Risen 2: Dark Waters Review
Some quirks aside, this pirate-themed RPG offers a finely crafted world that you'll love getting to know
It isn't often that a game world is so well crafted that it stands on its own in making the title worth playing. Risen 2: Dark Waters is a game you should play if you enjoy using games as a form of escapism. The combat is functional but clunky, the story is fun and entertaining but it isn't what keeps you coming back; it's the organically designed world steeped in a unique and well executed pirate theme that will make you fall in love with this charming role playing game. Like its predecessor, Risen 2 is a fleshed out RPG with a lengthy campaign and an emphasis on exploration and completing fun and varied quests. Risen 2 doesn't offer the same level of choice and freedom that its predecessor did, but the trade-off is that its sequel is more accessible, better paced and much more colourful, not to say the first Risen didn't have its fair share of charm.
You start the game with not even a shirt on your back
You start the game off as the same character from the first game, who has in the interim become involved with the militaristic organization called The Inquisition. You learn of the sea-titan Mara who, having been disturbed, has unleashed a Kraken to destroy ships, and who has also indoctrinated several pirates to help her cause. The premise for the story is that you must go undercover with the Pirates, acting as a double agent of sorts who must play both sides in order to defeat the sea-titan. You quickly learn that in order to defeat Mara, you must find and attain four enchanted weapons. While the premise for the story is a bit bland, with Mara being a rather uninspired antagonist, the plot is quite good, with lots of twists and loads of colourful characters using even more colourful language.
Once you progress through the first 10 or so hours of the game, which while a bit slow are still very enjoyable, you gain control of your own ship. From this point forward, the game plays a bit like the first Mass Effect; you recruit crew members who you can bring with you when going ashore, and you can sail freely to islands you have already discovered. Each island is a decent size and loaded with side quests, which range from fairly straightforward gather x amount of y quests to much more interesting ones. These include one where you help a lethargic native with an impressive rifle become Chieftain of a tribe, or another where you compete for a treasure map in a drinking contest with a retired pirate. Often you will need to complete site quests in order to progress with the story, such as early on when you are trying to become a member of a famous pirates crew. The captain is open to your joining, but you must first impress him by helping the pirates located in the camp.
Some enemies can be killed easily if you know their weakness
If you find yourself stuck on a quest or strapped for cash, which is rather hard to come by, the best option is often to head off into the wilderness. You will find or come across treasure maps which will point you to buried treasure, and these are the most sure-fire way to get money. You will also find chests scattered around the island which can be looted, and harvested plants can be sold. When I became stuck on a quest, I often found the solution by exploring the island I was on. You will spend a lot of time exploring, sometimes without a map as you need to find or purchase maps for each island. Fortunately the exploration is extremely enjoyable. It is incredibly immersive to navigate your way through the dense jungle or wade through the shallow waters along the coast, although inevitably you will meet someone or something that wants you dead. There is no regenerating health in Risen 2, instead you must rely on alcohol and provisions to keep you alive. Alcohol can be consumed to instantly restore health, while provisions can be munched in order to allow health to regenerate for a short amount of time.
On launch, the swordplay in Risen 2 was rather problematic. Fighting human opponents was OK, as you could parry their attacks and make counter-attacks. Monsters, however, had attacks that could not be blocked. Since whenever you are hit your action is interrupted, you could get stuck in cycles of being knocked back that usually resulted in death. [In a post-release patch, the ability to dodge-roll has been added, as has the ability to block the attacks of monsters. These additions have done much to improve the combat, but it still feels a bit rough as your actions are still interrupted when you are hit.] Some monsters have weaknesses you can learn about from the locals, such as giant crabs which can be kicked onto their backs, or boars whose initial charge attack can be dodged, exposing their flanks to your blade.
The Kraken targets ships who's captains defy the sea-titan
You also have the option in Risen 2 to invest in firearms. Muskets and shotguns allow you to skip the swordplay if you so desire and fight your enemies at range. Since these firearms replicate very early models, they have short range and take time to reload, and you must backpedal madly when fighting monsters in order to get enough shots to kill. I found a good strategy was to assign a sword to one hotkey and a musket to another, doing as much damage as possible at range then finishing the monster with my sword with it got close. If you still need another edge in combat, you can use a dirty trick when in a hairy situation. These consist of things like dirt you can throw in enemies faces to stun them, throwing daggers, or a pistol you can whip out and get off a quick shot with. Later on in the game you will be able to learn some Voodoo spells that let you curse enemies to weaken them, or cause them to attack one another. Voodoo doesn't replace swords and muskets, but it can help make a challenging fight more manageable. The combat is still probably the weakest link in the game, but it is a solid improvement over that in Risen 1.
