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Risen 2: Dark Waters [Review] – Murky

3 May 2012  by   Tim McDonald
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I like Risen 2 – I’m just not quite sure why. Bear this in mind while reading this review, in which I’ll be complaining about almost every single aspect of it while trying to work out why I actually have a soft spot for it. So: why have I enjoyed it?

Well, it’s not because it eases you in gently and welcomes you with open arms, certainly; the start of the game is overwhelmingly unfriendly. The first enemies you meet are more than capable of stunlocking you into an endless cycle of “pain” animations while chipping away at your health.

The tutorials, generally, are fairly oblique about how the various mechanics work. If you learn a new ability – Kick, or Pickpocketing, or something – then the game isn’t going to come right out and tell you how it functions. You have to work for it. In some ways, though, that’s actually a positive: I rather like not having a big arrow pointing to my next objective, and the game rarely marks anything on your map so you have to pay attention to directions in conversations, not least because a few side-quests are never actually added to your log.

It’s not down to the writing or the story. Risen 2 tries its best, with an attempt at a rip-roaring romp regarding honourable pirates and ancient sea goddesses, against a backdrop of voodoo-hurling tribes facing the firearm-equipped military might of the Inquisition, but it has all the taut emotional impact of a piece of fruitcake. There’s a point where a reasonably major character dies heroically, and rather than shedding a silent tear for this fallen hero, I was wondering how the hell it was possible to have a scene in which every single character acted as though they were sharing a single brain cell.

Even the regular attempts at humour are more a case of “I can see what they were going for here” rather than “Well, that was quite funny.” Worse, there are a few bits and pieces that – at best – begin to approach misogyny and racism, which in a smartly-written game might be taken as shedding light on the characters and the world. Not so, here: they mostly just made me feel uncomfortable.

It’s certainly not the combat, which is uniformly awful. Melee combat is usually a luck-based mashfest in which you hope you don’t die before whatever you’re fighting, while ranged combat – despite being almost game-breakingly powerful – is an excruciatingly dull exercise in running away while shooting at whatever’s attacking. Early on, fighting against more than one enemy at a time is a death sentence due to the aforementioned stunlocking.

Movement is clunky, there’s no dodging, and blocking is useless against anything but humanoids. Even when you become more powerful and learn a few tricks, combat generally devolves into both you and the computer trying to exploit the combat mechanics in your favour.

So we’ve established that the game is unfriendly, the story and dialogue are uninspired, and that the combat is utterly atrocious – and we’re still no nearer to finding out why the hell it’s actually somewhat enjoyable.
Well, the omnipresent bugs are usually hilarious rather than annoying, barring the few times you can utterly break a questline by talking to one person before another. There are times when you’ll trigger dialogue lines you’re not supposed to be able to see yet, so conversations occasionally become a window into a surreal world in which characters spout seeming non-sequiturs about things they can’t possibly know. There’s an amazing bug in which characters sometimes don’t respond to combat if nobody (including them) sees you entering combat, meaning that you can hack away at them from behind without them raising the slightest objection.

There’s the way that temporary companions will, if they see you drop into stealth mode or pull out a weapon, immediately shift over to their Suspicious Townsperson personas and start threatening you and shouting at you – even if you’re in the middle of a cave of giant termites they hired you to kill. And then there’s the fact that the vegetation undulates, with leaves growing or shrinking as you move nearer to them in a truly alien fashion, which perhaps isn’t a bug but is funny enough to be worth a mention.

In fact, certain gameplay aspects of Risen 2 are pretty surreal on their own. Passing time or healing wounds without using items requires you to sleep, which you can only do in beds. For most of the game beds are not readily available to you, requiring you to sneak past people and kip in their rooms for a day or so. Food items will slowly regenerate your health, while alcohol (excepting wine and beer, which appear to count as food) will instantly restore it. If a character sees you wander into a restricted area or drop into stealth mode, they’ll follow you around for awhile afterwards. That might not sound surreal, but… well, when you’ve just had a nosey around a hotel’s guest rooms, go to bed, and wake up 12 hours later to find four people standing in the same spot right next to your bed…

Bizarre glimpses into an alien world aside, the atmosphere is usually really well done. This is a pirate game, and it feels like it. It’s the game for you if you want to put on a tri-corner hat, wander into a tavern, win a treasure map in a drinking contest, and then spend the next fifteen minutes traipsing around an island looking for a big red X. You can loot tombs, dig up buried treasure, test your fencing skills against town guards, hunt for legendary items, and attempt to break ancient sea curses. You can even use monkeys and parrots to your advantage, with skills tying into each. Ignoring the execrable Pirates of the Caribbean games (because they’re execrable), it’s probably the closest we’ve got to a Pirates of the Caribbean game, and that’s no bad thing.

Once you get your own ship, the game opens up a lot, too. While there’s no actual sailing (which seems a bit of an oversight) you can explore a number of rather pretty tropical islands and interact with an enjoyably stereotypical cast of sea-dogs, governors, and tavern wenches. From that point on, you’re fairly unrestrained in terms of where you go and what quests you choose to take. It’s no Elder Scrolls, but there’s a sufficient amount of meat to each area that the order you do things certainly makes things feel pretty free-form.

And, for the most part, the quests are actually kinda fun, with a dearth of Kill X Monsters missions. There are a few where you’re searching a coastline for 10 cargo crates, but there are also plenty where you’re bluffing your way into a council building, or solving the mystery of a stolen rifle, or trying to work around a trade embargo to restock your ship. Again, they tie nicely into the atmosphere and are actually fun to play around with, not least because many have multiple solutions and offer something a little out of the ordinary.

It’s also true that if you can force your way past the unfriendly opening, the game’s lack of assistance becomes more of a plus point. There’s a bit of a masochistic joy in finally getting powerful enough to easily take down enemies that formerly gave you a lot of trouble, and once you get the hang of how the mechanics work, there’s a fair bit of fun to be had in sneaking around a town, picking all of the pockets and picking open all of the chests before embarking out to explore the area.

And, yes, getting hold of a new and unfeasibly powerful weapon (like a double-barrelled rifle) still evokes a lovely warm glow. In a lot of ways Risen 2 is very much an RPG of the old school, both in terms of how unforgiving it can be, and in terms of the range of options it affords you.

Which is, I think, probably why I like this. Objectively speaking, Risen 2 a bit of a broken, over-ambitious mess, but it’s a bizarrely enjoyable one because of the way the flawed mechanics flow together, and it’s buoyed up by its amount of heart. Once you get past the aggressive opening and the punishing first few hours, it opens up enough that it provides a half-decent RPG experience – and one with pirates. If you hurled a coconut at Risen 2 you’d be almost guaranteed to hit a problem of some sort, but it’s a game that’s certainly more than the sum of its parts.

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6/10
An enjoyable pirate adventure for those who can tolerate its innumerable flaws.
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