Risen 2: Dark Waters Review (PC)

I do wonder if that ‘2’ in the title is meant to be said as ‘to’, like in Journey 2: The Mysterious Island. So, “Risen To Dark Waters”. Sounds cool either way, but it still doesn’t change the fact that Risen isn’t the most highly regarded RPG around – and Dark Waters isn’t even the most anticipated third-person fantasy RPG sequel out this month (and the other’s already been out a year!). Still, Piranha Bytes has an ace up its sleeve, or rather a cutlass up its jacksey – pirates!

I’m really rather pleased about this, as since the sad cancellation of Pirates of the Caribbean: Army of the Damned I’ve been itching for a good piratey RPG. Piranha Bytes obviously was too, so they’ve set about retooling their own fantasy world into something that wouldn’t seem out of place Deep In The Caribbean. Mages and straight magic have been cast out of the world and replaced with Voodoo, and while there are fantasy creatures they’re more in line with the “here be monsters” variety scrawled into exaggerated notebooks: firebirds, ghouls, giant bats, and especially the monstrous Kraken. While it’d probably make more sense for Piranha Bytes to create a new IP rather than shoehorn 16th Century Pirates vs Voodoo Natives vs the English Navy (or Inquisition here) into the Risen series they at least pull it off well.

The pirate lass with her boot in a fish is Patty. Her dad’s the dread captain Steelbeard. They’ve never appeared on Bargain Hunt together

The story’s appropriately piratey, too. Your Unnamed Hero, having joined up with the Inquisition (and lost an eye somewhere) has turned into a bit of an embarrassment. The Inquisition commander has a final task to redeem yourself: go undercover with pirates and find a way to stop the ancient demoness of the sea Mara (like a sexy version of Ursula from The Little Mermaid) from resurrecting the powerful Titans and conquering the world. Which inevitably requires getting some special artefacts from places named after Legend of Zelda dungeons (Earth Temple, Water Temple…).

The acting is generally above-par and the writing can be both snappy and amusing, so I was eagerly anticipating every new conversation. Animation on characters, on the other hand, is laughable, with ridiculously over-exaggerated hand moments. Thought the conversations in Deus Ex: Human Revolution looked awkward? Play Risen 2 then go apologise to Eidos Montreal. Still, despite this flaw the story and dialogue in Risen 2 are nicely engaging, with several fairly interesting pirate-appropriate characters to boot. The storytelling never reaches anywhere near the likes of Bioware or CD Projekt, but it kept me interested and entertained.

Straight off the bat though there is one major problem with Risen 2: Dark Waters that will put some people off the game in the first few hours. Now, most RPGs these days say “oh, you just want to continue the main quest? Sure, but can’t I tempt you with some side-missions that might have excellent rewards that’ll make the main mission less tough?” They give choice to the player about what they want to do next and don’t punish them for not wanting to grind. Risen 2’s attitude, on the other hand, is “oh, you just want to continue the main quest? Well f*** you buddy, I’ll make it way too hard for your pathetic character, now go and gather those 10 Bloodroots on the double!”

Your character really is useless at the start of Risen 2. You know how RPGs these days give you all skills at the start, teach you how to use them immediately, and levelling simply allows you to improve them? Risen 2 only gives you the ability to swing a sword and slightly block something blade-like a bit. Lockpicking, pickpocketing, parrying, strong attacks, countering, sneaking, voodoo magic, all are inaccessible until you buy them. You can’t even kick someone until you’ve paid a scruffy guy on a beach 1000 gold to learn how to do so – and even then the game fails to tell you properly how to do so. For the record it’s not Spacebar as the game says, it’s hold Right Mouse then Spacebar.

Oh yes, gold. While there are five major Character attributes you can level up with the usual XP (or Glory), which are Blades, Firearms, Toughness, Voodoo and Cunning, any actual skills require seeking out a teacher and paying them 500-1000 gold to teach you individual skills or upgrades. It’s an interesting attempt, but is a bit badly handled. Teachers don’t appear on the map for starters, so if you don’t remember exactly where you found that naked Thievery instructor you’ll be in for a lot of searching. Having multiple islands in the game which you can’t fast travel between also makes finding and learning these skills more frustrating, and that’s if you can afford them – which you probably won’t be able to.

