Risen 2: Dark Waters Review

By Sophie Prell - Posted Apr 24, 2012

For RPG genre fans willing to overlook some technical flaws, Risen 2 may very well be a treat and a refreshing change of pace. For the rest of us, this is a game that will never quite rise to the occasion.

The Pros
  • Refreshing take on the fantasy genre; there really isn't another game with quite the same world.
  • Choice actually matters, and thinking outside the box is encouraged.
  • No "go here" markers or mini-map make for a challenging, no hands-holding experience.
The Cons
  • Graphics leave plenty to be desired. Even on highest settings, this feels like a game from 2007.
  • Melee combat is too slow and heavy, like a hack'n'slash dungeon crawler.

Risen 2: Dark Waters offers a breath of fresh air in an era of stereotypical high-fantasy RPGs by combining old-school challenge with a unique setting and open-ended problem solving. Unfortunately, the technical limitations of the game’s combat and graphics undermine the immersion and overall enjoyment to be had.

When diving into epic, action-RPG Risen 2: Dark Waters by developer Piranha Bytes and publisher Deep Silver, a great many things become clear. You’ll notice the pirate theme right away, a stand out in today’s ocean of RPGs featuring dragons and elves or nuclear wastelands. If you’re a fan of the Gothic series - also by Piranha Bytes - then you’ll see a pedigree at play; design philosophies resurfacing again and again.

You’ll also probably be able to tell if this is a game worth owning just by playing the first hour or so. Because while there’s a lot for the dedicated RPG audience to love about Risen 2, with a lot of good ideas bubbling up from time to time, the execution comes across as flawed and bittersweet.

Something Old, Something New

As a direct sequel to the first Risen, the game picks up almost exactly where the first left off. As thanks for his heroic deeds, the Nameless Hero has been stationed in harbor town Caldera, where he regularly drinks, mouths off, and passes out in his ramshackle room. Clearly not the hero's welcome we're used to seeing our avatars treated to.

In a way, this is what Risen 2 does best: defy expectations. If you're looking for another Tolkien-style universe full of elves, dwarves, and magical beasts where the hero receives all of the land's praise, look elsewhere. Risen 2 has you fill the boots of a drunk who received hardly a word of thanks from his previous efforts, and the setting blends high fantasy, Greek myth, and 15th century legend. The world and story are quite different from your typical Western RPG, which can be refreshing if you've been drowning in dragons as of late.

As a semi-open world game - think how each island and burough was opened and subsequently open to exploration in games like Grand Theft Auto - there's quite a bit to explore and interact with. Each island holds treasures and a multitude of side-quests to keep you busy, but the nicest compliment I can give to them is that each of these islands feels like it belongs, as do the people and creatures inhabiting them. With a distinct sense of purpose and feeling of unity, the world feels richly crafted, even if the graphic fidelity leaves something to be desired.

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Press 'X' To Level Up

The first Risen was mostly well-received, but it was not a game without flaws. Perhaps the most common critique was that combat felt somewhat unpolished and "floaty." With Risen 2, Piranha Bytes had an opportunity to address this problem and bring the series' combat into the modern era. Instead, while combat certainly feels more involving and hits seem to actually, you know, hit the enemies in front of you, there's a lack of complexity that makes the game feel more akin to a dungeon crawler than an epic RPG. It's kind of like the pendulum has swung back too far, and now combat is too weighted down.

You'll likewise see a more simplified leveling system in Risen 2, more along the lines of Kingdoms of Amalur or Skyrim. Instead of choosing a class and learning new abilities restricted to said class, you'll be able to interact with trainers who can teach you just about anything you want once you've accumulated enough points. It's a play your way sort of game, and combat is most certainly a reflection of this philosophy.

I personally had no problem with this idea, and my style of play leaned more toward a mix of guns and magic instead of swashbuckling, which I genuinely found enjoyable. But when the rest of the world and design of the game feels so old-school dungeon crawler RPG, it's a little strange to mix in modern leveling systems. This isn't to say leveling in Risen 2 is bad, but the way it's implemented does feel somewhat out of place.


Paragon Pirate Or Renegade Raider

While Risen 2 isn't touting the consequence of player choice, it nonetheless plays heavily into the overall experience of the game. Not only can you explore this world largely at will, but you can also approach quest goals almost any way you so choose. Some NPC with an important item giving you a hard time? Intimidate or bribe him into giving it to you. Or kill him. Or ask his crew about what goes on in the area, then use the information to blackmail or entice him into a bargain.

Once again, it's the way developer Piranha Bytes has designed the world and story that make Risen 2 appealing. A hundred other games currently litter store shelves advertising the effect of player choice on the world, but really it typically ends up being the choice between saving a helpless kitten stuck in a tree or burning that tree to the ground, laughing maniacally.  Risen 2 seems to recognize that's not real choice. The game is one of the few titles I can think of that does player choice, and does it truly well.

The only downside here is putting up with the characters' stiff animations and lackluster voice performances. Not one actor truly stands out, and since the NPCs apparently drink botox like it's refreshing lemonade on a hot summer day, they talk a lot with their hands. It feels forced and unnatural, like watching a high school rendition of Angels in America.

Walk The Plank

The first Risen and now Risen 2: Dark Waters feel like games out of time. They're complex Western RPGs that don't bother with making the Nameless Hero feel invincible or like a total badass as most modern games do, but instead treat him as a vulnerable vessel that must be learned and mastered. Their worlds are superbly designed, but the graphics haven't quite caught up to render them in the lush detail we've grown accustomed to. Combat and leveling don't know which era they're stuck in, flip-flopping between too complex and too simple. Despite surrounding the Nameless Hero with pirates and avoiding the traps of a Tolkien-style universe, the characters themselves are fairly flat and kill what could be an experience as rowdy, flirty and fun as Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean series.

Risen 2: Dark Waters is full of ideas and designs that read great on paper. But fold that paper into a boat and try to sail with it, well... you're gonna have some soggy boots to say the least. For RPG genre fans willing to overlook some technical flaws, Risen 2 may very well be a treat and a refreshing change of pace. For the rest of us, this is a game that will never quite rise to the occasion.