In this age of austerity it’s tempting to hark back to the good old days. The Royals are enjoying a resurgence in popularity following the wedding of the definitely legitimate one to an attractive Muggle (it’s good for the gene pool). Nationalism is on the rise again; what could go wrong there? Risen 2 is cashing in on the trend with its pirate-RPG storyline, replete with Jolly Rogers, rum and cutlasses. Anyone seeking realism had best look elsewhere!
In a nutshell, Risen 2 pits you as a nameless colonial soldier who must go undercover, become a pirate and locate a fabled super weapon to destroy Titans which are roaming the earth and ravaging civilisation (I did warn you about the realism). The storyline follows on from its predecessor Risen where our same nameless hero battles and defeats one such Titan, before lapsing into self-pitying alcoholism as the rest of the world is reduced to rubble. Cue pirate drinking games, duels of honour, high jinks on the open sea... what could go wrong with this formula?
In truth, not much. Graphically it’s up there - not quite at Crysis levels, admittedly, but the foliage and water effects are impressive. Exploring the tropical locales is very pleasing to the eye; you’ll stumble on ancient ruins festooned in creeping vines and navigate shallow shoals as the sun sets on the horizon. Your environment changes with an active weather system and a day-night cycle. PC users had best update their GPU drivers to avoid potential desktop crashes, however.
The pirate theme itself is very fertile and Piranha Bytes have exploited this to good effect. There are a series of mini game distractions which work well on the whole. Drinking games involve snatching up mugs of rum, tipping them back to down them and then grabbing the next - with the screen becoming more blurred with each drink. Treasure maps can be bought (or stolen) and then used to unearth loot. Ore can be mined and then sold or used to craft items (including swords), and animals can be butchered to produce ingredients for voodoo potions. Lockpicking could be great - see Oblivion (hear that Bethesda? Someone liked it) - but instead boils down to randomly wiggling the pick back and forth.
The core game mechanics are more of a mixed bag. Combat is pretty repetitive at the start - sword fighting involves tedious back-and-forth exchanges until kicks, parries and ripostes are unlocked. Pistols can be used on a cooldown basis but muskets - only unlockable via a specific game class - are used with an over-the-shoulder view. The AI is easily fooled by stealth on some occasions (pickpocketing rarely fails) but is overattentive in others (you’ll get little warning you’re trespassing until an angry mob chases you off). Things get better once your character starts to develop, and you reach more advanced skills, but this only happens meaningfully at around six to ten hours in (depending on whether or not you like to stop and smell the roses).
Arguably the key aspect of the RPG - levelling - is also a mixed bag. You’ll develop your character by accumulating Glory points from completing quests and side missions. You can also accrue these by killing mobs and the assorted fauna of the tropical isles you explore including monkeys and, yes, turkeys (insert Bernard Matthews joke here). You have the choice of increasing your skill in five areas - swords, guns, toughness, cunning and voodoo. Hardened RPG players will at this point be nodding their heads and stroking their resplendent Gandalf beards, familiar with the class archetypes these categories denote. For those with LAGs (Lives and Girlfriends) these areas represent Tanks (damage-absorbers), DPS (damage-per-second, either melee or ranged), Thieves (stealing, sneaking, general mischievousness) and Mages (magic and spells, here in the form of voodoo).
Most RPGs work around these standard classes and Risen 2 is no different. You are not tied to any one particular class as you play so you can mix and match skills as you like (or change focus midway through the game). This approach is fine so long as the game mechanics account for all variations. For example, there is no point setting a mandatory quest which requires (for example) a very high lockpicking skill - but unfortunately this is exactly what Risen 2 does at the very start of the game.
Without going into too much tedious detail, lockpicking and pickpocketing are key to a very early mission of the game. These are both linked to the cunning class and if you have not put points here you will face a long grind of killing mobs to increase your Glory points until you do. Worse yet - if you do have this skill (as I did) but you lack the gold to buy the specific skills (lockpicking), you will face the same predicament - a long grind getting your pennies together to learn the skill.
Specific skills, you see, are bought from trainers. Some trainers specialise in one area whereas others have a range of skills and these are always linked to their characters. Bar wenches can teach you to be more persuasive; smiths how to craft swords. This is neat from a role-playing perspective but Risen 2 is so miserly with the gold needed in the first place that getting the funds to learn the skills is a real uphill struggle. This is an attempt to address the problem of in-game currencies that shower you with gold - removing all relevance of a currency in the first place - but it goes a bit too far. Choosing a skill becomes fraught with pitfalls and does not encourage experimentation. I want to curse people with voodoo dolls, but a monkey-thief will be so much better at tackling my debt crisis... so in fact, Risen 2 falls into the well worn trap of all in-game economies - and life itself; poor at the start and a grind to get going, then rich as Croesus at the end but with nothing to spend it on (OK, maybe just the first bit is lifelike).
So on two major counts Risen 2 falls short and a few other niggles exacerbate these problems. Opening the inventory during combat (to access all those potions you’ve lovingly made but can’t hotkey) automatically sheathes your weapon, which is frankly unforgivable. Quest markers on the map are sometimes hard to determine or missing. Tutorials are brief and vague. Most pertinently, you can’t explore “properly” a la Sid Meier’s Pirates! which is stifling when the beautiful horizon starts its siren call. This is a missed opportunity when the theme and narrative could have really promoted more freeform exploration. It’s true that even the most sandbox of games are structured around a narrative, but the true “greats” of this genre - like the Grand Theft Auto or Elder Scrolls franchises - definitely have a certain je ne sais quoi which Risen 2 lacks.
Risen 2 is by-the-by a solid game. It largely gets the basics right and brings a few extra goodies to set itself apart from the norm, but some will be too frustrated with the annoying design flaws to appreciate it. Although there are no great risks or innovations, there are no major flaws either. If you can forgive the little quirks and idiosyncrasies you’ll be rewarded with a generally humorous and entertaining experience - if only there was no “if” at the start of the sentence.... who knows what Risen 2 could have been?