Thursday, April 26, 2012

Risen 2: Dark Waters Review

Risen 2: Dark Waters, developed by Piranha Bytes and published by Deep Silver.
The Good: Varied item types, buried treasure and voodoo
The Not So Good: Repetitive and dull auto-aimed combat lacks depth and skill, enemies routinely forget they are attacking you, occasionally vague quest details, linear mission order with lots of tedious mandatory sub-quests, slow character growth with expensive training that injures you, generally useless allies, unfair difficulty, imprecise item interaction, some graphical bugs
What say you? This pirate role-playing game is lacking in far, far too many areas: 2/8

Pirates and role-playing games are seemingly made for each other. Many people would like to be pirates, going on grand adventures around the seven seas, without having to worry about scurvy and alcoholism (though heavy drinking would produce a more authentic experience). We’ve seen several combinations in the past, such as (personal favorite) Sea Dogs and Risen, a convenient reference since we are looking at the second Risen game, entitled Risen 2: Dark Waters. So grab your rum and parrot (don’t confuse the two, or you’ll end up with a wet shoulder and feathers in your teeth) and let’s see if Risen 2: Dark Waters advances the role-playing genre.

Risen 2: Dark Waters is a mixed bag in the graphics department. There are some highlights: character faces look nice, and a majority of the buildings and ships are well designed and have high-resolution textures. Fire is also done well. However, the rest of the character models could use more detailed textures, and the animations alternate between being too stiff or overly dramatic. Characters also typically clip into themselves and other objects, ruining the immersion. Blood effects are underwhelming as well. In addition, there are some noticeable bugs, such as flickering shadows (especially with trees) and foliage that magically expands outward as you walk towards it. Background objects are also very fuzzy and objects pop in to view, even if the game is on the maximum graphical settings. On the sound side of things, Risen 2: Dark Waters includes uninspired battle effects and a wide range of voice acting quality. Humorously, the game tries to have NPC characters talk to each other as you pass by, but the game recycles the same conversations (so you hear the same thing every time) for a specific set of characters. Even worse, characters will stop mid-banter after you pass by and resume at the same point minutes later if you walk past again. It’s like the characters are saying “here he comes, start talking again!”, and then “he’s gone, let’s stand here and wait for him to pass again”. The game also relies on unnecessarily salty language (I get it’s a pirate game, but it serves no point) that is occasionally poorly translated. The music sits in the background and increases in volume when the inevitable attacks start, but it is instantly forgettable. Overall, Risen 2: Dark Waters is too inconsistent to provide solid graphical and sound design.

You are the nameless hero, doing pirate things in a pirate port of. The story has you infiltrating a really nice bunch of pirates (they are quite welcoming to anonymous newcomers such as yourself) because some important guy told you to. The campaign consists of a linear set of mandatory quests that must be completed in a specific progression, in order to unlock the next set of linear quests. There are commonly quests within quests within quests, usually involving fetching a thing to fetch another thing; indeed, Risen 2: Dark Waters features too many “go here and talk to this guy” missions (and “this guy” usually tells you to go talk to someone else first), none of which are fun. A small assortment of side quests may be activated by talking to other characters, although most of them are incorporated into the main storyline and must be completed eventually anyway (although you can finish them early if you stumble upon them). Typically, scripted conversations with other characters feature options (persuasion, for example) that you can’t even use because you haven’t leveled up enough yet; the game should know that, at an early point of the story, you can’t possibly have a 10 “silver tongue” rating and it should have removed that conversation choice altogether. Quests are usually given poor, vague descriptions in the logbook that lack detail to assist in completing them. To understand what you’re supposed to do, you must select a quest in the logbook and then select “set map marker” to place an “X” on the island map to see its location (it took me several hours of stumbling through the early game to figure that out). However, this location is not displayed on the compass, which seems to defeat the purpose of having one in the first place. You can also review the game dialogue to narrow down whom you’re supposed to talk to (if it was discussed), but the descriptions are still too unclear for my tastes. Quests can also seem finished (further instructions are not provided) but are not checked off your logbook, which is confusing. Risen 2: Dark Waters takes place on a handful of islands, none of which are very extensive. The game lacks a sense of exploration, as almost every building is directly tied to a quest in the main story. The islands never feel like a living, breathing realm, with animals (almost always in groups of three) appearing in scripted locations. You can save your progress at any time (highly recommended) and the game does frequently record your progress, so that’s a nice feature. Starting out in Risen 2: Dark Waters, though, is made more difficult by the inconsistent tutorial instructions that explain some game mechanics but ignore others (like the aforementioned “set map marker”).

