The world is divided into two camps: those who like to speak like a pirate and those deluded chaps who prefer sneaking as though they were ninjas. The former is obviously the correct choice that all hearty sea dogs should chose, leaving the land lubbers that are fond of tight fitting black suits to never know the joy of a good sea shanty or the wonders of ham night.
Piranha Bytes understands this joy and returns with a sequel to 2009’s swashbuckling adventure with a more piratical focus. Within minutes of the start your nameless character has thrown away the eloquent uniform and privileges he’s earned through service with the Inquisition to don a tricorn and begin whittling a replacement leg. He may be undercover to thwart the threat of titans but this new avenue for adventure opens up a colourful world for the designers to plunder.
This isn’t your usual set of Caribbean islands, either. Though pirates and imperial forces may inhabit the numerous islands dotted around your sea chart, it’s very much a world of magic and fantasy. Rowing boat sized crabs roam the beach, ghouls hide in caves and huge sea monsters lie in wait to tug naïve boats under to a watery grave. With the ultimate aim being that you find a weapon to destroy this kraken, our hero wanders the islands, finding allies, sharing in adventures and turning himself from a cabin boy to a feared and legendary captain.
But to do so, the first task is gaining the pirates’ trust. From the very first island you land upon it’s all about cosying up to your new friends, helping them escape from jail and seeing off a giant termite invasion. Once on speaking terms your involvement opens up, sorting out supplies, searching for treasure and overthrowing rival captains.
Most of these tasks are found out through talking to the locals, with each island having one or two little villages. There gunsmiths and general deckhands will happily talk to you and reveal titbits about island life, passing on any quests they have – but chat is very little more than perfunctory. Once in a while someone you meet might spin an interesting yarn filling in a backstory or expanding on the lore of the titans but quickly you realise only a handful of main characters are worth listening to. Everyone else falls into the categories of being pickpocket targets, salesmen or skip-text-until-I-give-you-a-quest givers. The shame is that the dialogue that was given the attention seems to have a good humour and substance about it.
As with the villagers, the quests also vary wildly in substance. At times where you’ve your captain and ship’s hand by your side and wading in to kill giant lizards, it feels like a proper Saturday matinee as blades are flying and the three of you set to storm the stronghold, or my personal favourite: following orienteering symbols placed by a scout to find out his whereabouts, which showed a lovely change of pace. At those points, when you’re handed motive and direction, Risen 2 does flow nicely as you push proceedings onward, though in equal measures there are stilted and vague tasks that can lead you wandering in circles scratching your head as to what you have to achieve let alone how.
At such points the linearity of the adventure becomes very apparent. For all the lush and wide expanse of environment you can explore through on each island, you realise just how narrowly progression is funnelled. It’s a similar setup to last month’s Witcher 2 but there you never felt quite so enclosed because of the richness of the world. Here the villages never feel alive and the great expanses between homesteads are rarely filled with anything more interesting that the odd pack of boar. Key points take place in only a few areas and the rest of the island seems wasted given the effort obviously put in to creating such a tableaux for your adventure to unfold against.
If this is sounding harsh then it is possibly overly so. I did enjoy and lap up the chance to wander through a pirate’s life, battling giant crabs and making peace with the natives who previously had thrown spears at me. The shortcomings of the quests and conversations were ultimately only tiny drawbacks that just took the shine off an otherwise involving experience. This is all however, heavily tainted by my character’s ability with a cutlass.
Being a pirate adventure game, a lot hinges on its ability to portray and execute on swashbuckling. Although rather than excel and allow us to feel as though we can live out Hollywood moments of dancing along the deck with blades flashing in a deadly dance before us, Risen 2 descends into a mix of random chance and rapid mouse clicks. There seems little skill and no finesse at all, as although you’re able to kick opposing duellists away and parry neither seemingly make a difference. They’ll block the majority of your strokes and kicking seems incapable of breaking them out of their own swing, leaving you even more vulnerable. Early on I thought it was because my character was underpowered or inexperienced, but after over a dozen hours to get used to my sabre, I still dread combat.
Success with a sword appears to come down to a number of factors: firstly, hoping you catch them in a recoil animation so you can swing again without reprisal; next, keep enough health potions to hand so you can out last your foe; or finally, hope you’re with a party and let them kick his arse for you. It’s a sorry state to be in and ultimately one that caused more than one or two pounds of the desk in sheer frustration.
Regardless, there are a lot of redeeming factors to this digital journey on the high seas. From the beautifully created islands to the various factions you meet on each of them, there is a core to the world that is worth persevering with. Yet it’s a slow burner: an RPG that on the face of it has a lot of potential and ticks a lot of boxes, but just fails to push on to reach the heights of its fantasy brethren we’ve been so spoiled with recently.
Nevertheless, we return to the combat. Everything you do on the adventure relies on the sword in your hand, and when it’s as unreliable and frustrating as any combat mechanic I have ever come across, Risen 2 is hard to recommend.