Risen 2: Dark Waters Review

Risen 2 is not without its merits. Subtle gameplay accomplishments like a smart looting system and attractive environments kept me genuinely interested in the goings-on longer than any role-playing game I sampled of late. But faulty quest designs and combat frustrations head the cons list. For every blood, sweat, and tear Piranha Bytes shed taking one step forward, crafting a tale to win over Risen veterans and newcomers alike, technical issues since rooted out in more modernized RPGs push one step back.

Players command the Nameless Hero, the first Risen’s protagonist. After the events that transpired within the original game, the character has turned to a life of alcohol to quell his nerves. Not quite the heroic celebration he pictured I’m sure. However, there is no rest for the weary. Mara, the queen octopus-woman of the seas, seeks to free the Titans and ravage the earth. Meanwhile, the Kraken makes shipments difficult for Caldera, the Hero's current haven, capsizing all vessels should they try to leave or enter port. As fate would have it, a companion of the Hero’s washes on shore one such evening – turns out her infamous pirate father knows of an ancient, mystical device to defeat the creature and its master.

Caldera’s chief military officer orders the protagonist sever ties to the Inquisition and gain the captain’s trust – easier said than done given the numerous fetch quests that lay ahead. The mythological world of Risen 2 is rampant with strange beasts, including warthogs, cougars, and raptor-like birds. Many of the locales – and perhaps the narrative – feel inspired by a Pirates of the Caribbean film, notably the Isle of the Dead occupied by the souls of the fallen, and the lush, hostile jungles of the Sword Coast's natives. The environments display rich amounts of vibrant color, or at least they would if their textures would stop popping in. Shrubbery and wildlife load not ten feet from the character’s face on a regular basis. Draw distance is equally plagued with problems. The landscape eventually paints a clear picture from one island end to the other, but not before the background reveals a bright, blank, white slate.

 

Piranha Bytes blend buccaneering with surreal encounters.

 

The dialogue system works, though the outcomes tend to be the same. Certain interactions may lead to hidden information, potential missions, or financial benefits. The humor is very tongue-in-cheek, too. An early quest giver asks that you bring him the heads of three runaway slaves. I returned triumphantly, heads in hand, only to be treated with disgust. He meant the figurative expression, not the literal action. That’s where the laughs end, sadly.

Risen's pirates constantly refer to their venereal infections. If you get off on constant crabs jokes, this narrative may be for you. Animations are also laughable, but not in the laugh out loud sort of way. The protagonists repeat the same five hand gestures no matter the gravity of the situation. Not that their vocal tones prove more convincing. The voice acting is deprived of emotion, as if the cast put no thought into their respective character’s circumstances. Shock, sadness, and joy equate to little more than a slightly higher pitch change.

Combat also falls on the simplistic side. There are few fights that cannot be won by clicking an enemy to death. Swords offer the main damage dealing means, but firearms and magic play pivotal roles as well. The swordplay, however, remains Risen 2’s severest issue. Trying to micromanage even two opponents can bring the enjoyment to a standstill. The frustration hit a peak when assaulting a tribal temple. The more agile natives danced around the battlefield out of the range of my slower rapier swipes while their allies broke my character’s guard with thrown spears. Kiting adversaries towards my companions – whom dished out more damage than Hero ever could – became a necessity instead of a tactic.

 

The game is occasionally gorgeous, given the texture loading and all.

 

Unfortunately, many attacks we’d deem standard require purchase from specialized trainers, and everything from sneaking to kicking to lock picking needs a talent upgrade. I understand the lock picking part. Liberating someone of their rare personal possessions implores finesse. It’s the sneaking and kicking parts I don’t understand. What man doesn't know to bend his knees for stealthier movements? Moreover, who needs training to kick? I’d much rather spend my valuable gold on mastering misfire-happy muskets than on extending a boot into an enemy’s face.

What’s more, players can only procure these abilities once they meet class prerequisites. Each foe slain and quest line completed offers Glory, Risen’s term for experience points. Regrettably, Risen 2 stumbles into the trappings that ensnare many other RPGs. Early on, players gain access to toughness, cunning, blade mastery, voodoo magic, and firearm handling enhancements. Once I was free to experiment, I decided to travel the melee damage and bulletproof/swordproof routes. The game said otherwise. Objectives also require certain upgrades to complete. To avoid the risks of running underpowered even in the starting zone, the Hero needed points spent in thievery. These improvements cost hefty sums of gold, gold I did not have. These compounded burdens only lessen should players invest the time in optional odd jobs and side quests.

Other stereotypes lighten the mood, such as recruiting a monkey or parrot to round out the Hero's pirate attire. Parrots may distract various enemies mid-combat, while monkeys access out-of-reach alcoves and windows for hidden treasure. But these creatures also require a healthy amount of coins to purchase. I experimented with both companions' capabilities, but neither radically changed my play style.

 

You would not believe the unfair advantage multiple opponents have.

