German developer Piranha Bytes gathered a cult following with their now decade-old RPG series, Gothic. Although they were a tad unpolished, they delivered a unique experience - a distinctive world, with colourful characters, while avoiding popular fantasy cliches and gimmicks. The third installment in that series was over-ambitious and underwhelming in result, and departed from the template of the first two. In 2009, now under a new publisher, PB released Risen - an RPG vowing to give their fans the same delights as the original Gothic games. It was a fair success, so they began working on a sequel, which came out a little over a month ago.
Unlike its predecessor, Risen 2 is wholly based on pirate trademarks. There were pirate references in the first, but now they've taken the whole game into that sphere. It's not a bad thing, of course. The industry severely lacks pirate games in recent years, and it's a fact that few stereotypes in popular culture are as attractive as pirates. One might see this as a sellout, but, in reality, it only adds more personality to the world of Risen. The first had a certain mystery about it (true to Gothic's legacy), but its characters were forgettable and bland.
The game begins in a majestic place called the Crystal Fortress, a stronghold of the Inquisition. The nameless protagonist is shown in a derelict state. He's taken to drinking rum all day, and now sports an eyepatch (unsurprisingly). We learn that the world is being threatened by two warring titans, who have set the island to flames. A third villain, the sea goddess called Mara, commands a dangerous creature called the Kraken, which prevents the Inquisition's ships from crossing the ocean. Only a powerful artefact can help them defend against the Kraken, which is in the possession of the pirate, captain Steelbeard (those who played Risen have surely heard of him). The hero joins forces with Patty, Steelbeard's daughter (who we also know from the first game), and sets off to find Steelbeard, his artefact and his treasure.
As you might have noticed by now, the premise is unremarkable. But once you've reached the first pirate encampment and meet captain Steelbeard himself, the game picks up the pace, and gives you more motivation to see it through. The pirates are suitably drunken, boastful and treacherous. The quests they give you might not all involve epic journeys, but the little details (such as the argument between two pirates, concerning who should be carrying the water) make it truly immersive.
It's not all pirates, of course. The Inquisition will also have you running errands for them, for suitable rewards, the most substantial of which is musket training - guns have been invented, and are now widespread. This time around, unlike in past PB games, you don't have to choose a full-time faction to join (such as the Militia, Mercenaries and Mages in Gothic 2, or the Inquisition and the Don in Risen). Whether you like it or not, you're a pirate, albeit a more mild-mannered one than your colleagues. Instead, at some point you're asked to choose between helping the Inquisition, and siding with the native inhabitants of the jungles you explore.
The natives offer a refreshing change from swashbuckling piracy. Aside from the expected running gags, such as the language barrier between them and the hero, they also provide with the magical aspect of the game, which comes in the form of voodoo. The greatest voodoo power enables the user to take control of another person, using a doll. Evidently, this provides for a few amusing and interesting quests - at one point, you take control of an Inquisition commander and start issuing orders on his behalf.
Muskets and voodoo aside, the sword remains the main weapon of the game. There are no two-handed weapons, maces, axes, or anything of that sort (not viable ones, anyway). You also have dirty tricks at your disposal, the most common of which is the pistol (which you can fire mid-combat), but you can also throw coconuts to daze your enemy, or dust to blind them. The combat itself is typical hack'n'slash, though the rhythm and the abilities you can use give it a certain satisfying feel. Reviewers panned the combat against beasts, saying it relies on stunlocking, as you can't block their attacks. A patch fixes all this, and it's not so frustrating anymore. You can also heal yourself by ingesting whole bottles of rum and grog. A loading screen tip kindly tells us that the game downplays the effects of alcohol...
The RPG aspects have been diminished compared to previous PB games. Experience is now called glory, and you can use it to boost one of your five attributes, each of which includes several skills. You can also learn various abilities from trainers, ranging from counter-attacking, to training a monkey or a parrot (what would a pirate be without one?). This costs money, so you need to balance your questing with your training accordingly. This provides for a decent character progression, but your evolution doesn't seem particularly dramatic, and the difficulty is even throughout.
Risen 2 looks and sounds great. The jungle scenery is suitably exotic and mysterious. The beaches are sunny and welcoming, but the shadowed corners of the forest appear menacing enough, suitable for hiding treasure (and there's plenty of treasure to go around). The character models are a bit stiff and unnatural, but generally bareable, while the voice acting helps bring the characters to life. The musical score is good, but not as memorable as that of Gothic 3. The game ran well on my machine, which is hardly powerful these days, only with occasional stuttering.
This game is all about the atmosphere, the feeling of adventure. Treasure is abundant throughout the gameworld, and if that isn't enough, there is an assortment of legendary items for you to find (a famous pirate's pegleg, or a parrot's magical wing, for instance). While the story is lackluster, the game always pushes you to explore further into the heart of its beautiful tropical islands.
So is it worth playing? If you're interested in either pirates or fantasy tales, then you've found a way to spend 15 to 20 hours. It's not a huge game, nor does it beg you to do multiple playthroughs. But Risen 2 has personality, which is scarce in videogames in recent times. Provided you can get over the minor issues and enjoy the experience as a whole, it's more than worth it.
Visuals & Sounds: 9/10