Risen 2: Dark Waters - Staff Review  

Yarrr, She's Alright
by Adriaan den Ouden

Click here for game information
20-40 Hours
+ Entertaining story with terrific atmosphere.
+ Fantastic voicework.
+ Impressively realized setting.
- Lots of technical issues.
- Lame combat system.
- Shaky game balance.
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   Why aren't there more RPGs about pirates?

   This is a serious question. Where the heck are they? Apart from the JRPG obsession with all things sky piratey, and the occasional free to play MMO, pirates are relegated to being either miscellaneous enemies or perhaps a class role in a fantasy dungeon crawler. What gives? One would think that with the impact Pirates of the Caribbean had on popular culture that the world would be brimming with them, but there's nary a scurvy dog to be found. Risen 2: Dark Waters tries to alleviate that. Not only is it an RPG about pirates, it's an RPG that does pirates really, really well.

   Risen 2 takes place some time after Risen, and stars a nameless lieutenant in the Inquisition Army, stationed in Caldera. He's given a special assignment by the Inquisition: to go undercover as a pirate and find the infamous Captain Steelbeard, a dangerous cutthroat who may have information about the legendary Titan artifacts. These artifacts are rumored to be capable of defeating the sea witch Mara, who has been plaguing the Southern seas. In the process, the lieutenant finds himself not only becoming a real pirate, but a pirate captain, and sets out to put an end to Mara himself.

   While the plot of Risen 2 feels like a classical nautical legend, it's the world that really makes the game feel right. Everything about it has been carefully constructed to create a fantasy version of the Caribbean colonies of the 16th and 17th centuries. The game takes place on a series of tropical islands and coastal settlements, and in each one you can encounter Inquisition outposts, native tribespeople, and pirate bastions. Little details like the Inquisition keeping slaves, the natives practicing (and even teaching) voodoo, and even the simple combat system involving rapiers, sabres, muskets, and single-shot pistols all help bring out the game's atmosphere. Risen 2 puts the player into the shoes of a pirate and makes him believe it.

   Unfortunately, while Risen 2 oozes atmosphere from every orifice, it's not without its problems. Its gameplay is rigid and technical problems persist continually throughout the experience. The combat is one of the worst offenders, consisting of bland one-button swordplay and secondary attacks that don't always respond to key presses. Players can launch sword combos with their main hand, and the same attack button can also be held down to parry. Getting parry to actually trigger is another matter entirely, and figuring out the timing is quite frustrating. In the off hand, players can equip a wide range of tools and special attacks that can be used every once in a while, depending on cooldowns. These can be something basic like a pistol or throwing knife, dirty tricks like throwing sand in an opponent's face, or even special voodoo abilities.

I'm saaaaaailing away.  Set an open course for the virgin sea! I'm saaaaaailing away. Set an open course for the virgin sea!

   Early in the game, players will have to make a choice between siding with the Inquisition or a native tribe, and this decision determines whether players will be able to learn voodoo skills or acquire musket weapons and training, and this will naturally affect their playstyle. The musket in particular is rather useful, as not only can it replace the sword as a primary weapon, but it's far more effective and easier to wield in battle. Voodoo, on the other hand, offers up more versatility in the player's seconday aresenal, so there's definitely a tradeoff involved.

   Outside of combat, Risen 2 is infinitely more enjoyable. Players will have the opportunity to explore a half dozen different locations, each with its own secrets to uncover. There are treasure maps to discover (which naturally lead to buried treasure), ancient ruins to delve into, legendary artifacts to reclaim, and a colossal number of quests, most of which have several different methods to complete them. The NPCs players interact with are great, ranging from drunken, slurring pirates to stodgy merchants. Players can also recruit a number of characters to their ship's crew, and some of these are particularly entertaining. From your sarcastic helmsman Patty to the constantly cursing, pidgin-speaking gnome Jaffar, there's plenty of flavor to be found within the game's writing.

   The character progression system is also quite intriguing, though lacking in the options seen in some other major RPG franchises. Players can invest glory points, earned by killing enemies and completing quests, in five main statistics: blades, firearms, toughness, cunning, and voodoo. Each of these statistics affects three other talents, which in turn affect a player's ability to use various skills in and out of combat. As a character's statistics improve, players can pay the trainers located throughout the game world to teach them special, related skills. While it unfortunately doesn't offer a wide variety of different character builds, it does let players experiment more than most other systems, which is a good thing. That said, in the early game in particular, the game balance is shot to hell. Combat is much harder in the beginning before players acquire stronger gear and better talent values, and learning new skills costs a small fortune, which is much harder to acquire early on than later. In many cases, level one skills cost exactly the same amount of gold as level six or even level ten skills.

And that's how Captain Steelbeard became Captain Hook. And that's how Captain Steelbeard became Captain Hook.

   One of Risen 2's biggest problems is its myriad technical issues that crop up repeatedly and regularly. These issues include texture-popping, flickering shadows, unresponsive buttons, and for some reason, amorphic ferns. This last one is really bizarre; in almost every case, the low-polygon, long-distance version of an environmental model is a different size and shape than the high-polygon, close-up version, and the result is that the game morphs one into the other as you approach, leading to trees that literally change their shape as you move. None of these issues really affect the gameplay, but they are highly distracting. Apart from these issues, Risen 2 is a fairly attractive game. The locations are vivid and detailed, and the characters are all diversely designed. The animations could use a bit of work, but they're not too bad.

   The game's audio is of much higher quality. The voicework is impeccable, drawing on the talents of dozens of different actors to play the various characters players will meet over the course of the journey. Of all the aspects of Risen 2 that help to draw players into the world, the voicework is probably the most important. The characters sound and talk like pirates, or natives, or Inquisition soldiers. The accents and the dialogue are spot on. Even the music is very good. Consisting mostly of gentle, melodic string pieces, it bears a striking resemblance to some of the songs heard in Diablo 2.

   Risen 2 is a hard game to judge, because its overall quality depends entirely on what you're looking for in a video game. As an actual game, Risen 2 is mediocre. The gameplay is primitive and the technical problems alone are more than enough to recommend shying away from it. However, as an experience, Risen 2 is highly entertaining. Players willing to overlook the issues with the gameplay will find themselves sucked into a sweeping, high-seas adventure that's rare for the RPG genre.

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