Ryse: Son of Rome has been a bit of an oddball from the very beginning. Initially a Kinect-only 360 title, moved across to the Xbox One launch, completely revamped control systems, a less than stellar E3 showing and some truly appalling PR messaging has all added up to people not really knowing what to expect. Well, let’s put this to bed right here and now, Ryse is the perfect launch day title, completely and absolutely style over substance with very little in the way of actual gameplay but for the masses who have looked at their PC counterparts in envy for a few years, style over substance will do quite nicely thank you very much.
Graphically stunning, running at 900p and at a steady 30 fps and very much making a mockery of the fanboy arguments that have littered the web in the run up to the launch of both the Xbox One and the Playstation 4. Ryse contains jaw dropping vistas, utterly gruesome slow motion combat and arguably the best facial animations seen on any console to date. Sadly as alluded to earlier for all of its “oh..my...god” moments there isn’t a lot to make you want to play Ryse, well, at least not in long sessions and absolutely not a second playthrough but that’s not why you are buying Ryse. Go play God of War 3 if you want an awesome genre title, you are putting Ryse in your Xbox One as a showcase...look what this boring and rather large black box can do!
The key problem of course is the game’s reliance on its combat system, which is adequate at best and has been outshone time and time again on far lesser platforms. This is not helped by the fact that as mentioned it was originally meant to be a Kinect game and that is really obvious throughout some areas of the game, laughably so. It’s so clear to see the on-rails nature of certain sections it becomes painful and even though you now use the controller for everything, it’s clear that it wasn’t designed for this. There are many, many moments that make you feel a tad awkward, particularly when the camera pans to an angle it was never meant to be at, thus making the resulting action look odd, peering through half a nicely rendered wall. To its credit the game tries a tiny bit to make you feel like it’s not completely on-rails by presenting to you some token collectibles. Sadly these collectibles are hidden in what appear to be tacked on side areas, a blatant attempt at non-linearity, which in itself fails but is compounded by the collection of them being completely pointless. There is no bonus in collecting them other than the usual cheev whoring we all know and love.
So...we have a simple, straightforward hack and slash adventure which utilises three to four buttons for the entire duration of a short five hour campaign but, and this is so important, it looks drop dead gorgeous - an adequate enough summary but we shall continue with more detail. Such simplistic gameplay further highlights how this was never meant to be a true God of War type hack and slasher, Kinect would never be able to handle such movement and who the hell would want to pretend to be a warrior in their lounge - well maybe a guy you know named Brad who has huge guns and loves himself but hardcore gamers with a day one Xbox One, no chance.
Utilising the joypad for all combat feels completely tacked on and overly simplistic, mainly as it was and it is, but the saviour amongst all of this, stopping the game from becoming the laughing stock (see Fighter Within review due soon) is the execution system. Containing enough finishing moves to make a Mortal Kombat game raise an eyebrow, with even more to be unlocked as you progress, the sheer beauty of the pseudo quick-time event carnage is a delight. These executions are so good, so varied and so downright amazing to look at you will find yourself continually shouting at your Xbox One “WOW RECORD THAT” and luckily through the power of Kinect it picks up on the part it understands (ignoring the wow), recording you ripping to shreds three barbarian warriors in a slow motion ballet-like action sequence and ignoring your rampant bad language.
The story that holds the adventure together is a mixed bag, not helped by a peculiar sound mix which we encountered on our playthrough, increasing the volume on random background noise to the point where the story exposition from a key character was not audible. You play as Marius Titus, a hero of the Roman elite, scared by the tragic murders of his family, detailing his Ryse (nice) through the Roman ranks and subsequent descent into darkness when the truth is revealed. It’s Gladiator basically, with some Roman god cameos and less Russell Crowe. It will all wash over you as you will likely have seen such movies as Gladiator and whilst the acting is solid, the script doesn’t engage enough for you to pay much attention and by the end only serves to get in the way of you trying out your newly acquired execution techniques.
On this very subject, you begin with a series of straightforward executions, actioned when an opponent is in a stunned state, a simple button press triggers a quick time event which contains multiple random parts. The opponent flashes the colour of the button that needs to be pressed and this time varies depending on the size and skill of the opponent. This is where the Xbox One flexes its muscles and if anything will make any owners mind boggle at what they might be able to do visually with this kit in say five or six years - the screen drips with detail and it would not come as any surprise if a loved one walked by saying “what film you watching?”
Upgrading these executions is done using some of the rather rudimentary levelling systems in place. To vary combat a little you can utilise the D-pad to select whether killing an enemy will net you health, more xp, enhanced damage or boost your focus meter. What is disappointing is you can totally balls up every quick time event and none will fail, none - all that will happen is that your score/xp accumulator will be less than if you’d executed it perfectly. Some more casual gamers may like this but it’s unlikely to go down well with the day one crowd, removing absolutely any sense of difficulty from such a central focal part of the experience.
The disappointment doesn’t end there as somehow even though the game’s main campaign only lasts for five hours, six hours tops if you collect all the token random collectibles, amazingly you will likely be bored by the end. Should you wish to you can play and complete Ryse in one sitting, however this is not what it is there for - it exists solely to show off the Xbox One’s visual capabilities and this it does in spades. Played in short sessions any sense of boredom isn’t allowed to manifest and this really is the only way to experience Ryse.
Yes it screams “I used to be a Kinect game”, yes it’s limited in story as well as combat and yes, you’ve played many, many games like this previously, better games with more systems and gameplay but...but...crucially, Ryse: Son of Rome looks breathtaking. The perfect launch game, doing nothing new, arguably less so than current gen games but adequately showing off the new hardware - think of it as a tech demo with quick time event executions and you will not be disappointed.