Risen Review (Switch)
Release Date: January 24, 2023
File Size: 5.0GB
Publisher: THQ Nordic
Click here to view on the Nintendo eShop.
I’ll be honest, I came into RPGs as a genre via the Japanese offerings. As a youth of the 90s, their bright colors and fantasy worlds were the perfect gateway into role-based gameplay. I always looked at the high fantasy roots of Western RPGs with a bit of a curiosity, but never wanted to engage with them much. That much has remained the same even up until now. So, why am I reviewing this title?
Risen is the first installment in a trilogy of games from Piranha Bytes, also known for their work on the Gothic series of games. This first entry is set upon an open-world island and allows for an impressive amount of player agency. It is arguably the first Western RPG where everything has clicked, for me. I get how this open-ended narrative design works, and I am keen on exploring it more thoroughly. Of course, if Risen doesn’t necessarily sell all that spectacularly, it’s unlikely that THQ Nordic will bring its more-linear sequel and extremely open-ended third installment to the Switch, so it would be in my best interest to try to sell you on the experience.
As a reviewer, however, I have to acknowledge that, despite my immense enjoyment of Risen, the game is not without its flaws, many of which will prove irritating to more modern audiences. There are other issues that impact the playability and enjoyment of the game, as well, and I’ll strive to cover all of them throughout this review.
Risen allows players to take on the role of a nameless hero who finds himself shipwrecked on Faranga, a vaguely tropic island. With no ties to any of the denizens or individuals pursuing them from the mainland, the player is free to create a new identity for this hero as they explore the island. If they hope to carve a future of their own design, however, they’ll need to gather as much information from others as they possibly can. The generally trustful island population is willing to share their thoughts on a number of subjects, and are almost always looking for participants in their schemes. If you talk to the right people, you’ll be able to avoid, manipulate, and play the odds so that many quests are completed in your favor.
You’ll use your dual control sticks to move throughout the world and orient your character’s point of view, which will snap to the nearest enemy or NPC in your field of vision and reach, though this can be circumvented/repositioned with a bit of deliberate and gentle guidance by the Right stick. The A Button is your interactive input, as it will pick up most small objects, engage NPCs in conversation, and activate attack animations when your weapon is drawn. You can equip a melee and ranged weapon simultaneously and draw them with the L and R bumpers, respectively, so there’s no need to worry about accidentally attacking an NPC.
Some control oddities exist outside of these basic commands, as you’ll pull up your four essential menus- inventory, quests, character stats, and your maps- via the D-Pad. You can execute quick dodges in combat with the X Button, or defend against attacks by holding the B Button. Apparently, pressing block at the right time during combat can trigger a parry animation for some weapon types, but this is largely based on your weapon skill level. Pressing the Right stick will activate a jump that can be used to cover long distances or climb on to medium-height surfaces.
You’ll spend the majority of your playthrough navigating particular quest lines and exploring Faranga, which will take equal parts negotiation and combat prowess. There are many types of weapons and spells that the player can learn, though your decisions in the narrative will more than likely prevent you from gaining access to higher-level abilities. There are three “routes” the player might find themselves set upon: the resistance efforts of Don Esteban, the machinations of the Warriors of the Order, or the teachings of the Monastery and its mages. Though the player might be aligned with a particular group, they can take advantage of the many tutors that help build skill points situated across the island. Depending on how you complete quests, however, some of these tutors might refuse to teach the player their knowledge, so it is important to find the right teacher for the stats you are building and the weapons you want to use.
There are a number of subsystems and skills that the player can invest time into, such as lockpicking, smithing, and alchemy, though these have varying levels of input complexity. For example, possessing the right recipes is essential for alchemic potion-brewing, but lockpicking will require an item to open chests and the completion of a simple prompt. Still, the myriad interactions the player can have with the game world and its elements is very impressive, and well-worth exploring in full.
It is essential to remember that tutoring, skill acquisition, and generally any goal worth accomplishing will often require a bit of coin, so being able to trade resources in order to keep your wallet full is an essential element of the game. Pickpocketing NPCs might prove valuable in the short term, but it negatively impacts your ability to interact with and take quests from them until you find the proper, magical means of repairing your relationship.
If you were to tell me that Risen was released in the same year as Uncharted, Arkham Asylum, or even Resident Evil 5, I would have been… somewhat shocked, honestly. Risen is not an aesthetically clean game, in any respect. No matter what any of the included screenshots imply, the game rarely looks as good as it does in these stills. Lighting is often garish and makes things incredibly difficult to parse, especially when navigating interior corridors. Character models do possess variety, but too soon you’ll start to see the same assets pasted onto individuals that are actually pretty close to one another.
The game was lauded upon release for its facial animations, which… are certainly present, though not anything incredible. There’s a very specific set of canned animations that all characters will use to telegraph their feelings and intentions, and after about five or six hours, you’ll feel like you’ve seen them all. However, much of this can be excused by the game’s age: you need look no further than the in-game foliage and bushes, which rotate in sync with the camera movement in an inelegant manner. This game did have merit at the time of its release, though hindsight does it no favors.
