I feel so naughty. Risen is banned here in Australia. It was refused classification back in 2009, for predictably nonsense reasons (it features drug use, which the Australian Classification Board absolutely hates in the context of video games). It has never been re-classified, meaning that it’s still not available here and I needed to get a copy of the recent modern console re-release from the UK Nintendo Switch eShop. I’m surprised the police haven’t smashed my door down yet for thought crimes, but at least now I’ve been able to play it. I’m glad for the opportunity, because as far as Eurojank B-grade RPG action goes, this one really holds up.
Risen comes to us from Piranha Bytes (which developed the Gothic series before the Risen trilogy, and the Elex series after it). As with any game from this developer, there are a couple of things that you can expect from it. Firstly, it will be ambitious beyond what could reasonably be expected of a tiny development team, reasonably open, and conceptually quite interesting. Secondly, it won’t play so well and you’ll probably hit some big bugs along the way. Risen is, however, arguably the most impressive game the studio has produced, both in terms of concept and execution. It’s actually almost surprising just how playable it is by today’s standards.
To be clear, this release on Switch (and PlayStation 4 and Xbox One), isn’t really an update or remake. It’s a straight port, and so it does look like something that is almost 15 years old. Characters are relatively “blocky”, the world is reasonably efficient in scope, and the UI elements like menus and dialogue systems are structured in the traditional manner. Overall the game will immediately feel like a throwback to yesteryear, in other words. It doesn’t look bad, though. The art direction does suit the “washed up on a tropical island seething with danger” theme and concept, the range of enemies is good, and the environments are perfectly adequate. I must admit that I don’t go back to replay Eurojank titles that often, and I had simply assumed that these kinds of projects would hit you as “dated” very quickly. It doesn’t, though. In fact, it’s almost surprising how Piranha Bytes has managed to continue getting away with making games that look and feel like this. For example, the team’s most recent title, Elex 2, might be bigger in size than Risen, but almost shockingly consistent in terms of the quality of the experience.
Risen starts with you playing as a stowaway on a ship, controlled by the Inquisition. That ship is destroyed in the opening scene, with you and your companion being washed up on a beach. From there you’re largely left to make your own way through the world. The first main decision you’ll have is whether you want to take up with the “bandits” (a bunch of people that have turned to Robin Hood antics after their town is taken over by the inquisition), or alternatively the inquisition’s militant arm. The third option is to join the sinister sect of mages that have occupied a monastery on the island. Whichever group you choose, it doesn’t take too long for the game to settle into the same basic narrative rhythms, but this first decision does create the perception of an open-ended experience. There are, of course, side quests and diversions you can participate in too, but Risen is, overall, a fairly linear narrative.
One piece of advice for people that haven’t played many Piranha Bytes games, though: stick to doing what the game tells you to, especially early on. Technically you can access just about any part of the open-world island from the start. There’s nothing stopping you from wandering off-road and through a jungle. However, take a step in the wrong direction, at the wrong time, and you’ll run into an enemy or enemies that will flatten you, instantly. One of the key challenges in the game is figuring out the right order to complete missions and explore parts of the island, because those enemies act as a roadblock that will prevent you from doing things out of order. Admittedly this is a frustrating way to guide the player, and you’ll probably resent the first couple of times you need to reload a save. However, once you learn how to roll with it, and let the game dictate to you how you move through it, it will fade to being a mild irritation.
Some players will likely find the combat system to be clumsy, too. You do have access to all the tools of the typical action combat system; you can parry, dodge, block, and then counterattack with several different types of melee and ranged weaponry. However, you won’t find it to be as responsive as you’d expect from an action combat system (especially given that this game came before the Souls series completely rewrote the action combat system). Instead, it will feel a little bit button-mashy and cheap at times. Much like the issues with the placement of enemies, however, after you spend a bit of time with it and start making progress despite it, the combat will stop being something that affects your overall enjoyment of the game.
At about 30 hours in total length, Risen feels brief by modern RPG standards. Though the developers have implemented clever tricks with perspective to make the world seem more expansive than it is, you’ll still zip around it fairly efficiently (and that’s just as well, since the mapping system sucks and getting lost in this world would be truly annoying). The game’s concept – effectively a Caribbean, pirates-era RPG, is an intriguing and entertaining setting that RPGs don’t generally canvas. However, Risen is also quite brief in its storytelling. While it strives hard to be a dark and mature thing, it struggles to deliver the characterisation that is really needed to achieve that. The Witcher 3, this is not.
Perhaps most impressively though, is that I ran into very few bugs as I played. The Switch handles the action perfectly adequately (with the exception of a momentary stutter whenever the autosave kicks in), and I never had crashes or other such meltdowns. The glitches were minor and inoffensive (mostly just a spot of screen tearing here and there). I would have appreciated an interface better suited to the console (the mapping and quest systems, especially, suffer when playing on the Switch in handheld mode), but overall this is a very playable port, and makes me hope for a Risen II and III on the console down the track. Those two weren’t banned in Australia and I did play (and enjoy) them on launch, but it would be nice to have the full set for on-the-go play now.
If you land within the niche it’s targetting, it’s difficult not to love Risen, warts and all. Piranha Bytes has, throughout its history, been really quite effective at capturing an “X-factor” that elevates its games to be something more than the sum of its parts. These are games made by people that love RPGs, for people that love RPGs, and while they’re not of the same scope or refined as something that comes from a BioWare or Bethesda, they are made by people who have clearly played so many sessions of Dungeons & Dragons. They know how to keep an RPG fan playing on, and Risen is an excellent example of that. I’m very glad it had a release on Nintendo Switch, finally got to play it (even if I needed to source it from overseas).