I’d like to take a moment to tell you about Gothic. Crazy German RPG from a few years back, with an amazing take on action-adventure-rpgs. It wasn’t trying to be an RPG. It seriously had the bare minimum. You had hp, mp, strength, dex… 4 weapon skills, and a handfull of one-off abilities you could buy up like lockpicking, or harvesting trophies from critters. The weapons did get better, but the wielder is what was deadly.
The focus wasn’t so much on the RPG elements. It was on the world. You were set loose on a valley without any reason to care about anyone in it. Your quests often had multiple outcomes based on who you were willing (or eager) to screw over.
There was so much to do that you could play for days without even needing to mess with the main plot. Before you ever had to embark on saving anyone, you got to know the world.
The sequel, Gothic II, was a masterpiece. Sidequests were deep, varied, and kept cropping up throughout the game. Which makes sense, since you really can’t drive off robed mystery men from a man’s home until after they’ve invaded. It even had a good reason for playing the same character back at level 1 again… it took a few weeks to rescue you from the first game, and you were half-mad and half-starved from being trapped in rubble.
The 3rd game in the series… first change in the engine… and it sucked. The combat was tied to the animations, and they couldn’t change the animations by the time they figured out they’d built a set of rules where a wolf could juggle a seasoned fighter to death. Players feared barks, and would be relieved by a mere combat with dragons. They fight fair, flamethrower notwithstanding.
A few too many corners were cut. The game had clearly shipped on time, but at a brutal cost. Still, the quests kept their depth. And if you were willing to put up with a horrible combat system, the game did yield a truly impressive level of control over the fate of the world. Be a champion of light? Dark? Or go with the bright idea the necromancer has and kick all the gods out of the world, and forget this whole “every thousand years” war BS.
This brings me to Risen. Clearly by the same guys that brought us the first Gothic game. Since the combat isn’t broken by bad animation, it’s a much better game than their next most recent offering. But it does have a few problems. I can’t complain about the combat system, although it’s gotten a bit more depth. There are now 3 melee weapons skills to go with the 2 ranged ones, and raising skill gives you more maneuvers and lets you use a shield with even two-handed weapons.
The quest log has a button you can hit to see map locations for any given quest (if given). Always a nice touch.
The problem I had with the game wasn’t the combat, or the magic systems… or the (limited) crafting.
The problem I had was with the sidequests. But it’s a difficult thing to address. You have to understand that this is a game that gives you an open world at the outset. The only limitation to where you can go is what’s going to kill you. A bit of training and a lot of prudence (and cunning use of sheer cowardice) can allow you to go virtually anywhere from the beginning. So it’s quite simple to end up doing some parts of some quests quite out of order.
And that means that, while it doesn’t really break a plot to have you gather up vital macguffins ahead of time… the game does give you the quest update whether or not you’d started it. It’s not a terribly subtle way of saying “This seems important!” Also, it’s not possible to cover absolutely every permutation… so you get some very odd responses if you do things in a particular order.
One very beautiful quest line involves a pirate’s daughter. She’s looking for her father…’s treasure. So’s another pirate. At one point, you split up, and of course, she’s captured. You get to play Russian roulette with trapped chests (and a set of clues to tell which ones not to pick) and bring out the reward (including a main plot macguffin) to exchange for the girl’s location. All anybody really wants is the map to the other treasure hauls around the various islands. I don’t dig the ransom thing, so as soon as I had the key to the girl’s cell and her location… I slew five pirates and took the map back.
Problem was… when I rescued her, my side of the conversation said “I gave him the map.” She was a bit put out by this. Then I got the option to say “I got the map.” It was more than a little clunky, and it felt as though that method of resolving the quest should have been accounted for in the dialog.
Still, for the most part, as long as you aren’t expecting as much in the way of conversation options as previous games covered, it’s an awesome romp in a not-quite-standard RPG realm. There are some curious design choices… like, even if you are a mage, the endgame fight is basically Zelda. You use a shield to reflect glowies back at the boss, run up and hit him. Repeat. Try not to fall into the volcano. Your entire game’s combat practice is irrelevant, because someone wanted the end-game boss to be “different”, I guess.
A graphical glitch also marred my enjoyment. The sky would tend to flicker through day and night quite spastically. A quick internet search revealed a need to upgrade my graphics drivers. No problem. It worked nicely… for a while. A few days later, there are problems when moving into certain areas, causing the rapid flicker… and whatever time of day it stopped on when I left, all the NPCs would do whatever was appropriate then. If it stopped on night, they went to bed. If it stopped on day, they’d go to work. That’s… more than mere graphics at fault. Worse, the game eventually froze on midnight and refused to budge from there. I had to wake people up to complete quests… despite the risk of retaliation from trespassing.
Some who have played this game confessed disappointment to me… because the sheer volume of sidequests at the outset set an expectation… that there would be more as the main plot progressed. This was proven wrong, obviously. Only a few important threads tied into the main plot and were developed in the later chapters. I believe it has something to do with the design philosophy. The quests are things to do, and they’re scattered around the island. You are the only one determining how fast you plow through them. You alone determine if there are any left before you advance the main plot. It is like hunting down all the hidden packages in GTA before doing the second mission. Nobody forced you to do it in that order.
And that’s something most players don’t get out of an RPG… choice. It’s not even implemented particularly satisfyingly here, in all cases. It’s usually between two sides, and eventually just becomes a linear progression towards an inevitable destiny. Which… actually… is the theme.
Still, good to see these crazy guys are still working, still pounding out… well, it’s basically refurbished Gothic 1. But that was still better than 3, so… yay!
(Note, the above review contains spoilers. If you wanted to avoid them, you should have looked at the end of the review first, since that’s all you’d care about.)