Risen 2: Dark Waters
Microsoft Xbox 360Also available on PC and Sony PlayStation 3
Ha-harr me hearty, pass another cabin boy for this one has split in twain! Yes, it's Risen 2: Dark Waters, the newest in this franchise of pirate-RPGs that sets you on a quest to find mythical weapons to defeat a titan goddess. The story so far, for those unfamiliar, is that you have battled and defeated one such titan but, shock and horror, that wasn’t the last of them. Risen 2 has immense potential and the developers have not checked their ambition – the main quest is substantial, side quests aplenty are to be found and there's enough loot to keep all but the most kleptomaniac privateers content. Sadly, despite trying hard, the game fails to deliver a satisfying experience.
Once you're into the action it isn't all bad – the swordfighting part of the game is all about timing, requiring you to wait before you strike. A mis-timed slash will end up with you being skewered. There's a relatively steep learning curve for this but once you've got the hang of it and have learned a few new moves, provided you're patient, you can take on any enemy, parrying their blows and waiting for an opportunity to give them a taste of hot steel. Entertaining, but a bit repetitive. The exploration part of the game is sort of fun, if finding gold and food turns you on, but this is marred by the lumbering slowness of the player character and the regular random encounters with big beasts. The jaguars, giant spiders, and the like will have your jugular shredded before you can say 'pieces of arrrrrrrgh'. Once you've been mauled you can put your feet up for the two or so minutes the game takes to reload whilst the loading screen mockingly tells you to 'save often.'
The missions you go on are unimaginative fetch-quests – get this object, go and convince person X to do this, kill Y baddies and so forth. This is nothing that has not been done a hundred thousand times before and Risen 2 does not freshen up this tried and tested format. The slow speed at which you move makes travelling to your quest destinations a drag, even though you can fast-travel to some locations once you've discovered them. There is a degree of choice in the game's narrative, whether you side with the Inquisition (read the British Empire) or the voodoo-tastic natives but the game feels very linear otherwise. Whilst some of the quests are fine, others are poorly designed – one example being where you have to learn to pickpocket to steal a pearl from a guard but you don't have to pickpocket him to get the object; another being a time when a commandant tells you to get a musket but there is no way to get one until later in the game.
You gain experience points through combat and quests which you can spend to improve your core attributes: sneaking, gunslinging, toughness and so on. Whilst this is standard RPG fare, you can only gain new abilities – new swordplay tricks, lockpicking and voodoo spells for example – by buying these from experts you meet along your journey. This is unsatisfactory for a couple of reasons. First every new ability is expensive – so this means you learn new tricks very slowly. Secondly what you buy doesn't necessarily equate to what you get – for instance, paying to make your sword attacks more powerful gains you a slow power attack, not a general improvement in hack 'n' slashing. A final problem is that some of the skills are very counter-intuitive – to pickpocket you have to initiate a conversation with another character and then choose pickpocket from the dialogue options. Given how well established such things are in all RPGs this feels like a massive and avoidable step back.
The game kicks off with very little background (there are big tentacled monsters, they are bad) and immediately you are in to an in-game cut scene where two characters chunter clichés laboriously at each other whilst the camera rapidly and nauseatingly cuts from one angle to another.. As the characters speak they gesticulate as if they're simultaneously stacking invisible boxes, making a robotic party conference speech and delivering umpires' signals for an imaginary cricket match. To make this worse most non-player pirate characters swear continuously, capturing accurately the claustrophobic and charmless nature of a charter flight to Magaluf with two hundred idiotic teenagers. This continues throughout the game and you just have to put up with it.
If you are willing to persist despite all this there are still more design and engine issues that may frustrate – or even offend. Yes, there are some pretty moments – the tropical fish swimming under a gangplank for example – but this is undermined by awful pop-up, objects and textures appearing out of thin air as you approach, made worse by the tropical thunderstorms that occur every now and then. This is notably different to the PC version which did not suffer from these issues. NPC conversation can glitch, with characters repeating the same line of dialogue over and over, or talking into thin air because whoever they're meant to be talking to isn't there. There were several occasions in this review play-though where suddenly the controls, apart from movement, ceased to work followed thirty seconds later by a complete freeze. Finally the game steers close to the wind in terms of political correctness. Of course, it is set in the past, but the unrelenting way that slaves are referred to as 'savages', their generic 'savage' accent and appearance and a number of other throw-away comments is unpleasant and unnecessary.
Given the rich heritage of pirate games - the Monkey Island series in particular and the recent popularity of the Pirates of the Carribean films you would think there’s a lot to draw on to produce a good result. This is not the case and Risen 2 lacks imagination and is riddled with problems. Perhaps the most persistent RPG players will stick it out but the experience is so far from smooth many more are likely to switch off before the credits roll. This game has the charm of a set of scurvy gums and although it manages the basics it feels half-baked and untested. Get out the plank boys: this one is fishfood.