The lights are on
Ryse: Son of Rome is an audio visual feast for the senses, boasting some glorious graphics, impressive motion capture acting, excellent voice work and authentic sound effects and music. It’s a damn shame about that gameplay though.
From a cinematic point of view, Ryse feels like a big budget summer blockbuster. The graphics really are excellent, bringing to life the characters and world, making each sequence and scene look supremely cinematic. This holds true of the story as well – it feels like the sort of narrative you’d see in a big film. You play as Marius Titus, a young Roman soldier during the rule of Emperor Nero. After his family is killed by invading Celt barbarians, Marius joins up with the legionnaires to get revenge on the invading horde. What follows is a tale spanning years, involving revenge, conspiracy, betrayal and a tiny bit of supernatural mumbo jumbo. It’s an entertaining story, but not one that’ll stick with you for long as the characters are quite forgettable. It’s more ‘300’ than ‘Gladiator’ if that helps. The campaign is also exceptionally short, with only eight chapters that can be played through in a few hours. You’ll be halfway through chapter three within an hour of starting the game.
Ryse’s biggest selling point has to be its presentation. The graphics are gorgeous. Coupled with the Roman Empire setting and it makes for some truly spectacular visuals. Roman streets and buildings look and feel authentic. For the most part you’ll simply be walking through these areas, but they still look gorgeous. Journeying through dark woodland is atmospheric, while defending a fort under siege has the bombastic explosions of catapult fire lighting the area. The characters also look fantastic, rendered with astounding detail.
The glorious graphics do come at a price – enemy models are few and constantly recycled. Every time you fight a barbarian with a shield, it’ll be the same exact guy with the same beard, flabby nipples and beer gut. It gets downright embarrassing when there’re two of them at the same time.
The audio design is also excellent, with some great voice acting and nice music chords and sound effects. A lot of time and effort has been put into making the game feel as authentic as possible, and it works. It’s almost worth playing Ryse just for the cinematic spectacle of it all – it really does look and sound that good.
Then you get to the actual gameplay. Sadly Ryse is much nicer to look at than it is to play. Its gameplay is a lot of things – visceral, cinematic, simplistic, easy, repetitive, one-note and, ultimately, shallow. It’s comprised almost entirely of basic combat as you’re funneled from one combat area to another.
You have four buttons – one for attacks, one for a guard-breaking shield bash, one for deflecting attacks and one for rolling away. Holding attack or shield bash will let you do a stronger strike, while deflecting at the right time will usually stagger enemies. Once enemies have taken enough damage, you can trigger a QTE execution animation to finish them off. Sometimes you can throw spears to kill distant enemies, and you can fill a meter that lets you go into slow motion mode for a few seconds. And that’s it gameplay-wise. You earn experience as you fight, which you can use to upgrade your health and unlock executions.
Executions make up a lot of the combat, as they’re the most efficient way to take out enemies and yield all sorts of rewards, such as health and experience. And they’re pretty awesome the first time around. You sever arms, split bellies and smash in skulls in gloriously gory detail. There are actually a lot of executions in the game, including specific ones determined by whether you’re facing an enemy’s front, back or side, a few that are contextual to the environment and even some pretty cool double executions. Sadly the visceral thrill gets dull within the first two missions, and you’ll see the same few executions constantly. Executions involve a QTE, where the enemy will flash a certain colour to tell you which button to push. Not that it matters – once triggered the QTEs will play themselves, regardless of your inputs. You could press the wrong buttons, or not press any at all, and the animation will play anyway. You aren’t penalised – you miss out on some bonus XP but that’s it. All of Ryse’s QTEs are like that, even the ones that pop up during cutscenes – they all play themselves out regardless of what you do, removing the entire point of them.
The combat is all perfectly functional, and the visceral thrill of executing a group of enemies is fun initially, but none of it is particularly compelling. This isn’t a game you’ll be returning to for its gameplay. The biggest issue for me is the total lack of progression or creativity in the combat. You never learn any new attacks or skills, you never wield different weapons and you never get to change things up ever. There’s no sense of improvement or progression – what you start with is what you get. And that’s the biggest flaw in the gameplay – from the first chapter to the last it never changes. You hack away, occasionally blocking, shield bashing or rolling when the situation calls for it, and then execute. That’s it for the entire game.
Occasionally the game will shake things up a little, either putting you in control of a turret that fires massive crossbow bolts, or having you take charge of a phalanx of your fellow soldiers as you advance on enemy archers. Sadly these sections are a total cakewalk; the phalanx sections solely involve advancing when it’s clear, raising your shields when enemies fire at you and, when you’re close enough, throwing spears to take them out. Similarly, the turret sections are a bore. These set pieces, along with a few others, seem pretty cool initially, but they all involve the same tired combat.
Enemy variety is also lacking. Apart from the standard barbarian warriors that you’ll be massacring en masse throughout the game, there are only a few others. You have enemy archers, shield-wielding enemies, torch wielding enemies, dual sword troops and large heavy hitters. While this might sound like decent variety, it isn’t as you’ll be facing the same few foes over and over again, and you’ll be dealing with them in the exact same way each time. For an action game of this sort, the lack of variety is damning, especially when combined with the limited combat skills at your disposal. You can hack at normal troops any way you want to, as they don’t provide any sort of challenge. Shield-wielding enemies need to have their guard broken so you’ll use your shield bash, dual sword dudes need you to guard their attacks until you see an opening and the heavy hitters simply involve rolling away from their attacks.
Ryse was initially meant to be a Kinect game and retains a few of the Kinect’s features. At certain points you can use Kinect’s voice controls to yell orders at your fellow troops. You can tell them when to fire a volley of arrows, or to launch catapults. It doesn’t add anything at all to the game, and you can just press a button to send the orders anyway, so it’s a sort of nothing feature that’s there if you like the idea of it.
Apart from the exceptionally short campaign, Ryse offers a co-op gladiator arena mode. And it’s here that the game’s gameplay gets truly stagnant. You’re dumped in an arena with another player (or you can go solo) and are given different objectives. The vast majority solely involve killing enemies, while you might also have to knock over braziers or control a platform for a small period of time. The same problems in the campaign are in full force here, as you monotonously hack your way through hordes of the same few enemies over five rounds of arena combat. You earn gold which can be used to purchase equipment for your gladiator, but you’ll have to grind for a while as equipment is expensive and you don’t earn a lot of gold. Of course you could make use of Ryse’s microtransactions to buy gold with real money, but then what would be the point of playing arena mode at all?
Shallow spectacle. That’s Ryse in a nutshell. It looks and sounds fantastic, but when you get down to it there’s not much under the surface. While the combat is functional, Ryse is more focused on presentation than gameplay. The combat is simplistic and repetitive, with minimal variety, and since it makes up the bulk of the game its flaws become tedious quickly. Barring the short campaign there’s not much keeping you playing the game. It’s all a bit disappointing really. I’d still say it’s worth playing through once if you get the chance, if only just for the audio visual experience it offers, but other than that there isn’t much reason to play Ryse.
Ah, all my paragraph spacing disappeared and there doesn't seem to be any way to edit reviews. My bad.