The recent release of Risen is a straight port of a 14-year-old game. It's not a remake or a remaster, and goodness does its age show.
- Title: Risen
- Release Date: January 24, 2023 (Switch Version)
- Price: $29.99
- Suggested Audience Age: Rated M for Mature by the ESRB
- Availability: Switch, PlayStation, Xbox, Steam, GOG
- Recommended for fans of: Classic PC Gaming, Action RPGs, and Island Paradises
Geek to Geek Media was provided with a review copy of this title.
Risen was originally released in 2009 as a PC exclusive, then made its way to the Xbox 360 a year later. That had it landing on a console square in the era of me living in a house with a few other guys where we spent most of our time playing Kirby’s Air Ride, so I completely missed it the first time around.
Last month, Risen came back around with a straight port of the original version landing on modern consoles. This isn’t a remake or even a remaster, just a fresh release of a 13-year-old game. With that in mind, I started up the Switch version of it on a flight last week and found a muddy, slow, and awkward experience that absolutely sunk its hooks into me.
Start with a Shipwreck
Risen starts with that classic fantasy trope of a shipwreck. Your character washes to shore on an island, and the only other survivor serves as your first quest-giver. She tutorializes the opening segment of the game by teaching you how to arm yourself with a big stick and use it to smack wildlife and how to steal cookware from a house and use it to cook up some grub. After that, she sends you off to further explore the island.
The world design of Risen, or at least what I've seen of it so far, is a weird mix of feeling big and open but actually seeming pretty linear in where it guides you. It may be that I was too willing to just follow NPC questlines from point to point without exploring, but the opening felt like a very railroaded D&D campaign.
Following quest prompts eventually led me to a farm where I learned about a nearby city that had been occupied by an outside force and the exiled mob boss who was waiting to make his way back into the city.
Stuck in a City
I think I had a choice at this point. I think I could have avoided the city entirely and met up with The Don (whose name is also Don) and joined up with his band of bandits. Unfortunately for Don The Don, the marshes he was holed up in didn't sound appealing at all, so I headed over to Harbour Town. My intention was to find out what was going on in the city, then work with Don Don's men to help him regain control. I mean, the occupying force sounded a lot like the Empire, and I'm deep into watching Andor so I was all about taking the side of the down-to-earth folks.
However, as soon as I got to the city walls my feelings started to change. The guard I had to talk my way past to get access to the story regaled me with stories about the old days, when getting paid off by the mob was standard practice. Oof. Once I got inside, things got worse. I ran back and forth across the tiny town completing all sorts of fetch quests, and interacting with both the occupying order and the crime syndicate. The Order seemed to have put some restrictions on travel, which is a big red flag, and also had an obsession with artifacts. On the other hand, one of their leaders gave me a sack full of healing potions and had me deliver them around the city. The mafiosos, on the other hand, never seemed to have any regard for the people of Harbour Town, and just wanted to get back into power and money.
Oh, also, it seemed like the only way I would get to learn to be an awesome spellcaster was by joining up with the Inquisition and attending their magic school, and you know I want to learn to chuck some fireballs.
Allegiances and Quests
The actual process of progressing through Harbour Town in Risen was pretty interesting. Basically, as you explore you'll encounter quests that you can complete for either the Occupying force or for the insurgent mafia. You can talk to NPCs from both sides freely, but most of the missions have two endings: one supporting either side.
Most quests are essentially fetch-quests in their structure. Talk to a person, go to a place, get a thing from another person, then come back. There were some more nebulous tasks, but for the most part, the only place for player expression was in who you turned the quest into, rather than how you completed the quest. In fact, when I did try to be clever by attacking an NPC I knew I was going to have to fight before talking to them, they'd just get up after I knocked them down. Combat is built off of attacks, blocks, and dodges, but is surprisingly non-lethal to NPCs. So, after sucker-punching the guy, I waited for him to stand up, talked to him about the quest I was on… and then had to fight him again.
The other bizarre roadblock that slowed me down is that Risen has some objectively terrible menus. Pausing the game with the start button will take you to game-setting-type menus, but accessing the map, quest log, inventory, or character details is all done through the D-Pad. You have to remember which direction opens each of those screens because you can only change between them by hitting the right shortcut. Then things continue to be obtuse. As an example, I spent about 90% of my time thinking that this game followed Morrowind's example of not giving you any map with your quests. Instead, I just wandered around until I found the right people. However, it turns out that about 8 button presses deep into the Quest section you can find a map that marks exactly where you need to go.
It has taken me hours of play spread across multiple days to even find my way back out of Harbour Town. Now that I'm free and in good standing with the order, my blank slate of a character is off to learn magic. I don't really have any reason or motivation to do so, because even though there is a ton of world-building about the Island I'm on, my character just seems to be “some guy” who washed up on shore, with no backstory of his own. I have no idea if that'll hold true through the rest of the game… but I'm kind of okay with it.
Risen feels to me like an offshoot of the Elder Scrolls series that focused on condensing down big sprawling quest lines into a much more compact world. It feels weirdly linear for the sort of game it presents itself as, the interface is clunky even after hours of trying to get used to it, and the combat has aged dreadfully. Still, the stories and the way they unfold are super engaging and I want to play more to see what happens to the Don, whether Harbour Town ever gets freed, and if my character actually has any personal history at all!