Risen 2: Dark Waters establishes itself from its outset as a kind of pirate fantasy: a world where swashbuckling and swabbing decks meet curses and esoteric voodoo. From the opening narration the flavor is set as salt-and-rum fantasy and it’s a matter of minutes before you climb a guard tower in the howling night to witness a monstrosity from beneath the waves tear apart a ship just off shore. Yet if you think Risen 2 intends to start with a bang you’d be wrong. A handful of unimposing button instructions lead you through a lean combat tutorial; a swift affair where some brisk button mashing allows you to quickly overcome the low-level squabs scuttling up the beach.
Flash forward and a conversation with a military superior attempts to set the narrative for the game. Military situations, political affiliations, location name, and a sprinkling of mythology come off as more dizzying and confusing than intriguing, however. Launching into a quest to find a magical weapon to kill the dastardly kraken, the narrative begins to make sense, but its failure to grab your attention early on means it’s up to the ludic systems to court your interest.
Luckily, they do. While Risen 2 fires the cannon too early with its narrative, the individual systems that make up the RPG and combat are introduced at a more appropriate pace.
A quick scan around the beginning area opens up a handful of quests. Skills are taught, at a fee, by various characters you’ll meet on your travels, so an emphasis naturally falls on looting and questing so you can get the cash to level up.
On the next island, a colonial outpost and network of thick jungle, character options open up, giving players a fair amount of freedom between the paths of cunning, gunplay, and pirate voodoo. Having to acquire these skills from NPCs means that the game can drip-feed you new play styles. During my time on this island, I could get a sense of character progression without ever really feeling overwhelmed by new controls or strategies.
Of course leveling requires money, and money requires the execution of menial tasks for the work-shy members of Risen 2’s vibrant world. In this regard Risen 2 plays like an old-school adventure game with an RPG thrown over it like a snug blanket. Progression, whether it’s through the main quest, or the many side quests, is largely dependent on your ability to find the right NPC or select the correct scrap of dialogue. Captain Steelbeard appears to have an awfully strict and convoluted method of recruiting sailors for his crew – one that had me scratching my head and wandering aimlessly for quite some time.
Very little during my time with Risen 2came across as particularly objectionable. The narrative had me entirely lost and apathetic but the mechanics of the role-playing game were introduced gradually and appropriately, allowing me to experiment and get comfortable with the different nuances of combat without having to completely commit to any one path. The melee combat, consisting of deftly timed parries and strikes, could feel bogged down against a handful of enemies, but usually offered a satisfying way to sweep through foes. Perhaps future branches on the skill tree will help players deal with groups easier, perhaps the narrative arc will deign to let me aboard at some point, and hopefully the final build will eliminate all of those graphical niggles.
Regardless, Risen 2 shows heaps of promise; its rich setting and nods toward open-world exploration and freedom hint at something very enthralling, and gaming has been in need of a solid pirate-themed RPG for ages. If the game can play to its strengths then it could be great, offering a richly detailed swashbuckling adventure with a satisfying and rewarding role playing progression. If not, then it could drift unnoticed out to sea, left to sink among graphical peculiarities and an obtuse story.
Players will find out for sure when the game is released on April 24th for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC.