Whether it's the elves and orcs battling in a medieval world, or marines shooting aliens in a futuristic universe, the RPG genre almost always follows the same rules. Fortunately, these rules work well and the paradigm is as solid as a rock.
In some cases, however, something happens that is truly original. This is the case with Risen 2: Dark Waters, an RPG set in a world of pirates. This particular, grog-flavored setting, though, is not the only strangeness of the game. As we shall see, Risen 2 is one of the oddest RPGs to surface in the last ten years.
One of the major elements of any RPG is the story. Risen 2, at this juncture, is no exception; the world is invaded by some terrible sea monsters that have brought humanity to near extinction. Although we don't see the macroscopic effects of this post-apocalyptic scenario, the threat is certainly on everyone's lips. The world is in turmoil. Our hero, faithful to the Spanish Inquisition, is forced to leave his base in disguise to recover a harpoon capable of defeating Mara, Titan of the seas. This weapon, however, is hidden in the hideout of a fearsome pirate....
As you would expect from a pirate story, the action takes place in a setting with a distinctive Caribbean flavour, made up of many islands to explore, each a micro-world. Though the vegetation is more or less the same, every place is different and boasting a unique situation. There are islands in a state of intense militarization, others full of mysteries, some the scenes of battles between indigenes, pirates and Spaniards. Every time you come to a new place, there's a feeling of abandonment, to be filled through exploration that often leads to dangerous places.
Except for the transition from island to island, there are no loading screens in the game. You can travel from one place to another simply by walking. The flow of the game is interrupted by a few cut scenes, as well as conversations with numerous characters encountered during the adventure.
Talking about the dialogue, two points. We'll start with the negative one: those who placed the camera during the dialogue should be bludgeoned with a thick filmmaking handbook. Not only is the shot-reverse-shot almost never respected, the gaps between one shot and the other are so arbitrary that the jump-cuts by Jean-Luc Godard look like a Disney movie in comparison.
We must, however, compliment those who wrote the script. The characters say exactly what you'd expect to hear coming from the mouth of a drunk pirate, but the irony is that everything exudes a sense of fun.
Now we come to the first "weird" element. Progression in Risen 2 is something absurd, and certainly very different from the type of character evolution that the genre has us accustomed to. Normally in RPGs you gain experience and level up your character, while the learning of abilities is related to their use and, in short, you get to do many things relatively quickly.
In Risen 2 everything is tied to your economic resources and encounters with "trainers", people who teach various talents for gold. By killing enemies and completing quests you earn experience points, which are useful to enhance your skills. Once you reach an appropriate skill level, you can contact one of these people to improve your talents. Problem is, the talents are so expensive that in the first five or six hours of gameplay you barely get to learn three or four of them.
After about ten hours, you start to encounter the exotic world of voodoo; Risen 2's own spell system. Before launching the first real spell, however, you must complete some quests that'll last some hours. To proceed you need to be able to find the right balance in your character's skills and the choices you make are always irreversible. This aspect complicates the game exponentially, so much so that the first three islands (about fifteen or sixteen hours of play) are more a source of frustration than amusement.
This is further hampered by the combat system. As expected, our main weapon is a sword. The developers have tried to make the game a fencing simulator, and each duel can last several minutes, depending on the difficulty of your opponent. You basically pass some time waiting for your opponent to lower his guard, and even then attacks are not always successful. We soon realised that you need more talents to fight competently and, as we said, talents are extremely expensive.
Firearms (it will be difficult to have one on the first six or seven hours of the game) inflict great damage, but need a long time to recharge. For this reason, their use is very limited, also due to the fact that the accuracy of the weapon is influenced both by the distance from your opponent and a dice roll, silently made by the AI.
Each fight is potentially deadly. To recover energy you can either drink alcohol (rare) or eat supplies, which recharge your energy very slowly, and are often useless in the heart of the biggest battles.
So, the first few hours of gameplay are terribly frustrating. There is a constant save-and-reload mechanic, rupturing the pace of the game. Yet, once the giant barrier of those first hours has been broken, the title begins to reward the player with sharper blades and greater amounts of gold. The moment you activate the right talents, the combat becomes more accessible. Sure, the game never becomes a hack and slash, but the frustration is slowly replaced by a more frantic, enjoyable feeling.
Finally, some technical notes. Risen 2: Dark Waters is inevitably compared to another great RPG: The Witcher 2. That game is almost perfect, and it's quite obvious that Risen 2 wouldn't have been able to match it.
Yet the environments are colorful, and overall the Caribbean atmosphere is recreated with great care. Characters, however, do not have great facial expressions. A real shame, considering the quality of the dialogue. Regarding the sound; music and dubbing are of a high standard. In some cases, we stopped just to hear the chatter of some NPCs.
Risen 2: Dark Waters is a really weird game. When we saw it for the first time at last year's Gamescom, we had huge concerns. This is the kind of game able to break an audience in two. You can love or you can hate it, depending on the time dedicated to understanding the mechanics which are categorically different from every other RPG.
In our case, we had a great time and will continue to play. After the initial moments of impasse, Risen 2 really knows how to gratify the player. Just in case you wanted to undertake this long journey, be patient and dilute the whole thing with a dash of rum. If you're abstinent, however, we advise you to dock in a different port.