This past Friday, Piranha Bytes released Risen 2: Dark Waters, a pirate-themed action adventure role-playing game and sequel to Risen from 2009. Piranha Bytes are best known for their previous work on the Gothic series, with Gothic 2 considered by many to be one of the greatest RPGs of all time. I've been a longtime fan of Piranha Bytes, loyal through the missteps of Gothic 3 and their recovering process with Risen, and was optimistic for a brighter future with Risen 2. Now that I've played about six hours of it, I almost fear that Risen 2 may be a case of "one step forward, two steps back."
From what I can tell, Risen 2 seems to have all of the core elements I've come to expect from a Piranha Bytes game; primarily, a rich and organic world that's rewarding to explore, and decisions with concrete consequences and role-playing options. The dialogue this time around is especially enjoyable, and many of the new features (like "dirty tricks" in combat) are welcome additions. But even ignoring some of the more glaring superficial issues, there are still a number of questionable design elements that really seem to detract from the game's potential, leaving me with mixed opinions. Continue reading for the rest of my quick impressions.
Right off the bat I noticed a lot of technical problems with the game's graphics, engine, and presentation, which are sure to outrage gamers treading the shallow end of the pool. These kinds of technical issues are almost a core element of the Piranha Bytes formula by now, so I've grown to be somewhat tolerant of poor quality control as long as there are more important redeeming values at work. In this case, however, some of the issues are simply inexcusable, and many of them do noticeably detract from my immersion. As a quick list, here are some of the things I've noticed:
- The default camera sensitivity settings are bizarre and uncomfortable, with the vertical axis being much, much less sensitive than the horizontal axis, requiring exaggerated mouse movements to look up or down. (This can be fixed with ini tweaks.)
- A lot of animations are stiff and unattractive. Sprinting looks like you've got a metal rod running down your spine, jumping looks completely unnatural, and you don't move your body at all when you draw your sword, so it's just one robotic arm moving.
- There's an incredibly short draw distance for vegetation, rocks, objects, and NPCs, which causes practically everything but the terrain itself to suddenly pop in and out of view as you move around. (This can be fixed with ini tweaks.)
- Lots of the foliage used on bushes, vines, and trees appears to shrink and grow as you move towards or away from it. I don't even understand why this is happening, and I have no idea what setting could affect this, if it's even possible to fix.
- The shadows cast by dynamic lighting seem prone to suddenly pop into different positions. I was standing around listening to the idle chatter of NPCs, and the shadows cast by the tree canopy would suddenly shift on the ground every 15 seconds or so, as if they were blowing in the wind and not showing any animation frames.
- At one point I was jumping off a rafter while a guard was trying to attack me, and as I started to fall, he hit me in mid-air a series of times, each one canceling the effect of gravity as I paused in mid-air to recoil from the attack.
- Finally, there is absolutely no swimming. No animation for it, no functional capacity for it. When you jump (or walk deep enough) into a body of water, the screen fades to black and puts you right back on solid land. This just seems incredibly lazy to me.
I spent much of my first hour grimacing at all of this, almost in disgust. I didn't want to pass judgment on the game too soon, so I didn't think too much of it, besides my surprised reactions. These are all blatantly obvious issues, however, and I'm sure a number of spoiled brats will quit playing early on and declare the entire game a heaping pile of garbage. It's unfortunate, because these kinds of problems really shouldn't be there (what excuse could there possibly be not to include swimming in a game about pirates set in an archipelago of islands), and they're only going to hurt the game's appeal to players who are inexperienced with Piranha Bytes.
Then there are other weird, undesirable issues with the save system. Every time the game auto-saves (both on a time interval, and every time you cross a "checkpoint") the game creates an entirely new save file. Every time you quick save, the game creates an entirely new save file. After playing for six hours (and disabling the auto-save after the one hour mark), I've amassed 1.6 GB worth of save files. Then if I make a hard save before doing a quest, and then want to go back and try it again, I have to scroll past dozens and dozens of useless save files. This is yet another completely silly aspect that I just don't understand.
One of the best dialogue options I've ever seen.
