Risen is at its best when you’re breaking it

If it looks like a piranha, plays like a piranha, and breaks like a piranha…
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The Risen re-release for consoles – seemingly renamed “Risen 1” – is a reminder that Piranha Bytes excel at consistency. Irrespective of whether your first experience was 2001’s Gothic or 2021’s ELEX II, you’ll be familiar with their long-running RPG template that has seen incremental improvements to the mechanical depth, storytelling, and visuals over time. For some, Piranha Bytes means mechanically clunky, dated-looking, and outright anachronistic RPGs. For others – myself included – it means dense RPGs with competing factions, unexpected consequences to your actions, and a game world ripe with opportunities for exploitation.

Something about temples and titans?

Piranha Bytes games tend to have underwhelming narratives, both as a function of the writing and quest structure, and Risen is no exception. You play as a snarky but otherwise blank template of a hero, washed ashore on the island of “Faranga” – a castaway aboard an inquisition vessel coming to investigate the mysterious storms around the island and ancient temples that have risen from the ground spewing out monstrosities.

Loyalties on the are now split between former leader Don Esteban and his bandits camped out next to a large temple in the swamps, and Inquisitor Mendoza and his Order of the Holy Flame that claim Harbour Town and the mages’ monastery next to a sacred volcano. Both are recruiting to plunder the temples for artefacts and gold. Mechanically, this presents an opportunity for the player to side with one of two factions.

Honestly, I didn’t care much for any faction leader but at least the bandits could train me to sneak, pick locks, and pickpocket early on.

In practice, this choice feels most significant during the first chapter where you can engage with three lengthy, often mutually exclusive faction questlines, before you’re ultimately forced to side with Don Esteban or the Order of the Holy Flame. By the end of the first chapter, you’re forced into working with the Inquisitor and mages towards a greater purpose and faction quests feel less developed. Your choices might influence who’ll attack you on sight initially, who’ll provide high-level services and training, or who might ambush you down the line if you scupper their plans – but they end up feeling like minor variations when many plot-focussed quests focus on neutral-ish parties and play out the same way.

If you’re after quality writing, a compelling narrative, and story permutations, Risen is not going to scratch that itch.

To its credit, it avoids simple good vs. evil factions. Don Esteban offers freedom but rampant criminality, while Mendoza and the Order of the Holy Flame offer subservience but peace and order. However, the lore feels underdeveloped, the writing is more often unintentionally funny than actually funny, and the characters are one-dimensional caricatures you’ve seen before. It’s also a game of its time as I could also count on one hand the number of women who are not generic NPCs labelled “wife”, “dancer”, or “prostitute”.

Risen 2023 Visuals
Exploring the island for the first time is fairly compelling with some decent sights, an oppressive atmosphere, and a great soundtrack.

Is this a role-playing or survival game?

At this point, you might be wondering if the gameplay is Risen’s saving grace. Well… that depends on whether you’re playing the game as intended or not.

Risen is a messy RPG, in the sense you have to discover quest givers and objectives organically. The journal makes notes of important NPCs but doesn’t mark them on the map. It’s also not uncommon to have no obvious forward trajectory until a half dozen quests suddenly coalesce and resolve together. Few quests deviate from the “kill this” or “fetch that” formula, but there are always multiple ways to complete any plot-essential quest – an essential feature not only for role-playing but to avoid several bugs that persist 14 years since launch.

Although I’d bet on most gamers preferring a smooth difficulty curve, I’ve always felt Risen gets off to a great start. The island of Faranga is a dangerous place for new adventurers and, if you’re more familiar with North American developers, it feels closest in design to The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind (you even arrive by boat and it has a Volcano in the middle). You’re ridiculously weak at the start, outclassed by every creature and NPC on the island, with the prospect of decent equipment and improved attributes hours away.

Returning to this temple with armour and an AI army in tow would prove the wiser choice…

The island is relatively small – by modern standards – but manages to feel large and interconnected, funnelling you between larger regions and towns packed with named NPCs and quests, while side paths often lead to ruins with deadly creatures and loot at the end. The questing structure typically forces you to complete dozens of shorter quests before progressing the main one, so it makes for a surprisingly dense world where every new area offers up an hour or two of questing – many of which involve seemingly insurmountable battles.

The difficulty is – in true Pirahna Bytes fashion – region-based, wildly variable, and exacerbated by the clunky combat. Early on, it’s wise to assume anything or anyone encountered off the beaten path, no matter how innocuous-looking, can butcher you in a heartbeat. As a result, the opening hours feel more akin to a survival game than RPG – think tense battles of attrition, won by burning through healing resources rather than mastering combat mechanics.

Need to clear a cave of wolves, slay a wondering rotworm, or a troop of terrifying bog men? Get used to the idea of drawing them off one by one (assuming that’s even possible) and watch them dodge, block, or parry almost every attack, shredding chunks of your health bar in a single swipe while you slowly chip away at theirs. Most enemies have names that hint at their toughness level but it’s not uncommon to stumble into an area and be unceremoniously one-shot.

If you consider yourself a fan of challenging games and you’re stubborn enough to persist, Risen has no shortage of brutal roadblocks – but it doesn’t have to be that way.

Risen Harbour Town
The jumping and climbing animations look awful but getting to high ground is great for cheesing tough opponents if you’ve got a healthy supply of arrows and bolts.

Break it until you make it

There are, of course, developer-intended ways to survive and progress. Stick to the quests pointed out by early NPCs; never stray off the main paths; skirt around the aggro range of creatures; pay, bribe, or complete trivial tasks to resolve quests; gain XP and gold this way for hours as you slowly skill- and gear-up.

