As a general rule, I dislike boss battles. Mostly, I dislike them because they feel so disjointed from the rest of the game experience, and final, endgame-level encounters often seem to violate this more than standard bosses – especially if the game doesn’t have boss encounters in the traditional sense.

In some games, boss battles are great, and often serve as the pinnacle of the experience; what would the Megaman X and Zelda games be without boss battles? Arguably, the great joy of the games are in exploration and discovery, but in these cases, the boss at the end of a dungeon or level seems to provide a great capstone for the experience. I understand that some games, like Shadow of the Colossus, contain nothing but boss battles.

And then there are games like Risen, for whom boss encounters seem inevitable but somehow alien to the experience. Having just completed Risen, I found it to be one of the finer open-world RPG games I’ve played in awhile – and it was brutally difficult, often punishing a slight mistake with a player death. For me, that level of difficulty made the game engaging – for the majority of the game, I felt like I was the weakling shipwreck survivor that the plot told me I was. After tens of hours digging through ruins and working my way up the monster badass food chain, I eventually felt – both through getting damn good at sword play and attaining the sweet loot of the ancient world – that I could kill anything on the island.

It was at this final moment that the trouble with boss encounters began to plague Risen. The sweeping majority of the game is spent fighting beast-type monsters or humanoid-type monsters, with the latter carrying weapons and the former using tooth, claw, and brute force. Each of the variants demanded a different approach; wolves and stingrats require a shield to block, guys with swords quite effective parrying and lunging, and ashbeasts require well-timed dodging and precision strikes with large weapons, as shields are useless against them. For the most part, this system worked well – it required a flexibility on my behalf that wasn’t usually immediately obvious, and only trial and error could defeat various enemies.

Unfortunately, none of the lessons that I had learned as a castaway served as it became clear what was required to defeat the final encounter. It isn’t that the encounter was bad – I found it entertaining, if painfully easy and quick – so much as that it wasn’t like the rest of the game. As the thing did not lunge, I had no use for dodging. As the thing could not swing a weapon, I had no use for parrying. As the thing could not move, I had no use for the fancy footwork and swordplay I’d become so adept at. All that was required was holding up a shield and jumping over disappearing floor-bits, and striking the thing when I reflected his own fireball back at him. Once it became clear what was required to slay the thing, it was a simple matter of paying attention, and within moments, the encounter was over. Disappointing, disappointing.

It felt as though all of the work I’d put into the game was for naught, all of those deaths at the hands of giant sword-swingey types a pointless lesson. It strikes me that a final encounter really ought to be a culmination of every skill a player has acquired in the game, and in this, Risen is a miserable failure. Magic has no use, alchemy has no use, being clever and reading the opponent has no use. It’s a good thing that the rest of Risen was so damned good, as even though the final encounter was unrewarding, learning to effectively kill everything else was great fun.

Even the very first beast encountered – an evil, cruel-looking and overlarge sea-vulture – was initially challenging. Blind, over-aggressive swinging resulted in pecked-out eyes and blood on the sand. Wolves, when attempted without a shield, lead to being killed while trying desperately to parry. Hell, even gnomes – which look astonishingly creepy – were enormously difficult initially.

This difficulty level is only enhanced by the visuals and sound effects of the game; while neither are quite top-notch, they lend the game a grim and bleak atmosphere seldom done nearly so effectively as in Risen. Really, the entire experience of the game reminded me of the ruined and blasted feeling of being in Tristram in the first Diablo game. That somber, moody guitar-twanging is even present often in the music while exploring the island of Risen, and the generally-depressed and angry human citizens even further crystalize this feeling.

And they really are depressed and angry – the vast majority of interactable NPCs encountered are assholes, often cursing at you and occasionally picking fights with you. Their attitude never quite seems forced and never quite feels trite – often, it simply feels believable, which is quite a testament to the writers over at Piranha Bytes. Most people were believable with what seemed to be legitimate struggles. Surprisingly – mostly because it seems to happen so rarely – I never quite felt like somebody’s bitch when I was off running errands for them, and my taking up of their quests often seemed the best thing to do. Not just because of the potential for a reward, but rather because it sounded fun.

While there didn’t seem to be a great deal of optional, side-quest type stuff to Risen, the quests presented had just the right amount of variety, mood, and adventuring to keep me thoroughly engaged throughout. Often, I was more interested in questing for people more to see what they would do than how it would benefit me. Some were entirely social; solving a murder in the Volcano Monastery meant interrogating monks, digging up graveyards, and even becoming a drug dealer. One notably long quest required the befriending of a bar maid, an imprisoned lord, uncovering a smuggling operation and, finally, traipsing around the island with a treasure map, digging up the bodies of mutineers. Although these quests were ultimately of the “Go here, find item, bring it back” variety, my reasons for undergoing these quests were varied enough that it didn’t seem problematic or, more importantly, at all boring.

For all of the wonderment that Risen brings to bear on a narrative and thematic level, it only really falters from technical considerations; jumping is stuttery, movement is slow, and things often never quite seem to fit together correctly. Exploration – arguably the most important aspect of an open-world game like Risen – is hampered often. Risen also likes to force the player to endure unnecessarily long cut-scene type moments whenever a chest is opened or ore is mined. Fortunately, the actual combat mechanisms were great – sword and hammer-swinging felt real, with sequential swings flowing naturally from the first, and the weapons often struck each other realistically. That is, unless one tries to use magic spells in an encounter – attack spells are merely the shootey variety, and the delays encountered when readying one of these spells can often be fatal. Other spells – such as healing and levitation – are used by way of pre-made scrolls, which sometimes works well and sometimes does not.

There were also a few plot and item problems; I was never really at all clear on why the main plot device of the game – rising ruins – occured, nor why they were populated by the race of monsters that they were. Even the guy that proved to be the central player in the plot never made this clear when illuminating the other mysteries of the world. Although the player can mine, I never found much use for the raw quantity of ore acquired after making the initial items and jewelry; there weren’t many options at all. I also never figured out what in the world either the wisdom stat (which grew to ridiculous levels thanks to how it is raised) or the “Seal Magic” category on my character page was for; at the end of the game, it sat at a steady zero of four possible points. While Seal Magic clearly wasn’t necessary, it would have been nice to know what in the hell it was for. Maybe it’s time to load up an older save game.
Just run. Quickly.

Overall, Risen is a fine and glowing experience; short of a few problems, the game speaks volumes to what is still possible in the world of PC gaming. Not that Risen wouldn’t work just fine on a console – but rather, Risen is the traditional experience of the PC RPG, and it succeeds here on spades. Deep character interaction, compelling plot twists, and a fundamentally sound swordplay system that was fun to play make Risen exactly what the PC needed: a damn fine game.

Scoring can be found here.

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