As far as hardcore action-RPGs go, there’s not a lot in Risen that genre veterans likely haven’t encountered somewhere before. Still, being turbulently booted from an ill-fated sea vessel and thrust into a mystical, dangerous, and beautifully crafted world where you must scavenge and fend for yourself if you wish to survive remains utterly compelling. Every rare and potent herb you gather, every friend or foe you make, and every crucial piece of hard-earned gear you pick up feels like an accomplishment. And the decisions you make, for better or worse, will inevitably have an impact on this strange land and your time in it.
Luck is not by your side in Risen. As a penniless stowaway on a ship that’s about to get trounced by a giant, menacing spirit beast, things aren’t looking so hot. Miraculously, you wash up on the stormy shores of a nearby island with your life still intact. However, the volcanic isle of Faranga is home to scores of ravenous beasts desperate for any opportunity to pick the flesh clean from your bones. Making matters worse, ancient, artifact-filled temples have inexplicably risen out of the earth, spilling forth even nastier creatures across the countryside. To top it all off, you arrive in the midst of a brutal power struggle between several rival human factions. Yes, luck is not by your side, so you’ll have to make your own.
There’s not a lot of time to marvel at the lush scenery and wildlife on the island before it tries to kill you. Picking edible plants and beating off wild creatures with a makeshift club will suffice until you can reach the first pockets of civilization. Before long, you’ll have the opportunity to sign-up with one of three organizations, which ultimately decides what kind of character path you’ll follow. Joining the Don’s ragtag bunch of swamp vagabonds lets you focus on thievery and specialize in swords, bows, and warrior-focused weaponry. You can also venture along the dangerous trail up to the loft monastery and learn the ways of powerful magic. Being recruited into the Inquisition’s Warriors of the Order gives you a taste of both worlds, but you’ll be part of an oppressive regime. The choice is yours, so make it a good one. Your allegiances impact a multitude of other important factors besides your character class, including how the story progresses, how characters react to you, what kinds of missions you’ll encounter, and what portions of the island you can more readily access.
Regardless of what path you choose, improving your character, learning new skills, and acquiring more useful weaponry is a slow and steady process. It feels slower than in other RPGs, yet this instills a greater sense of reward and accomplishment when gains are eventually made. Every nook and cranny of the world contains hidden goodies like different plants and helpful items, but acquiring gear with substantive value and better properties only comes with patience and tackling branching side quests that earn you experience, reputation, and other forms of compensation. Until you establish a foothold in the world, you’re stuck clubbing beasts and cooking their meat, foraging for berries and herbs, and capitalizing on any opportunity to swipe or buy equipment.
Risen takes place in a vast open world on the island, but wandering too far into it right off the bat will quickly turn you into wolf meat. The first portion of the game draws you into pockets of civilization where you’ll have the opportunity to gorge on side quests that introduces how important skills work. Experience and stat points you gain from these quests can be used to learn crucial abilities and improve your character, provided you can find the right people to teach them to you. There are many crafts to learn, like metalsmithing, cooking, potion crafting, scroll making, and thievery. Beyond giving you a shot at picking up some of the necessary equipment and skills needed to give you a solid start once the world opens up, these early chapters and the people you encounter hook you into the game’s gritty fantasy setting.
Helping or hindering the island’s downtrodden, rough-and-tumble inhabitants opens up colorful dialogue and shines some light on the various plights and personalities of Faranga’s diverse culture. For being virtual citizens, it’s amazing to watch these people show exactly how human they are, warts and all. You’ll find plenty of riffraff who’ve steeped their lives in drugs, prostitution, thievery, and malice, which juxtaposes sharply against the smug righteousness of others you’ll encounter. Between these black and white contrasts, you’ll also run into simple farmers and peasants caught up in the fray who do what they can to survive through hard work. It makes the adventure far more interesting.
Serious personality conflicts often end in blows, and even when they don’t, battling deadly creatures in the wilds is unavoidable. Risen’s combat system is relatively fun when you get accustomed to it and improve your killing prowess, but it’s generally cumbersome and awkward. Magic and missile weapons let you get the drop on foes from a safer distance. Once you lock onto a target for melee, you’ll defend with the right mouse button and attack with the left. Humans fight very differently from beasts and other humanoid creatures, so you’re constantly adjusting tactics. One-on-one enemy encounters build into a rhythm of blocking, dodging, and attacking when you find an opening in your opponent’s defenses. But most of the time, particularly in the wilderness, you’ll be tackling several foes at once, which is when things break down and you basically have to flail frantically and run.
On the whole, Risen is a gorgeous game. From the misty, rock-lined shores and undergrowth-strewn forests to the dilapidated cities and dark subterranean grottos, there are many amazing sights to behold during your journey. Weather effects, dynamic sounds, impressive lighting, and crimson sunsets really amplify the realistic beauty found in the game’s many locations. It’s unfortunate that some character designs aren’t nearly as attractive. You’ll run into plenty folks who look fitting and enhance the vibe well, but some, females in particular, are oddly proportioned and look a little slapdash on closer inspection.
Risen is not an RPG game for the impatient-minded. It moves along at a slow burn, and bettering your character can be a meticulous and painstaking process at times. The challenge is steep early on, yet the lack of instant gratification and power loot hording is actually refreshing. Faranga is a finely crafted setting for what ultimately turns into a tremendously deep and very satisfying fantasy RPG. It has a few shortcomings; they’re largely forgivable, once you get lost in the adventure.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 4.4 Graphics
Character models can be spotty at times, but the world of Faranga is often breathtaking. 3.7 Control
Combat is awkward, but everything else is fine. 4.0 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
Strong voice work and atmospheric effects help bring the characters to life. 4.5 Play Value
The slow and steady adventuring has massive depth and offers an epic quest of great length to explore through multiple playthroughs. 4.4 Overall Rating – Great
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.