – especially if you're not using a shield – and any skill in fighting them is simply in knowing the weaknesses and strengths of their AI and moveset. This unveils a disappointing weakness adopted from the Gothic franchise: the challenge level of monsters is not directly related to their stats but rather to your ability to adapt to them. As a mid-range two-handed axe-using character, I found ghouls – with their lateral speed and deceptively quick attacks – significantly more challenging than ashbeasts – the presumptive ultimate beasts of the game, as I could simply push up to an ashbeast and the slowness of his attacks would mean he could not interrupt my combo string. This flaw becomes particularly marked as the game can not really adapt your XP to the challenge beasts pose, having only their stats to go by, so that you might get significantly less XP for a significantly more difficult fight.