Like in the first Risen, you start the main game after the prologue with only a pair of pants and a sword and can get killed easily by boars and crabs. You must build your way up, and it is very rewarding to finally become strong enough to take on enemies competently. As you play, you earn 'glory' which you can use to upgrade any base attribute such as toughness, blades, cunning or firearms. These base skills govern what training you can receive from people around the island. You need training in order to learn almost everything, from counter-attacks to lock-picking. The high cost of training means that early on you must choose carefully which skills you learn. Tip: if you want to get as much money as possible, invest in lock-picking at the earliest opportunity. It is important to find a mix of getting better equipment and more advanced training, as you will never any money to spare. The economy in Risen 2 is one of the best balanced I've ever seen in a RPG; you can always find as much money as you need if you search around, but never have excess wealth.
Careful exploration reveals hidden ruins and other treasures
If you find yourself with a bit of extra cash you might want to invest in an attack-parrot or trained monkey which can break into people's houses and steal things. While stealth isn't a big element of Risen 2, you can sneak into people's houses and pilfer their trinkets. Since money is so helpful in Risen 2, you will likely find yourself attempting to do this in a pinch. People notice when you go into their houses in Risen 2, and if they catch you stealing they will either alert the guards or try and kill you themselves.
These segments often highlight the bizarre human AI found in Risen 2. You can't kill people in towns in Risen 2; rather you can only knock them unconscious. If someone catches you stealing and you knock them out, they will totally forget anything happened once they regain consciousness. There are one or two quests that involve sneaking where this oddity is very apparent indeed. Like Risen 1, there are some other very odd bugs that crop up from time to time. At one point, I witnessed an NPC walk through a cliff, emerge on top of the cliff, then walk through the air onto the roof of a nearby house. Monsters will get stuck going through narrow passages, and some quests can be broken if objectives are done in the wrong order. Overall the game is more polished than Risen 1, with menus now being extremely well designed and confusion around quests being much reduced, although it still has plenty of rough edges.
Jesus has nothing on this guy
Overall the game engine does justice to the lush tropical environments, with strong lighting effects and detailed shadows interacting with shallow water in just the right way bringing shorelines to life. There are some problems with object pop-in however; the draw distance is rather short, and vegetation seems to grow in as you get closer [this was largely fixed in the may 9th patch]. You will need a fairly powerful machine to run Risen 2 on the highest settings, although just dropping down the shadow setting from Ultra to High yields a big performance boost. The game runs much more smoothly and controls more responsively than its predecessor. Character models are an improvement over those in Risen, although they still look a big fuzzy and animate stiffly.
Accompanying you in your journey around the islands is a great soundtrack that fits the setting perfectly and has a nice calming effect that draws you into the game. The voice acting is also quite good; you will meet plenty of interesting characters in your travels, and they are generally well voiced and written with a number of surprisingly funny lines. The game uses humour effectively; it lightens the mood of the game without making it silly. Less impressive is the sound design; waves crashing on the beach sound great, and firearms are appropriately loud, but most other sounds are overly soft or faded. Some voices are also overly quite, and might be drowned out by waves or the soundtrack.
Muskets let you skip the awkward swordplay
Despite some of these issues, the rich, well crafted world Piranha Bytes have made just begs thorough exploration and starts sticking to your ribs once you get to know it. Traipsing through the dense jungle and along beaches is a joy, and talking to the colourful locals will often lead to fun and treacherous situations. Like its predecessor, Risen 2 doesn't hold your hand, but it's a much more accessible game, and has so much charm and personality it's very easy to overlook the clunky combat and bugs present here. The pacing is such that you won't get travel fatigue during the 20-30 hours it takes you to play through the game, and I won't hesitate to recommend Risen 2 to anyone looking for a fun and immersive role-playing game that also likes the idea of going undercover as a pirate.