Review: Ryse: Son of Rome

Ryse cutscene

The last time we visited Ryse Dylan used the line ‘every copy that gets purchased pushes the games industry deeper into its grave with a firehose torrent of piss and shit’. It is a line that I was more than happy to agree with despite having never played or even paid much attention to the game. It looked like another dull hack-and-slash with its only redemptive element being the fact that it looked really nice. An extremely pathetic redemption but there you go.

I will openly admit to prejudice. I feel bad that I was so quick to judge a title based on a handful of screenshots, some vaguely disparaging previews and one hilarious but unsubstantiated satirical article on the site I write for.

A few people whom I normally trust coaxed me to try the game, suggesting that Ryse might not be an awful shitshow which made you a worse person for playing it, and so I played it.

The game starts off by putting you in the sandals of Marius, a centurion in Rome’s army, who is on his way to rescue Emperor Nero while barbarian forces attack the capital. Marius then proceeds to tell a clichéd story of how he got to that point.

The storytellers make sure that you have to watch every cutscene, taking their cues for inspiration from Gladiator, Centurion and, because there aren’t enough games out there that do this, Saving Private Ryan. Crytek even go so far as to sheepishly admit their plagiarism by including in one level the achievement ‘Saving Private Marius’.

I wouldn’t be belabouring the point of how terrible this narrative was if it were possible to press a button and be done with it all, but instead the player must witness the amateur hour writing and characterisation that while rendered in a technically impressive way is unconvincing in all other respects.

Ryse Boss

The combat is reliable but not particularly diverse. There is one button to hack, one to guard break and one to counter. There is another to roll but you don’t really need that for most of the game as long as you perfect the counter attack.

The idea of the game is to exercise crowd control, switching between each of your adversaries to counter and hack until you whittle down their health to the point that you can perform an execution move and trigger a Quick Time Event. The difference here is that although the player is encouraged to press the correct button (either Blue or Yellow), failure to press the correct button still sees the action rolling along while a successful press only results in more bonuses in the form of attack boosts, XP, Focus (a special ability gauge), or health, following the brutal execution.

Initially this may seem off-putting to purists that expect to be punished for not following the button prompts, but it is actually an approach that I hope all future action games which use these kinds of interactive cutscenes follow. The logic seems to be that developers want to keep the action flowing so why have the player redo some arbitrary button presses? The reward system feels more apt and doesn’t cause any of the irritation that was endemic to the God of War series and its progenitors.

Yet it is all for nothing because after the first hour the player will have seen all there is to offer. The enemy types barely vary both visually and mechanically and the repeated, drawn out executions can all be seen fairly early on.

Ryse Phalanx

Worse still, the elements Crytek introduced to try and break up the repetition instead accentuate the grind. There are several on-rails sections where you make up a phalanx or have to throw spears at archers and they feel so rote, without any sense of danger or opportunity for experimentation, that they might as well not be there at all.

This is not the only place where Ryse feels futile. The levelling system is perfunctory at best and the subsequent unlocks of new finishing moves and increases in stats don’t really feel like they bring anything to the game. Having played it on the second hardest difficulty I didn’t feel that I needed any upgrades and I doubt anyone playing it on normal would have found them particularly impactful either.

Likewise a raft of collectibles are included as an also-ran feature, one of the things that games add to extend their lifetime. The problem is that because the world built in the game is so limited it doesn’t feel like exploring. Instead it’s more ticking off boxes as Marius walks through another beautifully rendered but ultimately empty area.

Ryse lacks the bombast of God of War, the methodical meanness of Conan, the fluidity of crowd control of Spartan: Total Warrior and the outright statistical insanity of Viking: Battle for Asgard. All it has is the fact that it looks damn good.

A concluding image: the game ends on a 54-button input Quick Time Event that you don’t need to press any buttons during due to the ‘innovative’ Quick Time Event system. This final scene undermines the one thing the game had going for it but really what struck me after that tedious set piece is that it was amazing how a game which takes about six hours to complete could outstay its welcome.

Ryse is an unremarkable but pretty game made by a company that has made a career of making unremarkable but pretty games. This game is only likely to be remembered as the Battle Arena Toshinden of its time but, at least, not the death of video games.

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