In terms of pedigree, it's not exactly Mass Effect: its developer, Piranha Bytes, is based in Germany, and it will be published by the small but perfectly formed Deep Silver. The same team brought us the original Risen in 2009, which didn't prove to be a wholly satisfactory exercise: Risen was generally acclaimed for its subject matter and RPG-rigour, at least on the PC, but it suffered badly from a hamfisted, ugly port to the Xbox 360. Luckily, we've now managed to play through a couple of bits of Risen 2, on the Xbox 360, so are well placed to assess it in anticipation of its late-April release.
Drunken pirate funBefore we got our paws on Risen 2, Deep Silver brand manager Pete Brolly took us through some of its key aspects - handily, given that they wouldn't necessarily be obvious when jumping into two segments of the game. He explained that Risen 2 has a standalone story, which takes place a year or so after the first game.
Again, you take on the role of a nameless hero, this time tasked with infiltrating a group of pirates, who appear to constitute the only section of society equipped with a weapon sufficiently powerful to take on the Titans, which are threatening mankind. The action spans three tropical islands, although we only explored one, called Tacarigua. Some storyline continuity from the first game is provided by Patty, who spent the first game looking for her father, Captain Steelbeard - both feature this time around.
Brolly added that there are two factions in the game - Inquisition and Natives. Both pretty self-explanatory, and you can choose to align yourself with either. Since you can only learn new skills from non-player characters, those who want to achieve proficiency with muskets and the like would be well advised to join the Inquisition, whereas those interested in exercising Voodoo should check out the Natives.
That voodoo that you doBrolly proceeded to demonstrate some of the fun that could be had with a bit of voodoo. You can, for example, take a hair from a character, use that to fashion a voodoo doll and then use that to take control of the character, in order to fulfil quests. Brolly also demonstrated how to use voodoo to get two nearby enemies - he used the example of gorillas - to fight each other rather than you.
He then showed a key element of the game: Dirty Tricks. This proved invaluable in combat: hitting the right bumper brings up a wheel with various abilities that can be easily triggered, such as an auto-aimed pistol-shot when you're in the middle of a swordfight.
Each Dirty Trick has a cool-down period before you can trigger another, and the wheel includes the ability to take a swig of rum, which restores your health. Another, amusing Dirty Trick is the ability to unleash a parrot which flies around targeted enemies and distracts them. You can also send out a monkey kept in your pocket, to scope out areas, access small spaces and stealthily steal items. If he is killed, though, you'll have to buy a new one.
Deep Silver has clearly improved the classic RPG side of the game in comparison with its predecessor: Brolly explained that Risen 2 contains far more equipment for players to collect, each item of which improves different attributes, and through the skills you learn from NPCs, you can specialise, for example in throwing or slashing weapons, or different types of muskets.
You can also pick crew members - who might specialise in melee attacks or healing - to accompany you on trickier missions. The swordfighting has also been rendered much more controllable, with stick movements determining the direction of your slashing, so it's much easier to take on multiple enemies in Risen 2 than in the first game.
The hands-on consisted of exploring two areas of Tacarigua, with the starting points defined by launching pre-saved games. The first put us in a village occupied by pirates, with our mission being to infiltrate our way onto Captain Steelbeard's crew by doing the sort of things that pirates do - that is, drinking, fighting and pillaging.
The first striking aspect of the game that emerged is that it is definitely shooting for an adult audience, presumably with an 18 or, at a pinch, 15 rating. That's because it contains some of the finest swearing we've come across in a game for years - as it should, given that it's attempting to replicate the experience of being a pirate. Before picking up a mission from Captain Steelbeard's deputy, Booze, we went for a wander around the inevitable tavern, where we had fun conversing with some gloriously flirty and bawdy barmaids. The barmaids can also teach you conversational persuasion skills.
Eventually, we were assigned to follow one of Steelbeard's crew, who wandered to a nearby bay for an illicit rendezvous with a Sunken One - a half-man, half-sea creature, seeking information about Steelbeard and his crew. After being spotted, a swordfight ensued, and having dispatched both parties, we returned to the village, to claim some respect from Steelbeard. But we still had to perform further tasks to prove our pirate credentials.
A spot of exploring led us to a hilariously deaf old codger who was also a musket expert. This gave us the chance to investigate the game's skills-learning mechanic. Once we had managed to communicate to the old git that we wanted him to teach us how to handle a musket, we were given the chance to impress him by playing a simple shooting-gallery mini-game, in which objects like coconuts and bottles were thrown from the left-hand side of the screen, and we had to hit them in mid-air. Once we'd done well enough in that, some gold changed hands (in Risen 2, you invariably have to pay to learn skills), and we could now shoot muskets. We also bought a musket from the old guy, and could even have purchased blueprints for building our own guns.
On returning to the village, we had to wrap up a couple more missions before gaining Steelbeard's acceptance, one of which involved swordfighting a notably pugnacious pirate (from whom extra swordfighting skills could be learned) and the other involving stealing some rum. Finally, Steelbeard was prepared to grant us the status of fully fledged pirate.
Fraternising with the nativesThe second save game took us into the heart of Tacarigua's jungle, on the trail of a native village which had hooked up with another faction of pirates said to be in possession of the only weapon which could take on the Titans. The action started in the company of Patty and Captain Steelbeard; after dealing with monkeys and assorted jungle wildlife, we reached a river on the outskirts of the native village, at which point we were left on our own.
Again, as when we were trying to join Steelbeard's crew, the native village acted as a hub from which to undertake missions which result in gaining the natives' trust, as well as that of the one representative of the other pirate crew stationed in the village. Quests involved things like killing an alligator in order to help native women who were collecting plants and herbs, and panning for gold.
We also embarked on a bit of cave exploration, in search of jade - the usual array of giant spiders and the like had to be dispatched. Even the natives of the Shaganumbi tribe we encountered tended to indulge in pretty humorous dialogue, and once we had gained the trust of the Shaganumbi, we were able to learn voodoo. Although, at some point in the game, you will have to decide whether to align yourself with the natives (thereby acquiring voodoo skills) or the Inquisition (which brings vastly improved firearms skills).
We found Risen 2 deeply enjoyable: structurally, it's a conventional RPG, but it felt like a particularly well designed one. It's also pleasantly amusing, and the pirate subject matter is great - who didn't dream of being a pirate when they were a kid. There was one major question-mark, though: the code we played wasn't exactly the slickest, with notable jerkiness and juddering of animations and movement.
Deep Silver assured us that a newer build already exists which is much smoother, and that between now and late April, when the game is scheduled to arrive, Piranha Bytes will work exclusively on polish and slickness, having finished all other aspects of Risen 2. We sincerely hope that the final game, on the consoles (on the PC, jerkiness isn't an issue) overcomes that problem, as it's undoubtedly great fun to play and should generate a cult following among lovers of conventional yet quirky RPGs.