As you kill enemies and complete quests, you earn “glory,” which work as experience points. Leveling up in Risen 2: Dark Waters is done very, very slowly: typically, a role-playing game lets you gain a level and unlock something in the first minutes of playing, but here it takes a good hour to assign your first attribute point. You certainly are not given constant rewards to keep you more invested in the game: the dangled carrot is too far ahead to see. Each time you level up, you can choose one of five areas to upgrade: blades, firearms, toughness (health), cunning (giving you more options in conversations), or voodoo (the game’s take on magic, featuring potions and dolls). Talents (three more specific attributes in each category, such as slashing weapons, pistols, thievery, or black magic) are automatically calculated from your base values, so you sadly can't tweak these to your liking. Beyond the attributes, there are many items you can equip, from armor to earrings and amulets, that increase your attack, defense, and attribute ratings. And beyond that, there are skills that can be earned by paying for expensive training, or more directed instruction where your helpful teacher injures severely you. While Risen 2: Dark Waters theoretically gives you several choices for upgrading your character, you really only get direct control over a couple of traits.

Besides the quests, there are some other things to do in the world of Risen 2: Dark Waters. There is a limited amount of things to trade, mostly items you purchase with gold earned by completing missions. The world of Risen 2: Dark Waters isn’t full of loot, just an occasional money purse or bottle of rum, so you won’t get rich quick as you wander the countryside. You might find some buried treasure, though, so that’s something to keep and eye out for. You can also learn how to make your own weapons (and improve existing ones) and steal goods by combining lock picking and sneaking skill sets. You’ll also have to interact with the colorful inhabitants of the game world, who will ignore you unless you talk directly to them. Conversation choices aren’t present, as you’ll always end up at the same result no matter which responses you choose. However, the game does remember who you’ve interacted with in the past and adjusts subsequent conversations accordingly, which is neat. Risen 2: Dark Waters does have some unpolished cutscenes with hyperactive hand movement, drastic camera cuts, and characters that occasionally face the wrong direction. This helps to further reduce whatever small amount of immersion the game had earned.

The third-person perspective (plus the lack of an aiming reticule) makes precise aim very difficult: when items or enemies are placed closely together, it can be impossible to select exactly what you want. You also can't pick up anything while weapons are drawn, adding another step when interacting with objects. As for combat itself, I hate it. There is both melee and ranged combat (plus stunning your opponent with sand, once you’ve unlocked it), and Risen 2: Dark Waters relies heavily on auto-aiming, where the game picks the closest opponent and directs all of your attacks towards them. The system doesn’t work well, however, as your character will frequently attack nothing but air as an enemy stands a short distance to the side. Blocking seldom works, making battles extremely frustrating, especially since you’ll be facing multiple opponents almost all of the time and you need to block something in order to survive. Combo attacks, automatically scripted once you hammer the left mouse button three times, cannot be interrupted, so you’ll routinely attack enemies that aren’t there or are too far away. The enemies themselves frequently forget they are supposed to be attacking you (they just stand there or circle around you, especially the animal units), which I guess is OK since you'll usually be fighting multiple enemies of similar or better rank than you. Even on the easiest difficulty setting, being outnumbered three-to-one (the game's favorite odds, as most animal packs travel in groups of three) usually results in quick, painful death and a reload. The islands of Risen 2: Dark Waters are absolutely teeming with unavoidable (they are placed along the paths to the next quest, and always spawn in the same locations), annoying monsters. I quickly learned to avoid just about everything that popped into view, just in case I got surrounded by a team of three. Of course, odds of success would be a lot higher if your occasional allies weren't as incompetent as the enemies, only occasionally offering assistance through an infrequent potshot.

Risen 2: Dark Waters adds nothing to the role-playing genre while being somewhat inaccessible and definitely frustrating. It starts with periodically vague quests, with bare descriptions in your logbook that do little to explain what it is you are supposed to do. You can click on a quest to place a map marker (something I figured out how to do far too late in my time with the game) or read the dialogue you skipped over by continually pressing the “escape” key, but the locations never show up on your compass, which leads to a lot of switching back and forth to the map view to see where you are supposed to go. The quests are linear and rarely interesting, never straying far from the main storyline and requiring prerequisites (usually several) that might not be obvious. Your conversations with the NPCs that populate the small islands do change based on who you’ve talked to previously, but the end result is always the same. Your nameless character has various attributes that determine his effectiveness in combat and negotiating with others, and he can undertake trade and forging, in addition to more pirate-y activities like sneaking around and searching for buried treasure. However, the third-person view gets in the way of targeting closely spaced items, an aspect of the game that’s poorly designed. In addition, you acquire new skills very slowly, as experience is gained at a glacial pace and training is quite expensive. Combat is bland: auto-aiming eliminates the need for actual skill, and having only two options (attack or block) gets old very quickly. Your AI allies, and the enemies you encounter, have very basic behaviors (run towards you, then attack) that are quite predictable, and sometimes they forget to do even that much. It’s just as well, since you are routinely, and unfairly, outnumbered. Finally, while there are some nice aspects to the graphics (namely the building and ship detail), clipping bugs and shadowing issues creep through. In the end, Risen 2: Dark Waters doesn't have a single great feature and plenty that are not.