It’s tough not to get a little bit excited over the concept of an open-world pirate adventure filled with vast landscapes to plunder and smarmy swashbucklers to mingle with. Deep Silver and Piranha Bytes’ Risen 2: Dark Waters promised gamers a full-bodied experience fit for Blackbeard himself, but the final product that released on PC earlier this year fell well below expectations. Uninspired combat coupled with a slew of technical issues sank a mostly ambitious title, leaving both RPG enthusiast and Johnny Depp fans wanting. With the console versions delayed by a few months, though, hope remained that some of the kinks would be ironed out in time.
Sadly, the Risen 2 both PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 owners have been given does little more than tread water. What didn’t work in its PC debut remains untouched on consoles, and an inferior presentation somehow makes this an even less appealing proposition. You’ll find some interesting dialogue beneath layers of poor design decisions, and honestly, there’s a short supply of pirate titles on the market. But a few working gears in an otherwise broken machine just isn’t enough. This is a budget game without the budget price, so unless you have an illogical hankering to fight giant crabs as a man with an eyepatch, ignore this failed expedition.
The name of Risen 2’s Hero may not be clear, but his mission of bringing down the sea titan Mara becomes lucid just minutes into the game’s opening. After the moody Kraken sinks a pirate ship looking to dock at an Inquisition holdout, the Hero is asked to scour the shore for any survivors. The pirate Patty, a familiar face from the original Risen, is all that’s left of the crew, but rumors of her father, Captain Steelbeard, coming across a weapon powerful enough to take out the aquatic beast strike intrigue in both the hero and his fellow Inquisition members. The men in charge decide the best course of action is to revoke the Hero’s title and send him on a dangerous, secretive mission to become friendly with the pirates and somehow return in possession of this all-powerful spear. With Patty at his side, the nameless pirate-in-training sets off to learn the ways of the sea bandits in hopes to bring down Mara.
It may not floor you with narrative prowess, but the tale Risen 2 tells is interesting enough to keep you engaged. Clever, and at times even humorous dialogue allow otherwise dull quests to take on some personality, and the protagonist’s direct approach to most situations keep long-form exposition to a minimum. Some of the voice acting even manages to impress, and with so many personalities walking the shores of the cities and encampments throughout the various islands, it helps having conversation that’s worth listening to. You probably won’t remember key characters long after the credits roll, but enough thought went into both the story and people telling it to make it worth your attention.
The scope of the world you’ll explore also impresses. Various islands filled with quests, cities and untapped caves become available to the nameless Hero as he ventures deeper into the life of a pirate, and for the most part, the world feels alive. Wild animals and unearthly creatures litter the path from objective to objective, but a handy quick travel feature makes navigation much more manageable. Sometimes you’ll want to spend your time searching the vast landscapes for exciting pieces of loot, but the seemingly endless amount of quests that begin to flood your log make just jumping from location to location an absolutely necessary inclusion.
Though the series of beefy islands display a tropical color palate pleasing to the eye, the actual presentation falls well below the standard set by games released even five or six years ago. Robotic characters loop through single animation patterns dozens of times in a single conversation, and while there is full voice acting for every resident of Risen 2’s world, the dull faces branded by jaws flapping with reckless abandon break any and all immersion. Objects in the environment appear jagged, texture mapping and pop-in follows the protagonist throughout his journey and transitions between characters during dialogue are abrupt enough to become jarring. You could sell me on this being a late-to-the-party PlayStation 2 game, but Risen 2’s presentation is just too poor for the current generation of consoles.
The most egregious crime this scurvy adventure commits comes in the form of its combat. This is a single-button, unimaginative action game that tries to hide the simplicity of its moment-to-moment activities behind tactics and abilities only unlocked through gold. Without handing over a sack of coins to the locals in order to learn new tricks, all you need to do to succeed in combat is tap the single attack button. That’s it. The game targets enemies for you and instead of combining a heavy and light attack to create some sort of variety, mashing one move will do the job. That’s not to say you’ll always win, as enemies have a tendency to trap you in long, health-draining combos that take expert timing to avoid, but that one attack will have to do until you’ve earned enough money to learn new skills.
Yet, with such a broken economy, learning how to parry, correctly fire a gun and counter may require a full chest of trinkets. Gold is in short supply in Risen 2, but this hasn’t quelled the residents’ greed. It seems like every man, woman and child with a voice has something supremely valuable to teach you, but each skill requires an inordinate amount of dough to learn. Hours of looting caves may only net you enough cash for two skills, and more often than not, what you purchase won’t do enough to make the game more fun. Glory gained from quests and battle may help boost your stats to an adequate level, but the bevy of abilities that have the power to at least make the combat bearable are behind too tall a barrier to care about. I know pirates rarely come across the treasure they spend their lives scouring the Seven Seas for, but Risen 2 just makes buying and selling the most trivial of items too difficult.
An interesting premise and fully-featured world just can’t save what’s an undeniably wounded game. Charismatic characters may allow for a few smiles and laughs, but the core action is just too basic to enjoy. The dodge feature that was later added to the PC version may have at least made battling cave rats and dung-flinging monkeys a little more bearable, but it seems like that was one of the many fixes ignored to get Risen 2 out the door. Even if you have two peg legs and a cracker-craving bird on your shoulder, I’d advise skipping out on this open-world mess.
Risen 2: Dark Waters was developed by Piranha Bytes and published by Deep Waters. An Xbox 360 copy was provided by the publisher for the purposes of review.