I've also noticed a fair bit of streamlining this time around. Risen 2 is probably the easiest, most accessible game Piranha Bytes have ever made, and I'm not sure how I feel about it. It used to be that bread, wine, water, apples, and meat all had slightly different effects, but now when you pick up a an apple, it turns into "Provisions" in your inventory, a universal healing item that, when used, slowly regenerates your health. I guess in the grand scheme of things this doesn't really matter, since those items all served the same basic purpose, but it removes some of the subtle charm of the series to just consume a generic item instead of watching your character eat an apple or drink a bottle of water.
For that matter, there don't seem to be any animations for consuming items anymore. You can be in the middle of an intense fight and just pop a healing potion (rum or grog, in this case) almost instantly. Used to be you'd have to stop fighting long enough to drink it, which made you vulnerable and added an extra element of strategy to the combat. Bringing up the inventory screen now pauses the game completely, so even if you don't use the hotbar you can go dig through your pockets and get what you want while enemies patiently wait for you.
As another example, I managed to convince a ship guard to let me on board, against the captain's orders that no one board the ship until morning. After reloading the save to find the one dialogue option that would let me through, I went into the captain's quarters. When he saw me, he ordered me off the ship, the screen faded to black, and I was placed back on the dock. Kind of lame that it was forced on me in such a heavy-handed way. Had this been Gothic or Gothic 2, the captain would've threatened me to get off the ship, and I would have been allowed to walk off myself or be apprehended by guards. So that's just one more moment of the game where they lost some of their appealing charm.
Bringing a gun to a sword fight. Pwnage.
The combat system, meanwhile, is extremely crude when you first start out. This has always been the case with Piranha Bytes games -- you always start out untrained in combat and learn an array of new maneuvers, and the system evolves and upgrades progressively as you level-up, but it will probably be a turn-off for any impatient, spoiled brats who are inexperienced with Piranha Bytes. Even knowing in advance that it would evolve, I found it tedious and boring at the start.
They've changed the combat system from the first Risen, this time wanting to recreate the swashbuckling feel of pirate duels. They've added new features like kicking and ripostes, new weapons like pistols (used primarily at close range during sword fights) and muskets (used as a long-range hunting rifle), as well as a whole new category of "dirty tricks" like throwing sand in your enemy's face or bashing them with a coconut, and you can even acquire a parrot or a monkey and use them to distract enemies. These are all very intriguing additions, and I'm optimistic that they'll make duels with human enemies tense and exciting, requiring good timing and precision to be successful.
As some consequence along the way, however, they've completely removed dodging. In Risen, you could make quick lateral dodges left, right, and backward, which were essential for avoiding powerful attacks or giving yourself enough room to initiate your own attack. Since you can't parry attacks from wild animals, and they've removed shields completely, you have basically no way to dodge an animal's attack, save for spamming attacks on them so that they can't get a chance to hit you. It's just not fun or all that engaging, and I can't imagine any kind of justification for this.
What even is going on with these NPCs? Siamese triplets?
I've also bumped into a couple of quick-time events, which leave me extremely baffled. One time I was fighting a jaguar and it pounced on me, pinning me against the ground as it attacked me. There seemed to be nothing I could do, and so I died. It turns out I was actually in a QTE where I had to spam the spacebar to get it off, but I didn't even realize this because I had the "hint messages" option disabled. Another time I was wandering around on the first island, the camera cut to cinematic angle and a space bar icon popped up on screen. Sure enough, I wasn't expecting it and was too late on the button press, and then I was killed instantly by a spring-loaded spike trap.
Despite all of these issues, however, I still find myself captivated by the game. The first island is relatively small, yet there's plenty to discover and I've found some really rewarding loot in more challenging situations. I've run into a fair number of quests that could be completed in different ways, sort of rewarding you for choosing certain skills and giving you consequences for not taking others. The new skills and stats all look very interesting to me, and I'm looking forward to distributing points as I earn more gold and glory. The pirate theme feels really invigorating. Here's hoping the game maintains this momentum and improves as I start exploring more.