What is good about Risen? Well, there’s a staggering amount of voice acting in this game, and while it is occasionally spotty, there’s plenty of character and variety present. Considering how much variety exists in the dialogue paths, there’s plenty to be commended. The sound design also does well to communicate the impressive variety of weapons, enemy types, and effects that exist in the game. The amount of enemy types and their unique animations is neat, too, with a nice mixture of standard, high fantasy critters like wolves and skeletons, as well as a number of unique interpretations, as well, such as the game’s imps, ogres, and goblins.
The music in the game heavily utilizes leitmotifs, with instrumentation that changes when entering into different biomes. While I love a good musical theme, you’ll spend a good amount of time in the same area listening to the same music track, which does change when you engage in combat, but that shouldn’t be the result of an occasionally grating soundtrack. Because Risen is an older, open-world title, you’ll likely be stuck listening to a particular track for an extended period of time even when traveling, as you will have to hoof it from one area to the next on foot.
This is where the meat and potatoes of Risen lies, and if you’re looking for a strong and complex world and scenario building, the game does not disappoint. Your smarmy nameless hero might have limited dialogue options, but there’s plenty of ways to approach a variety of tasks and topics you’ll encounter across Faranga. Sometimes, it’s simply a matter of gathering the right information from other characters that will result in a favorable outcome or new dialogue option, but many scenarios can be triggered through action. Either way, there are plenty of neat details to uncover about this mysterious island, and a number of fun interactions to be had.
The main narrative and the characters you’ll meet in order to complete it are a colorful lot, and the plot itself draws from a mixture of political intrigue and ancient magicks, resulting in a tale that is equal parts grounded and human as much as it is arcane and maniacal. Though you’ll need to do some consistent dungeon crawling and combat in order to get at the heart of things, the game does convincingly sell the notion of becoming stronger and tackling more intense challenges. It also helps that getting better armor is a landmark progression point, allowing the player to feel more comfortable with taking on the island. While the game’s solitary nature and its outside protagonist never really establishes many extremely close bonds with characters, it does speak to the rough lifestyle the player must adopt if they wish to find success on the island. Risen might not present the most unique plot or narrative, it sells its premise with its fun dialogue and an eclectic number of main and side narrative objectives.
Impressions and Conclusion
Unfortunately, little was done to update Risen for a more modern audience, which means its questionable combat, inscrutable tutorials and user interface, and performance issues remain. Text is actually more difficult when playing docked than in handheld, but handheld faces more consistent framerate drops, on the whole. There’s plenty of pop-in and general ugliness to be found, which does speak to the game’s origins.
As much as I hate to admit it, I also found myself saving far too frequently, as I would often die in spectacular ways, or be robbed of vital resources when trying to pick a fight in town. But death often means having to reload a save and repeat conversations that you’ve already heard in full, or reselecting choices you already made. However, I made myself a promise that I wouldn’t save-scum my way out of major narrative decisions, which meant accidentally killing a townsperson was just something I had to live with. That was my first taste at what this role-playing with consequence could offer, and it was an eye-opening experience for me. For anyone with experience with Western- or even just a bit more open-choice RPGs, this might seem like an obvious or bland observation, but it has colored my experience with the game significantly.
What also severely colors my opinion is how abysmal the combat can be. Essentially, this system feels like an imperfect attempt at integrating simplistic, Zelda-esque encounters into an RPG, except there is little to no accounting for encountering more than one enemy at a time. If you aren’t careful and don’t clear out enemies during each narrative chapter, they actually don’t vanish or scale with the start of a new one- they remain on the map in addition to the new enemies. Making sure you’re aware of this fact is one thing, but it doesn’t make fighting multiple enemies any easier.
If you attempt to engage enemies at range, you will aggro all enemies nearby. If you draw a single enemy away from a crowd, you can still risk death due to just how awful it feels to dodge, block, and attack enemies. The enemy side-step is so vastly superior to the player’s own, and it feels as if the enemy AI is able to read player inputs and predict the proper reactions. Reacting to enemy attacks is possible, but never feels certain. Taking the entire experience slowly and healing in the most economical fashion possible in between fights is the most efficient means of progression, which does sell the idea that your character is very fragile, but it doesn’t make for a fun title. Also, trapping enemies in corners and exploiting their AI is one of the best ways to ensure success, but that also doesn’t feel all that rewarding.
As we near the end of this review, I have to ask whether or not Risen deserves to be on your Nintendo Switch, dear reader. The thing is, I actually quite like this game, flaws and all. I also think it would be a shame to forget games like Risen, especially when the ability to choose your character attributes and interactions so freely is something that many modern games take for granted. There’s a lot to enjoy about the character writing and tantalizing lore of the game, and to be honest, the open world does allow for some really fun, lengthy exploratory sequences- if you play your cards right and use save-states effectively.
I just can’t bring myself to give Risen a “bad” rating! There are too many kernels of good ideas here. If you’re looking for something very different from what is presently on the RPG market, and you can stomach the imperfections of older game releases, Risen is more than just okay- it’s very fun. But that’s as strong as my praise is going to get.