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On the Shoulders of Sleeping Giants: Witcher 2 and Risen 2

CD Projekt Red Studios took the gaming industry by storm last year with the PC exclusive release of The Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings. They did this by embodying the ideals of what it takes to make a mature and sophisticated role-playing game not only through narration and vision but through gameplay as well. CD Projekt Red promises to expand their audience even further with the new release of The Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings Enhanced Edition on April 17, 2012 for the Xbox 360 and PC.

The first Witcher was a great game, no doubt, but it pales in comparison when held-up next to its glowing counterpart. The story, graphics, animations, and combat systems were much improved, alongside a deeper and more diversely consequential skill distribution system for leveling and other RPG elements over the original Witcher. The improvements from The Witcher 1 to The Witcher 2 were vast and the gaming world took notice.

The Witcher 2 had become a sleeper-hit of sorts. It came as no surprise to many whom follow the game series, the developers, or novels, but the rest of the video game consumer world felt as though the RPG masterpiece came out of nowhere. I suspect that The Witcher 2 will come as an even greater surprise to the Xbox community seeing as many Xbox gamers have never heard of the first Witcher game because it was strictly a PC exclusive.

What other gaming titles will be sleeping giants? What else out there is slipping under the radar of the ever-hungry consumer machine? What, if any, title on the horizon can feed the appetite of people starving for a game both mature and sophisticated like that of The Witcher 2? My sights are set upon a game developer Piranha Bytes; hopefully they are cooking-up something that agrees with our palette.

I have recently replayed the first Risen again and I’ve been paying close attention to the developer process of Risen 2 over the last year. With Risen 2: Dark Waters right around the corner I can’t help but let my mind run away with ideas about how Piranha Bytes could have something delicious in store for us RPG lovers to sink our teeth into. My mind is set loose by the aroma of what is brewing right around the bend and I begin to imagine all of the wonderments Risen 2 may have in store for us.

I cannot wait to get a taste.  Will the combat be improved? Are the environments going to feel livelier and less desolate? How well will the new faction system be integrated into the story? Will the Xbox version still feel like a fumbled port? Will the sound be mixed into the gameplay more substantially? How much will character and NPC animations be improved? Will Risen 2: Dark Waters be greatly improved like The Witcher series was? So many questions, thankfully there are some answers.

Before we can sate our appetites on what the future has in store though, I’m going to set my sights to the past. Looking at Risen’s first installment and Piranha Bytes’ ideas for the future may uncover signs foreshadowing an improved predecessor. Possibly Risen and The Witcher will be kindred spirits in that vein.

Now, let us go back and enter the realm of Risen.  Piranha Bytes is not a new developer to the world of immersive and expansive role-playing games. As a matter of fact, they’ve been making some top-shelve entries into the genre since the late 90’s with the Gothic series. Risen, released in late 2009, is Piranha Bytes’ spiritual successor to the Gothic franchise. If you’re a fan of the Gothic series or European-style RPGs then you’re going to try your damnedest to love Risen, and there is a lot to love, but the first Risen definitely tries its hardest to have an unhealthy relationship with the player.  Risen is love-hate all around and some faulty combat mechanics will keep you two fighting back’n forth.  You’ll be screaming at Risen and it will be killing you without regret or thought for your feelings. But, Risen2: Dark Waters promises to fix all of that.

Like a spouse returning home after a fight with candies or flowers, Piranha Bytes has paid very close attention to player feedback and criticism of Risen. They’re here to say that they want to do their best to make us happy. The most problematic aspect of Risen is its combat. Combat is great and horrible all at the same time. You may initially think to yourself that the game is simply too damn difficult. However, after you’ve lowered the game’s difficulty to easy and come to find that you’re still getting killed far too frequently, you know there is something wrong with the combat or at least the scaling of the protagonist and foes. This is when you realize the game is difficult for the wrong reasons.

There are two main reasons why the game’s combat is difficult, not due to crafty mechanics, but poor game implementations.

The first reason is input reading. You have seen input reading if you have played and reached the last boss in a fighting game. It’s the reason why the last boss in a fighting game is so difficult. Input reading is essentially when the computer AI reacts in its advantage by reading your key functions to perform movements faster than your character can execute their animation.  An enemy might be an inch in front of you and because you take half a second to pull your sword back to swing, the enemy can dodge with plenty of time to spare before you start to arc your arm forward to do the portion of the animation that actually causes damage and connects with the foe. It doesn’t feel like your foe is an intelligent fighter or superior warrior, it just feels cheap because they’re reacting to something impossibly fast.

The second reason has to do with lack of information. It is one thing when a game does not have a tutorial with gameplay that is intuitive to a player. It is a completely different thing to have no tutorial in a game that has combat mechanics that are not self-explanatory or intuitive at all. Risen should explain its combat more effectively.

Risen is not a button masher, it’s an RPG and timing is very important to your weapon swings. This is one of the worst and best aspects of its combat because the game never goes out of its way to tell you about it at all, but the timed strikes are pretty fantastic after you’ve mastered them. Timed weapon swings are important and when you actually press that attack button affects how fluidly or staggered you swing your weapon. Some enemies might require very fast, fluid attack combinations to get struck and other enemies might require off-set combinations with a pause to throw them off to get struck. It is a really deep combat feature, but because the game never explains this feature, people will most likely quit the game due to difficulty before they even realize this combat element.

There is no doubt that Risen is a very good game, but I hope it pales in comparison when held-up next to its future counterpart in the same fashion as when The Witcher is contrasted with The Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings. If these Piranha Bytes development videos are any indication to what the future holds for Risen then I think it’s looking very promising for the next installment of the swashbuckling pirate role-playing adventure. I know I'm hungry for more Risen.



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