Deep Silver – Risen review

new RPG from the developer of the Gothic series
Photo of Deep Silver – Risen

Risen developer Piranha Bytes is a name which is probably familiar to most role-playing fans as the architect of the Gothic series of games. And Risen is basically Gothic 4, except the moniker has been dropped because the publisher that Piranha Bytes split from, after the third Gothic, has retained rights to the name.

Risen simply couldn’t be any more Gothic if it tried. The game employs the same character progression, skill sets, spells, crafting mechanics, dark visual style and gritty realism, even the same arena combats with side-bets. In short, Risen will be as familiar to Gothic 3 addicts as The Lost Symbol is to The Da Vinci Code in the world of Dan Brown fans. (Take one capital city, one secret society, add three simple code puzzles, a police chase and an obvious twist, then stick it in the pot to boil).

There are differences, of course, even if they aren’t immediately obvious. Risen has been given a much tighter setting: this swords-and-sorcery drama is played out on a relatively small island, as opposed to a huge sprawling continent. A good choice, we think, as it cuts down on wandering around great swathes of sparse terrain (and it’s quite a saving on boot leather).

What makes it really interesting, however, is that like the Gothic series, this game isn’t afraid to have real characters: struggling merchants, cagey thieves, sociopaths who will make no bones about telling you to go fornicate with yourself. In a Scouse or Yorkshire accent, too, which is refreshingly different to the usual generic role-playing bumpkin voices. All these NPCs have some degree of grit and substance, some back story and depth of character. They aren’t merely paper-thin quest dispensers.

Speaking of which, the quests aren’t afraid to stray off the well-worn path of kill-and-collect tasks. Obviously there are some basic kill-and-collect tasks, but this RPG generally frames them imaginatively, and what’s more it also serves up branching quests with moral choices to be made. The decisions you make have an impact not only on your finances and level, but your standing with the game’s three factions.

These factions are the thuggish bandits, the mage’s guild and the fanatical Inquisition (hybrid warrior-mages), all of whom are trying to make sense of the weird events taking place on the island. The plot and relationship between factions is really well woven together, the odd inconsistency and rip in the veil of realism aside.

As an example of one such tear, we spent a lot of time early on at the bandit camp, where the sergeant gave us a quest to persuade a lazy guard to get to his post. Persuasion didn’t work – he told us to get stuffed – so we decided to break out the iron and teach him a lesson. One sound beating delivered, and he relented and headed out to his post.

Later in the game, however, we came across him at his station in the swamp and he acted as if we’d never met. Sometimes Risen requires you to suspend your disbelief, but these are the exceptions not the rule, and it’s quite easy to find yourself submerged in the game’s earthy world.

Of course, Gothic 3 had factions, a web of relationships and involving quests itself. It also had a rather annoying combat system, and it’s here that Risen makes another welcome change. Gone is the dull, repeated quick-slashing style we were forced to resort to in an attempt to beat some of Gothic 3′s stupidly tough foes.

Monster attacks are much better balanced with no overpowered nonsense, and while combat is still similar, it’s more tactical now. Blocking and counter-attacking works and must be mastered, as does the art of a well-timed sidestep and slash to an opponent’s flank. Combat is still tough, mind you, and the quicker a fighter can upgrade his strength and weapon, the better.

While Risen’s graphics aren’t very impressive – they’d be best described as reasonably atmospheric and passable – the game doesn’t suffer from any frame rate stuttering, another famous Gothic 3 bugbear. Some of the animations are still quite pants, though, particularly the approximation of jumping which resembles some sort of bizarre floating leap.

There’s certainly going to be a Hell of a lot of déjà vu felt by Gothic veterans, although fortunately there’s no repeat of the plethora of bugs Gothic 3 suffered from. There’s the odd glitch here and there, but otherwise Risen is a largely clean and bug-free experience. That’s probably another side-effect of the smaller game world, which was doubtless easier to polish up.

Company: Deep Silver

On the one hand, initially Risen seemed so similar to Gothic 3 that we were quite disappointed with Piranha Bytes for sticking so fast to the formula. However, as we progressed through the campaign, we began to appreciate the fact that some meaningful changes have been made. The much tighter world design and fine-tuned combat mechanics do make a difference, and Risen's tale is a suitably gritty and compelling affair.