Risen 2: Dark Waters is a disappointment. Trust me, you have no idea how hard it is to type that sentence. You see, since I first discovered Gothic some ten years ago, I’ve been enthralled by everything developer Piranha Bytes makes. They are masters of immersion, building the most alluring and elaborate open world environments that gaming has ever seen (making Skyrim look like amateur hour). Their games have never been very polished and they sometimes let the scope of their worlds get the better of them (Gothic 3), but when Risen was released it seemed as though PB had found the perfect middle ground. Gone were the massive amount of bugs, the graphics were vibrant and sometimes beautiful, and the combat even had a level of strategy to it. I relaxed my guard. PB had finally nailed down the formula for success. So what the hell happened here?
Risen 2 begins with our Nameless Hero drunkenly awakening to a life of half-hearted service to the Inquisition. The world is teetering on the edge of absolute destruction, as titan lords battle each other on the mainland, destroying most of human civilization in the process. Thus, the Inquisition plans a mass exodus, fleeing to the various islands of a Caribbean-style archipelago. The only thing standing in their way is the titan lord Mara, who relentlessly destroys fleets of ships and entices pirate captains to aid her in attacking the human refugees. Knowing that you defeated a fire titan on the island of Faranga in the first game, the Inquisition tasks you with infiltrating the corrupted pirates, retrieving some mythical titan-hunting weapons and putting an end to the watery curse once and for all. Along the way you stumble across allies, both familiar and new, as well as make a gameplay and narrative decision to stick with the musket-toting Inquisition troops or the voodoo practicing natives.
The story structure is very familiar to anyone that’s played a BioWare RPG. In fact, Risen 2 more than any other PB game follows the BioWare blueprint of having a vital McGuffin on each major island. That said, there were some mighty surprising twists and plot turns that I never saw coming. Along with the fairly clever dialogue, I was more engaged with this story than I am with most RPG offerings, and that says a lot coming from Pirahna Bytes, as the one thing the Gothic and Risen games before this lacked was an interesting plot. Adding to the fun is the fact that you can take a companion from your crew with you adventuring, who often has interesting dialogue or observations.
Another step up from the first Risen is the sheer variety of explorable areas. The island of Faranga from the first game was a joy to scour but by the middle of the game, I was growing a little tired of trekking through the same areas of forest again and again. Risen 2, while perhaps not as vertically constructed as Risen, almost never requires you to repeatedly backtrack through areas that you’ve already tamed. As long as you are thorough, everywhere you trail-blaze is new and different, as you hop from island to island.
Another surprising change from the previous games is the new level up system, or should I say, the lack of level ups. Risen 2 operates entirely off of experience points; when you collect 1,000 exp, you can upgrade your swordplay, toughness, guns, cunning or voodoo proficiency to level 2. Upon your next 1,000, you have to decide if you want to increase a different skill, or save them to increase that same skill to level 3 when you hit 2,000. While all of that sounds like it would produce the same basic effect as a standard level up system, the one thing conspicuously absent is level restrictions. If you had the exp points for it, you could raise guns to level 10 near the beginning of the game and that’s just as viable as spreading your points out. In the same vein, items are never level-restricted so if you find it, you can use it. That’s a blessing because, in standard PB fashion, Risen 2 is hard. After a short hand-holding on the first island, you are simply loosed on the game world and if you happen to stumble upon a horde of Blue Claw Monkeys, it’s up to you to either fight precisely or run for your life. These creatures don’t scale, and that’s a wonderful thing.
Man, I wish I could just stop typing now and proclaim this game a shining success. Unfortunately, for every step forward Risen 2 takes, there’s at least one step backwards in response. The first and most obvious issue is polish. The graphics, while certainly not horrible, are also fairly lackluster. LOD (Level of detail) flaws are everywhere, as leaves will wildly change shape as you near them, shadows flash in an obnoxious, seizure-inducing fashion and foliage will pop up out of nowhere, right in front of you. The lighting is also surprisingly crude, and whereas Risen did an excellent job of making fire pits and magical crystal emanate a realistic warm glow, that warmth and substance is lacking here. If I didn’t know better, and someone showed me the Risen and Risen 2 game engines side by side, I would guess that this engine was the rougher, older one. Don’t ask me how that happened, as the drop in graphical quality didn’t seem to benefit the game in any other areas.
To that point, animations are also exceedingly stiff. As I mentioned in my preview, the Nameless Hero waddles around like a half-animate statue. My continual reaction to watching my character sprint was somewhere between laughter and disheartened sigh. It doesn’t get much better when you pull out your sword and fight. You start out with a three-click combo and end with…the same three-click combo, only you eventually get a hard swing and a cumbersome counter attack. Gone are the constant upgrades to swordplay flexibility of lateral swings and off-balancing deflections from the previous game. The only remaining options available to you are dirty tricks (flinging sand, coconuts and parrots at your enemy, which, while fun, rarely helps) and pistol shots (which, given the flamboyant animation, are oftentimes more trouble than they’re worth in heated combat). Finally, rounding out combat is voodoo.
After choosing to side with the native tribes, I was granted access to the voodoo abilities of black magic (use of specters and voodoo dolls), rituals (potion making) and death cult (allows the summoning of a particularly unique ghost). On the face of it, these functions work great; there are numerous times throughout where you can use voodoo dolls to progress the story, and conjuring a ghost gives you and your companion a significant combat boost. Unfortunately, voodoo in Risen 2 is a fitting symbol for the game itself: there just isn’t very much to sink your teeth into. For example, when I first got black magic, I was able to buy schematics for fear and power scepters (paralysis and allegiance conversion, respectively) and a simple de-buffing curse doll. “Great,” I thought, “these are fun beginning spells and in a few hours, I’ll find the vendor for the next tier of items.” That vendor never came. No matter how many islands I visited, or voodoo levels I attained or even chests that I opened, no other magical schematics appeared.
Thus, even up to the end of the game, there are only three spells (four if you count the ghost). What a colossal rip off. Crushingly, this trend continues to virtually every part of the game. Potions are never really needed or helpful because free provisions (basic healing) are ubiquitous. Even leveling your skills occurs at light speed, as I was barely to the mid-point of the game when I had half of my skills at 80%. I was convinced, utterly convinced, that when my crew mates wished me luck in my final battle with Mara, that it was all just a big “gotcha!” moment that PB was pulling: “Oh, you think this is the end of the game? After only 25 hours? Just kidding! Here’s the second half!” But no, it just ended. Compared to the original Risen, I had barely started to become acquainted with my new pirate persona right before saving the oceans and ships of the world. It actually felt more like a long DLC than an immersive game world.
I’m in a bit of a conundrum here. I have to be honest and give this entry the low marks that it clearly deserves. But at the same time, I feel like I’m smothering my child to death. After all, I can’t be the only reviewer who is going to dog-pile on this game, and when the numbers are finally tallied, publisher Deep Silver may just decide to end the Risen series altogether. So yes, Risen 2: Dark Waters is not worth buying at full price (grab it in a Steam sale for $20, six months from now), but, contradictorily, I really hope people ignore my advice and buy the game up anyway and enjoy the experience despite the abortive pacing. Because as much as I enjoy the thought of people taking my reviews seriously, I would rather play a longer, more polished, Risen 3 and 4 instead.
This review is based on a digital copy of Risen 2: Dark Waters for the PC provided by Deep Silver.