Can a game from 2009, which was released two hardware generations ago, still cut it on a modern console?
That is the question that is being asked by developers Piranha Bytes and publishers THQ Nordic as they unleash Risen on an unsuspecting world.
Described as an action RPG game, one of my favourite genres, I was all on-board with this, especially as I somehow missed it the first time around. But does Risen have the energy required to make a mark on the modern scene? Come with me to a mysterious island while I attempt to get to the bottom of the issue.
An RPG of any flavour, action or not, needs a good story, and luckily this is one area where the passing years have been kind to Risen. We are a nameless hero, and at the beginning of the game, we are stowaways on a ship, which is unceremoniously sunk by a monster. We awaken on a beach, on the isle of Faranga, and luckily there was another survivor; a woman we knew. We have to try and survive whatever comes along, and while I don’t want to spoil the story if you haven’t played it, it is one of those tales where you can make certain choices at certain points that affects the rest of the playthrough. This is most obvious very early on, where we have to choose our destiny almost – do we become an outlaw, hiding in the swamps, a warrior of the Order, or a Mage? Each choice leads to a slightly different game, so there is a certain amount of replayability built in. I shall say no more!
The first thing to note is that Risen is not optimised for the Xbox Series X|S consoles, instead happily running on Xbox One too; that is a bit of a red flag. And I’m sure that back in 2009 these graphics looked okay, but by today’s standards they are nothing but shocking. The palette used is a sort of symphony of brown, the creatures that we end up fighting are basic in the extreme, and while the island is pretty enough, there are never any stunning vistas, with most areas being very small and dark. Take the swamp as an example – it is a large area, but you can never see clearly to the other side as there is mist and stuff in the air. I’m fairly sure that the new generation of consoles could handle things a lot better than this, to be honest.
The sound is slightly better, with decent voice acting on display, whilst the various sword swishes and spell swooshes are handled well. The creatures make suitable noises and all in all, the sound is a lot better than the visual aspect of Risen. I have to clear one thing up though – this is apparently not a remake or a remaster or a reanything – it is purely a port of a fourteen year old game onto modern(ish) consoles. So, this is exactly the game that was released in 2009, and boy does it feel it.
But does the actual gameplay stand up today? Well, in a word, no. In fact, it’s pretty poor. The game is split into the traditional two halves – there is the wandering around, exploring, interacting and such that we do in every action RPG, and then there is the combat side of things.
We’ll start by taking a look at exploration first, as this part of Risen works pretty well.
As you wander about the place, you very quickly learn where you are equipped to go and where you not, usually because something will kill you stone dead. In my initial playthrough, I went with the bandits first of all, and was tasked with finding some bits of a gold sword, so I set off into the swamp with my spirits high and a whistle on my lips. Five seconds later I had been killed by a moth, so I beat a hasty retreat. In this way, Risen is close to a Dark Souls game – you can go anywhere, pretty much, but whether you can stay alive there is an entirely different matter.
Still, looking about, talking to people, and you will soon come across some NPCs you can start to have a relationship with. There are people who give you quests, and best of all there are people who can train you in various combat skills. Do you want to swing a sword about, or use a bow? Do you prefer to use spells? The path you choose at the start of the game will limit some of the options (for instance, you can only learn Rune magic if you are a Mage) but otherwise you can mix and match your skills to suit what you want to do. As you engage in fights and complete quests, you will gain not just EXP but Learning Points, and these points (and gold) are what are required to be trained by the various teachers in the world. The systems on display here are deep and very interesting, and I can begin to see why a lot of people regard Risen as a classic.
It certainly isn’t good news when it comes to combat though. Never has a lock on mechanic been missed as much as it is here, as I spent more time flailing around in the vicinity of a foe, rather than clobbering it with a stick. Combat feels slow, clunky and has no feel to it – if you aren’t keeping an eye on your health, you will die almost out of the blue. Oh, and healing requires a trip to the menu, and the enemies will press their attack while you navigate pages of useless junk trying to find a potion. I am not a fan of the fighting system at all. Of course, with practice, it does come together to some degree, and you can learn to make adjustments for the wonky fighting, but it never becomes fun. You know how in Elden Ring fighting is an art form, with blocking, parrying and generally feeling like an extension of your sword? Yeah, that never happens here.
So, let’s have a conclusion, shall we? What we have in Risen is a game from 2009, in all its faded glory, released unchanged onto modern machines. It looks rubbish and it plays very poorly in the combat stakes, but yet, there is something about the world that will keep you trying. There is a solid hook, an urge to see what is on the other side of the swamp, or the town, that keeps you going even when you swear you are done.
If you were a fan of Risen when it first dropped, then the push to Xbox Series X|S and Xbox One will be right up your alley, but if you don’t have any feelings about Risen either way, you’ll fast discover that it has aged badly. I can’t in good conscience recommend it to newcomers.
Risen is on the Xbox Store