Ryse: Son of Rome Review – A Quick Rise, Then A Long Fall
Imagine you’re at a magic show. For the magician’s first trick, he blows you away with an incredible illusion, complete with pyrotechnics, excellently chosen music, and some rather impressive smoke and mirrors that make you actually believe he just teleported from the stage to the back of the theater. “Holy s**t,” you say. Once the trick ends, you give a standing ovation. You can’t wait to see what else the magician has in store for you.
Then for his next trick, the magician does the same exact thing. And then he does it again, and again. This continues for six hours. Thankfully, In between tricks, the magician tells a pretty decent story about how he came to magic, including a tale about how childhood bullies used to beat him up and turned him into a rather vengeful illusionist. The show becomes more about hearing the rest of the story rather than the actual magic show, and despite being rather interested in what happens to the magician, it’s not enough to make up for having to watch the same trick over and over again for six hours.
This is what it’s like playing Ryse: Son of Rome. A visually stunning action/adventure game that will no doubt initially impress with its gorgeous visuals; it also boasts impressive performance-captured acting, an intriguing story, and brutal combat. But Ryse relies too heavily on that first impression and is content to just keep on feeding you the same combat, unchanged, for the duration of its 6 hour campaign. Eventually, the magic wears off.
Ryse: Son of Rome
Platform: Xbox One (Reviewed)
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Release Date: Nov. 22, 2013
Ryse: Son of Rome begins with a grand battle. Barbarians are closing in on Emperor Nero Augustus Germanicus, who actually seems a little more concerned about a certain mythical figure coming to execute him. We cut to Marius Titus, a Roman Centurion who leads his army through the barbarian horde and reaches the Emperor before its too late. After leading Nero to a safe room, Marius recounts the tale of how he came to be a Centurion, and how his entire family was slaughtered right before his eyes.
What follows is a fairly predictable, but nonetheless enjoyable story of revenge that takes us from the streets of Rome, to the far reaches of Britannia, and then back to Rome for some gladiator games inside the Colosseum. Marius himself isn’t the most interesting of protagonists, him simply being defined by his thirst for revenge and all, but I rather liked Marius’s charismatic superior, Vitalion, and the villains of the story are just delightfully evil. It also helps that the acting is top notch and the performance captured facial animations are some of the best I’ve ever seen in a video game.
So from a story and presentation standpoint, Ryse knocks it out of the Colosseum. The problem comes when you factor in that you have to trudge through the game’s repetitive combat in order to see that story through to the end.
The tragic thing about Ryse is that the core of its combat is actually very strong. Taking heavy inspiration from the recent Batman games, Ryse uses a free flow combat system that allows players to seamlessly move from one enemy to another, effortlessly counter enemy attacks, and execute flashy, fluid, and brutal finishing maneuvers.
It’s a combat system that discourages button mashing and rewards skillful play, especially when dealing with larger enemies that require you to counter them multiple times before they can become vulnerable. The game further discourages button mashing by rewarding players who execute perfectly timed attacks with a mode called “Burning Eagle,” that makes Marius’s basic attacks more powerful for a temporary period. When things get tough, players can also activate a focus mode that slows down time and lets Marius quickly attack enemies without worry of them blocking or dodging his attacks.
Where Ryse’s combat falls apart is in its attempts to expand the core combat in order to keep things fresh as the game goes on. In other action games, usually this is done by giving the player upgrades with new moves or abilities, or by giving the player a new weapon that dramatically changes the way the player must approach combat. Sometimes these games will introduce dramatically new enemy types that must be dealt with in a substantially different way, or make you fight in environments that are just as hostile as the actual enemies you’re fighting against.
Ryse does almost none of these. By the time you reach the second or third act, you’ll have seen basically all of the enemies the game will ever throw at you. There are no new weapons to obtain, no new moves or abilities to learn, and the only environmental hazards you’ll ever have to deal with are cannonball fire and arrows, both of which are quite annoying.
Instead of new abilities, you’re able to spend your hard earned XP — or real money if you’re impatient – on new executions or passive upgrades to your health, focus, or inventory. Unfortunately, these passive upgrades, outside of the ones that upgrade your health and focus, feel almost completely unnecessary.
Do I really need to spend XP on a capacity upgrade for spears when spears are completely situational? Does it really impact my game if I can get Marius into Burning Eagle mode in 10 hits as opposed to 11? Why should I buy upgrades that let me get XP faster when leveling up feels so pointless? These are the kind of questions I asked while looking at the upgrades list, and ultimately, it led to me simply banking points, waiting for the next health and focus upgrades to unlock once I reached the required level.
This near complete lack of value to XP trickles down and affects several other mechanics in Ryse as well; most notably the execution mechanic.
Once you deal enough damage to an enemy, a skull will appear over their head, signaling that they’re ready to be executed. Once you initiate an execution, the enemy will flash either blue or yellow when Marius is about to strike. The quicker and more accurate you are with the button presses, the more bonus XP you’re awarded after the execution.
That all makes sense, but suppose you don’t press the right prompt at the right time, or don’t press any button at all. The execution will still continue successfully regardless of player input. Sure, I understand that it’s probably not worth the money it would take to performance capture multiple failure animations for every single one of the over 100 executions in the game, but it still cheapens the mechanic and begs the question of why the executions even need to be interactive in the first place.