Developer: Crytek Frankfurt
Publisher: Microsoft Studios (Xbox), Deep Silver (PC)
Release Date: November 22nd, 2013
Available On: PC, Xbox One
Reviewer’s Note: I played this game on an Xbox One. There may be differences between versions.
When the Xbox One launched Ryse: Son of Rome wasted no time in being pinned as “that launch title.” The one that shows off how pretty you can make your games look on the new generation, but really little else. Ryse: Son of Rome is beautiful to look at but a bore to play, which is a shame as I don’t think all of its ideas were bad.
In Ryse I saw the story of Marius: a Romen legionary that watches his family get brutally murdered by barbarians. In revenge he joins up a with a new legion and goes rampaging across Britain to slay the people responsible. As usual: not all is as it seems. Marius begins to see visions of Gods, but they’re subtle enough that for a long time I was never really sure if he was actually seeing them or was just delusional. The great voice acting and motion captures performances (especially for the faces) really helps the simple plot feel a lot better, yet if held up to other games Ryse falls short. I wouldn’t mind seeing more of Ryse’s world, but next time around I hope for something really new.
Ryse plays like a hack and slash game. I was able to press X to attack, and Y to shield bash. Holding either button down would preform a heavy version of that attack, though I never exactly found that necessary as the basic versions worked well enough. B was tied to a dodge roll, and A allowed me to parry attacks to stun enemies. The right bumper allowed me to enter a focus mode, which slowed the game down, knocked enemies back, allowed me to ignore defenses, and basically zip across the fight striking enemies as I needed. I could also aim and throw spears using the two triggers, something that was useful for taking out archers.
The big feature of the game is supposed to be the execution system. When enemies are low on health I was able to enter an execution that killed them in vicious ways. Depending on how fast I did the quick time events that accompanied these executions I could get various positive effects. Using the D-pad I could select from four different kinds of rewards: either recover HP, get an XP Boost, refill more of the focus bar, or do extra damage for a few seconds. Funny enough, missing any of the QTE has no consequence: Marius will still carry out the execution and get a smaller boost than if I did hit the QTEs. Because of this executions get really boring really fast. During Ryse’s running time (which is an unfortunately short 4 – 5 hours) I did so many executions that my eyes began to glaze over every time I had to do one.
Yet it wasn’t just the executions I began to get bored of. Basic combat is really dull and nearly every enemy had me repeat the same pattern to defeat them. Sometimes I had to first block an attack to throw off their guard, other times I first had to dodge a heavy attack so I could hit them from behind, but after those very slight variations every enemy is defeated by a shield bash followed by two strikes before another shield bash. Repeat that until the ability to execute them shows up. It’s not like I could even change things up if I wanted: Ryse only has one available weapon and there’s no abilities besides striking and shield bashing. It gets boring fast, and in such a short game that’s a genuinely impressive achievement.
The ways Ryse does try to mix things up is hit or miss, but honestly mostly misses. The most interesting of the bunch was getting to take a phalanx formation and march forward with a group of soldiers. Sometimes I had to put my shields up to block an oncoming volley of arrows, and sometimes I got to return fire by throwing spears. Visually it’s extremely impressive: everything from the way the arrows bounce of the shields, to the use of the Xbox One’s force feedback triggers as I threw the spears, just felt right. It made me feel like a strong force of Roman soldiers out to conquer the world. Yet it’s still a pretty simple thing and rarely offered much of a challenge or thought. I almost wish there were more of these if only because I thought they looked so good that I wanted to see more.
Sometimes I got to order my troops around which wasn’t a bad idea, if at times not a fully implemented one. Some fights allowed me to hold down the left bumper (or shout “Fire Volley!” at the Kinect, but lets face it I held down the left bumper) to order archers to attack nearby enemies. Other times I could position my troops to do one thing so I could go do something else. For example, one scene saw me defending a fort. I could ask my catapults to focus on enemy catapults and leave the siege towers to me, or I could ask them to take down the siege towers and just deal with the oncoming catapult fire. I would have appreciated more than an “option A or B” approach though.
Other break-ups to the action were just bad. The worst was anytime I had to deal with archers. The only way I could do so was by throwing spears at them, but I couldn’t throw a spear unless I had a target. The problem was getting the game to let me actually lock onto said targets. It was a process that was mysteriously difficult and I wasn’t really sure why, but it led to me mostly looking silly as I kept dodging arrows waiting for it to let me lock on. There’s also segments where I got to hop onto a ballista and shoot at hoards of enemies, but those were just snooze inducing. Occasional boss fights are rarely more than enemies with larger health bars, so there wasn’t much to that either.
Ryse’s lone multiplayer mode comes in the form of a co-op survival arena where two players need to run around and complete various objectives. It’s… there. It uses the same combat as the main game, only without any of the distractions. There was a sorta RPGish/Diabloish collection system where I could find new weapons and armor, but nothing actually changes how the combat works. The addition of a second player also doesn’t really mean much. The two of us basically just ran off and did our own things, only occasionally getting close enough to preform a (admittedly cool looking) double execution. If I was actually entertained by Ryse’s combat I could see this as being a pretty decent multiplayer offering, but as it stands it’s just more of the same that I don’t really want to repeat.
I guess I wasn’t so surprised that Ryse: Son of Rome amounted to so little. Right from the start it had that “launch title” feeling about it, and it really wasn’t much more than a super pretty spectacle with not much game behind it. Ryse painted a bright future for the graphics on the Xbox One, but the game will be forgotten by the time the console has run its course.