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Review: Risen

I started playing Risen without going through Gothic 3, but after first playing and finishing the first Gothic several years ago and then starting and giving up on Gothic II, both with and without the expansion, multiple times since. As such, I was probably more surprised by some features of Risen and less surprised by others compared to anyone who either played all of Piranha BytesGothic games or none of them… But I guess that could at most affect what I liked about the game, the reasons for annoyance probably being more or less the same either way.
However, I want to start by pointing out that the retail version of the game uses TAGES and, unlike Gothic 3, it has no official patch to remove it. I didn’t check this before buying it, so I’ve been feeling pretty bad about it ever since and strongly advise everyone against legally purchasing it unless or until they’ll remove this. It didn’t cause me any problems other than saying that I didn’t have the right disk in the drive once every five or six times I tried to start the game, which was fixed by simply starting it again, but I’m firmly against any such methods and don’t want to support anyone who uses them.

To move on to the actual game, the way Risen starts is exactly how the fans suggested that Gothic 3 should start, while also seeming to be somewhat similar to the start of the first Gothic, which I found to be a rather pleasant nod towards the fans of the series. I don’t know whether that was intentional or not, but it was the impression I got… Despite some elements being rather unrealistic, but that’s nothing compared to what’ll come in the latter stages of the game.
Still, what becomes obvious almost immediately after the start is that, much unlike the first two Gothic games, combat in Risen is actually manageable. That’s largely thanks to shields, which I see had first been introduced in Gothic 3, and the fact that you only use one button to attack and one to block, without having to struggle with combinations and leaving yourself exposed if you pressed the wrong key or even simply because of the character’s low skill level. Soon enough you’ll see that, given patience and a defensive and tactical approach, even characters who plan to become mages can make their way through the first chapter reasonably enough, so the previous rule that said that if you wanted to be a mage in a Gothic game you should be prepared to spend more time during the first chapter dying and reloading than actually playing no longer applies. Ashbeasts and ogres are out of your league at that point and ghouls will probably get you nine times out of ten, but anything else is manageable, though you may find yourself spending a good five minutes in a fight with a war cricket, for example.
On the other hand, this determination to only use two buttons to control your combat actions does make for some strange situations later, if you train your weapon skills and gain new abilities. If you’ll learn to charge your strikes, regular attacks will then require just a tap on the attack button, as if you hold it pressed for just a fraction of a second you’ll start charging your strike, so at first you’ll find yourself charging when you don’t mean to. And if you learn to counter-parry, you’ll also see that it requires just tapping the block button, as holding it pressed for just a fraction of a second will result in a regular block, therefore making an already difficult action even worse. And if you add the little fact that neither the text tips nor the game’s manual mention anything about dodging, you’ll see that they could have done far more for the combat after all. (In case you didn’t know, you dodge by either quickly tapping a movement key twice or by pressing and holding a movement key and then tapping the jump key. It only works if you’re not blocking at the time and if you choose the latter option you must make sure that you press the movement key first, because if you press the jump key first you’ll just hop around and give your opponent a free hit.)

