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After an atrocious first act I was ready to discard Risen as one of the worst Role-playing games I'd played in years. But after straining through hours of boredom the game finally opened up into an excellent and complex game that had characters and quests which were truly gripping and amazing. With a morality system that made me feel as if I was actually part of this savage Mediterranean world I found Risen had a heart and soul that most other western RPGs wouldn't dare to include.
My first five hours with Risen were some of the most difficult I've ever experienced with an RPG. An unconvincing cutscene, a generic looking world, and a main character than sounded less enthusiast about being on Faranga than I did playing it, all contrived to make the opening minutes feel like hours until the main plot started.
Usually I'm fine with RPGs that start slowly, but the first act of Risen was woefully dull with a multitude of fetch quests that saw me doing the most boring and generic tasks a RPG has ever had the audacity to make me do before. This tedious mix of running from bandit camp to city, and from city to monastery gave me first hand experience of the island's politics. Although later in the game this becomes more meaningful, spending the first five hours listening to each faction's struggle against another was the narrative that very nearly sunk the game for me.
Even in those early moments I was starting to feel a sense of responsibility for these characters.
The only aspect of this atrocious first part that made it worth sticking with were the characters. It's here that Risen began to excel and I was surprised to find my feelings for this collection of barmaids, fighters, corrupt leaders and monastic fanatics growing with each passing quest. Usually I find characters in these western RPGs to be uncomplicated cut-outs of generic stereotypes, but thanks to the excellent voice acting I began to feel some connection to them. The most harrowing and moving of all being a mother, worried about her missing sons and wondering if they'd ever come home to her alive.
This is what kept Risen foremost in my mind when I was away from the game. Even in those early moments I was starting to feel a sense of responsibility for these characters. Seeing how depressing most of their lives and situations were made me all the more determined to help them out when the game finally lurched into 2nd gear. By the time the real threat to the island made itself known I was already invested in the people affected by it and felt a real tug of comradeship that made me want to help them out.
The main story itself succumbs to the genre's staples and is nothing more than any variant on Dungeons and Dragons. But where I found the most reward was with the little touches that pepper the quests and make up the side-stories. These touches include the morality system which is the most interesting and fascinating part of the game. Individual characters reacted to how I treated them - even if substantial time had passed since I tried to bully them, or conversely, tried to seduce them. My standing with one of the factions changed more than once because of the ripple effect of treating a certain character in a certain way.
The multiple ways I could reach my end objective and the effect that would have on the characters involved really made me think about what I was doing.
The quests themselves were excellent affairs and it was the manner with which I could approach every single one that gave the game real soul. The multiple ways I could reach my end objective and the effect that would have on the characters involved really made me think about what I was doing. I could betray a friend to get more gold, but what would that do later on in the story? Should I side with some nefarious types for a short-term gain, or do I report them and gain reputation as a do-gooder?
This type of choice always presented me with a challenge and it made the world of Risen all the more realistic and meaningful. When my actions, whether good, bad, or indifferent led to some dramatic changes then I made me feel like a real person in this world. And if Risen's quest structure is its soul then the general feel of the locations give it a heart. Not in the brave, honourable and majestic way some RPGs like their world to be portrayed. No. Faranga's towns and bandit hideout contain a palpable sense of utter realism, of the misery of living a hard life under the brutal rule of the monastic Inquisitor or being under the yoke of a murderous bandit leader. There's more than a passing resemblance to the world of The Witcher here and I felt burdened with the troubles of the townsfolk I came across, just as I did when playing as Geralt.
All this not only sits comfortably with the fantastical surroundings and the monsters that are invading the land, it also adds credence to their existence. Despite Risen's many bugs and graphical glitches on the Xbox360 (play on PC if you can), it's an RPG that has more gritty soul, more accurate characters and a more complex morality system than I've ever played before. It excelled at creating a world I felt a part of and contained characters that I always cared for and always tried to help. It's main story may not reach the heights of Baldur's Gate 2 or The Witcher, but Risen's character has given me an experience I won't forget and a world I'm eager to return to.
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