You start the game surprisingly unimpressive as a stranded nameless guy washed up on a beach, which is where you begin your adventuring career. You'll learn the first steps in combat, get your first items from broken chests and corpses washed ashore and you also get your first quest, to escort a damsel in distress (sounds kind of familiar... Age of Conan?).
During the course of the first Act you'll have to decide for a faction, the Bandits or the Inquisition, (of which you'll be forced to join the second if you do not heed the warnings of the NPCs and head into a group of them right at the beginning) and you'll also get to explore the three most extensive and fun places in the game: The Bandit Encampment, the Volcano Fortress and a Port City.
After that the story wanes a little while you're constantly heading towards the (unfortunately rather disappointing) conclusion and have to crawl through a few dozen dungeons while both killing enemies and solving puzzles.
The first thing I noticed right away, after starting up the game and choosing "New Game" is that the animations are partially really bad and some of the NPC models just look clunky, like they grew up on the wrong side of the Uncanny Valley, far away from their friends when compared to other near-realistic presentations in other games. They could certainly have benefitted from SOME motion capturing and better/high poly character models.
Also it's one of those games where you move about much too slow, there's even a "Haste" spell later on that delivers proper speed for a certain period of time. I wish they had made that the standard running speed (or a sprint based on some kind of stamina) instead of the "jogging" like your char normally does.
Greetings from outer space and hello to the awkward jumping animation
This all sounds pretty bad you say? But wait, because it really isn't... the game has lots and lots of good parts I'm going to get to shortly.
From left to right, you waking up on some god-forsaken shore, making friends with the Bandits, sightseeing the Port City on a sunshiny day and having a quick gander about in the Volcano Fortress
Regarding the game-world:
It is one of the things that I enjoyed the most. You can clearly see that it is modeled by hand throughout and somehow you can also feel it. There's nothing that seems off or looks EXACTLY the same as another part of the world (although a lot of places use the same textures and vegetation) and there's landmark elements like a big waterfall flowing down throughout the island or a big raging volcano in the middle of it. There are things to explore everywhere (it's very different from Oblivion or Fallout 3, which both seemed too flat and randomly generated with a few buildings added here and there and lots of empty space) like hard to reach hilltops or areas that are basically cut off from the rest of the island and can only be reached by using spells like Levitation (which sometimes hold ph4t l3wt).
One part of the mentioned waterfall and an area exclusive to Levitation... psst don't sneeze now.
There are hidden caves throughout the world and hidden corridors or rooms inside nearly every dungeon. Those can only be opened if you pull certain "rings" on the walls (which aren't highlighted btw.) or hit a switch somewhere with your ranged weapon of choice. I had fun exploring every nook and cranny of the entire island. Even the monsters and plants throughout the world are placed with a lot of care. (e.g. you will find wolves in the woods, marshland bodies in the swamps, skeletons near cemeteries and inside old ruins, gnomes inside of caves and around campfires etc.) Important plants for your character development (which add bonuses to your abilities) can always be found in special or hard-to-reach places.
Monsters are also placed with great care, so as to not discourage exploration altogether, but keep you at bay if you want to enter certain areas prematurely. When you enter a cave and an ogre is one-hitting you at full health with his big club, it is kind of clearly implied that you should maybe "come again" later and stay away for now. It just feels a lot better and more alive than those "level scaling" games with random spawn and loot all throughout the game. There's also no constant Respawn, once you're done with a certain area or dungeon you ARE actually done and you get a sense of "accomplishment", aside of a few new monster types being additionally introduced into the game world at the beginning of each new Act (of which there are 4).
Dungeons are usually not the same "get through and kill everything alive"-run of the mill experiences, but offer a little bit of diversity by having to use several spells like Levitation (to get over gorges), Transformation into a Nautilus (to get through Small cracks) and Telekinesis (for Levers and Getting Items from far away and the likes), mainly to disarm traps.
Dungeons are also full of traps, most of them mean Instant Death if you aren't being careful, this is (after the first few encounters with them) a Pro, because it adds a little suspense and will MAKE you be careful when you enter an old ruin or temple while looking around. After having your first few experiences with the Grim Reaper, they can easily be recognized and avoided though.
