Version tested: Xbox 360
Devoted followers of all things role-playing have been well served by the long-running battle between good and evil, and Rise of the Argonauts frames its re-imagining of Jason and his quest for the Golden Fleece in the starkest of traditional contrasts: Jason, already king and faithful protector of Iolcus, is set on his path by the murder of his new wife, Alceme, on their wedding day, by the suitably putrid, Hecate-worshipping Blacktongues.
It isn't long, however, before proceedings are sprinkled with welcome ambiguity. Jason seeks the Fleece not to serve the usual notions of loyalty, honour or selflessness but simply to resurrect Alceme, and soon finds himself in league with the gods Ares, Hermes, Apollo and Athena, all of whom will see their own interests served by his decision to abandon his people to the regency of Pelias, whose manner and dress sense are enough to illustrate Jason's rather daft decision, even for players who aren't aware of his role in the original Greek mythology from which Rise of the Argonauts borrows most of its cast.
After a fevered introduction to combat, Jason is initially consigned to trotting through the vast halls of his palace and the surrounding village passing on news to the bereaved families of guards killed in the initial Blacktongue assault, in-between listening to fortune-tellers, conversing with servants, noblemen-and-women and his guards about his duties to Iolcus (the ones he's not bothering with for the next ten hours), and the virtues of the gods and their various dominions. Apart from some sparring, there's little besides running around and talking for over an hour, before Jason finally takes delivery of his ship, the Argo, and sets off on a course to recruit the gods' descendants so he can locate the Fleece.
Conversation, which owes almost as much to BioWare in structure as it does to Greek mythology in content, does at least feed back into combat, as do the trivial tasks Jason performs before his departure and throughout the game. At certain points in conversation you're given several possible responses, and each choice represents a minor tribute to one of the four gods. Completed tasks - whether story-specific, incidental or combat-related - are recorded as Achievement-style deeds, which can be offered up to your choice of god as well. You can then invest the spoils of worship in more powerful attacks, passive bonuses and special "god powers".
Combat intensifies as Jason's quest takes him to the lands of Mycenae, Saria and Kythra, and while you're often flanked by your choice of two companions from the heroes you recruit along the way, they do their own thing, leaving you to concentrate on slaying Blacktongues, Ionians, minotaurs, satyrs and occasionally worse, using a mixture of sword, spear and mace, ever-blocking with your big golden shield. Along with the gods' boons, there are new versions of each weapon, which you receive at intervals (and can switch between back on the Argo), as well as new armour to uncover. However, your unlocks are linked to pivotal conversations and story events, rather than any overarching system. Your deeds constitute experience, and there's nothing else in the game to gather.
Simplification isn't always a bad thing, but sadly the result here feeds into a bland combat system, where despite the impressive towers of boons and god powers available to consider in the menus, the majority of conflicts are decided by two medium attacks followed by a hard "execution" blow, or by two successive execution strikes. From beginning to end, the most considered thing you have to do is occasionally switch from your favourite weapon to one of the others to suit a particular boss, or activate a god power to buff your attacks or reinforce your comrades, the choice of which doesn't have much bearing on wherever you're currently carving up the enemy, apart from different quips and incidental conversation around about the place. There are no combos to work towards, or ways to cooperate with your pals, and most of your enemies' attacks are basic, while their masters simply follow scripted patterns.
Away from battle, the story becomes rather more endearing as you deal with the problems facing the people you encounter, each of whom is suffering at the hands of some local evil you need to uncover, and here the game is relatively successful at marrying its ancient inspiration to basic detective work. On the apparently cursed island of Kythra, for example, you find yourself seeking evidence to save the life of a condemned criminal, before exercising your judgement to decide the fate of his rather more tainted companion, and as you consider the failings of Medusa and Perseus you find yourself caught up in an absorbing, interactive debate with Phaedon over the right of the Golden Fleece to exist at all.
But these relative successes are marred. Phaedon's philosophical jousting, for example, is the other side of a crude memory game, and followed by a dull boss fight, while decisions about how to treat the people you encounter are often trivial. You simply pick the response that serves whichever god you're currently trying to get some powers out of, aware by this stage that the structure of the game is rather more linear than it lets on. Choice is generally an illusion, if it's even offered, as it isn't when you're invited to either bludgeon your wife's murderer to death, watching on from his perspective after ten minutes of playing, or stand there motionless and not play the game any longer.
Argonauts' illusion of scope is initially more successful, as Unreal Engine 3 is used to conjure a vast game-world, but this is also shattered, and quickly, by narrow corridors of movement, barricaded arbitrarily, and the lifelessness of the places you visit. Iolcus, Kythra and Saria are galleries of motionless non-player characters, only some of whom have things to say, and even the more invigorated Mycenae is stunted by its own immobile NPCs and the obligatory minutes of jogging around it to reach points marked on your map.
In the absence of an on-screen guide, it's necessary to dive into the pause menu's map screen wherever you go, and regularly, to find the NPCs and locations of relevance marked along its prescribed pathways. Like the combat and conversation systems, it leaves you in no doubt where you need to go, and in no doubt of the superficiality of your orienteering between people and places designed to shunt the game into its next phase, despite the fact you often have more than one thing to achieve at a time.
For all this, Argonauts' premise might have been its redemption. Combat, exploration and conversation may be processional, but there's something intriguing about Jason's apparently unwitting selfishness, upon which the game builds its masks of virtues inspired by its principle gods. Were the game to realise this, it might make up for all the hours spent wading through long-winded, often incidental conversations, grimacing at the pauses between speech (even in spite of the ability to preload your chosen responses) and the vacant expressions of the stony-faced cast.
Given what a large number of Greek myths were meant to symbolise, Argonauts' cultural inspiration cries out for a measure of narrative justice. Surely Jason must pay for the decision he has made - to save himself from the certainty of grief and solitude - however noble the acts it has driven him to perform in service to that quest?
But if this is a cautionary tale, it's one of this player's misplaced, increasingly desperate hope to derive some greater meaning. There is only one path, and while you meet a few interesting people and solve a few worthy problems on the way, the fundamental paradox at the heart of Rise of the Argonauts is never explored or resolved. Instead, the game concludes disagreeably, as virtually everyone Jason is supposed to protect is left tortured and dead by his original departure, and he simply has a party because he got what he wanted. For an action RPG elevated beyond its serviceable components by the allure of rich mythology to end in such a desperate contradiction is comprehensively self-destructive.
3 / 10