Risen is the latest role-playing game from German developer Piranha Bytes, which previously created the Gothic series (between 2001 and 2006). I only played the original Gothic, but from what I can tell Risen is a similar sort of game, with a gritty atmosphere, non-linear gameplay, various factions to join, lots of objects to interact with -- and numerous bugs and interface issues that cut into the fun.
The game takes place on an island. You wash up one day after a shipwreck, and soon enough you become embroiled in local events. Ancient temples have been rising up out of the ground, and while vast treasures can be found within, the temples have also been producing evil creatures, including skeletons and lizard men. Early on you have to choose your path, either siding with the locals (who specialize in bows and swords) or the mainlanders (who specialize in staves and magic).
Risen uses a classless character system. Your character is always male, and you can’t choose your appearance, but once you start playing there are numerous directions you can go. Each time you gain a level, you earn some learning points, and you can spend these points on weapon proficiencies (including swords, staves, and axes), magic skills (including fire and ice domains), thief skills (including lock picking and sneaking), and professions (including blacksmithing and alchemy). Nicely, while you can learn many skills during one play-through of the campaign, you can’t learn everything, and so you have to make some choices.
The campaign for Risen works pretty well. Piranha Bytes took a realistic approach to events, and so you don’t encounter any bartenders who need you to kill rats in the basement, or wandering magicians who lost their favorite ring to some kobolds in the forest, and need you to fetch it. Instead, the quests are all about getting work done, advancing the position of your faction, and exploring temples to loot their riches. The campaign took me about 50 hours to complete, and because there are at least two ways to play through it (with different factions and weapon styles) you could easily play Risen for 100 hours.
Unfortunately, while I liked many parts of the game, I pretty much hated the combat system, which is brutal if not masochistic. Enemies are almost always stronger, faster, and healthier than you are, and you rarely get to fight them one at a time. Worse, you can power up attacks in the game, and most enemies can kill you in a couple of hits, while you have to hit them a dozen times to kill them. As a result, especially early in the game when you’re not given enough gold to buy equipment or train your skills, you have to save and load a lot to get through fights. At a guess, I bet I had to load my game over 500 times to finish the campaign, which wasn’t a lot of fun. But on the plus side, I felt pretty good when I completed battles. There are also three difficulty settings included with the game, and so if the combat system exceeds your frustration threshold, you can always drop down to the “easy” setting.
Risen also has lots of issues with its interface. You always face your enemies, which is fine when you’re only fighting one, but it’s a pain when you’re fighting a group (because there isn’t any way to block flanking attacks, and enemies go out of their way to flank you). Your journal isn’t very good about updating your quest status (all it does it cut and paste dialogue from the quest NPCs, and it makes no attempt to organize it). You’re forced to use a third-person perspective to view the world. The loading screen stays up for about five seconds after the game starts playing again, making saving during a battle a chancy proposition at best. Your character has to sheathe his weapon to do anything, and so Risen suffers from Witcher-itis, where enemies frequently get an easy attack or two on you before you can even defend yourself. I could go on, but you probably get the idea. Piranha Bytes has never been an especially polished developer, and it’s hurt every one of their games.
Overall, Risen has some pluses and minuses. Despite its rough edges, it was pretty stable for me. But the combat system is frustrating, and I don’t think the quests and temple explorations quite make up for it, and so I’m going to leave the score slightly under 75%. I’d only recommend Risen to people who really enjoyed the Gothic series, or perhaps similarly flawed games like Two Worlds or Dungeon Lords.