The NPCs you will meet during your travels are well designed but not exactly remarkable. I can't think of any single one of them that was really memorable after playing through the game and unfortunately there are also lots of simple "Collect" and "Kill" quests to go with that, although you will have done most of those easily if you plan on exploring the world and picking up things anyway.
Transformed into a nautilus you can get through every little crack
Also some, if not most of the (unique) items you find feel and more importantly look unique, a few more attributes like elemental damage or increased abilities wouldn't have been THAT bad to add though.
Two swords you are able to forge in the game and the late-game armor
The Combat System:
It isn't too forgiving. Especially during the first few hours of the game you'll probably die (a lot) so make use of the Quicksave function (a lot). I also regularly used friendly NPCs to tank or help me take down some enemies every now and then throughout the first few levels.
If you're bad at the game you might even die as a high-level character to low-level monsters. If you're good at it, adapt and have a bit of patience you can beat monsters meant for Level 23+ with a Level 13 char.
Each "type" of opponent kind of requires a different technique or tactics.
For example you have to block wolves with your shield till they are done attacking (usually 2-3 hits), then get in a few hits and block again. Scorpions hit you with their tail, so when you see it coming you have to step back and to the side to evade and then land your hit while they're "recharging". Other monsters are easily beaten with fast combos or doing lots of charged/power attacks in a chain over and over again from a short distance slightly out of their arms reach.
Long-Range combat like the magic crystals (Magic Missile, Fireball or Ice) or Bows/X-Bows is kind of easier to handle, as you just have to aim and hit and it plays more along the lines of a 3rd person shooter, but you won't be able to use just those exclusively throughout the game.
Also you might want or need to use your surroundings consciously e.g. stay in an archway so the enemies can't come at you from all sides or get with your back next to a rock or a house if the enemies are trying to surround you. It's not the type of combat you can lean back to, and press buttons 1-2-3 for different skills over and over again while you're falling half asleep doing so and might require some trial and error but I like it!
Surprisingly your companions (or the people you get to fight alongside with, during the course of the story it'll even be a small army at one point) do their job pretty well. They don't die too quickly, they (usually) don't run into your sights and are actually helpful for once.
First two pictures: Wolves trying to circle you and a successful block;
Third picture: You, your companion and your trusty, dependable skeleton Fred fighting against some ugly lizards
The Interface isn't overloaded with things like Skill/Quickitem bars, status displays, numbers, radars, quest trackers and the likes. The game expects you to use your brain every now and then, especially during quests. But if you need the exact place of a certain goal you are searching for or a certain NPC for a quest you can always open the Quest-Map and there's markings.
The game also has a few comfort features, not unlike its predecessors, which aren't that commonplace in other games. For example you can pick every single item up and you don't have to deal with an imposed item or weight limit. You can basically carry the whole world around with you. If you want to bother sorting through your inventory and selling items every now and then you can, but you don't really have to and you can concentrate more on the action at hand and the quests instead of micro-managing your inventory (it was one of the first things I tweaked using the console in both Oblivion and Fallout 3, can't stand it myself xD).
The NPCs that you did quests for and exhausted all dialogue choices with, from thereon just give you a short "greeting" so you don't have to talk to every single one of them every time you stop by or every new Act to see if they have something new to say.
A drawback to that system is that dialogue feels like you are just working off all possible dialog choices along a red thread till there's nothing else left to choose from (even in quests where you have to investigate something like a murder or a missing persons case) and so the game lacks a little of the freedom of choice most Bioware RPGs offer. Every now and then your char will even say something completely random and surprising by himself where you may go "WTF" like extorting money from someone out of the blue because he seemingly feels like it.
The comfort function I was looking for and was missing the most at the beginning of the game though was a hotspot-key to highlight items or item text on the screen, even on the very first beach there's a lot of stuff lying around like clams, money, bottles and all that and the only thing you can go by to pick them all up is your very own eyes and running around blindly clicking the left mouse button and hoping you pick up things doing so.
