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Risen 2: Dark Waters: We're Going To Need A Lot More Rum

Company: Deep Silver

The sea is an unforgiving place, and the same can definitely be said for Risen 2: Dark Waters. A sequel to the fantasy RPG Risen, Dark Waters takes the story in a swashbuckling direction while keeping its RPG roots and Piranha Bytes' reputation for hands-off gameplay.

The hero from Risen, now a troubled Inquisition member drowning his past in rum, sets out to infiltrate a notorious pirate's crew and find a weapon that will stop the Titans that are rising to threaten the world. His companion is the daughter of one such black-hearted brigand, Steelbeard, who was cursed by the very same Titan you're trying to put down. Finding and stealing the weapon won't be easy, however: other pirates have thrown their lot in with the Titans and have been rewarded with treasure and power for betraying mankind. Even now, places of refuge are being overrun with sea monsters searching for the captain that refused the Titans' invitation, and shipping lanes are blocked by gargantuan krakens that devour anything that strays into their path.

The story and its characters are far and away Risen 2's greatest strength. Pirates shower each other in inventively-awful curses with every other breath, savage natives demand that you appease their ancestors before they teach you their dark magic, and rum is literally the lifeblood of the entire world. If you wander by a pair of NPCs and hear them strike up a conversation, stick around for a minute: it's almost always worth it.

Dark Waters also maintains developer Piranha Bytes' reputation for hands-off gameplay, where the player is expected to largely fend for themselves. You won't find any exclamation points hovering over NPC's heads or glowing trails on the ground leading you to that cave entrance you passed a minute ago. This creates some refreshing moments of discovery when you stumble upon an interesting mission or plotline while nosing around the tavern, but can also lead to serious frustration if you don't feel like having your ear talked off by the pig-faced barkeep. Thankfully, your journal keeps track not only of what missions you've picked up, but all that dialogue you decided to skip earlier and now have to dig back through to figure out where you're supposed to go next.

The other problem with this approach is that there's nothing to prevent you from passing up important missions that can literally mean the difference between life and death. Before setting off for Tacarigua, home to the pirate's base and an Inquisition colony, you're warned not to trust anyone in the colony with your secret mission. So, promptly after landing on the island, I trudged off into the wilderness with nothing but Steelbeard's daughter, my sword, and a smile.

Big mistake. By the time I found the pirates, my companion had gone haring off after a sand devil and never returned, I'd died half-a-dozen times to jaguars and once to a nightmarish creature called a cave spider, and I'd completely exhausted my meager supply of healing rations. If I'd stuck around in the colony, as I discovered on a second playthrough, I would have earned enough to buy several important items like clothes and a map that enables quick travel between locations. There's also a set of tutorial missions to learn the arts of sneaking and thieving from a captured pirate, two skills that can make life a lot easier and more profitable.

Those skills, though, come at a high price. You need gold to get practically anything done on Tacarigua, and that includes learning new abilities. Killing creatures and completing quests gives you Glory (XP) which can be spent to increase your base attributes, and you use gold to buy new abilities from trainers once your attributes are at a certain level. At the beginning, you can learn how to sneak, kick enemies away or be more resistant to damage; later on, you can learn how to make special items through voodoo, train a monkey to climb through a window and steal items for you, and most importantly, how to brew your own rum. The skills quickly rise in price as you increase ranks, and unless you're diligent about making as much coin as possible, you can quickly run out of money. This becomes a big problem since several missions require gold or purchased items to proceed in them. Without it, your progress is blocked until you run out into the wilderness to kill things, and possibly discover a hidden campsite with a chest or two.

That means diving into the weakest portion of Dark Waters: its combat. If you saw the game's cinematic trailer, you might expect something like Batman: Arkham Asylum's brawling systems with some Assassin's Creed swordplay. Alas, when it comes to killing things, you'll spend 95% of the time just hacking and slashing your way through enemies with the normal attack because of how ridiculously difficult it is to do anything else. Combat skills beyond the simple attack and block rely on context-sensitive actions to trigger, which can also lead to serious frustration if you miss the narrow window of opportunity to activate them. In one mission, I had to use Kick on several massive, armored crabs to knock them over so they'd be easier to kill. But since the Kick button is also Jump, every time I'd go to Kick a crab when the game prompted me to, I'd instead take a short hop, followed quickly by a claw to the face. After two playthroughs and 12 hours, I still can't figure out how to Kick properly.

Don't like melee combat? Thinking about taking up the dark arts of voodoo instead? Well, be prepared to wait a while. You can't learn anything about voodoo until you've pleased the pirates and headed off to the second island of Dark Waters, several hours into the game proper. Even then, you can only learn voodoo if you decide to help out the native villagers being forced to work with the Titan-allied pirates, and skip the Inquisition colony that wants to drive the pirates out. However, you can still spend points on the attribute that governs voodoo from the moment you start your character, which can be disappointing for anyone gung-ho on making a dark magic warrior right out of the gate. This is a place where the developers would have been better off letting the player know they'll get the chance to do voodoo later on, or just preventing them from spending points on an attribute they won't be able to use until a few hours into the game.

Graphically, Dark Waters fluctuates from tepid to terrific. I was most interested in the handful of caves that dot each island, some tucked well off the beaten path to reward (or bury) explorers willing to go a little out of their way. Inside, crystals spring out from the floor and walls to light some of your way, while hideous things lurk in the shadows and wait for you to blunder into them. Torches are particularly useful, and the light they give off is also surprisingly-well rendered, creating a small flickering refuge around you as you explore the caverns.

It's things like this that give me pause while playing Risen 2: Dark Waters: there are parts of the game where it's obvious a great amount of thought and care went into the design and getting the little details right, like the torches that can be dropped instantly by unsheathing a weapon and don't go out, or the vile specifics of pirate curses and dialogue. However, other parts of the game seem like they just weren't given the same amount of attention: character models flop around between the same handful of poses when they speak, combat is frustratingly difficult to execute, and an entire portion of your skillset can't be accessed until a few hours into the game.

There's still some time prior to release, so perhaps some of this may change in the final release. Let's hope so, but otherwise, if you can look past the flaws, there's a lot to appreciate in Risen 2: Dark Waters. In fact, consider taking the advice of Steelbeard himself: make sure you're good and drunk before climbing aboard.

-Dark Lantern, GameVortex Communications
AKA Russell Jones

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