The history of gnomes in games is, like gnomes themselves, short and pathetic. Gordon Freeman's got fired into space, then reappeared as Gnome Chompski in Left 4 Dead. Bully's idle fisher gnomes got smashed to dust so Jimmy could wear a gnome suit. WoW's gnomes are basically wannabe hobbits. And Risen? Risen turned our beloved garden ornaments into grotesque fat pig-goblin-thieves which you slaughtered by the hundred.
So, oddly, some of the developer's concern in RPG Risen II has been about gnomic rights. The sequence we saw, when it didn't feature 20 foot high mystical monsters or someone stealing a galleon, focused on the gnomes, their language and their fundamental aboriginal humanity - they're not monsters, they're not stupid, they've just been brought up in a primitive, alternative culture.
Not that the first game's massacre leaves you grinding your gnashers with guilt in this game. They're still not totally sympathetic individuals, though their thievery is now justified; apparently, each gnome is hunting for the object that will guarantee them access to the afterlife, essentially a fetish (in the old sense). Though, of course, this newfound character complexity isn't restricted just to gnomes. Your hero is a tortured soul too, poor thing.
For your hero, the first game ended with... Now look. These aren't really spoilers, per se, as the game's been out for ages and you're highly unlikely to play it. If you started it, and you haven't finished it, you're not going to. Get over it. You aren't going to have anything spoiled, I'm just clearing up an issue you have with finishing things. If you want to continue this conversation, our local therapist, Dr. Superb, is always available.
So, the first (buggy, messily-designed) game ended with your shipwrecked hero making his name defeating a Titan and saving an island from its vengeance. Except that while he was doing that, four other Titans were destroying the mainland, so all his efforts were for naught and he's a bit upset about it. The developers describe your hero's touchstone as a fallen John McClane; embittered and alcoholic. With some wonderfully blunt storytelling, you can tell this by the pile of bottles in his bedroom's corner.
Now, the old mainland is uninhabitable (the small section where your hero starts is a fortress surrounded by flaming lava and ash-black mountains) and the talk is all of getting to the new world; which, sadly, is impossible. Great tentacles grab ships travelling that way and drag them down to Davy Jone's Locker (where Davy Jones makes them smell his gym shoes, presumably). It's a bit like The Kraken Wakes meets Pirates of the Caribbean 3.
So your hero, lackadaisical and alcoholic since the first game, is entrusted with infiltrating the pirates and finding out how they stave off whatever these monsters are. We don't know how effective our hero is at this, because our demo jumped from this initial setting to him marooned on a desert island, apparently having made the amazing mistake of trusting pirates, akin to getting Charlie Brooker to give a eulogy.
And here we meet the gnomes. The first one you encounter on the beach, Jaffar, speaks a broken English, but is friendly enough. He's sadly been trained in English by pirates, so his language is pockmarked with cussing. (Developers, a quick word - swearing by itself isn't funny or clever. Nor does sweary dialogue get endearing the more of it there is).
Jaffar, once you've got past his tedious potty mouth, offers to build you a boat - your first in the game, a simple raft - if you can get him a shopping list of flotsam; planks, shirts and vines. He also offers to travel with you, as your companion. Companions in the game fight alongside you, but also bring special abilities; Jaffar's is to auto-loot corpses for you, in line with the gnomes' need to find their heaven fetish.
So our piratical gnome leads you through the jungle to his cave. Along the way, we get a quick taste of combat, where giant jungle spiders assail you. Jaffar pitches in, but the combat is over quickly - the hero is unsurprisingly effective but the combat looks quite animation-heavy and the hero's movement clunky, so we worry about the responsiveness in more complicated situations.
Reaching the cave, we're introduced to what appear to be the effing Wombles, a whole cross-section of gnomish society. There's Nuri, who doesn't speak a jot of English. With him, you can either go away and level up your hero's Silver Tongue skill enough that your hero learns his language instantly, or blunder through trying to work out the (extremely simple) vocabulary yourself, to see what his quest actually is. Then there's Kaan (if FrozenByte fail to make the Star Trek joke, a little bit of us will die), who is fluent in English and extremely well spoken; so well spoken, in fact, that he corrects our hero's grammar. We get the message guys, gnomes are people too.
Our demo again skipped on from the gnomes and their ethical dilemmas to a more open ended section, set in the fort of Puerto Isabella. Here your aim is to steal a ship floating in the harbour - the problem being that you need supplies and a crew as well. And to get out from under the fort's guns without being sunk.
Like Oblivion, the soldiers of the fort interact socially with each other and follow set routines, meaning you can both listen into their dialogue to get tips and quests and work around them like Batman, picking them off when they're isolated. Much of our demo time was taken up with the hero, sneaking around, spiking cannons, nobbling guards and blasting his crew out of prison. The small area was pleasant enough, reminiscent of WoW's original Ratchett and evoked a feel about the whole game of a primitive Witcher 2, with a nice variety of mixed quest types.
This section also showed off the single item of the game that made me sit up and take notice, a remote-control monkey that can be used to access small spaces, as well as powder kegs the hero could scatter round the place, to act as traps for the AI-deficient guards. Once we'd got the ship, we were told, the whole world opens up for your piratical depredations - though we weren't shown this.
We also saw a quick combat demo, set in a ruined temple, where your hero and a team of navy riflemen go up against another pirate. He's called Crow, he's armed with a formidable native artefact, a great spirit spear, an equally formidable Midlands accent, and could be a bad Johnny Depp parody - and if so, it's very, very bad. He sends a wave of natives against you, who are swiftly dispatched by the sharpshooting of your riflemen. Then he summons a stone golem who hurls great rocks, backed up by a horde of pirates.
The combat wasn't complicated, but it really wasn't interesting or new. Having dispatched Crow and his cronies easily, and acquired the spirit spear, even the developer struggled to avoid the Titan's attacks. If you have to resort to bunnyhopping, then you might want to reconsider how cheap you make your bosses.
By going down the piratical career, Risen 2 has definitely taken an unexpected turn; since the days of Monkey Island, Sid Meier's Pirates, and the criminally underplayed Neverwinter Night's expansion Pirates of the Sword Coast, there hasn't been a proper pirate RPG that wasn't totally action-oriented. Currently, Dark Waters lacks polish but there's obviously a great, handcrafted world to explore, though we're not sure how much of the openness of the original Risen remains. Or how much more gnomic dialogue we can take.