I've always wanted to play PC games like Risen or Gothic but never had an opportunity until I obtained a Steam Deck. However, as with many games, controller configurations aren't always readily available for Valve's portable device. And despite an impressive customization tool, creating one from mouse and keyboard controls can be challenging.
So when THQ Nordic announced it was re-releasing Piranha Bytes' game Risen with gamepad controls and an updated user interface, I was interested in exploring what made this older RPG such a well-known title. Knowing the game wasn't remade or remastered, I went into the journey with lower expectations than I would for a newer production. But despite aged design, it's an enjoyable trek.
Thus far I've spent over eight hours wandering the island of Faranga as a survivor of a shipwreck. I've explored beaches, swamps, rolling hills and caves, and visited settlements including a bandit camp, town and farmland in between. The island is not huge but it does pack a lot into each area, mostly within settlements where NPCs and related quests appear.
One standout for me is how the various quests are interwoven among NPCs and factions. For instance, in the bandit camp, people need to be fed, protection money paid, predators dispatched and work completed, among other tasks. These are interdependent so some can't be completed if others are left undone. This isn't a new concept, but too many RPGs rely on independent quests that sacrifice the big picture.
It helps that each character appears to have a distinct personality and quality voice acting helps distinguish them. Grievances -- sometimes petty -- are aired and at times compel the player to take sides, a circumstance that becomes more common and stark as the game progresses. In particular, choices and quests in town often favor the bandits/townspeople or the strict Inquisition.
The reason boils down to the story of how temple ruins on the island were unearthed and residents coveted reported riches inside. The Inquisition came to the island's shores with their own designs on the ruins and sought to establish order from their Monastery, pitting Inquisitors and allies against townspeople including bandits. Complicating matters are the creatures that emerged with the ruins.
It's a simple premise that provides a solid foundation for the central conflict of Risen as well as for the context for the game's quests and player choice. Certain decisions have more impact than others, such as those that align with a certain faction. And the tasks themselves can range from simple fetch quests or combat to attempting to convince someone to take a stand, act or make a decision.
This is where gamepad controls come into play. On Nintendo Switch Joy-Cons, left shoulder button draws melee weapons while right draws ranged weapons (bow or crossbow). In combat, melee weapons correspond to face buttons: A results in different strikes, B blocks and X evades. Ranged weapons are fired with the right trigger. Left thumb stick moves, right controls the camera (pressing down jumps).
The directional pad pulls up different menu screens. Up is for inventory, down are maps, right are skills and character stats, left are quests and related maps as well as where to find trainers. Navigation within each menu screen is managed with shoulder or trigger buttons and/or thumb sticks. Plus button has game options and settings, minus button controls zoom.
One function I didn't explore until recently is hotkeys. Highlighting various consumables or spells, pressing the left trigger then selecting a face button or direction on the respective pad will map the item to that hotkey. Pressing the left trigger at any time plus hotkey will consume the respective item or cast the assigned spell.
The gamepad controls are surprisingly intuitive overall for both menu navigation (as described above) and combat. Drawing or sheathing weapons is quick and easy, melee combat early on involves simple strikes and defensive postures and ranged attacks are a little more nuanced as distance is a factor. As in most cases, combat boils down to timing and pattern recognition.
The only drawbacks to combat that I've found during my gameplay thus far involve melee strikes and blocking. Two or three strikes in a row will result in different attacks. But stringing them together leaves players open to attack as enemies can reposition in between attack animations. Similarly, blocking appears to initiate a target lock, but it sometimes breaks and leaves players vulnerable.
Injury or death due to these factors can be annoying, but I take the good with the bad. These scenarios are also examples of good enemy AI that will constantly evade or flank players, meaning players have to keep on their toes and switch up tactics on the fly. Some games do this well, but too many disregard this. Speaking of AI, one's allies also demonstrate quality behavior.
If you engage with enemies near bandits or guards (or if you're like me and intentionally bring foes back to armed characters/NPCs for an added assist), they will arm themselves and defend against the common enemy. The downside is that they could die -- one character, for instance, did perish fighting a bog body beside me. Not sure how that impacted their influence though my character did report their death.
Similarly, I was impressed with how NPCs react to my character. If I enter someone's home, they will immediately follow and warn me to behave. Or if I draw a weapon around bandits/guards, they will arm themselves and warn me to sheath said weapon or attack if I don't. Strike one by accident during combat, and they'll strike you down (not dead, thankfully). Once again, too many games pay little to no attention to these details, so it's a welcome development (no pun intended).
As for enemies, there is a decent variety early on, including grave moths, stingrats, ogres, skeletons, wolves, bog bodies and variations thereof. I also faced off with some spellcasting creature in a mine. Both the ogre and that creature pretty much finished me off with one hit. But it's nice to play a game where foes don't scale to your character and you learn to pick your fights.
Returning to a fight when your character has leveled up and/or procured better weaponry or spells helps when there is a process that supports it and Risen does enable players to train and grow various skills and purchase or trade for better weapons or spells. It helps that the quest menu identifies whom players can train with for a price.
Despite being a port of an old RPG, this game earns its renown for good reason. The characters, quests and enemy or ally AI all contribute to an engaging experience thus far, and the added gamepad controls and updated UI do a good job of upgrading the experience for more modern consoles. Of course the presentation is dated, but the character models, settings, animation and FX hold up well enough to immerse instead of detract.
There are some performance issues, such as enemies like an ogre or wolf pack clipping through the environment or otherwise glitching during confrontations. But such issues aren't surprising for a port of an older game that reportedly had its share. The fact that I've encountered similar problems in new releases shows this isn't exclusively an issue with past titles.
In fact, the re-release of Risen, besides making the game accessible for a new generation of non-PC gamers, should highlight the game's timeless elements that are too often absent from modern releases. The game is not without its faults, but demonstrates clear advantages over formulaic titles that ignore the details. THQ Nordic and Piranha Bytes have done us a favor by reminding us of what makes a gaming experience that holds up over time.
(This post was based on a review key of Risen for Nintendo Switch on January 24. The game also released on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, and was updated on PC.)
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