If you judge Risen on its first act alone, you may be convinced that a better title for this complex role-playing game would be “Errand Boy.” But while you spend many of the early hours as a shipwrecked message courier, you should stick with it, because things do get better. You explore dark caverns, clash with pirates over buried treasure, stab lizardmen in their faces, and earn the help of a furry friend with a talented nose. Some of Risen’s issues stay with you up to the end; there’s no escaping the problematic combat and a number of bugs and presentation glitches. But a large and memorable cast of characters and an array of multilayered quests will keep you pushing forward. While it’s too technically inconsistent to rise to the top of the genre, Risen still provides plenty of enjoyable adventuring for RPG lovers yearning for a game they can get lost in.
The setup may sound familiar: You are a nameless protagonist washed ashore on a remote island after a disaster at sea. Eventually, you find yourself in a dank swamp ruled by the infamous Don Esteban, a domineering rogue at odds with both the local monastery and the leadership of the island’s primary coastal town. Risen’s first act drones on endlessly, sending you from one fetch quest to another (distribute these potions; deliver this message; find me some weeds) while confining you first to the swamp, then to the city, and then to the monastery. The downside is that the early hours are tedious and light on action. While island politics eventually play a large role in gameplay, there’s nothing initially compelling about the faction struggles, and it takes a while before the world opens up and the story takes hold. The upside to this slow start is that you get to know the world’s inhabitants. The characters make an impression, such as the stubborn and manipulative Don, the local barmaid afraid to reveal her secrets, and a mother worried about her missing sons. When a greater threat is eventually exposed and the story expands, you realize that you care about them and their fates. By the time your real enemy is revealed, you’ll embrace your role as hero, because you know how desperately these people need one.