Me and my enormous machete, beard and hand would like a word with you

I really cannot overemphasise how frustrating the opening hours of Risen 2 are. Anything to do with the story or setting is fun, but anything to do with combat (which as you can imagine is quite a lot) is insanely tough in a not-fun way. The Witcher 2 got a lot of flak for having difficult combat, but next to Risen 2 it’s bloody Lego Star Wars in comparison. At least you can dodge, back away, activate a magical shield or just have some way to avoid attacks as Geralt of Rivia. You get backed into a corner or get too close to an enemy in Risen 2 and you’ll die, as enemies can always attack more quickly than you, and there’s no way to stop this happening since just backing away will probably lose you half your health or your life.

A better sword, a few levels on your Blades and Toughness attributes and a few thousand pieces o’ eight to the local swordmaster and combat becomes… well, doable but still pretty frustrating. It does get better when you finally get to have a crewmate by your side though, such as pirate Patty (who’s a dab hand with a sword and has a devastating pistol) or voodoo priestess Chani (who will heal you now and again). Shame you can’t customise your companions or even tell if they’re low on health or not, but they’re welcome company (and cannon fodder).

Unfortunately this is one of those RPGs that force you to really pick and choose your upgrades wisely, as a jack of all skills is a master of none and you’ll quickly find that only the higher levels of Silver Tongue will charm the ladies. The same goes for pickpocketing, lockpicking, intimidating, all the fun non-combat stuff basically. But as combat is so utterly unfair without a ton of cash and XP spent on it there’s little left over for the stuff you actually want. I left Voodoo and Firearms completely untouched and I still couldn’t smooth-tongue a woman who was actually flirting with me.

The setting is all generally lush tropical jungles, wooden villages/towns/barracks and some beaches, which I suppose are generally piratey but dammit does it all get samey fast. The graphics are generally quite grubby and dirty, which is nice but at this point that’s the entire fantasy genre, and I admit here had me yearning for the colourful world of Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. The Witcher 2 managed to be grubby and interesting, which is something Risen 2 never quite manages. Apart from a waterfall and the sight of a galleon sailing into a misty harbour I was never impressed by the graphics, and this is supposed to be a PC-led title (the console versions are still a few months off).

Ah yes, galleons. Ships. Wooden floaty wet things. Piranha Bytes manages to get the pirateyness right except for one massive detail: there’s no sailing out into the open ocean, no ship-to-ship combat, and so consequently no actually being a pirate (unless you torrented the game). Yeah, admittedly the Monkey Island series also didn’t do this until the third game, but that had comedy and more interesting environments to distract us. Without the actual Sailing For Adventure we’re left with just an RPG wearing a nice hat with terrible combat.

To Risen 2’s credit however, the game never actually became impossible. It was always difficult, but at no point was I left without something to do, another approach to try, or in a no-win combat situation. I kept playing, and despite the odd death or getting lost in a maze of jungle I enjoyed what I was doing. Whenever the game kept away from fighting I utterly loved it, and all Piranha Bytes has to do is revamp the combat system (or at the very least institute a ‘dodge’ button) and we’d probably knock the game up a full point.

Stop humming that theme tune right now or I’ll turn this ship around and no one will get to go to the Isla Da Muerta!

However, right here and now Risen 2: Dark Waters is lacking. The absence of ship combat means it’s missing a vital part of being a pirate, the frustrating combat renders a great deal of the game not fun (and sucks away Glory and Gold from the entertaining areas like thievery and voodoo), and the drab settings make exploring the islands a slightly tedious affair.

There’s a great game in here, and people who buy Risen 2 will probably be quite content with their purchase if they can get past the infuriating first few hours (and that sugar quest in the giant termite cave, shudder). Sadly it’s dug itself a hole with a few terrible design decisions and the good things about the game can’t dig Risen 2 out of it. Not even with a big red ‘X’ on top of that hole. Dodge button and ship combat next time, please?

Top Game Moment: The Monkey Island 2 reference involving a claim ticket, a wig, and a voodoo doll. Sadly no bra this time, though.



By nocutius (SI Elite) on Apr 24, 2012
Hmm, a bit disappointing.
I'll play this eventually anyway though.
By Hestvik (I just got here) on May 03, 2012
Can one of you plz help me i try to find out where the teacher for learner "Creat Doll" is i can't find it.
plz send me a messenge! thanks :)
By herodotus (SI Herodotus) on May 05, 2012
I uninstalled the original "The Witcher" very early into the story because of it's combat system, let alone the sequel's so I'd find no easy way to enjoy this. Appears that "R2:DW" has continued to drum home the hard-learned lesson that preorders are more often than not letdowns on release (a problem that plagued most of 2011's offerings and persists).