Version tested: Xbox 360
Playing Risen is a lot like being a Dickensian waif, frostbitten nose pressed up against the window of some well-to-do household on Christmas Eve, empty belly growling as you gaze at the lavish feast laid out within - so tempting, but forever out of reach. It's just that where Risen is concerned the feast is a deep and rewarding RPG, and the window is made of horrible graphics, opaque design and clumsy combat.
The latest effort from German developer Piranha Bytes, it finds you washed ashore on the mysterious volcanic island of Faranga, beginning your adventure with just rags on your back and a stick in your hand. The land is blighted by mysterious ruins that have erupted from the Earth, spewing monsters like cut-price Oblivion Gates. This leads to a social schism between idealistic bandits living in the swamp and the religious fervour of the Inquisition. Both are plundering the ruins for gold and artefacts, as well as warring with each other, and you can work for either faction, if you're able to win their favour. It's about as generic as RPG world-building gets, and you're stymied from the start by a game engine that feels half-finished, making these initial forays into Risen's gloomy medieval world an exercise in frustration and disappointment.
Playable only in third-person perspective, movement is jerky and imprecise while the camera's twitchy lurching responses lead to motion sickness as you whirl around trying to work out which way to go in environments that too often lack distinguishing features. Combat is basic and graceless, a simple matter of bashing the A button to attack the giant sea vultures, gnomes and wolves that populate the area. The game employs a vague lock-on system that automatically kicks in when an enemy is up close and directly in front of you, but it apparently can't be arsed keeping tabs on an enemy should they suddenly feint around to flank you, which is, of course, precisely when a lock-on is most necessary.
This leads to immediate frustration as you grapple with your first few battles, and while experience dulls the pain over time it never stops being an annoyance. Fighting more than one enemy at a time is particularly aggravating, as they swarm from all sides, knocking lumps off your health bar while you flail and spin, wrestling with sluggish dodges, ineffectual parries and slippery viewpoints to line up a successful strike. The infrastructure seemingly goes out of its way to be as unintuitive and impenetrable as possible, too. A variety of busy, imposing menus are assigned to the d-pad. There's absolutely nothing to tell you what each menu button is for, or even how to perform basic functions like equipping items or assigning them to face-button shortcuts.
Anyone with a little RPG experience will work it out, of course, but that doesn't excuse the crude way the game throws you into a hostile world and then makes your support system so persistently unhelpful. You can always play with the manual to hand but that simply shouldn't be necessary in this day and age. Even the option to view the control layout would go some way to demystifying some of the stranger button allocations, but there's literally nothing in-game to illuminate the often arcane jumble of elements that are familiar yet needlessly elusive.
For example, pressing right calls up an overlay showing what clothing, weapons and items you have currently equipped. You can highlight each item, but can you change them from this screen? Apparently not. Instead you have to press up to access the sprawling inventory in a different overlay and choose your equipment from there, before going back to the first menu to see the effect of your changes. It should be as simple and streamlined as possible, especially since the game doesn't pause while you're in the menus, but Risen seems determined to make basic housekeeping tasks long-winded, confusing and utterly unnecessary.