There were also indications of a few system and design choices they built in/made that weren't all that. For example there's barrels with water everywhere that can heal up the player character, but after you reach Level 5 they seem like a waste of time because it takes much too long (almost 10+ sips including animation) and it just goes up incrementally. The barrels become useless very fast. Same thing with food that heals 5-15hp... Might work the very first few levels but after that all you're going to do is sip a health potion (there's enough of those going around) or take a quick nap and rather sell all those other items.
A few of the design choices I was talking about are for example that the "Bandit" faction seems to be the way to go if you want to play more of a warrior character and get the heavy-duty armors early on, which seems weird cause they're all wearing leather. Also it is the only faction you can train your sword-skill over 7 (of 10) points with if you join, while joining the Inquisition and becoming something like a Paladin (or Mage if you volunteered) you're supposed to start using staffs, I still kept my sword anyway. Another thing is that trainers can increase your main abilities like STR or DEX (which increase the total damage you do with the respective weapons and allow you to wear better gear) to 100 points total and no further, but the skill can go up to 200 by using potions and other things like stews or certain food (and by so doing increasing your damage)... You might waste several potions and other +STR items early on in the game and never be able to reach 200 later because of it, and there's not even a small hint about it. It would've been better if the Base from the trainers and the Permanent Bonus from items were flowing into 2 different pools so both courses of action would be possible from the get-go.
Maps you have to work for, find them or earn them
before they can be displayed for a certain area
The Skill System:
You get "Learning Experience" after each Level Up and have to find a trainer that teaches you the specific skill you want against a few gold coins, instead of just "knowing" Blacksmithing or Sword fighting or whatever out of thin air you are basically being taught over time by several people (there's even useful tips on how you can use your weapon on the new skill level.)
Raising a melee skill always comes along with improvements to how you can attack and always feels satisfying. You get different types of attacks like Power Attacks, you get to do quicker blows, longer combos and a few other things or even get to use Two-Handed weapons as One-Handed (if you reach a certain skill level).
The game doesn't take itself too seriously, for example to distract people you can cast an "Illusion" spell summoning a hot dancer, upon which male NPCs will head right for it and act... distracted. If you pissed off an NPC, and he doesn't want to talk to you anymore, you can use the spell "Tell Joke" (which simulates you telling the best joke in the world) and he's gonna start laughing and talk to you again. Similar to the previous Gothic games there's also random stuff to do like smoking a hookah, cutting wood and all that just for the atmosphere. Or novices of magic rolling up some weed and smoking it in front of you, there's quite a few of those things that create a more "lax" and different atmosphere from those dark, everything is dead serious RPGs.
You also get XP for killing chickens (there's even an Achievement involved) or eating eggs, and eating apples makes you stronger (everyone knows that)!
A few other things you can do during your travels through the world of Risen:
- While exploring the world, you can pick up 20 special flowers, with which you can make potions (Alchemy Level 3 as a precondition) that increase your Strength, Dexterity or Life permanently
- Mine for Ore you can use for crafting later on
- Hunt animals and (assuming you have found/bought the right tools) skin them for their valuables like pelts, tooths or wings
- Find buried treasure chests or just hidden treasure/weapons on difficult to reach spots or slopes
- After Chapter 2 starts you'll be able to find "Teleport"-Stones all over the world for use as a Quick-travel system.
Burying out a treasure chest and teleportation
If you want to have some fun near the end of the game teleport into the city, transform into an Ash Beast
and go on a rampage or just try out what being a pyromaniac might feel like.
I required about 36 hours for a complete playthrough of the game while exploring everything. It didn't feel too long nor too short, people that aren't THAT much into exploring or side-quests and just want to do the main story might subtract between 7 to 15 hours.
The game was surprisingly bug-free. Throughout the game I only experienced 2 crashes, a somewhat reluctant door, some flying corpses and an NPC ending up dead that was needed for some minor quest.
Overall, if you can deal with the fact that this game doesn't have every "Comfort feature" available out there from a very detailed radar map to it holding your hand every single step of the way and combat doesn't just imply you clicking the same two skills over and over again, but requires a combination of timing, blocking, evading and more to succeed (or you liked Gothic 1+2) this game is certainly worth a look for RPG-starved people trying to pass the time till the release of Dragon Age.
I give it an 8.2/10.
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