Once suitably powerful – a simple yet convoluted process that involves gaining XP towards levels and “learning points”, then paying gold to trainers for attribute and skill boosts – things get easier. Fighters can use force or intimidation to take what they want; thieves can sneak past seemingly braindead AI, picking locked chests or pickpocketing NPCs using pleasingly straightforward mechanics; mages have a range of offensive and support spells that allow them to mix and match their approach.

But who wants to endure excessive hardship and spend hours grinding for XP and gold?

If you’re thorough about exploring, you’ll find dozens of quest items before the quest.

There are four factors that make Risen such a flexible and exploitable experience:

Firstly, Risen’s world is pre-populated from the start and persistent, with very few things spawned outside of major chapter events. Every creature that needs to be slain and every quest item that needs to be recovered exists in the world from the start – hidden in caves, chests, or maybe in NPC inventories. New NPC interactions might open up for later quests, but essential quest items remain in your inventory until needed, dead NPCs remain dead, slain creatures remain slain, and looted chests remain looted.

Secondly, NPCs and creatures are subject to the same rules as the player. They physically travel between locations, can fall to their deaths, die in combat with wildlife or other factions, and humans can be beaten up to loot without actually killing them.

Thirdly, the AI that controls them is weirdly detailed – think of day-night cycles, foraging, looting, and equipping themselves – but also incredibly stupid at times.

Finally, and most importantly, quest resolutions are just a set of conditions that need to be fulfilled. How you get to that point, or in what order, is up to you.

There are literally hundreds of quests spread across the island and major settlements, but most are quick to resolve and many are mutually exclusive if they involve competing faction goals.

As someone with a compulsive urge to complete each area to its fullest before moving on, Risen’s unforgiving difficulty and video game logic often frustrated me. Why was I being sent to kill packs of tough creatures by NPCs with quality gear and high-level skills that could handle them easily? Well, it turns out you can get them to handle it thanks to hostile AI that simply beelines towards you, AI factions that’ll readily fight each other, and quest conditions that care nothing for the finer details.

I spent most of the first and second chapters baiting creatures or faction members towards each other – sometimes the quest giver themselves – sitting back while they dealt with the threat, then claiming that sweet gold and XP, risk-free, as a reward for my apparent success. Similarly, if a quest sends you into a dangerous ruin to recover an artefact or ancient armour pieces, there’s rarely any need to deal with the guardians, making it viable to simply run past everything while chugging potions if needed. With access to powerful support spells or scrolls, this is even easier for mages.

It’s rough going in the beginning but access to support magic makes it even easier to manipulate and break the mechanics.

During several larger faction battles with AI allies, I found running around as bait while the AI dished out damage the perfect approach but, even if you’re short of allies, most creatures can’t climb and have no ranged attack, allowing you to cheese them from above with a bow, crossbow, or offensive spell (though you then have to deal with the rubbish aiming). If melee is your only option, most enemies can’t dodge effectively when backed into a corner or clustered onto a narrow path.

There are, of course, downsides. If you can exploit the mechanics, so can the AI. As someone who gravitates towards stealth, lock-picking, and pickpocketing (which features legitimately funny dialogue), I found many quests too simple to complete – but then any character can beat down an NPC, or get someone else to it for you, and then loot them before scampering away. The problem is I often stashed or sold items that would later be part of a “collect X number of Y” quest, while falling in battle could see quest items looted off me. Thankfully there’s always a way to get back on track, even if it’s not the approach you intended.

Risen Exploiting AI
Another round of Order warrior vs. stingrat vs. sea vulture vs. boar

If it looks like a piranha, plays like a piranha, and breaks like a piranha…

Wrapping up, it’s worth clarifying this is just a simple PC-to-console port sold at twice the price on current and last-gen hardware.

Sure, it’s a step up from the wonky Xbox 360 version with higher resolutions, better performance, sharper textures, longer draw distance, and a less twitchy camera. However, Risen was never an attractive game and the years haven’t been kind to its generic environments, clunky animations, and horrifying character models. It still has a great atmosphere thanks to time-of-day shifts and weather changes coupled with layered ambience and an eclectic soundtrack. The music remains a highlight with unique themes for each area, ranging from traditional high fantasy, to frontier-style string pieces, and even epic orchestral pieces that share the same energy as Inon Zur’s Fallout scores.

That said, gameplay trumps visuals and Risen can still feel wonderfully broken and fun to play around with. The sooner you shift your focus to exploiting the underlying mechanics, rather than playing it as a traditional RPG, the better it gets – but only for a while. Perhaps Risen‘s biggest flaw is that you eventually grow more powerful and acquire better gear, reducing that early tension and the need to exploit the wonky mechanics and AI to survive. By the end, it simply feels like a clunky, ugly, and middling RPG that was surpassed by many of its peers.

As such, recommending Risen 1 in 2023 is tough and more a case of preaching to the choir. As with all Piranha Bytes games, it’s a niche and acquired taste that caters to the same audience year after year – probably a dwindling audience as it grows older. I know many fans praise Risen as the closest you’ll get to Gothic with an intuitive control scheme, but if you’re still curious about the developer, I’d rather direct you to ELEX and its sequel – they share a similar template but feel slightly less anachronistic and hold up better in the long run.

A code for Risen was provided to gameblur by the publisher. Risen is available on PS4/PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series, and Nintendo Switch.

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