This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Risen 2: Dark Waters.
I remember saying a few weeks back while doing Kingdoms of Amateurish that the RPG market seems to be kind of stuck in the standard fantasy setting like a dislodged silver crown in a Jersey Caramel. And things are never going to evolve if we don't get out from under the shadow of the increasingly ridiculously proportioned ears of whatever we're calling today's batch of magic tree-hugging assholes. And consequently I was heartened to find a new release on Steam last week by the name of Risen 2: Dark Waters that billed itself as a "pirate-themed RPG." And suddenly that wasn't the only thing that was rising, dick joke swing and miss.
Because I challenge you to come up with one thing in this toxic world that doesn't sound vastly improved by the addition of the prefix "pirate-themed." Pirate-theme bar mitzvah, pirate-themed state execution, pirate-themed Ugandan child slavery. And of all the unfunny pop culture bullshit icons, pirates have been rather neglected of late in favor of zombies. When was the last time you saw a film about a pirate apocalypse? Besides Waterworld, I suppose. So Risen 2: Dark Waters was too good an opportunity to let walk the plank. Oh, look how quickly I've gotten into the swing of things, matey!
And gratifyingly, Risen 2's plot is about a pirate apocalypse, or at least there's one building on the horizon. Things are operating on a sort of Pirates of the Caribbean level where there's a bunch of all-powerful, godlike entities threatening generic destruction all over the place and a loose coalition of bad-smelling, toothless seafarers have to stop them by acquiring four cans of spray-on All-Powerful Godlike Entity repellant. Well, four magical treasures, but basically that's the gist of it. It really is strongly reminiscent of the plot writing in the later Pirates of the Caribbean films in that there is no problem in the world that doesn't have some convenient bullshit magical artifact kicking around somewhere specifically designed to deal with it. Either the Ancient Ones didn't feel like they were doing their jobs properly if they didn't enchant every last fucking thing in their trophy cabinets or someone's making shit up as they go along.
In stark contrast to most of its RPG peers, or possibly as a reflection of having a sober budget that couldn't also feed half of Nairobi for a year, Risen 2 does not allow you to customize the protagonist's appearance any. Which I'm not complaining about, because honestly, was anyone wanting to play a pirate game as anything other than a grizzled, eyepatch wearing motherfucker? Although I can take or leave him having the voice of a former public school boy smugly asking the shoeshine boy where he got his degree.
You also don't have much of a choice when it comes to character class. You can either be a pirate or not a pirate, and you pick the second option by turning off the game and having a little sleep. You can choose to put your points into blades or guns or wearing a parrot on your shoulder - no, seriously - but like a Ugandan child slaver you kind of need a little bit of everything to get by with the best results. If you blow all your points into swordfighting, then you'll find none of your fancy ripostes and parries are much use against giant crabs, while trying to fire your pistol as a swarthy wastrel chops at your forearms is like hanging a sign around your neck saying "Please Stunlock My Arse," because our hero doesn't realize he could just keep his pistol in his free hand rather than having to unholster it for every shot. I guess when you're the smuggest pirate on the seven seas, you never know when you'll be seized by the need to lovingly cup yourself.
Actually, the combat overall can kiss my black spot. With no dodge ability, my sword combat often descended into mashing attack like I'm hammering in a nail with a head that's six foot across in the hope of winning the latest game of Who Will Get Stunlocked First? Something's got to be wrong when I can be killed by a random ostrich because it keeps lightly pecking my shoulder while I'm winding my sword arm up for a mighty swing. And I wish I had a piece of eight for every time my smug pirate fired his flintlock pistol - which takes about sixty seconds to reload, in a startlingly out of place acknowledgment of historical accuracy - one hundred and eighty degrees in the wrong direction because I'd also been trying to back away from the target so it'd stop biting my elbow.
There is a kick skill for pushing enemies away which I snapped up when it was offered because crabs were giving me a lot of trouble - and don't take that out of context - although my instructor forget to mention how to actually use it. Occasionally in a fight the words "Press Space to Kick Now" would flash up for about a quarter second, and by the time I pressed Space the moment had passed and my guy did a joyful little hop in celebration of getting his testicles pinched off.
The kick and every other skill can only be acquired by finding someone who's willing to teach it to you and paying their rent for roughly the next six months. And I'm not a big fan of that as far as upgrade systems go. All right, it's more realistic than magically acquiring the ability to pick pockets because you've killed your fifteenth giant crab, but it means that your progression is restricted to whatever trainers happen to be around. I didn't end up putting any points into voodoo because I didn't find any black magic trainers until the the third fucking island. And more importantly, my character scurrying about saving up all his pennies so he can wine the local prostitutes into giving him a pillow talk apprenticeship does make him look pretty pathetic. It rather overtly implies that every single motherfucking NPC on the planet is more qualified to do your job than you are.
A lot of skills share the kick problem in that they're way too contextual. You can only pickpocket people if there's a dialogue option for it. And I sank a lot of cash into a skill that lets you shoot people mid-conversation and I don't think I ever saw an option for that come up. This was possibly the game teaching some kind of moral lesson.
One thing I actually like about Risen 2 is that NPCs can respond to offensive behavior on your part in ways other than trying to slit you up. Go into a restricted area and enemies will attack, but they'll sheathe their swords and be nice as pie(-rate) if you immediately leave. They don't seem to have very good memories, though, so with a few points in thief skills it's fairly trivial to nick everything that isn't nailed down, which is just as well because we apparently need all the money that exists in the world to be halfway decent at anything.
Overall, while a pirate has more personality in most outlying strands of his Brian Blessed beard than an elf does in their entire wispy, off-color body, Risen 2's greater exuberance fails to compensate for some seriously dodgy design. The RPG elements almost seem like a formality when the game clearly has its own idea of how you're supposed to be building your character. And the visuals are very samey. Once you're passed Jungle and Small Colony Town, you're pretty much done as far as Caribbean islands are concerned.
So the final lesson of Risen 2: Dark waters is that if you're producing dark waters you should probably talk to your doctor about it.
- The monkey on your shoulder: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- Used to be all you needed was an eyepatch now they don't even let you on the boat if you haven't got tentacles in your beard
- With a yo ho ho and bottle of Old Spice
Extra: Escapist Expo
So me and a bunch of my Escapist chums are attending a bit of a get-together this year we're calling "the first Escapist Expo". September 14 to 16 in Durham, North Carolina, Check the website for more details. Hope to see you there! Yes, you! No, not you, the pretty one.
Extra 2: Half-Life Skit
(The following is set to footage of the tram ride from the beginning of Half-Life)
The last few seconds of She Blinded Me with Science plays.
"You're listening to Black Mesa Research Facility internal broadcasting, Friday morning drive time fun slot, playing the hits while you play God!
Couple of messages have come in. One for security officer Calhoun, currently standing outside sector 7G: please stop banging on the door. We know you're there, we just don't like you. And Dr. Barlow in behavior studies would like whoever keeps putting bow ties on his test subjects to stop, please, because apparently humanizing them makes vivisection difficult. I know exactly what you mean, Howard.
Time for another record. This one was requested by Dr. Kleiner at theoretical physics; Dr. Bolt at applied chaos theory; Dr. Juspeczyk, quantum entanglement; Drs. Sharman, Bennett, and Johnson from atomic conversion; all the lads at xenobiology subdivision B; and twelve other names I've got here. Yes, it's The Dandy Warhols again.
I am a Scientist plays.
Three less than yesterday, guys. Don't tell me you're going off it at last.