Dead Man’s Chest
One might think that the general Pirates fever of recent years might have died away a bit since the release of the fourth movie last year, especially since films five and six are still in talks for back-to-back shooting (must be the new “in” thing). However, German developer Piranha Bytes and publisher Deep Silver have hedged their bets that this isn’t the case…with regrettable results. What they’ve delivered sounds like an RPG player’s dream-come-true on paper (and, indeed, showcases many praiseworthy elements), but is ultimately brought to sink upon the jagged and treacherous reef of some questionable design decisions like an unlucky schooner out at sea.
Risen 2: Dark Waters is a third-person pirate-themed action role-playing title, retaining the style of similar games like Fable and Arcania: Gothic 4, with its Caribbean setting infused with fantasy elements such as monsters, mythical sea gods, and voodoo magic. Traveling between jungle-infused islands, performing quests and engaging in all the crooked dealings of salty sea-dogs translates well into a video game, and most elements of the game come together swimmingly to create humor and depth to the world. In all honesty, this game ticks all the boxes to create just the right atmosphere of mischievous revelry mixed with menacing dangers hiding beneath the waves; that is, until we take a look at the one thing no RPG or action game can survive without: its combat.
The Painful Taste of Steel
I can appreciate that the developers of Risen 2 were aiming for a sincere swashbuckling feel to the game’s swordplay. In fact, this would have been a boon to the player’s immersion, were it carried out well. But the abomination of a combat mechanic that was ultimately shipped on-disc with the game does worse than leave a bad taste in anyone’s mouth who attempts to master it; it literally makes the game unplayable! This is by and far the worst-implemented combat I’ve ever had the displeasure to run across, and it got to the point that the only way I had to complete quests was to simply run, or attempt to run, past any and all enemies in my way, and hope they didn’t chase me down.
Right off the bat, combat is restricted to a single-button mash for a swipe of your blade – repeat as necessary. No dodge roll. No block. No high-falutin’ sword combos or dirty-fightin’ tricks. While there are an assortment of learnable skills on offer for later in the game, such as the kick, they are even more useless than the original slash. Human enemies can eventually be parried (unless they use firearms, in which case good luck!), but animals – even lowly sand crabs and monkeys – remain throughout the adventure lethal adversaries who cannot be foiled, and whose attacks easily take off chunks of your health four or even five times greater than any damage you’re able to inflict upon them. Even worse is that death can come swiftly, as you may get locked into a hit-recovery or turning animation if you attempt to flee, letting the enemy take a series of cheap shots at you, killing you instantly. Guybrush Threepwood looks like a sword-wielding John Rambo by comparison!
Combat, as you’ll quickly discover, is not a viable option. Running from fights and attempting to complete quests by simply running from place to place is no more acceptable, and lacking in any fun to boot. Worse yet, advancing to new islands can make certain side quests impossible to finish, further complicating things, and leaving you without valuable quest rewards that could have made the dreary experience slightly less torturous. Quest objectives can, at times, be rather enigmatic, and the game seems to take a perverse pleasure by taunting you early on with quests that require skills, like lockpicking, that remain safely out of reach for you for quite a while.
Failing the Grade
It’s hard to play Risen 2 for any length of time and not seriously question whether the game was ever tested, in any capacity – the combat is that unforgivably dull and one-sided! What’s worse is that the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions have had upwards of three months since the initial PC release to fix and improve upon any shortcomings the first version may have had. The fact that this game was released in its current state – and that despite each and every review published for its PC counterpart – flies in the face of every ounce of reason, and has to lead one to seriously question the developer’s and publisher’s commitment to excellence.
It’s unfortunate that such strong condemning words had to be uttered here, because Risen 2 certainly comes off well in other areas. The idea of a pirate-themed action RPG is a welcome one, character customization and advancement through training could lead down some fun avenues, graphics are passable (though the main protagonist does run as if he’s had a Royal British musket rammed straight up his you-know-what), and dialog is oftentimes hilarious – the writing makes it clear that you won’t soon find this ride at Disney World. But there’s simply no earning of skills and gold without questing, and no questing without victory in battle. And so we come full circle back to where the troubles started. Simply stated, this game is unplayable.
The Final Verdict
These are perhaps some of the harshest words I’ve been forced to write in a review, but their use is justified. The major faults of this title – its combat system – are of such game-breaking severity that they cannot be skirted around, and will surely cause anyone to abandon the game straight away. This is a shame, because the writing is witty and humorous, and actually treats the pirate subject matter from an adult perspective, and I wholeheartedly would have liked to have seen where the tale would take me. But, to be honest, walking the plank sounds like an enjoyable afternoon of fun in the sun when compared to this barnacle-encrusted piece of flotsam. Steer well clear of these troubled waters, mate.