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SummaryThe best pirate game since Sid Meier's Pirates.
The GoodLeave it to Piranha Bytes to serve up a wholesome, open-world pirate-themed roleplaying game, the best in a long while -- one which, in practice, feels like a cross between Risen and Monkey Island 2. That's obviously a first, and it's great that they once again came up with something original. A contrasting, more pragmatic definition could be that it's a quintessential Caribbean adventure force-fed into the Risen setting for franchising purposes.
Risen 2 came on the heels of the global success of Skyrim, which means that its timing was perfect. I'm not sure it was a conscious choice from Piranha Bytes though, who always struck me as a defiantly independent mind in the face of the ebbs and flows of a rather tyrannical games industry, focusing on one thing only: releasing deep, engrossing open-world games, one after the other, for the hardcore player. Let's see if they succeeded a fifth time:
An immersive atmosphere. Piranha Bytes' forte, their enduring talent was always the evocation of a strong, distinctive mood, and Risen 2 is a roaring triumph in this respect. I don't even know how they do it, but every little place oozes a steamy, in-your-face, I'm-being-there tropical feel, complete with realistic weather effects and day-night cycling. What I always loved about their games is how they manage to infuse a gritty, naturalistic atmosphere with that of an enchanting fairy tale. As a result, Risen 2 feels like both how 17th century Caribbean drudgery must have felt like (cutthroats, schemes, sickness, danger and death on every corner), and how it lives on in our postmodern public consciousness: an idyllic, enchanted archipelago with its archetypal buccaneers, treasure chests and damsels in distress.
An advanced engine. In fact, this is the most advanced graphics engine I've experienced yet. There's just something about it that eases the player into immersion from the word go. It must be the combination of its being optimized for mostly unrestricted free-roaming, a super-far viewing distance, and a pitch perfect rendition of geographical reliefs, bodies of water and vegetation. With some config file tweaking (as in Risen 1), viewing distance and the lushness of vegetation can be further advanced to a jaw-dropping extent.
Freedom of exploration. This is what separates the men from the boys, so to speak, or the dedicated and generous world designers from the lazy, formula-following ones. Creating an open world clearly involves much more work and dedication. To me, there was always something special about open-world games, right back to 1987's original Pirates, or even 1984's Seven Cities of Gold. I feel that open-world RPG's transcend their genre and approximate to a real-world experience in a way no other entertainment product is capable of. Modern 3D open-world games are almost scary in this respect. At their very best, they are realistic adventure trips for $30 or less. And Risen 2 is among the very best.
A streamlined crafting system. Piranha Bytes' games always required a high degree of micromanagement (of wearable gadgets, potion ingredients, blacksmithing parts and so on) which is the salt and pepper of open-world roleplaying games. Here they also introduce a 'pistol/musket' and a 'voodoo' system -- in concert with the 17th century Caribbean setting -- and get the corresponding micromanagement down to an art form. They became such experts in implementing this complex under-the-hood stuff that it feels seamlessly organic, a natural part of the game's fabric, unlike in several other games.
The BadThis is Piranha Bytes' first "semi-open" roleplaying game. I admit it was a minor shock when I first realized that completed areas get locked down -- at least for a while -- once we leave them. Gothic 1-2-3's main claim to fame was that they provided a single huge sandbox of a game area where every nook and cranny was physically accessible. Instead of a huge sandbox, they opt for multiple smaller sandboxes here: an interesting, fresh approach that does sacrifice some of the old magic of the Gothic entries and Risen 1.
The studio's main weakness continues to be the somewhat banal characters, along with their cheesy names and especially their short, sketchy dialogs that get to the point too fast without any flourish or flair. Granted, there are a zillion sidequests, and the writers might feel that longer, better dialogs would overwhelm and distract the player, given this overabundance. But I think that being distracted and overwhelmed would be a good thing in this case. Hey, Skyrim and Fallout: New Vegas got away with it. In fact, they are regarded the pinnacle of modern roleplaying games.
Speaking of Skyrim, there is definitely much less than 100+ hours worth of material in here. Continuing with their new habit started with Risen 1, the game clocks in at around 40 hours, which disqualifies Risen 2 as a potential contender with the biggest boys of the genre.