Since time began, Piranha Bytes' RPGs have always had one thing in common. They are "interesting", much as Oblivion was less "interesting" than Morrowind, and sipping coffee is less "interesting" than drinking Mr. Muscle. A peek at Piranha Bytes' releases reveals games that are ambitious, rickety and, above all, kind of a dick.
Their attitude is that players should be set free not just to explore, but to make their own mistakes or tell their own story at the expense of the plot. Most recently, 2009's Risen dropped you like an amoral alka-seltzer into a world full of competing factions, where you could not only pick a fight with any NPC, but if you defeated them, you'd get to make that final, fatal call of whether to help them up or deliver a lackadaisical killing blow (which returns in Risen 2).
In the end, Risen wasn't a wise purchase due to writing, voice-acting, balance, combat and bugs that meant it was about as stable as a three-legged giraffe - but like that same giraffe, it had heart. It was the same story in the slightly more hardcore Gothic games before that - which, among other things, made Orcs a faction with their own culture and motives that you could actually side with. Talking to the monsters! Good stuff.
Which brings us to 2012's Risen 2: Dark Waters. In brief, then: the journey away from the hardcore that Piranha Bytes began with Risen has basically finished.
The old world is literally burning. Ubervillain, mystery mermaid and "sea-bitch" Mara now commands the power of the Titans that made the very world itself. Under her orders, they're busy un-making it. A disappointingly brief opening chapter in a continent reduced to ash and ember quickly gives way to something completely different.
This is because hope for the world can be found in the form of a cantankerous and nauseatingly generic pirate called Captain Steelbeard. Rumour has it that he's discovered a weapon to fight the Titans with, and so it is that our slice of white bread of a protagonist is sent into a disappointingly plain fantasy interpretation of the 17th-century Caribbean, where the "Inquisition", playing the role of European colonists, rub shoulders with spear-chucking locals and rum-suckled pirates. Hollywood piratical imagery might be a bit of a bald tyre struggling for traction on a cold road, but in an RPG it is, at least, a bit novel.
That said, the pirate thing is pushed to its very limits here. What starts as a simple quest to infiltrate the pirates rapidly ravels into a tricky knot involving friendly tribes, loveable thieves, powerful voodoo, the steadfast Inquisition and a selection of powerful artifacts and treasure that covers Risen 2's islands like so much loose flotsam.
Now, this is the part where I wish I could tell you to forget all that generic stuff, because this is a game where I did A to character B because of decision C and then D happened. That's the lineage this game comes from. I'd go on to say that the game's a laudable feat for a tiny developer, and maybe you should think about getting it despite the bugs. I had that paragraph on a macro and everything. But I can't use it, and not just because Risen 2 is a perfectly stable release. It's also smilingly, crushingly average.
Let's start with the swashbuckling third-person combat. It might not be fresh, but it does manage to be slightly salty. Dedicated swordfighting characters would do well to kick off a battle by unloading a brace of pistols in their opponents' direction, while marksmen should simply learn how to kick. The end result is something intoxicatingly engaging, like driving an affordable car down a slight incline. Swordfighting has an awkward mini-game of slashing, blocking and parrying, and marksmanship requires you to keep an aiming reticule on your target, but it's all little more than gentle finger yoga. What tension the game manages from having a well-playtested difficulty curve is trampled on by a quicksave-around-every-corner play style.
General character development is similarly not-terrible, and makes up for what it lacks in content with quiet charm. Four hours in, I sold my sabre and started experimenting with muskets, only to discover that a physics quirk means the killing blow with a gun sends monkeys and humans alike catapulting across the landscape like 747s coming in for a landing. Best game ever!
Eight hours in I was down on the beach, defeating crabs the size of minivans by hurling fat handfuls of salt into their eyes then kicking them onto their backs. Another five hours in I fancied myself as a deadly voodoo priest, eagerly pocketing any jaguar hearts or turkey eyeballs I found on my travels like so much slippery loose change.
Importantly, this was all amusing, but none of it was exciting. Even excavating buried treasure is tempered by an unskippable 20-second animation, if you include opening the sodding thing after you've dug it up (assuming you don't just walk away in horror).
Yet the game functions. By which I don't just mean the mechanics and code. Similarly functional are the story, the signposting, the large-scale fights, the variety in the quests, the occasional decision as to which faction to throw in with. It all works. You can drift through it like a hero-shaped boat floating back and forth across a swimming pool. Which is exactly what Piranha Bytes isn't good at.
On the one hand, this game is a success for the German studio. From taking on savages with a pepperpot pistol and a pet monkey, through more complicated stuff like dueling NPCs, robbing their houses and then coming back the next day, to the happy completionist sub-quests to do with amassing booty and recruiting a huge crew, Risen 2 represents a kind of quiet entertainment that they've never before managed.
But it is quiet, is the thing. A series of increasingly difficult sealed areas makes for a smoother experience, but removes the thrill of one grand world. Likewise, a chirpy, vaudevillian tone seems to have arrived as part of the sunny piratical setting. Which isn't to say this is a game for a younger audience. There are still dozens of characters who'll tell you to f*** off (though bizarrely, pirate captains still use colourful euphemisms instead of swearing), as well as a range of references to screwing the local tribeswomen and, speaking of them, an interpretation of native peoples that's just a bit slimy.
Aztec-looking temples loom next to voodoo cauldrons, supervised by busty, painted women that speak the language of the colonists perfectly yet still refer to guns as "thundersticks". That is, they live like this when they're not working as slaves in the Inquisition's sugar cane fields. While it's not handled with malice, the carelessness might frustrate.
Which is to say nothing of the fact that every single woman in the game wears a top you could lose your glasses down (with the exception of villain Mara, who wears nothing, and two large alligators whose gender I was unable to determine), or the script, where every conversation with a woman revolves around the fact that she's a woman like hair circling a drain. Never mind the quickloading - it's this nonsense that makes Risen 2 seem dated.
Ultimately, I'm going have to be a true pirate and shoot a hole in this game's sails. There's simply not a single thing that Risen 2 does well, not its stilted combat, not its transparent towns, and definitely not its plot, which feels like something you'd come up with after passing out with the Pirates of the Caribbean DVD menu music in the background. Then again, there's nothing it does badly either, so it's no thief. Not at all. Just a ship with no star to sail by.
Risen 2 is available now on PC. The Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions are scheduled to be released on 3rd August.