I’ve been playing Risen since returning from vacation (picked up in a Humble Bundle pack a while back), and I’m very pleasantly surprised by the game. I went into it expecting/hoping for an “80% of Skyrim” type of experience, and while in some ways this is true, in a few key areas I think it trumps even that masterpiece.
I actually loaded up Risen somewhat on a whim, as I was looking over my Steam collection and noticed that over 40 people I’m friends with own Skyrim, which is far more than just about any other game (only Civ V comes close). Needing a little break from TBS titles like Eador, and having done just about everything in Skyrim itself, I figured I’d give Risen a shot.
This won’t be a full review (here is an excellent one that says a lot of what I would), but rather just some observations, mostly around how this game is and isn’t like Skyrim.
Graphically Skyrim is far superior, but then again it’s also the newer game (Risen came out in 2009) with a lot of mod support focused around making it look even better. That said maxed out Risen doesn’t look bad, and I think it’s graphic style has aged better than say ES:Oblivion, particularly character faces. Even a bit dated, Risen will sometimes surprise with a great looking vista or atmospheric cave/tomb.
I have a same-but-different love/hate relationship with the combat, similar to Skyrim. Initially I thought Risen combat was clunky and frustrating, especially because the game can be so difficult (more on that later), but the more I play the more I appreciate fighting different monsters, using different weapons, and getting a ‘feel’ for things. Killing a tougher monster through successful use of combos, blocks, and dodging can be a fist-pump moment, which I think says a lot about the game overall but specifically about the enjoyment of combat.
The biggest difference between Risen and Skyrim to me is the setup of the world you play in. While Skyrim is almost too open-world, Risen jumps between keeping you restricted to one area for a bit of time to letting you run free around the island (though highly limited based on monster difficulty).
I think my favorite example of this is design in Risen is the placement of monsters. Just outside a cave you will find easier monsters like wolves, and if you kill them you can loot a chest they were near. If you go into the cave you might encounter a ‘higher tier’ of monster, and if you manage to kill them and go a bit deeper, you might find an even tougher challenge. The important part here is that unlike many other games, the ‘monster tiers’ in Risen are pretty harsh. An easier monster might need to hit you 10 times to kill you, while you only need to hit it 2-3 times. A ‘normal’ monster might take 5-6 hits, killing you in about that many, while a tough mob will drop you in 2-3 hits, and will require 15+ hits to kill. So while a tough monster isn’t impossible to take down, it sure is damn hard, and when you come across a location with 3-4 of them, you know this is a location you should come back to later.
What I love about this design is that the game doesn’t force you to stop. You can try and power through that tough monster (or have its AI bug out for a cheap kill, which occasionally happens), and if they are related to some future quest, you will actually get credit. More than once I’ve gotten a “quest complete” message while randomly exploring and killing/collecting stuff, and to my surprise, Risen is smart enough to not only give you credit, but also have the related quest NPC dialog handle this situation (“I want you to go kill X” “I’ve already done it, here is the proof” “Well, you work fast don’t you” is dialog that happens in Risen).
Speaking of characters and dialog, I must say I like them more in Risen than I did in Skyrim. Skyrim too often wanted to be epic about something, but came of kinda silly (a lot of the main quest, IMO). Risen feel authentic to me. Everyone is stuck on this island due to the storms, they are all bothered in one way or another by the monsters, and the two major factions dislike each other for solid reasons. Some character are smart about what they want, others are selfish, but I’ve yet to come across anything that feels majorly out of place or disconnected from the game. The voice acting and writing is also top-notch and pulls you into the game, rather than shaking you out of it.
Finally, while Skyrim never felt exceptionally difficult due to its world scaling with you, Risen is one of those “save before every fight, reload a bunch on anything tough” type of games. You will die, a lot, but that also makes finally beating something tough so much more rewarding. I also like that failure isn’t always ‘game over’. For example, I upset a local leader in one location, and to teach me a lesson he had all his goons attack me. Anytime I got close to one of them, they would agro, and most of them were too tough for me to beat at the time. They would beat me in combat, knock me down, take some gold, and walk away with an insult. Once all his goons got me once, the local leader’s dialog reflected this, which was not only excellent but made me really want to get at the bastard when I got stronger.
To tie this all together, I went in just hoping for a budget Skyrim, but instead found a different, and at times better version of the open-world RPG that Elder Scrolls is famous for. Risen isn’t an outright better game overall (Skyrim’s giant pile of content, and just overall polish, are very tough to beat), but for anyone who enjoyed Skyrim, I would say it’s very well worth your time.