 

The mid-game was looking rather hopeful until I encountered what I thought to be a game-ending glitch. To determine the fate of their ensuing adventures, players must ally with the spear-wielding tribesmen of the Shaganumbi or the black powder users of the Inquisition. I opted for the natives’ aid. A particular task demanded I make a voodoo doll to control a drunken messenger with access to his corrupt captain and Titan-slaying relic, but creating that “action figure” required money and supplies. Considering the number of hours I spent wiping the jungle clean of its creatures, that wasn't a problem.

The true offender was a lack of direction, or handholding. No map marker dictated the next move. I reviewed the quest dialogue, but that contained no hints. After two wasted hours attempting various fixes, I solved the solution by accident. Misleading players with poor quest outlines – no matter how unintentional it may be – is never acceptable. A similar situation occurred not an hour later. The Hero needed to sabotage cannons that could harm a “borrowed” Inquisition ship, except the guard surveying the artillery refused to leave his post. After an hour visiting every townsfolk and scouring every unlocked household, I chose to ambush the simpleminded warden and block the cannon barrels while he regained consciousness. There's a difference between wanting the player to think and a lack of intelligent programming – Piranha Bytes fails to make that distinction.

 

Sadly, pet fighting Pokemon-style is absent.

 

But among these faults shine brief glimmers of hope. The developers forgo abysmal weapon degradation, and loot consists only of items useful for survival and bargaining. That includes herbs for healing and trinkets like goblets or bowls worth their weight in gold. Skyrim’s compulsive hoarders no longer need manage their prestigious broom collections.

Now, with thief systems like that of Skyrim, I occasionally blow my cover. I tend to overstay my burglary spree, earning me a primo spot in the nearest jail cell. The NPCs of Risen 2 truly embody the saying that “possession is nine-tenths of the law.” Relieving someone of their valuable heirlooms rewards without the risk. Running away with item in hand incurs no bounty. Defeating the owner in a duel, despite getting caught, gives you free reign over that object. No matter the merchant, any and all loot can be sold for cold hard doubloons.

I truly can’t remember the last time I played an RPG like Risen 2. Both combat and storyline feel like brief glimpses back into the '90s when developers were first crafting fantasy settings in three dimensions. While its minor nuances excel, problems grander in scale cut the experience short. The gameplay has its flaws, but I found myself genuinely absorbed in the world at times. Sadly, I also got lost in that world much too frequently. 

Publisher: Deep Silver
Developer: Piranha Bytes
Release Date: April 27, 2012
Number of Players: 1 (Campaign)
Platforms: PC (Reviewed)

Scumbagb3n's picture

Maybye your title should  be The Review Master.

Goldteddy's picture

Getting better and Better these reviews oO

Or atleast their more Personal in your word usage

Josh Kowbel's picture

@Goldteddy:

But I'm not sure that's what I want. Reviews should be objective as possible, but the use of "I" makes them more subjective. But for Risen 2, I can see old school RPG fans enjoying the complex gameplay (unlike myself). I decided to make the review more personal for that reason. Others will enjoy the lack of handholding, but at the same time, it's difficult to understand whether those missteps were intentional or unintentional.

John Tarr's picture

I didn't have any of the texture loading issues that you did, but my PC is pretty beastly. What settings were you able to run the game on?

I also hated how you had to purchase EVERY SINGLE ACTION Hero can perform. Plus the costs to unlock the most rudimentary skills are very steep in the early stages of the game.

 Josh Kowbel

Reviews should be objective as possible...

To a very small degree yes. The texture loading issue, poor quest management system, etc. are all very objective issues with the game, but I (and I'm sure everybody else reading) am much more interested in your subjective opinions. Your overall experience is entirely subjective, and the final score reflects that.

Solifluktion's picture

Just out of curiosity...did you play the first Risen and/or any of the "Gothic"-Games?

Josh Kowbel's picture

@John Tarr:

I have an i5 2500K CPU, 8GB of RAM, and a GTX 560 Ti 2GB video card, so the texture problem was definitely not on my end. All my settings were set to Ultra by default. I did cut that information from the review. 

@Solifluktion:

No, I haven't played the first Risen or a Gothic game, but I hear that they contain many of the same issues as Risen 2. Like I replied to Goldteddy, RPG stalwarts may enjoy Risen 2 far more than I did, but it's hard to ignore the presence of better role-players like Skyrim even without their complex depth.

lazygun's picture

I´m 25 hours into the game right now. This game is definitly rough around the edges but i think you´re robbing people of a great experience by giving it only 2 out of 5.

Josh Kowbel's picture

@lazygun:

No matter what score I give a game, it's ultimately the people's decision to buy, rent, or skip that release. I deliberated for a couple hours weighing the pros and cons of Risen 2, but the horribly complex gameplay and often poor quest navigation killed my enjoyment. I should not be spending more time in menus trying to locate my next objective more than exploring the colorful, pirate lore world. 

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