An open world RPG that puts you in the boots of a pirate. It’s a sweet high-concept idea, so much so that it’s a surprise to see that Piranha Bytes is the first one to crack it in the newly released Risen 2: Dark Waters. A sequel to the 2009 release, Dark Waters captures the same basic feel of the previous game — which itself felt like a continuation of the concepts first established in the developer’s Gothic series — in an entirely new high seas setting, marked by tropical environments and crusty port towns filled with ruffians and rapscallions of every salty flavor.
But is it any good?
Game of the… Yarrr?
Risen 2 picks up after the events of the first game, with players taking on the role of the same nameless hero as last time. It’s been a rough stretch of time for him since we last saw him. He’s developed a taste for booze. Lots of booze. The game opens on the port city of Caldera, where you’re serving as a member of the Inquisitors. Sea monsters have been causing lots of trouble for merchant ships and you’re sent off to go undercover with pirates as you search for Steelbeard, who is said to have a way to turn the tide (no pun intended).
You don’t need any real knowledge of the previous game to step into Risen 2 and figure out what’s going on quickly enough. It does a decent job of laying out the situation and revealing the facts of the world around you in its opening section. From a narrative perspective at least. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for how the mechanics of play are introduced.
The prologue serves as a sort of tutorial, but it’s a very light one. You’ll learn how to move, how to draw and swing your sword, and how to interact with objects, but Dark Waters really doesn’t go out of its way to educate you on any of its more complicated elements. Which is a shame, since resources early on in the game are very tough to come by. If you make a few bad choices early on, you’re essentially stuck struggling to catch up for the next bunch of hours. This is definitely one of those games that you’ll want to fire up, play for a few hours until you get the hang of it, and then take a mulligan and start the whole thing over again.
Leveling up in Risen 2 is an overly complex process that involves earning Glory (experience points) and spending it to boost one of your main stats, like Toughness or Cunning. The higher a particular stat is, the better the skills you’ll be able to get in that category. For those, however, you’ll need gold. A lot of it. And you’ll need to know where the different trainers are; the world is filled with them, but the assortment of skills that each person can teach you, even within the same core skill category, isn’t always the same.
Compounding this challenge is the basic fact that your hero is pretty useless early on. His time spent at with a bottle of booze in his hand apparently robbed him of any talents that were picked up in his previous adventure. When the game begins, you have three basic skills to work with: you can swing a sword, you can pick things up, and you can talk to people. Everything else you’ll need to spend a considerable amount of gold on, whether it’s lock picking or sneaking or parrying or healing or… well… yeah. You get the picture.
This leaves you with few options starting out. You can develop your combat skills, a wise choice considering the steep difficulty that you’re often faced with, but that will come at the cost of other, more pirate-friendly skills that would enable you to earn more gold toward additional skills. It’s always a balancing act in Risen 2‘s leveling system, but the early section of the game drops you into a merciless grind until you’ve found your footing.
Even once you’ve leveled up a bit, the combat is always a problem. While later skill unlocks and things like ranged weapons add some nuance, it essentially just boils down to mindless button-mashing. This would be more manageable if the difficulty weren’t so uneven. Grinding your way along on the first island with wild boars and monkeys is simple enough… until you wander into a cave and get demolished by a giant spider. Or come across a gang of escaped, crazed slaves in the jungle who skewer you with spears.
It’s not a matter of skill here; you’ll frequently find yourself running in circles around enemies as you wait for your health to slowly refill. It’s uneven. Combat in a video game like this is supposed to be fun, but it only rarely feels that way in Risen 2.
In addition to the mechanical shortfalls, the presentation doesn’t feel entirely baked. The game isn’t prone to crashing or anything, but visual glitchery is a semi-frequent occurrence. The lush island environments and indoor/underground locations that you visit all paint the picture of a varied, well-developed world, but the actual textures aren’t always so nice to look at.
This is especially true for the people you meet; animations feel stilted and robotic, canned. The voice acting is fine, but the actual script feels thin. There’s nothing better for shattering your sense of immersion than hearing the same two characters repeat the same few lines of dialogue every time you walk past them until you’re able to move into the next section of the lengthy quest that they’re linked to. This happens in Risen 2.
The Pirate’s Life
In spite of all of those shortcomings, I found myself frequently entertained as I played through Risen 2. In some ways, it reminds me of an Elder Scrolls game played from a third-person perspective. Bethesda’s open world RPGs are very engaging in spite of various technical shortcomings. Risen 2 isn’t exactly on the level with Skyrim, and its open world is much more restricted, but the sensation of having fun with a game that is in some ways broken ties the two together.
A big source of the fun that I had playing Risen 2 is its treatment of the pirate myth. If there’s a trope, it finds its way into the game somehow. You’ll dig up buried treasure by finding marked X spots (after you obtain the necessary treasure map, of course). You drink Grog like it’s a health potion, because it is. You’ll eventually put together a crew and then choose mateys to accompany you on trips to the shore. You’ll even get to train a thieving monkey and an attack parrot.
For fans of pirate fiction, you’re left with the feeling that your childhood fun and games are being brought to life. Risen 2 may fall short in some ways, but in perfectly nails the feeling of dropping you into your very own swashbuckling pirate fantasy. Sure, you might spend a few hours grinding your way through pack after pack of wild boar for their +50 Glory boost, but you’ll be doing it in a lush jungle environment, decked out in pirate gear with a bottle of Grog in your hand.
For some people, that’s going to be more than enough. For me it was. Despite any flaws, Risen 2 captures its subject perfectly. It’s got heart. That usually isn’t enough to save a lousy video game, but in this case it is. Or it was for me. I think the ability to appreciate the experience stems from two things: your fondness for pirate lore and your tolerance for bad design. If you’re big on the former and patient enough to deal with the latter, then Risen 2 is an experience that you won’t want to miss.
Score: 7.5 out of 10
(This game was reviewed on the PC on a copy provided by Deep Silver)