You can never trust a pirate.
Oh sure, they’ll try to woo you with tales of a pirate’s code and a sailor’s honor. But in the end those lowdown, no-good, scurvy dogs will steal the boots right off your feet when you’re not looking! When it comes to pirates, it’s best you have your cutlass sharp, your pistol loaded and your anti-voodoo long johns freshly laundered.
No, you can never trust pirates; especially when they try to convince you that they’ve made a good game.
Okay, so maybe the developers of Risen 2: Dark Waters aren’t actually pirates themselves, but that doesn’t mean that they’ve made a very good game.
Actually, Piranha Bytes’ unseaworthy nature is probably an advantage. Rather than bogging themselves down with trivialities like wind condition and dysentery that you might find in other ‘serious’ (or as I would say, heartless) video games, they’ve tugged on those strings reaching back through time to when a cardboard box with H.M.S. Enterprise written in sharpie on the side was just seaworthy enough to sail through the living room. The best thing that I can say about Dark Waters is that its depiction of pirate lore and sense of adventure is not only refreshing but transportive.
At its best, Dark Waters has the propensity to bring you back to a time when Mom’s dishtowel was really a skullcap, the laundry hamper was actually your salty vessel and the neighbor’s dog was actually your trusted first-mate. Dodging cannon fire and voodoo curses, swashing buckles with merchant navies, plundering everything worth half a piece-of-eight (piece-of-four?) and excavating treasure troves entombed beneath honest-to-god red X’s; piracy is the rum-soaked, adventure-filled voyage across your childhood that Robert Newton and Orson Welles always promised you it would be.
And then, it all comes apart at the seams faster than East India Company grapeshot through a jolly roger.
Oh, aye, the sea may be a place full of wonder but I’ll be damned as Blackbeard’s ghost if it’s not a pain to enjoy it.
Combat in Dark Waters is irritating. At its worst the combat seems completely unfinished. Your options for dispatching opponents break down into three basic schools: sword-fighting, gunplay and voodoo magic. Swordplay can seem interesting enough while going tete-a-tete with a fellow fencer. Blocks, parries and ripostes, while not exactly well telegraphed, feel complex enough to be interesting without feeling completely unfair… eventually. Because of the game’s strange progression mechanics, not only do you have to skill up for the privilege of doing anything in the game more exciting than chopping away with an epee like a maniac and getting hacked apart almost immediately, but you must then actually pay prohibitive amounts of gold to NPC’s for them to train you to use your unlocked talents. That means that most early encounters (and even many of the later ones) can feel incredibly daunting. This applies not only to combat, but to lockpicking, speech checks, pickpocketing, magic – you name it. That means that not only must you grind to level your character, but that you must also scrimp and save every misbegotten gold doubloon necessary to do just about anything.
Once you’ve unlocked some less primitive tactics, you may feel the urge to take what you’ve learned and open up a can of Errol Flynn on the indigenous wildlife standing between you and the precious booty scattered about the world. It’s a shame that none of your hard won abilities actually carry over into these encounters. Instead, you’re relegated to hammering away at the left mouse button with absolutely no tactics or strategy. Creatures essentially break down into those that can be stunlocked and those that can stunlock you, swinging the difficulty curve between steeply frustrating and boringly simple. Guns and magic could have alleviated this, except for the fact that neither feels fleshed out. Voodoo is really just a set of lackluster debuffs incapable of doing much on its own. Gunplay, on the other hand, is more directly useful as it does greater damage and at a distance. However, long cooldown times and a lack of any required skill make it both dull and impractical to rely on.
Perhaps I misspoke when I said that the combat in Dark Waters feels unfinished. I should have said that most of the game feels incomplete. Mechanics introduced early on are quickly swallowed up and forgotten. Accessing the inventory unequips any weapon you may be holding. Environments pull back as the draw distance is unable to keep up with player movement. It feels like a mess.
Visually, the game could use a good swabbing as well. Environments can look gorgeous from a distance, but the aforementioned issue with the draw distance plays havoc with your appreciation for the greenery. It’s just a shame that the same level of detail that went into the tropical locales couldn’t have gone into the characters as well. Characters look as though they’ve been shanghaied out of a game from five years ago. I understand that the pirates aren’t exactly meant to win any beauty pageants, but flat textures and animations that are about as wooden as a figurehead don’t exactly inspire the kind of swagger that the game’s aesthetic and sense of presence deserve.
And while for a time I did fall in love with the high seas flavor of the game, I must admit that after a while I began to realize that the lack of games with similar themes might have had me looking at the game through *ahem* rum goggles. Certainly, the characters and locales are unique, but only because of the criminal dearth of pirate-based games on the market. When you strip away the peg legs and shoulder-roosting parrots, you begin to realize that there’s nothing really that memorable about anything beyond that. The story is your typical ‘nameless hero saves the world from big, bad monsters’ affair and his companions, grog-soaked though they may be, would be worthy of a good keelhauling in any other game. Nothing they do feels very inspired or intriguing and it’s really such a shame.
I really wanted to love Risen 2. As I write this review, I can feel my inner Jim Hawkins calling back to me, desperately clinging for purchase of a chasm of mediocrity and disappointment. And while that voice might still mean something to me and First Mate Mr. Barkley, it’s not enough o plug the holes in a leaky product. Risen 2: Dark Waters has a whole lot of heart, but it’s that very heart that may have blinded the developers to the game’s more mundane issues. I only wish that I could have been bit blinded to them myself.
This review is based on a copy of the game sent to SideQuesting by the publisher.