Ryse: Son of Rome
Do you know how to spot a game developed by Crytek? First, it’s a first-person shooter that looks absolutely amazing. Second, it features a protagonist with a military background who acquires superhuman abilities. Third, one of its themes is the danger of weaponizing genetic engineering. And finally, it has the word “cry” somewhere in its title. Far Cry, Crysis, Crysis 2, Crysis 3 – the pattern speaks for itself. That’s what makes their Xbox One launch title so refreshing. This is Crytek stepping outside of their comfort zone. This is Ryse: Son of Rome.
The Roman general who became a slave. The slave who became a gladiator. The gladiator who defied an emperor. That’s the premise of Ridley Scott’s Academy-award winning film, Gladiator. Now here’s the story of Ryse: Son of Rome: The Roman general who was left for dead. The dead who arose to become a gladiator. The gladiator who defied an emperor. There’s no denying the similarities, right down to the name of the emperor’s eccentric, power-hungry son, Commodus, but it’s a tried-and-true story that resonated with moviegoers back in 2001 and works well again here.
Ryse is an action-adventure game that relies heavily on melee combat. The A button is used to block, the B button to dodge, the X button to attack with your sword, and the Y button to push attack with your shield. Holding down either X or Y will perform a heavy attack. The right bumper is used to activate Focus Power, a radius blast that stuns nearby enemies and renders them defenseless for a period of time. The right trigger is used to initiate an execution. Once you’ve damaged an enemy enough, a marker will appear above their head prompting you to trigger an execution – a quick-time event that results in some pretty brutal death scenes. Successfully stringing combos of blocks, attacks and finishers will earn you experience points that you can use to upgrade your skills and unlock new executions. Last but not least, a perk system grants you additional XP, boosts your damage or lets you regain health or focus as you perform finishing moves.
And that’s melee combat in a nutshell, which comprises 90% of what you’ll be doing in the game. It boils down to learning the patterns of each enemy type – about a dozen or so in total, not including boss characters – and figuring out the best combination of blocks and attacks needed to break their defense and defeat them. Since you face the same enemies over and over combat does get repetitive as you progress, but not nearly as much as some would suggest so long as you remember to unlock new execution animations so you don’t see the same ones ad infinitum. As for the remaining 10% of gameplay, you’ll occasionally man a ballista, throw spears at enemy archers, and assemble with your fellow Roman soldiers in phalanx formation to advance on enemy positions. Rather than its relatively shallow combat and repetitive gameplay, which didn’t really bother me thanks to its highly visceral nature, I found the single-player’s most pressing issues to be its length and linear structure. The story clocks in at around six hours – especially short by action-adventure standards – and alternate paths tend only to lead to higher or lower ground in forthcoming battles, leaving the campaign with little to no replay value outside of various collectables.
Multiplayer in Ryse allows players to fight in gladiator-style coliseum matches either solo or co-operatively with a second player. The goal is to complete a series of challenges as the arena environment dynamically changes around you. You’ll earn experience points to rank up and gold to purchase copper, silver or gold booster packs – rewards that include common and rare items and consumables that you can customize and equip your gladiator with. Before you enter each arena you’ll choose a god to worship, granting you and your fellow gladiator unique abilities for that set of challenges. A Season’s Pass worth of DLC will eventually add an assortment of new arenas, challenges and equipment, but until then – once you’ve seen each of the arenas and the challenges they present – multiplayer is a fairly shallow and repetitive affair.
Crytek’s proprietary game engine, CryEngine, has resulted in some of the best-looking first-person shooters of their time. And now, thanks to the newest version, Ryse: Son of Rome emerges as not only the most visually impressive Xbox One launch title, but arguably the best-looking console game to date. The game’s heroes and villains have all been fully motion-captured, resulting not only in stunning animations but faces that look photo-realistic. Marius, Vitallion, Nero, Commodus, Basilius, King Oswald and Boudica all look extraordinary, but Commodus, what’s up with your hands? The environments are beautifully rendered and the game engine is capable of handling more than a hundred characters on screen at once, lending perfectly to the large-scale battles that occur throughout the campaign.
And then there are the brutal combat animations – limbs are severed, heads are dismembered, blood is spilled. Combine that with the sounds of metal clashing and ultimately piercing flesh and the result is a most cringe-worthy experience. The rest of the sound design is equally impressive. The sweeping orchestral soundtrack does an incredible job of transporting players to Ancient Rome. Each of the main characters is portrayed in an interesting manner thanks to excellent voice acting. Ryse also supports Kinect-enabled voice commands, allowing you to bark orders to your troops like “Fire Catapults” or “Fire Volleys,” freeing up your hands for the intense and time-sensitive combat. Overall, the presentation clearly stands out as the most impressive aspect of Ryse.
I ended up enjoying Ryse: Son of Rome more than I probably should have. The campaign is short and linear and the gameplay does get repetitive, but I dug the setting, characters and visceral combat enough to overlook its shortcomings. It doesn’t hurt that Ryse displays glorious technical proficiency – one of the best-looking console games ever made. Call it a guilty pleasure, but is it $60 worth of entertainment? No, it isn’t. Because the campaign is so short and neither single- nor multi-player offer much in terms of replay value, Ryse is the perfect candidate as a rental, but if the idea of playing a video game adaptation of Gladiator appeals to you, I would recommend buying it when the price drops to $30 or $40.
Reviewed By: Stephen Riach
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
This review is based on a retail copy of Ryse: Son of Rome for the Xbox One provided by Microsoft.