Hello all! I’m back from a brief hiatus (though it went a bit longer than I intended, but oh well). Last time, about a month ago, I talked about a mystery game wherein you solved your own murder. Murdered: Soul Suspect was kind of savaged in the reviews, but I dug it. Not the best thing in the world, but hey.
Today’s game isn’t the best thing in the world, either, but it’s still fun, and oh so good looking.
Ryse: Son of Rome is a third-person action game from Crytek, of FarCry and Crysis fame, appearing on Xbox One and PC. A departure from their usual FPS wheelhouse, Ryse casts you as Marius Titus, who rescues the Emperor of Rome, Nero, during a battle with barbarians. Escorting him to a vault and locking themselves in, Marius, alone with the Emperor, tells his story, about how his family was killed, how he rose through the ranks of the Roman army, and how he came to be guarding the Emperor at that very moment. It’s a well written if ordinary story, taking few chances. You are generally unsurprised with the predictable twists and turns the story takes, yet it’s entertaining enough to keep you interested.
Ryse is just as unsurprising with its gameplay, too. Foregoing mandatory stealth missions and arbritrary vehicle segments, 99% of your time with Ryse is spent fighting groups of enemies in a sort of Batman: Arkham/Assassin’s Creed combat style. Enemies attack in turns and you counter with one button and attack with two. Marius can attack with his sword and bash with his shield; using one of these too much can result in enemies dodging your attacks, but it’s simple enough to just alternate between them. Weaken an enemy enough and you can execute them with a pull of the right trigger. Executions are quick-time events; these brutal fatalities feature button prompts, but will successfully kill your enemy whether you hit the right buttons or not. See, executions result in health or experience point gain (you can pick which one via the control pad), and successfully pressing the right buttons at the right time increases those gains. So while you don’t have to play the QTE to execute enemies, it benefits you to do so.
There’s also an obligatory powered-up state you can trigger. slowing down time for everyone and speeding you up, but I honestly forget I have it when I play. As a couple of other asides, there are some misguided turret sequences and a few moments where you and your squad must march forward with shields up, as archers rain arrows from above. You need to tell your men when to defend themselves and when to throw spears. It’s very basic, but I still find it fun, aesthetically.
That’s actually what Ryse is, mostly—aesthetics. The game, from a technical standpoint, is drop dead gorgeous. As an Xbox One launch title, that was kind of its job, really—to impress. And impress it does. Characters are huge on screen; it’s not something you notice, but characters often seem small-ish sometimes, due to far camera angles and the like. Consider action titles like Devil May Cry or God of War, where we’re often viewing Dante or Kratos from an incredible distance. In Ryse, Marius often takes up nearly half the screen. It’s great (for this game, anyway), because it lets us see characters in detail. Scratches in armor, dents in shields...all of it is right in front of you. Basically, screenshots of Ryse can speak for themselves.
Environments, too, are pleasing, but all too often, they feel a little too video game-y. Like there’s a lot of things going on in the background—battles, fires and what-not—and it’s amazing. But you’re on a path to the next waypoint and you can’t deviate from it. It’s all in service to the cinematic feel that Ryse is going for (more on that soon), but it’s still frustrating to see expansive detail that you can’t reach out and touch. Still, some set pieces are outstanding, including (but not limited to) the opening level, a crashing ship, and a giant burning wicker man.
I mentioned Ryse’s cinematic feel two seconds ago; I describe Ryse to friends as a kind of playable movie. It’s a hyper-linear game with very little in the way of secrets and collectibles; you run to the next objective and fight more-or-less identical enemies throughout the 6-7 hour campaign with a basic, meat-and-potatoes combat system. But that’s actually fine. A game like Ryse is going for something other than complex mechanics, or RPG-style character growth, or exploration. What Ryse is, apart from being a graphics showcase (my God this game is pretty though), is less about the gameplay and more about the overall spectacle of it all. It’s about the incredible animations; Marius rarely “snaps” into his attacks and parries, but rather, he moves into them organically. It’s about the voice acting, which I believe to be superb. Perhaps unremarkable, but very fitting and not obnoxious. It’s about the story; predictable, but it keeps you invested (and I’m happy they didn’t go overboard with supernatural elements, as stories set in ancient Rome often do).
I’ve stated before in this article series that modern games consist of so many moving parts that judging them by “just the gameplay” doesn’t really fly anymore. I mean, Ryse has a bare-bones fighting system, a literal “kill enemy” button, and exactly one weapon. Yet its general “feel” elevates it to loftier heights; combat has a certain weight to it that makes every sword strike and every shield bash feel hefty. Shield bashes in particular land with a massive thud (shield bashing is like my favorite thing to do in every game ever). Executions are brutal and are reminiscent of 300. In the burning wicker man level, I was so impressed with the setpiece that I shrunk back from my screen as the burning man collapsed—never mind the flat-out terrible boss battle that preceded it.
It’s that basic gameplay that is, in fact, Ryse’s greatest strength; this isn’t the type of game that would be served well with a complicated stat system or long combos you have to memorize (you can spend XP to increase your health and focus, but it’s easy to forget to do so, and rarely necessary). It brings to mind Darksiders 2, where you’re routinely bogged down in menus, deciding on what weapon to use, even though you’re literally playing as Death. The RPG elements felt misplaced in that game. Ryse would be weaker with complexity; it exists as a spectacle, but one worth experiencing over a weekend.
I really like Ryse; it’s short and basic, but it’s something to see, and those graphics and the brutal, weighty (yet shallow) combat are enough to see you through to the end. Perhaps being a grand spectacle is enough, sometimes.
Thanks always for reading this possibly too-long series of goofy, rambling articles. I have a Twitter and I like talking to people, so follow me!
Next week, I talk about one of my favorite games from the 360/PS3 era. It’s a game where you can murder everyone with a variety of weapons and magic abilities...but don’t, or you’ll get the bad ending.