The world itself seems really nice at first, and I’m not just talking about graphics here. The way it’s designed more or less makes sense, actually seeming reasonably realistic at first, and I actually really liked the break from fighting offered by the long time spent doing quests in Harbor Town during the first chapter. The factions are also presented quite reasonably (though nobody’ll accuse you of anything if you’ll be wondering for a moment if they weren’t just copied from Gothic II, for example, and only given new names), and most fights are actually quite enjoyable… Unless they’re against ghouls or, if you’re relying on melee, against brontocs, but that’s another matter.
What also must be noted is that, in good Gothic fashion, the world is very open, only a few areas not being accessible from the beginning. Thankfully, a lot of effort seems to have been put into making sure that taking advantage of this open world and completing quests before getting them or doing them completely out of order will not break the game, in some cases the dialogue actually flowing quite nicely even after such an event, showing that the scenario was fully covered, not just prevented from causing a crash.
Also in good Gothic fashion, there are no loading screens unless you teleport, which I assume means that the various areas are otherwise loaded in the background as you approach them, making for a seamless experience. However, this seamless experience from a technical point of view will become irrelevant when all the care and the realism that the game seemed to be based on at first will suddenly decide to go away at a later point. In fact, the realism takes a serious hit after you’ll do something in chapter two, which will have some rather dubious effects. That can still be waved away if you have otherwise enjoyed the ride until then, but the chapter’s end is nothing short of frustrating and most of chapter three pretty much requires suspension of disbelief while also including several frustrating moments of its own. In case you’re wondering, when I’m talking about frustrating moments I’m referring to the fights during which you’re not grouped with your allies, which can be up to twelve at one point, and you therefore stand to lose thousands of experience points unless you somehow manage to land the killing blows on everything, which will only add to the experience the game will always trick you out of when you level up, unless you’re extremely careful.
Perhaps strangely, I found that the game partially recovered in chapter four, providing some elements that at least made some sort of sense once again and a decent number of nice challenges, some of them quite unlike anything the game had thrown at me until then. The experience issue is also fixed, as you’ll actually be grouped with the ones who’ll fight alongside you in chapter four. There’s still a feeling of the game being rushed here and there, doing quests out of order or completing them before getting them will, as in chapter three, result in rather broken dialogue and even some confusion, and there’s at least one place where you will get stuck and need to return to an earlier save if you don’t do what the developers wanted you to, but overall it’s still a significant improvement.
Unfortunately, the very end is something of an anti-climax, appearing both rushed and out of place. One dialogue before it may or may not even take place and the final fight would seem more at home in a JRPG, not to mention that it’s awkward and I needed to check a guide to see what I actually had to do to win it. I was somewhat reminded of the end of Escape from Monkey Island, as I recall trying to win that fight the wrong way for well over an hour before giving in and checking a guide. Here the hour included several deaths, but the general idea of a fight that can only be won in a specific and counter-intuitive way is the same.

Otherwise, since I always play mages, I found it rather unpleasant that they’re not worth much in Risen. You can start from the fact that crystal magic doesn’t home in on the target and some projectiles can be rather slow, so hitting moving targets is close to impossible, but the main issue is that crystal magic can be used by warriors of the order as well and scrolls can be used by anyone, so all mages get are runes. However, using a rune requires its corresponding seal, which means a certain minimum wisdom and also five learning points spent for each, so 20 total, while using a scroll doesn’t have such requirements and only costs half the mana, but the effects are the same! So using runes means basically trading mana for money… And mana isn’t easy to raise either. I finished the game at level 30, with just 194 mana, and that was after playing as a mage!
At least wisdom isn’t trained in any of the usual ways, instead being raised by reading books and stone tablets, allowing you to save learning points and permanent effect potions for the combat skills and attributes you’ll need to get through chapters three and four, but it’s quite annoying that you need to do that. Then again, it’s probably the price to pay for the manageable chapter one. If in previous Gothic games mages had to get used to being killed by anything and everything at the start but knew that they’ll more or less just cruise through the end, now the difficulty is spread out more evenly… At least until you’ll give in, dump a bunch of learning points in a weapon skill, I’ll say most preferably sword, and make and drink as many strength potions as needed to pick up the best weapon you can find and just cleave your way through anything that dares to stand in your way, with your magic only there to back you up in the few moments when it may still be needed… By which point you’ll be wondering why didn’t you just do that from the beginning.

In the end, in most ways Risen is Gothic by another name. From what I know so far, in some ways it can even be said to be more like the first two Gothics than Gothic 3, and certainly far, far more of a Gothic game than Gothic 4. And that’s a rather good thing, especially since some of the issues that had previously plagued the series seem to have finally been resolved in this game, though character development is still tied to the faction you choose.
Unfortunately, game designers either ran out of ideas about halfway through or just got bored of it, and the entire team seems to have been too rushed to release the game to polish the last two chapters. So it starts as a good game, then drops everything, becomes frustrating and rather dubious before somewhat successfully trying to recover… Only to fall more or less flat at the very end.
Despite all that, I still enjoyed it and, while certainly not planning to buy it if they stick to TAGES or any other such methods, I am looking forward to playing Risen 2… But perhaps a part of the reason is also the nice voice-over you’ll hear at the very end of the credits, if you don’t skip them and pay attention. Let’s hope they’ll work it into the next game in the series somehow, though what little I heard so far would unfortunately seem to indicate otherwise.

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