What do RPG fans want? Rise of the Argonauts' lead designer Charley Price believes they want a strong, customisable character with choices to make. And beyond that, it should be simple. Price says he's been busy "discarding the baggage of Dungeons & Dragons" for Argonauts - due out on PC, PS3 and 360 later this year - because it's laborious and repetitive. There's no juggling inventory items, no health or mana bars, no levelling up, XP or grind, and menus are few. This is a third-person action-RPG built on Unreal Engine 3. And Argonauts doesn't stop at reinterpreting the genre; it also wants to resurrect Ancient Greece.
Yes, we're back in the world of muscle-men, women with snakes on their heads and squabbling gods, ala Jason and the Argonauts - the film upon which the game's loosely based - and Price is obsessed by it all. You'll visit Delphi, the island of Apollo, for instance, and fight your way from the dark base of a mountain to the sun-drenched summit, signifying a journey from ignorance to enlightenment. "In many ways it's the foundation of literature, of drama," Price says of Ancient Greece. "It's this awesome fantasy setting that already has this street credibility in a literary perspective." Medusa perhaps best personifies the reinterpretation, with great snakes many times the size of Jason and his companions filling the screen and trying to eat you up. Even when the game adds a touch of dramatic licence it's paid for in good gameplay.
You, meanwhile, start off by fitting yourself into the sandals of the kingly Jason, and begin on your wedding day as bride-to-be Alceme is assassinated, before thundering through the usually-serene pastoral island of Iolcus in pursuit of the murderer. Once you get your revenge, you carry Alceme to the mausoleum and seal yourself in there for days. Eventually you emerge and undertake a quest to find the fabled Golden Fleece, which legend says can bring the dead back to life. You seek out your old friend Hercules to assist, and prepare to right the wrongs of the dark titan Hecate and his Blacktongue cult assassins on the way.
In all you'll visit seven islands on your quest (plus a couple of extras) and each should take two hours to conquer with the help of your Argonaut pals. Hercules is joined by Achilles, Pan and Atalanta, among others, and although they fight for themselves they also have specific skills and react to your plight. Hercules begins to grapple and expose enemies when you are close by so you can plunge something sharp and pointy into them, for example. Since we're in RPG-land, your Argonauts also have their own stories, and they chime in and add their thoughts to conversations or offer information on an area you're exploring. Dialogue is handled in a Mass Effect style, with multiple options branching out from a circle that shows the symbol of the god each decision favours.
Back to the start, though, and the opening doubles as a tutorial so you're immediately in the action grasping the basics. Not only are you a king but you're also a renowned warrior, so forget about punching rats - you've got a fast sword, a long-reaching chuckable spear, a mace and your shield, which is a symbol of your legend. Face buttons perform light (wounding) and heavy (execute) attacks, wave the shield and let you dodge, while triggers sprint and block, which moves your shield to meet blows from multiple angles.
Combos let you change pace and severity, and switch weapons mid-attack. At the core of the combat is Price's vision of "lethality": stab at an unprotected body part and you will injure or kill someone. There's a clever procedural animation system that works out what is hitting where and what the result should be, and this has a wonderfully random charm to it: bodies are chopped in half, torsos impaled, heads sent rolling - by your shield more often than not. Generally baddies increase in difficulty by learning how to block or dodge or parry, rather than by being given more hit points or higher levels. Bosses are harder to despatch, with multiple phases.
That "lethality" sandal doesn't quite fit the other foot though, because thankfully Jason can't be killed by a single blow. If you're caught with a critical hit or stamped on by a giant then you'll enter a "state of grace", where everything slows down and the edges of your screen turn red. Sometimes you bend double and start dripping blood. If you die, the automatic checkpoints stop you falling back too far. If you manage to run away then you'll recover. "It's not a punishing action game, it's a rewarding action game," says Price hopefully. An action game somewhere on the Ancient Greek scale between God of War and Titan Quest.
Jason also has various abilities to develop thanks to his ties to the old-gods-network of Ares, Hermes, Athena and Apollo. You're constantly favouring them with your violent acts - warry old Ares likes it when you use the mace, for example - and charming conversation, and this drives you along their skill trees. Powers are mapped to your d-pad and can be as extravagant as a void that sucks up nearby enemies a lightning bolt from the heavens to accompany your spear. Originally there was a "Miracle and Torment system" where a god randomly chipped in and helped out, but this has been scrapped in favour of the d-pad powers. There are around 25 in total and you should uncover the best part of two "god trees" on an average play-through, Price reckons.
There's also loot, obviously, and we saw several different types of equipment for each of Jason's slots: body, spear, sword and mace. But generally these pieces are much scarcer and as a result meaningful, in terms of the story behind them, than in other RPG affairs. Interestingly, the only piece that doesn't change is your shield, which Price calls your "Indiana Jones hat". It's the symbol of you as king, and will crop up all over the place - and on graffiti slagging you off in some cases. Another symbol is the famous Argo ship with its giant clockwork engine, which acts as something of a hub: Icarus' father Deadalus brings his entire blacksmith workshop on board, there's an armoury to store your equipment and a shrine where you offer your deeds to the gods, and it's also here that you pick your two Argonaut companions for each island.
So it is taking the odd liberty, but it's obvious that Argonauts is doing it with purpose and affection. Take the progress screen, for instance. It's a star chart where your deeds fill in classical Greek constellations as you earn them, and you can even super-power particularly special weapons after you complete related constellations, giving you a fiery mace or something equally flashy. And what a fire effect! The Unreal Engine 3 isn't always put to brilliant use here (models and environments are technically basic, despite the DX10 features of the PC build), but the art direction, and each island's painstaking research and special effects, carry it all marvellously. The only things we'd stick a question-mark next to are the voice-acting and cut-scenes, but we're promised these will be tightened up by the autumn.
Where Rise of the Argonauts has already succeeded though is in sticking to its design brief: going back to the roots of role-playing games and making tough decisions. "I think it's more that the concept of what people are looking for is changing," Price explains when we put it like that. Either way, the outcome is a strong, customisable character with choices to make in a game that's making Ancient Greece look rather cool again.
Rise of the Argonauts is due out on PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 this autumn.