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Risen: Much harder than falling off a log

Risen is an action RPG in which the R you P is that of a stowaway on a ship who finds himself washed up on a beach after a storm at sea. Along with your medieval fantasy-breasted companion you venture inland, looting wreckage as you go and exchanging creepily emotionless dialogue until you are eaten by wolves. Welcome!

Risen does not mess around! On normal difficulty within 15 minutes you'll encounter creatures that can break through your blocks and tear through your health bar in seconds. It's the sort of game that uses every other loading screen to give you a friendly reminder that you should probably save every time you do anything. Ever. In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, Risen is actually a lot of fun!

The combat system is a lot more physical than in many RPGs. Instead of hammering on a hotbar full of attacks you'll be manually taking greater control of your parries and sword swings; using the right mouse button to block and the left mouse button to hack lumps out of your foes, all the while fiddling with the movement keys to dodge attacks and try to get into the best position to grant the enemy a new orifice. Fights will often last quite a long time, especially against human enemies, as you and your opponent stab harmlessly at each other's shields until someone foolishly leaves an opening. This makes each fight feel that little bit more important as you really have to work for your victories. To add further gravity to combat, in most cases when you kill an enemy it will stay dead forever and no more creatures of its kind will respawn in that spot.

Your tactical arsenal is built up through levelling but it's not the usual system of a sudden increase of all of your stats amidst a spray of magical pixie dust. Instead each level grants you a number of Learning Points which you can then trade in, along with cash, to a skill trainer. Learning Points are used for increases in stats – Strength, Wisdom, etc – but also for upgrades in your skills for using specific weapons such as swords or axes, and for professional talents like skinning and lock-picking. Perhaps on a second playthrough when you're familiar with the most efficient uses of your Learning Points things go a little more smoothly but I often felt that I didn't have enough LP to acquire the skills I felt that I needed at my level and stage in the game. It's common to find enemies that you simply can't compete with the first time you encounter them but when you backtrack through the same location later on you can really see the difference your character upgrades have made.

For many players the story of an RPG holds the most importance. Years of gaming have taught us not to expect Shakespeare and Risen doesn't buck the trend but its plot is good enough to keep you intrigued and motivated enough to chip away at its quests. What did take me by surprise was that there is no obvious “good guy” faction to align with. Instead you're given the choice of joining the evil bandit's guild or the evil brainwashing cult. It soon becomes apparent that something even more evil lies in wait but at this point you may have decided that it wouldn't be so bad if an unspeakable evil wiped away the scum you'd been dealing with so far. To hell with this crappy island!

It's the voices of Gollum and Gimli (Andy Serkis and John Rhys-Davies) that give you your orders as the leaders of the two main factions and they were joined in the recording studio by dozens of actors who've had a single appearance on The Bill. Every line of dialogue in Risen is voiced, a feat deserving great praise, but the quality of line readings varies a lot. Occasionally you'll meet a character who actually has character but most are unremarkable and this isn't aided by the same character models and voice actors being recycled in different combinations in various parts of the world. One particularly notable failure was a bearded, grizzled hunter out in the harsh enviroment of the monster-infested swamp who had a voice that should have been giving me tech support.

Unfortunately the game rarely offers you options when speaking with characters and it's quite rare to find branching dialogue paths. Instead you're typically offered a range of lines that will each have to be clicked on in one order or another for you to get all of the necessary information to proceed. Quests on the other hand frequently have more than one completion method and this is most apparent in Harbour Town; a contested settlement where you will ultimately declare your allegiance to Don Esteban's bandits or The Inquisitor's white-robed Order depending on how you decide to complete the quests.

When you look at the map of the gameworld it does seem quite small for an RPG but they have packed a lot of gameplay into the smaller area. Monsters line almost every path and the major settlements are full of characters and quests. A benefit of the smaller world is that it doesn't take long to get used to its layout and navigation is a breeze after only a few hours in the game.

The enviroments are detailed, though not pushing boundaries for graphics. The system requirements recommend an 8800 GT or better and 2GB RAM but even on my GTX 280 and 4GB of RAM frame rates were a little inconsistent on the top settings. This didn't detract from gameplay as combat rarely requires the twitchiness and accuracy of an FPS, for example.

The only fault in the game's visuals that caused me any significant grief was the day/night cycle mechanism. If you're playing in a room with any natural light on your monitor then it will be extremely hard to see anything at all when night falls on the island. It's probable that the developers want you to burn through your supply of torches so that you have to buy more or waste your mana on light spells if you're a mage but the gamer's instinct kicks in and encourages you to conserve your supplies and just sit tight until the sun comes up. Unfortunately there's nothing in the game's interface to tell you what the time is so you sometimes find yourself waiting around for ages without knowing when you'll be able to get moving again.

Regardless of its faults, I can offer Risen the highest praise any reviewer can bestow upon a game: I will happily continue playing it long after I've submitted the article.

Who turned out the lights?